Pakistan must find balance between Tests and ODIs
"Is Jason Gillepsie really a better batsman than any in the Pakistan team?" It was a flippant enquiry from a senior cricket journalist, borne out of watching Pakistani batsmen stumble from 134 for 3 and 227 for 5 to 264 all out against an undercooked Sri Lankan attack, shorn of Muttiah Muralitharan.
Over in Chennai, Gillespie kept two of world cricket's finest spinners at bay, on a pitch not unfriendly to spin, for a touch over four hours. Pakistan's entire first innings lasted under six hours on a pitch that held few terrors for batting.
Pakistan has better batsman than the mulleted-one, but whether many of them are capable of putting in the type of application and discipline that Gillespie - with an average of 14 - can call on, is more open to question. It is a question, thankfully, that Bob Woolmer has recognized must be answered if Pakistan is to progress. Woolmer's comments about needing a batsman like Jayasuriya who can bat for long periods and his subsequent calls for a more balanced Test and ODI schedule are not only linked, they lie at the heart of the Pakistani batting conundrum.
Since the World Cup ended last year, a revamped Pakistan team has played 53 ODIs, the most of any side in world cricket. In the same period, they have played a paltry 11 Tests. In the same period, Sri Lanka played 38 ODIs and 17 Tests while Australia, standard-bearers in both forms of the game, played 41 ODI matches and 19 Tests. India, you may argue, has also played only 11 Tests, yet retains a versatile batting line-up, among the best in the game. But much of India's top order has been around for some time, and so they have adjusted to the demands of both versions of the game.
How do batsmen like Yasir Hameed and Shoaib Malik develop in the longer version, when their career path is so heavily slanted towards ODIs? Hameed has played 44 ODIs since his debut last year but only 11 Tests. This was Malik's sixth Test (he's played 84 ODIs) since his debut in 1999/00: he played his first Test in 2001. Even the progress of Abdul Razzaq, now a veteran of 174 ODIs, has been stunted by the lack of Tests he has played in a seven-year international career: a meagre 29. Yousuf Youhana has played 52 Tests since his debut in 1997-98 and 180 ODIs. Ramnaresh Sarwan, who occupies as central a role for the West Indies as Youhana should do for Pakistan, has played 50 Tests and 73 ODIs since his debut against Pakistan in May 2000. Incidentally, that Test was Youhana's 19th.
It is such a gross imbalance that it isn't just that their techniques don't develop properly, although anyone who saw Razzaq succumbing to a wide one from Chaminda Vaas or has seen countless dismissals of Hameed and even Youhana knows that that is also detrimental residue. In a five-day game, they find themselves in, if not quite alien, then unfamiliar match conditions and situations, having to bat for long stretches under pressure where not only technique but also mental resilience and discipline - as Gillespie showed - assume a vital importance. It is as much about a mental switch as a technical one, and both will come only from playing more Test matches. At the moment, they seem unaccustomed to Test cricket, and nowhere has this been more palpable than in Faisalabad.
In stark contrast, Sri Lanka have in their midst Thilan Samaraweera, a man fully attuned to the demands of Test cricket. Coming in at 9 for 3 and watching his side slide to 77 for 4 in the first innings, he dropped anchor, displaying admirable patience for five and a half hours in the face of some testing bowling. He didn't grab the momentum and the game away from Pakistan on the first day as Jayasuriya did later; instead he inched it beyond their grasp. Against England, earlier this year, he scored 142 in a little over eight hours and how Pakistan could do with someone like him in their line-up.
And how Inzamam-ul-Haq would crave a man of Jayasuriya's versatility. The Pakistan skipper, in the post-match ceremonies, played down the suggestion that too much one-day cricket was beginning to tell on his team, suggesting that batsmen who are good enough can play both forms of the game equally well. He probably had Jayasuriya in mind when he said that. He has traversed both forms of the game so well for so long that he can adapt his game now, comfortably, even within a single innings to the requirement of the game. He was subdued for much of his initial 150 runs; he was violent thereafter, a throwback to Jayasuriya circa 1996. These two didn't just win the game, they showed Pakistan the type of batting necessary to win Test matches.
In the coming year, Pakistan plays around 20-25 ODIs and 12 Tests, a slightly more palatable itinerary. It is inevitable that the revenue-generating potential of ODIs will always attract the PCB; the difference in sponsor and crowd interest in ODIs and Tests is possibly greater in Pakistan than anywhere else in the world. But if the PCB is truly committed to bringing about a deeper change in Pakistan cricket, then a balance must be found.
Osman Samiuddin is a freelance journalist