February 14, 2013

Batting is Pakistan's Achilles heel

They've always had the bowlers to take 20 wickets, but not the batsmen to set imposing totals

Where do you go when you are at the limit of your ability, when you have finally exhausted your reservoir of talent and skill? For the last ten days, Pakistan's Test batsmen will have struggled with this question. Johannesburg left them with shattered psyches and a steep mountain to climb. They were defeated and demolished, sliced open with seam and pace. This is not the kind of mess to be sorted out through mere technical adjustments. Something inspirational and heroic is needed.

The theory of correct batting is known to any competent cricketer, and no doubt Pakistan's batsmen have gone over it in their heads at least a few times in the last few days. See the ball early, play it late; keep your head still and your eyes on the ball; move your feet to get into line; know the location of your off stump with precise visuospatial instinct; present a straight blade; play it down and aim for the "V".

Unfortunately for Pakistan, Dale Steyn creates the kind of situation where the theory of correct batting doesn't stand much of a chance. An instrument of ferocity and terror, he is frighteningly accurate, keeps hitting the seam, and swings it late. When he runs in he looks like a leopard leaping across open grasslands. When he celebrates a wicket, something visceral and primeval is unleashed. He doesn't just dismiss, he destroys. And he really lets you know about it.

Facing Steyn places you in the realm of intangibles, where external help and preparation become ineffective. Words of wisdom from a professional coach, key insights from a technical analyst, hours of net practice, an arduous training schedule - they must all ebb away very quickly when you are standing across the pitch from Steyn. It's just you, your ability, and whatever determination you can muster, versus the demonic phenomenon that happens to be your adversary. Even worse, he is hardly alone. As Aakash Chopra detailed on this site, in this South African attack and on these pitches, there is no weak link.

If anything, these desperate circumstances call for a theory of wresting initiative from the bowler, but that is something altogether more complicated. You have to take charge, and you must do it within minutes of reaching the crease. Your body language should exude an air of authority and command, perhaps even a bit of a swagger. You must have enough technical savvy and richness of form to keep making solid contact with the ball. Boundaries must be frequently scored, mainly in front of the wicket, with clean and fluent strokes.

None of this comes naturally to Pakistan's batsmen, who are all shaky starters, are tentative outside the off stump, and possess an instinctive front-foot movement that can be a liability given the variable bounce of South African pitches. To have a serious chance in the remaining Tests, one or more of the Pakistan batsmen will have to show intense determination and guts. It will take more than just a grinding rearguard. This is about resilience and dominance, not defence and survival. You need something vivid and dramatic that demoralises the opposition and takes the game by the scruff of the neck. Javed Miandad's 114 in Georgetown comes to mind, or, more recently, Kevin Pietersen's 186 in Mumbai.

To have a serious chance in the remaining Tests, one or more of the Pakistan batsmen will have to show intense determination and guts. It will take more than just a grinding rearguard. This is about resilience and dominance, not defence and survival

There had been warning signs aplenty leading up to that calamitous first innings at the Wanderers that resulted in an unmentionable total. Pakistan hadn't played outside Asia in a year and a half, and soon after arriving in South Africa, the batting line-up struggled during the warm-up game in East London.

It could even be argued that the warning signs have been around for years, because Pakistan have not witnessed the entry of a truly world-class batsman since Younis Khan made his Test debut in 2000. A few newcomers - Yasir Hameed, Salman Butt, Asim Kamal, Khurram Manzoor and Umar Akmal, among others - showed promise from time to time, but, for a variety of reasons, have more or less been sidelined. At the moment Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq appear the most competent and gifted of the new generation, though they have yet to make a truly significant impact. Hopefully they will one day, but that day is still in the future.

This series was always going to be determined by whether Pakistan's batsmen could raise their game to confront the perils of touring South Africa. In the current line-up, Younis Khan has the experience and ability to suggest he might produce something exceptional. He has a middling record in South Africa and has been in mediocre form of late, but he does have a habit of responding with a vengeance after being stung. South Africa are formidable but not infallible. In the second innings in Johannesburg, Pakistan's batting lasted 100.4 overs against them, including a wicketless session after tea on the third day. Misbah and Asad defied with fifties, as nearly did Nasir Jamshed, who was the most fluent of them all and ultimately fell to an unforced error.

Apart from Younis, Jamshed seems capable of playing a commanding knock against this attack; he lacks experience, but that might be something of an advantage, because it also makes him free of negative baggage. Azhar too played some fluent shots in Johannesburg; he fell cheaply in both innings but hung around for quite a bit, managing nearly three hours in all at the crease. He too has an impressive record, including a match-winning knock outside Asia (The Oval, 2010), and might well compile a big one if he gets his eye in. Mohammad Hafeez is the one who looks the most suspect against South Africa's pace, and he would probably have been dropped from this side but for his offspin. Still, he's a fighter and could yet surprise us.

Even if Pakistan somehow magically defy expectations to bat out of their skins and post competitive totals in the coming matches, the lessons of Johannesburg should not be forgotten. Historically, for all their international success, no one thinks of Pakistan as a nation of batsmen. Indeed, one is almost hard-pressed to select a Pakistani batsman in an all-time Asian XI, let alone a world side. Pakistan may have the third-best win-loss ratio in Test history, but that's largely because they've had bowling with enough teeth to keep taking 20 wickets. Forget fielding, leadership and governance, batting is Pakistan's real Achilles heel. The national cricket set-up should undertake a searching self-examination to trace the mess to its roots, in the hopes of eventually devising a rational and lasting solution.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Hakeem on February 16, 2013, 17:30 GMT

    One big issue is also that even some good players are not consistent enough to make their spot confirmed in the team.Players come and sent off.One would get 100 in one innings and then he is confirmed to next 5,6 tests and then he is not performing.and then he is dropped and another player would come and try to make his place and it goes like that.Another issue is politic and all Pakistanis know well how talent is wasted in this manner.And by the way this is y first comment in cricinfo.

  • Faraz on February 16, 2013, 2:32 GMT

    @Dannymania what he has written is still accurate.... its depressing to see so many failures by the batting lineup...

  • Danish on February 15, 2013, 16:58 GMT

    younis and asad made their mark so this article should get deleted.didnt like it much in the first place either.saying the things that we already know is NOT what a true journalist does.i'm disappointed by Saad Shafqat.

  • A on February 15, 2013, 0:22 GMT

    It's very true, PAK is not known for the batsmen, yes they did have some greats but never had many of them. I think last time they had a really good middle order was when Inzi, Yosuf and Younis played together and that's was a long time ago!!! I think Azhar and Asad have a good future in this current set up however I dont see any one else who can step up at the test level. I dont think any of Akmal's should play for PAK ever, they are too much involved in politics and they will always be a risk. Anyway none of the Akmal brothers (batsmen) have scored decent score for a long time. PAK fans have this probelm, whenever some one performs one or two flashy innings, they forget about majority of poor batting. Both brothers conversion rate (from 30' to 50's to 100's) is very poor. Under Misbah PAK team has seen a calmness and discpline which has been absent for a very long time. He may not be a favourite among most of PAK fans, but he is a good captain and a decent batsman.

  • Shahid on February 14, 2013, 17:52 GMT

    @Afsar Iqbal, You called it man :). Can you make some other good predictions please

  • Wajahat on February 14, 2013, 11:24 GMT

    I cant understand it is always said that domestic pitches are flat tracks but even on those tracks average scores are always 250 approx. This is also clear from the current Quaid-e-Azam Trophy going on and it highlights that most of the bench strength is technically flawed. Some steps should be taken to find batsman who can perform in every condition.

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 8:05 GMT

    Good batsmen are groomed when your first class game are very strong. Australia had a strong first class game in the 90's and they had plenty of good batsmen. SA now have a strong 1st class league and the result is good batsmen. Maybe the rest of the world should follow that and we shall see results very soon. Maybe the sub continent teams should prepair sporting wickets so that their batters and bowlers get used to these conditions and not only do well at home but abroad also. Build a calture of adapting to conditions.

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 7:19 GMT

    Inshallah! Younis Khan will score century in this test match...just wait & watch

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 7:10 GMT

    The mistake Pakistan slection has made is omitting Kamran and Umar Akmal. Pakistan needed aggressive fluent batsmen at #5 and #6 . Batsmen who can score fluently when the ball has worn some . Our present wicket keeper is not a batsman . He may be able to score a few runs but thats all. He is incapable of scoring fluently when the ball is old in SA. Unless we have a couple of fluent scoring batsmen who can also demoralize the SA bowlers. this series is a 3-0 for SA. Azhar Ali is too much of a defencive batsmen to play in South Africa even though he may have good batting techniques. Replace Ashar Ali and Sarfaraz Ahmed with Umar Akmal and kamran akmal in the third test and you will see a different test result!!!

  • Dummy4 on February 14, 2013, 6:34 GMT

    Pakistan's mistake was to go for the balls pitching way outside the off stumps. They must learn to let those go fustrating the SA bowlers. They couldn't avoid the temtations. In the 2nd innings they nearly learned all about it that's why they managed 268 runs. They have the bowlers but their nbatmen MUST have patience. I hope the coach has told them about this. Come on Pakistan, Newlands is another pitch.Let';s show them your tiget spirits. When it's your day no team can match you.