March 26, 2013

Pakistan's batting is in a crisis

The tour of South Africa was disappointing, not least because of perplexing selections and an out-of-sorts top order

Once again, it is wound-licking time in Pakistan. Everybody knew the team faced a stern examination in South Africa, but not many expected a Test series whitewash. Expectations from the ODI series were even higher - especially after New Zealand had recorded a series win in South Africa a few weeks earlier - but there was disappointment on that front too. And while Pakistan did record an emphatic win in the solitary T20I, victory in a one-off shootout is small consolation for a team whose recent fortunes had largely been on the upswing.

Most of the what-ifs centre on the second Test, in Cape Town, which Pakistan nearly won. Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq posted brilliant hundreds to forge a landmark partnership, and Saeed Ajmal found a turning pitch that fetched him a match tally of ten wickets. Yet Pakistan lost the plot twice in the match: first when they let Robin Peterson's score balloon to 84, minimising Pakistan's first-innings lead, and then again when they suffered a third-innings batting collapse that kept South Africa's eventual target down to a modest 182. Despite these generous concessions, Pakistan came to within four wickets of victory against the world's best batting order.

While it lasted, the retaliation in Cape Town was a stirring comeback. After getting blitzed for their lowest-ever total in the opening Test, at the Wanderers, it had seemed Pakistan would fold in the rest of the series. But they competed with dignity and defiance at Newlands, earning their opponents' respect. Hashim Amla, South Africa's batting lynchpin, said that Pakistan had pushed them to the limit. Had those what-ifs turned out differently, the outcome of the series might well have been altered.

By the time Pakistan arrived for the third Test, in Centurion, however, their morale was demolished and any pretence of fight or competition had been abandoned. Mentally they were defeated even before the toss, and they eventually succumbed by an innings.

This pattern of a loss in the opening Test, followed by a grittily conceded narrow defeat in the second Test, and finally a devastating rout in the final Test, is not new for Pakistan. It happened in Australia in 1999 when Pakistan pushed the hosts to the wall in the second Test, in Hobart, and again in 2010, when they all but won the second Test of the series in Sydney.

Positives and negatives are embedded in this pattern. At one level, it demonstrates that the team possesses the ability and ingredients to tackle the mightiest lions in their own lairs. Yet it also shows that Pakistan lose their grip after coming very close to a phenomenal success. This has all the markings of a choke, and after they choke, Pakistan lose the will to breathe. Choking isn't something typically associated with Pakistan, who have an impressive record of coming out ahead in close finishes. But Hobart 1999, Sydney 2010, and now Cape Town 2013 are testimony that, when they are within touching distance of an outstanding Test success at the home of top-ranked opposition, Pakistan's killer instinct comes unscrambled.

As if this weakness isn't enough, the team also inevitably manages to deliver a number of self-inflicted wounds. Dropped catches, ground-fielding lapses, needless extras, and run-outs are more or less par for the course for Pakistan, but on this tour unimaginative selection tops the list.

You know you've badly missed a trick when the opposition is left shaking its head over why Mohammad Irfan didn't play in the opening Test, in Johannesburg, which offered the most pace-friendly surface of the entire tour. Irfan's intimidating brand of lift and swing, so impressively displayed in the later matches, could have been devastating there.

It is also perplexing why the team management overlooked Abdur Rehman for the Cape Town Test, which offered the best spinning pitch of the trip. By all accounts, it seemed tailor-made for Ajmal and Rehman to recreate the kind of magic they had produced around this time last year in the UAE. Even the South African commentators noted that the pitch reminded them of the kind of surface one might come across in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. With Junaid Khan injured, there was a natural opening for Rehman to be inducted. Yet for some inexplicable reason, Pakistan chose to play the mediocre paceman Tanvir Ahmed instead, choosing not to take full advantage of the situation.

Hobart 1999, Sydney 2010, and now Cape Town 2013 are testimony that, when they are within touching distance of an outstanding Test success at the home of top-ranked opposition, Pakistan's killer instinct comes unscrambled

At the individual level, Irfan and Junaid in the bowling, and Shafiq among the batsmen, have emerged with credit from this tour. Shafiq was Pakistan's best Test batsman, scoring a hundred and a fifty, both under highly demanding circumstances. Younis was not far behind Shafiq, although judged against what was expected of him, he was a disappointment overall. As Younis' career approaches its twilight, Shafiq increasingly looks like Pakistan's future batting mainstay. It has been drowned out by all the other frustrations of this tour, but his partnership with Younis in Cape Town was symbolic of a mantle being passed.

Apart from these few glimmers, there were a number of disasters. Shahid Afridi played all five ODIs, for collective bowling figures of none for 210 from 37 overs, with zero maidens. His last international wicket was in a T20 against India in December, and he has now bowled 247 deliveries without taking a wicket. For a man with a career strike rate in the low 40s, that's a flashing red light. He did make a blistering 88 in one of the ODIs, but didn't hang around long enough to finish the game, and Pakistan eventually lost. Afridi is arguably the greatest limited-overs player ever produced by Pakistan, but he now needs to vacate the allrounder's slot for a younger talent, perhaps Ehsan Adil or Hammad Azam.

Pakistan's perpetual wicketkeeping crisis did not abate on this tour. Sarfraz Ahmed was preferred over Adnan Akmal and given a proper and settled run in all three Tests, but he conceded 22 byes and was dismal with the bat; it remains questionable whether he truly belongs at this level. Kamran Akmal took over in the limited-overs games but largely failed as a batsman and, despite a few acrobatic catches, missed some crucial chances behind the stumps. Adnan's return to the Test squad is therefore certain. Meanwhile, a radical rethink is needed for the wicketkeeping slot in ODIs and T20Is.

The biggest disappointment of all proved to be the top order. After his heroics in India, much was expected of Nasir Jamshed, but though he played some breathtaking strokes, he never showed any appreciable longevity at the crease. Mohammad Hafeez played a brilliant match-winning knock in the T20 game and managed a fifty in a losing cause in the third ODI, but his Test scores of 6, 2, 17, 0, 18, and 0 horribly exposed his technique against pace. Azhar Ali, at No. 3, had looked out of sorts in India and he carried that awkwardness into the South African series.

Crisis in batting looms as the most critical issue as Pakistan contemplates its future engagements, most immediately the Champions Trophy in England, followed by a tour to the West Indies (where Pakistan have never won a Test series), and hosting South Africa and Sri Lanka later in the year, probably in the UAE. Instead of getting distracted by shiny trinkets like the Pakistan Super League and expensive foreign coaches who continue to flop, the country's cricket bosses need to spend their time and energy tracing Pakistan's batting crisis to its roots. Only then can we begin moving towards a rational and effective long-term solution.

Saad Shafqat is a writer based in Karachi

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • mohammed on March 29, 2013, 6:16 GMT

    i fell SA bowling is just too much for PAK to one can stop STEYN. i wish SA win an ICC title soon...

  • Hammad on March 28, 2013, 18:44 GMT

    It sounds like a broken record now, but I think at least Younis and Malik (Misbah and Afridi to follow) need to vacate their ODI spots to kick-start the rebuilding process. To be honest, Pakistan has been re-building for half a decade now, but with old, worn out building blocks. Its a tough call to make, but someone in the administration has to man up and realize that there is able replacement available, and all that is required is to blood it in and keep it there; Azhar, Shafiq, Akmal, Shehzad, Hammad Azam, and plenty of others who are on the fringes of national selection. I honestly thought Whatmore will be the man to make that call.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 8:33 GMT

    Batting is the problem for Pakistan. Team need 3 to 4 batsmen with a consistent average of above 42. There is a strong need control the temperaments. They seem to feel under pressure most of the times. Concerned whether they would be included in the side for the next match. Frequent changes do not help either. A reasonably good batsman should be given a chance for at least 3 matches before he is left out.

  • Dummy4 on March 28, 2013, 6:29 GMT

    pakistan need to replace old players with young talents like ahamed shehzad, shehzab hussain, umar akmal, harris sohail, fawad alam,asad shafiq, Sharjeel Khan. too many chances given to imran farhat, younis khan, wahab riyas. these players are talented but not consistent enough to play for pakistan. selector must think future of pakistan.

  • Pak on March 28, 2013, 6:00 GMT

    Pakistanis don't train hard enough. They lack the discipline of training regardless of selection. A sports person is a fanatic in his field. He does not care for pay cheques or selections. He cares first and foremost for perfecting his art. And *this* is what Pakistani cricketers lack. Training.

  • mohammad on March 28, 2013, 4:57 GMT

    current score card: Batting C Bowling B plus Fielding B minus Wicket keeping C Captaincy B Selectors, C

    You do not have any A grades. SA has A in all departments. So has England.

  • Dummy4 on March 27, 2013, 15:24 GMT

    It is time Younis Khan and Misbah retire from International cricket or may be limited only to test crikcet, and play test cricket for another year. There is no place for Misbah and Younis Khan in one day format of the game. Umar Akmal, Nasser Jamsheed, Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Ahmad Shahzad, Shahid Afrid, Kamran Akmal/Adnan Akmal/Sarfarz and Mohammad Hafeez should form the core of the Pakistan batting line up. Mohammad Hafeez comes into picture because of his bowling skills coupled with handy batting skills. Mohammad Hafeez should be stripped of captaincy. Shahid Afridi should be reinstated as captain of shorter formats of the game. Misbah can continue as captain of test matches until he retires, which should be sooner than later. Umar Akmal should be groomed as the next captain of the Pakistan cricket team, and it is best to open with Umar Akmal, or at least play him in the top three. Pakistan should alternate hard hitting batsmen with steady batsmen in the batting order.

  • aziz on March 27, 2013, 15:20 GMT

    Fire the selectors:

    PCB should fire all the selectors and ask for recommendations from someone like Rashid Latif and Moin Khan who are very involved with the training academy and know the performance and form of the cricket players. They should select 30 probables and it should be left to the captain, Vice captain, cpach and tour manager to select the 15 for the tour. Those four may also become the tour selection committee.

  • Dummy4 on March 27, 2013, 15:10 GMT

    Pakistan has the batting talent to match any other cricket nation in the world, but the problem lies with the selection committee, team management, and decision making. How can you play someone like Shoib Malik and Yunus Khan ahead of the likes of Umar Akmal and Asad Shafiq in one day and T20 games. Umar Akmal has been wasted by changing his batting positions too often and did not let him settle. Umar Akmal can be considered to open the innings for Pakistan and he can play the role of a Sehwag and Sachin or even do better than him. Persist with him at one position for a stretch of matches. If he is give stretch for a few matches, he is constantly shifted in the batting order. Pakistan should have used different batsmen as openers in South Africa, may be Azhar Ali with Kamran Akmal with the rest of the batsmen to follow. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, and Umar Akmal should play all formats of the game for Pakistan. Umar Akmal and Kamran Akmal can be considered to open the innings for Pakistan.