Pakistan look to Sohail, Salahuddin in post-MisYou era
Haris Sohail, who last played first-class cricket in 2014, and Usman Salahuddin have inherited the hardest jobs in Test cricket - to follow in the footsteps of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. The pair are likely to be the first to attempt filling those giant shoes, as Pakistan named their first Test squad in the post-MisYou era, to take on Sri Lanka in the UAE.
Pakistan, led by Sarfraz Ahmed now, have also picked uncapped fast bowler Mir Hamza and allrounder Bilal Asif in a 16-man squad for the Test series, which starts with the first Test in Abu Dhabi on Thursday. Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammad Rizwan were the two exclusions from the list of probables that went through a five-day conditioning camp in Lahore recently.
Much of the early focus will be on Sohail and Salahuddin, as Pakistan look to make up for losing over 15000 Test runs and nearly 200 Tests worth of experience in the middle order. Both are uncapped in Tests, but have represented Pakistan. Salahuddin played two ODIs for Pakistan in 2011, but Sohail was, for a while after his debut in July 2013, a near-fixture in the ODI side.
Yasir Shah and Azhar Ali have both made it into the squad as well, and though both ordinarily would've been automatic selections, there was some doubt about their participation in the run-up to the announcement. Azhar, Pakistan's most successful Test batsman over the last year or so, was in doubt with a knee problem and he sat out a two-day practice match at the camp. He has, however, been receiving treatment, according to chief selector Inzamam ul Haq, and a speedy recovery would enable him to be available for both of the Test matches. Pakistan will need, more than anything, his experience.
Yasir, on the other hand, was on the verge of becoming the biggest victim of the new fitness drive coach Mickey Arthur and the management have implemented since their arrival. Already, the push to make Pakistan fitter has claimed victims in Sami Aslam and, most famously, Umar Akmal. Yasir's fitness levels were said to have been a major concern over the last five days, but he has, apparently, pulled through and proved his fitness. Since 2014, he has been Pakistan's most successful Test bowler.
The squad was meant to be announced on Friday but was pushed until Saturday morning, allowing Yasir to undergo another fitness test to reach a value acceptable for a player to be selected. He was the Player of the Series in Pakistan's last Test assignment in the West Indies earlier this year with 25 wickets in three Tests.
"We want to maintain our standard on fitness and we told Yasir to make it or it would be impossible for us to select him," said Inzamam. "Yasir's success over the last three-four years has been great but we don't want to create an exception on fitness. So we waited a day, and that is why we are announcing the team today, on the day of the team's departure. Yasir is cleared now, having scored a value of 17.5. Azhar has a cyst in his knee and doctors have recommended he can play after taking injections to the knee. So he is fine now and available for selection, and hopefully he will remain fine all the way."
Aslam, the opener, has also been called back into the squad, suggesting the management is happier with his fitness.
The two Tests will be the first time Pakistan step onto a field without both Misbah and Younis in seven years, the previous such instance coming at Lord's in 2010. Both were the backbone of the Test squad that saw Pakistan reach the No.1 Test ranking last year. Inzamam picked Salahuddin and Sohail as prospective replacements.
"I have been thinking of both Usman and Haris over the last few series, envisaging the situation after seniors [retired]. Both have done well. Usman has done well as a middle-order batsman while Harris could have made it into the side in 2015 but was injured. So the idea is to give our youngsters an opportunity in our own conditions rather than playing them in away series. This will increase their confidence and both have the potential to fill in for Younis and Misbah. But it does not mean the door is shut on other players making it into the side. Performances will obviously be considered and, if a player is good enough, he can definitely be selected."
Pakistan named five fast bowlers and three specialist spinners, a move Inzamam said was aimed at managing the workload of the bowlers who are better on flat tracks in the UAE.
"We all understand that pitches in the UAE are a batting paradise, and there is a big opportunity for batsmen to score runs. It's really a big challenge to get any team out twice so we have to strengthen our bowling. That's why we have five fast bowlers with three spinners in our squad. Since the temperature will be around 40 degrees Celsius, we probably have to consider rotating our fast bowlers as well."
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent