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Pakistan's muddled bowling strategies

The defensive field set for Yasir Shah's bowling raised many questions, given how many runs it cost Pakistan Getty Images

At least the right Azhar came out. On Wednesday, Azhar Ali was asked to explain the performance of his bowlers. The poor guy - on the day of his historic double and the really, or equally, big news was how strange and inconsistent the bowling was.

So on Thursday Azhar Mahmood, the bowling coach, emerged to explain why Pakistan have both planned strangely and executed poorly with the ball this series.

Azhar has not been with the Test side for long, having joined them full-time ahead of the New Zealand tour. He has worked with the limited-overs sides in a couple of stints earlier in the year, however. Some of the issues, like the no-balls, pre-date his arrival. Others, like the composition of an attack or broader bowling strategies, he has only a degree of influence upon.

He only did what he could to explain why Pakistan have made the choices that they have.

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Why have Pakistan employed Yasir Shah in a way designed to ensure he will not take wickets, with leg-side fields of 3-6 and his line outside leg stump to the left-handers?

"We just want control of the game like we did in Brisbane. We had 2-7 field in that Test. We don't want to give easy runs to [David] Warner and he's a class act. He can take the game away from the opposition, which he has done in this game. That's the whole point in having a 3-6 field."

In the first innings at the Gabba, Yasir came on after 10 overs, when Australia were 0 for 33. They were comfortable, but not really in control, or even threatening to take control. In the second innings, he came on after 10 overs again, with Australia 2 for 38 and Warner gone. He started with the same leg-side strategy.

In the first innings at the MCG, Warner and Matt Renshaw were in no way secure, having just about survived the first 11 overs. Australia were 0 for 34 as Yasir came on, to the same field and same plan, which hadn't really worked at the Gabba in the first place.

Is he not better used in an attacking vein?

"Yes, you have to control the game like we did in Brisbane. We bowled 90 overs and they were 280 [288]. That was Australia's day, you say that was Australian day with three down. But with five down it's Pakistan's day. It's very difficult for a leggie on day one or two, when ball is not turning. You're not playing in Dubai or the subcontinent. You're playing in Australia where you want a more control on these things."

Not even for a little while, early on when he is actually looking more threatening aiming around off-stump and Pakistan have some semblance of control? This is Yasir Shah, who has won you two Tests in England.

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Pakistan's problem with no-balls is chronic. This year they have bowled 93, in 11 Tests. That is 34 more than the next highest - West Indies, in seven Tests. Other than that one, Mohammad Amir was generally impeccable with over-stepping in the first stage of his career. He has bowled 17 in ten Tests since his return. Wahab Riaz has 60 this year, and 100 in his last 16 Tests. Mahmood is the fifth bowling coach Pakistan have had in recent years, and this problem is ingrained.

Why do Pakistan bowl more no-balls than any other team?

"It's a discipline. When you talk about New Zealand [11 in 11 Tests this year] and Australia [25 in 11 Tests] and England [29 in 17 Tests], you get grassroots level coaching. Your run-up is marked on day one. Unfortunately where we come from, where we play cricket on the street and then become first-class cricketers, you know there's not technical coaching staff available in first-class cricket in Pakistan. So that's where you struggle."

Before the ongoing Test in South Africa, Sri Lanka had bowled 12 no-balls in eight Tests this year. Sri Lanka, where there is a similar informality to the structure in which young cricketers play before they make it to first-class level and beyond.

Why is it such a problem for Wahab?

"We know what his problem is. Wahab is slightly different to Amir because his delivery stride is getting bigger and bigger when he runs in to bowl quick. His role in this team is to bowl really quick. It's very difficult for us to monitor when he is on the field. And playing in the nets and bowling in the nets, he is not bowling no-balls. And you don't bowl with the same intensity as when you are in the field. It's a concern for us and we are working on that. He has improved a lot in the last three-four Test matches. He's bowling less no-balls. But I have told him there is no excuse and it is not acceptable."

Wahab's role in ODIs and T20s is also to bowl really quick and yet he does not transgress anywhere near as much. In the nets, at least on one of the days leading to this Test, he over-stepped the line on a number of occasions; enough for Mahmood to ask for someone to watch over him, which wasn't subsequently done with great vigilance. And he's not bowling fewer no-balls - he bowled seven in the last Test and he's bowling them more often than he did under Waqar Younis.

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Mahmood doesn't officially have a role in the selection of the XI, so Sohail Khan's inclusion was not on him. On the first day of the Test, Mickey Arthur said he was "comfortable" with the decision to pick Sohail over Rahat Ali and Imran Khan at the MCG.

Today, though he picked up a couple of wickets, Sohail's pace rarely ventured above 130kph. Were they still comfortable with the decision, especially at the cost of Imran, who provides greater energy all through?

"Sohail's fit, that is why he is playing in this Test. His comeback spell is different. The guy is working hard with me. He lost 7kg, we know his second and third spell is crucial, his pace goes down. We are working on that. With him and Imran Khan, Imran Khan doesn't give you anything with the bat so Sohail gives you an advantage to have a No. 8 or 9 batsman."

The only thing that really makes sense there is that Sohail does provide runs with the bat. Otherwise, to say he is fit and simultaneously acknowledge that he cannot bowl more than one good spell makes no sense. In an attack weighed down by the strategies for Yasir and Wahab's no-balls, Sohail's flagging spells left Pakistan with, basically, one proper bowler. He is not fit and that should, especially on unforgiving grounds in Australia, determine whether or not he plays.

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The right Azhar did come. He just didn't necessarily have the right answers.