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Feature

Are Pakistan mulling a return to three seamers?

Is Sarfraz Ahmed considering picking the allrounder Faheem Ashraf in place of the offspinner Bilal Asif?

Faheem Ashraf bowls against Northants, Northants v Pakistan tourists, Wantage Road, May 4, 2018

Faheem Ashraf bowls against Northants  •  Getty Images

Two months ago, Bilal Asif made a sensational start to his Test career, bagging a six-for on debut to spark an Australian collapse from 142 for no loss to 202 all out. Since then, however, the offspinner's wicket threat seems to have dulled: in his next seven innings, he has taken only five wickets, at an average of 52.20 and a strike rate of 129.60.
In the first two Tests of the ongoing series against New Zealand, Bilal has only taken two wickets in 56 overs. While his economy rate (2.48) has been excellent, he hasn't come close to matching his spin partner Yasir Shah (22 wickets at 15.81) as an attacking force.
Perhaps this has made Pakistan ponder picking an extra seamer in their XI for the third and deciding Test in Abu Dhabi. On the eve of the game, they have named a 12-member squad that includes the uncapped left-arm quick Shaheen Afridi - who is almost certain to replace the injured Mohammad Abbas - as well as the seam-bowling allrounder Faheem Ashraf.
It raises the possibility that Pakistan could go in with three seamers in Hasan Ali, Shaheen and Faheem, and Yasir as their lone spinner.
"That will be decided only tomorrow, we will look at the pitch tomorrow and then decide whether to go with three seamers or not," Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed said on Sunday.
Sarfraz hinted that Faheem's inclusion may also have had something to do with Pakistan's next Test assignment, their tour of South Africa where they will play three Tests starting with the Boxing Day game in Centurion.
"We are trying to give more confidence to Bilal," Sarfraz said. "The focus is on this Test, [but] of course we have an eye on the South Africa tour, there you will play with four seamers."
Faheem has played three Tests so far, all on Pakistan's tour of the UK in May-June, where he served a useful function as one of two allrounders in the lower order alongside the legspinner Shadab Khan. He is yet to play a Test in the UAE.
Apart from Bilal's lack of wickets, another reason behind Pakistan mulling three seamers could be Shaheen's rawness - he is 18, and has only played three first-class games so far - which might necessitate the security of an extra seamer.
Even otherwise, Sarfraz is known to favour having three three seamers in his attack, even on the slow pitches of the UAE. In his first two Tests as captain, during the home series against Sri Lanka last year, he fielded Yasir as a lone spinner alongside a three-man pace attack.
It was a notable departure from the selection policy under Sarfraz's predecessor Misbah-ul-Haq, who tended to favour playing a pair of spinners.
Pakistan lost both Tests against Sri Lanka, and Sarfraz came in for criticism for the workload Yasir was put through - he bowled 151.5 overs in the two Tests.
Sarfraz went back to a 2-2 combination when Pakistan began their 2018-19 home season against Australia, but Faheem's inclusion in Pakistan's XII suggests there is a chance of a return to 3-1.