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The price Pakistan paid for Faheem Ashraf's exclusion

The allrounder's ability to counterattack with the bat was sorely missed in Lahore

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
They were five wickets down, and there was little to worry about. In Alex Carey and Cameron Green, Australia had a wicketkeeper coming off a fine 93 in the last game and a generational all-round talent together at the crease. Naseem Shah might have been at his quickest, meanest best, but there was only so long he could keep up in these unforgivingly hot conditions. Besides, Australia might have lost five batters, but the idea that Pakistan were into the tail was exceedingly premature.
And so it proved. Green scored 79, Carey 67, and all notions of a quick collapse were dismissed. They put on 391, a first-innings score that's never resulted in an Australian Test defeat against Pakistan, and the hosts were left to grind once more.
Pakistan were five wickets down, and the sickening panic engulfing the Gaddafi Stadium felt fully justified. It's Pakistan Day, a national holiday, and so for a Test held from Monday to Friday, today inevitably drew the biggest crowd. Today, when the sun disappeared behind a blanket of clouds and a fresh evening breeze began to blow just as Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins began their merciless assault on Pakistan's lower order.
Pakistan had an allrounder who, until as recently as the Karachi Test, boasted a superior batting average to Green's, but Faheem Ashraf wasn't out there. So, when Starc blew through Fawad Alam's and Mohammad Rizwan's defences in quick succession, the squinting crowd saw Sajid Khan shuffling out to join Babar Azam in the middle. Sajid might have a first-class hundred, but Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy don't often face bowlers of Cummins' pace and accuracy.
It wasn't a fair fight in the fading light. Ashraf would watch from the dugout as the second half of this lopsided Pakistan side collapsed on itself. While Australia's last five added 211 to their first-innings total, Pakistan's fell for four runs - the worst five-wicket collapse in their Test history. It left Australia with a 123-run lead; that Carey-Green partnership had put together 135 on its own.
Which takes us back to the first morning, and the audible exclamations of surprise when Pakistan's team sheet came out. It wasn't so much that Naseem had been included but who he'd edged out into the XI. The merit of a selection decision cannot be assessed taking only the incoming player's performance into account, but also what the side may lose in the value of the player who makes way.
Ever since Ashraf became a feature in the Pakistan Test side, after a couple of years out in the cold for reasons that never felt quite justified, his blend of nippy seam bowling and counterattacking lower-order batting has given Pakistan a balancing option no other player in the country provides. His contributions in either department - not to mention what he offers in the field - haven't just been theoretical; there is yet to be a Test match where Ashraf hasn't made a notable contribution to his side.
And yet it's this Test in Lahore, which Ashraf isn't a part of, that advanced the case for his indispensability more than any runs or wickets he could chip in with. It showed what happens when Pakistan fudge an XI. The inclusion of the extra batter, the option Pakistan went with in Rawalpindi, left them hamstrung in the bowling department. And while they reaped the benefits of the extra bowler across the first two days in Lahore, it left them vulnerable to the sort of carnage Australia inflicted in that fateful final hour.
There will be the usual scepticism around Ashraf's ability to survive pace bowling of the class of Cummins and Starc, but then again, even Babar was visibly struggling when Australia's two spearheads pushed past the ramparts after two sessions of laying siege to Pakistan's batting line-up. That was the other aspect to the drama of that final hour, the asphyxiating hold Australia held over Pakistan even while the wickets didn't come. It might have looked somnambulant, but the effect it had was stifling.
Australia have conceded 2.78 runs per innings in Test cricket since 2020, making them comfortably the most economical side in world cricket. But this innings saw them take that parsimony to another level, allowing just 2.29 across 116.4 overs. Babar aside, no Pakistan batter managed a strike rate above 37.50, and Starc and Cummins' combined figures read 44.4-14-89-9. A mere 69 and 68 runs were scored across the first two sessions. The wickets might only have fallen at the end, but Australia's foot never left Pakistani throats all day.
Of course all that might have proved too hot for Ashraf to handle, too, but that only further underscored the value of having him out there instead of the hapless Sajid. The unique threat Ashraf poses with the bat means any runs he made would have broken the shackles, a department where his pedigree outmatches those of his team-mates. South Africa don't exactly possess a toothless fast-bowling attack either, but on a spicier pitch in Karachi, an attack comprising Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi was flayed for an 84-ball 64 as Pakistan took a commanding first-innings lead to set up a seven-wicket win. The following Test, an unbeaten first-innings 78 helped Pakistan obtain a 71-run first-innings lead, and a 95-run win. The idea it would have made little difference to have Ashraf out there instead of Sajid feels a touch far-fetched.
Only the most miserable curmudgeon would refuse to enjoy the magically joyful display that young fast-bowling talent Naseem put on over the first two days, but the sacrifice required to make that happen mustn't be forgotten. You don't get to max out your credit cards while shielding yourself from the implications, and Ashraf's exclusion left this Pakistan side in debt. In the lengthening shadows and the dimming sky, Starc and Cummins ensured that debt was paid tonight.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000