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Babar Azam and Shan Masood shine amid gloom for Pakistan

Five takeaways from Pakistan's heavy defeat at the hands of South Africa

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Babar Azam drives during his innings of 72, South Africa v Pakistan, 2nd Test, Cape Town, 3rd day, January 5, 2018

Babar Azam drives during his innings of 72  •  Associated Press

Pakistan lost, perhaps not unexpectedly, 3-0 in South Africa, leaving plenty of questions for Mickey Arthur and his team ahead of their next Test assignment in September. Here we take a glance at some of the aspects of Pakistan's Test side that deserve more scrutiny.
No obvious sign of improvement
It isn't so much the clean sweep that should trouble Pakistan fans. Better teams than this one have gone to South Africa and come back empty-handed. Indeed, the last touring party from Pakistan returned with the same result, including the ignominy of being shot out for 49 in the opening game and, in Mohammad Hafeez against Dale Steyn, providing us with one of cricket's classic mismatches.
The worrying aspect is this is simply another point on the curve that depicts Pakistan's sliding fortunes in Test cricket, and no one quite knows whether this is the nadir, or fi they have further to fall. The team came here, after all, following their first home series loss to New Zealand in half a century, and they have now won one series in five since Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan retired in 2017 (plus a one-off Test against Ireland).
What happened was what everyone expected to happen, in a way. Pakistan's batting was consistently unable to post the runs on the board to give them a chance, and Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq still struggle to assume the positions of responsibility required from them. The bowling was good, but shrug-of-the-shoulders good, not drop-your-jaw good. Little of this was expected to challenge South Africa at home, and duly, little of it did.
Babar is the real deal
With 77, 74 and 70 runs in each game respectively, Babar Azam was Pakistan's second-most prolific batsmen. What there is little doubt about, however, is he's the country's best batsman in each format, with the series he had here in South Africa further vindication of that. Just months ago derided as a limited-overs player, he has shaken off the label comprehensively since the start of Pakistan's home season. He ended 2018 with the third highest Test average for the year for players who scored over 500 runs, behind only Kane Williamson and Henry Nicholls.
Most famously, he was the player who dismantled perhaps the greatest fast bowler of all, smashing Steyn for 21 boundaries across the series. No player has ever dispatched Steyn to the fence more often in one series, or scored runs faster against him. Whatever Babar may go on to achieve in his career, this duel will be one for the rocking chair, and Pakistan fans will hope it isn't the only lore he recounts to his grandchildren in what has begun to take the shape of a glistening career.
Masood 2.0 is promising
Remember that book you gave up on because the first chapter was rather dull, or that TV series you never got around to watching ever since the first 10 minutes bored your pants off? You packed them along in your suitcase just in case you had absolutely nothing else to do, and because people had started to tell you they weren't all that bad after all.
That, loosely (okay, very loosely), is what Pakistan did with Shan Masood this tour. They had discarded him after several short stints in the side showed promise but never blossomed; for all his elegance, he had averaged 23 in 12 Test matches. They took him along after a couple of promising A tours against New Zealand and England, to warm the bench more than anything else, it seemed.
But then, Haris Sohail's knee, as reliable as the Artful Dodger, flared up on the morning of the first Test. Pakistan fished around in that suitcase, and dug out Masood. And boy, were they thankful. This newer version of Masood gave them better mileage, was more reliable, yet continued to look as pretty as it always had done. He batted at No. 3, and he batted at the top. Wherever he batted, he got his side runs, ending as the highest scorer for Pakistan, and second-highest overall this series. It might have been an accidental discovery, but just like that book or TV series, Masood has demonstrated he is worth persisting with.
A case of beginner's luck for Abbas?
Perhaps this one's premature, or maybe he's still recovering from what was a particularly nasty right shoulder injury. But ever since that outrageously glorious series against Australia in October, Mohammad Abbas has struggled to replicate the magic. In four Tests that followed, he's managed 7 wickets at an average of 46.00 per scalp, a far cry from the 15.64 he averaged at the end of the Australia series. That he would never be able to keep up those otherworldly numbers we should have known, but the mouth-watering prospect of Abbas playing the Vernon Philander role for Pakistan in South Africa didn't quite materialise. He is, after all, still just 14 Tests into his career, but Pakistan will hope the lack of rhythm is down to injury rather than a permanent dip.
Shadab really is a genuine allrounder
His legspin is so skilful it is easy to forget how consistent Shadab Khan has been with the bat, especially in the longest format. His absence in the first two Tests due to injury prevented Pakistan from fielding a combination that included five bowlers. He did play the Johannesburg Test, the only one where Pakistan had five bowlers at their disposal, and the only one where they took all 20 opposition wickets. While his bowling will surely continue to come along in leaps and bounds - Shadab is still only 20 - he has also been one of the most consistent Pakistan batsmen whenever given the opportunity.
He averages 34.28 with the bat across nine innings, with three half-centuries. In Johannesburg, he was cruelly denied a fourth when, unbeaten on 47, a mix-up between him and Abbas meant the latter was run out, leaving Shadab stranded. When he said a few months ago his idol was Steven Smith, there would have been more than a few giggles amongst the supposed cricket gentry. If Shadab can keep this up in what will almost certainly be many more Tests to come, those giggles may have to be stifled.

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