Match Analysis

How Pakistan's winning streak screeched to a halt

Pakistan's invincibility in the UAE came crashing down, but the symptoms had appeared earlier - they've now lost nine of their last 11 Tests

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Long shadows appeared during the twilight period in Dubai  •  AFP

Long shadows appeared during the twilight period in Dubai  •  AFP

The UAE had been Pakistan's desert oasis, their home away from home, since well before it was forced to become their actual home. It had begun to feel that way since one April evening in Sharjah - when Javed Miandad's last-ball six secured their most famous win against India - and continued right through the next two decades. Their win percentage in the UAE, until the attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore meant it became their long-term home, was 68.3% - as opposed to an overall winning percentage of 47.2%.
While those numbers almost exclusively comprised ODI results, Pakistan had translated limited-overs ascendancy to Test match invincibility, never losing a series in the Emirates until Tuesday.
The desert dominance screeched to a halt against Sri Lanka, who rained on a Pakistani parade that had threatened to escape from a series loss, following the heroics of Sarfraz Ahmed and Asad Shafiq on Monday night. It was thoroughly unexpected, with Sri Lanka in abysmal form coming into the series. It's worth looking at how Pakistan found themselves at the wrong end of a whitewash.
Opening gambit
The retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan left a gaping hole in Pakistan's middle order, and the way it was plugged would determine how successfully Pakistan could move on. They opted for the safety of Azhar Ali - Pakistan's most consistent batsman over the last few years, dropping him to No.3; he had opened since the fourth Test against England last year. That promotion had been remarkably successful, with Azhar averaging 63.09, scoring five fifties and four hundreds - including unbeaten innings of 302 and 205.
Pakistan have struggled to find a consistent opener since Saeed Anwar retired 14 years ago. They decided to go with Shan Masood - who has the lowest Test average among openers in the last five years who have played at least 20 innings - and Sami Aslam for this series, with the pair having never opened together before.
Other than half-centuries in the first innings of the Abu Dhabi Test - which neither batsman was able to convert into a bigger score - both openers failed to reach 40 again in the series. As such, moving what was beginning to look like a world-class opener out of that position was a questionable strategy from Pakistan, especially since they struggle in that position more than anywhere else.
The bowling combination
Everyone knew Pakistan's UAE formula, yet no one could do a thing about it. With the pitches offering limited assistance to the fast bowlers, Pakistan were always sure to stock up on spin options, stifling and strangling the opposition out, especially on days four and five. When England were skittled out for 72 in Abu Dhabi in 2012, 33.1 of 36.1 overs were bowled by spinners. Two specialist spinners were a guarantee, with one of Abdur Rehman or Zulfiqar Babar invariably accompanying Saeed Ajmal, before Yasir Shah. Aside from those, Mohammad Hafeez regularly opened the bowling, and they still had Shoaib Malik left over.
But in this series, Pakistan opted for a pace-heavy attack, with three fast bowlers accompanying Yasir in both games. Without Malik or Hafeez as part-time spin options, not only did Yasir have to bowl a ridiculous number of overs - 151.5 over the two games - but Sarfraz also found himself depending on the likes of Shafiq and Haris Sohail to get through overs. Add to that Mohammad Amir's injury, and the folly of going with a 3-1 pace attack was damningly exposed.
Further proof - as if it was required - came in the last over Pakistan bowled. With Sri Lanka 96 for 7 in their second innings, Haris came on to bowl. Six balls later, the part-timer had finished the innings off.
Pace attack out-performed
Selection errors in the bowling department don't excuse the performance of the Pakistan seamers who were selected. Throughout the two games, they were out-bowled by Sri Lankan, not a nation particularly famous for its plethora of fast bowlers. But they appeared fitter, more consistent and more capable of making the older ball talk than Pakistan.
If anything, they were slightly unlucky throughout the series, perhaps not rewarded with as many wickets as their performances deserved; this was especially the case for debutant Lahiru Gamage in the second Test. His ability to move the ball back into the right-handers was particularly impressive.
Pakistan's pacers clearly lacked fitness, with Hasan Ali being ruled out after the first Test, and Amir's injury on the second day reducing their attack to three bowlers. Wahab might have been their best bowler in Dubai, but he has been far too inconsistent. No matter how impressive his performance in Sri Lanka's second innings was, the enduring memory of this Test will be the left-armer pulling out of his run-up five times in a row, and the apoplectic expressions of his coach each time he stopped in his tracks.
Worrying slide in form
This series may simply be part of a general trend. Since becoming the world's top Test side last year, Pakistan's results have fallen off a cliff, almost as if they stopped caring once they got there. They have lost nine of their last 11 Tests, with the only two wins coming against the West Indies. The volatility is perhaps characteristic of Pakistan cricket - before this run, they had gone seven consecutive series without losing one, their best-ever streak.
They might have had excuses along the way. The slide began with a loss in the third Test against West Indies in Sharjah. Series already sealed, dead rubber, you might say. Then came the 2-0 loss in New Zealand.
Difficult place to play, and they've got a very good side now.
Then the Australia whitewash.
Well, that always happens.
But with the home defeat in the UAE, the rut is becoming increasingly harder to explain. You might say they're getting used to life after Misbah and Younis, but at some point, those excuses will need to be replaced by performances. The rankings send the same message. Less than a year ago, they were No. 1 in Test cricket. With this series loss, they've slipped to seven.
Sheer luck?
How much does random chance have to do with Pakistan's success? It is undeniable that they've been strikingly fortunate with the toss in the UAE. It had almost become a staple of their game plan: win toss, bat first, post big score, grind opposition down. They won two of three tosses against England in 2012, both against Australia in 2014, all three against England in 2015, and all three against West Indies in 2016.
They won all those series, losing just one match. But this time, Sri Lanka won both tosses, and gave Pakistan a taste of their own medicine, scoring 419 and 482 respectively in the first innings of the two Tests. It turned out to be just as effective when done to Pakistan.

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