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Hassan Cheema

Is Pakistan's streak about to end?

They've gone seven series without a loss for only the third time in their history, but this just might be as far as it goes this time

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
As history begins to repeat itself, it is the familiarity that connects the dots. On the morning of the second day of the Test at Hagley Oval, as all the work that Pakistan's openers had done was frittered away, it was that feeling of familiarity that was most obvious.
For Pakistanis of a certain generation, tours to the antipodes are tied in to memories that are easily evoked - of godforsaken hours on wintry nights, of hope springing eternal, and of batsmen struggling to cope with alien conditions. It is often said that Pakistan's worship of bowling, particularly the faster kind, has to do with the number of great fast bowlers the country has produced. But at times like this, one often feels that it's the fact that the bowlers have delivered great wins in spite of the incompetence of the batsmen that leads to them being treated as higher beings.
Pakistan haven't lost a Test series to New Zealand in three decades. Even their last series loss there came about in a match that Wasim Akram got his first ten-for in, in the great tradition of bowlers trying to cover up for the incompetence of batsmen.
Despite this record, it's not as if Pakistani batsmen have conquered New Zealand. Pakistan went to New Zealand three times in the 1990s: in each instance, in their first Test innings of the tour, they were bowled out for under 220. Across the Tasman, where Pakistan will go in a fortnight's time, their record is worse: in their first Test innings on five of their last eight tours to Australia, they have been bowled out for under 180.
It was supposed to be different this time around - the success of Pakistani batsmen over the last three years, including on the tour to England, had promised more. But the days leading up to this tour will have set the alarm bells ringing. Pakistan lost a Test to West Indies, and the explanations for that seemed to raise more questions than answers. The first was that the team already had their minds on the series to come. The second was that mental and physical fatigue was a factor, as there had been just two weeks between a three-month long tour of England and the six weeks of the West Indies series in the UAE - which, despite its familiarity, still is a tour away from home for the players - and that this had affected them. The fact that these explanations came from the coach, Mickey Arthur, seemed to raise questions about his own performance, for aren't these the things that he is supposed to be in control of? The final explanation, as seems to have been the case in every "home" series over the past couple of years, was that Pakistan didn't get the pitches they wanted (Arthur, in fact, referenced how Pakistan ought to be able to get the sort of pitches Bangladesh or India have for their home Tests), which again raises questions about the board and the team management, and what control they have over these "home" Tests.
As the excuses piled up, and then Pakistan's only warm-up game was washed out, the writing seemed to be on the wall. The last time Pakistan had a difficult away tour without any real preparation, they were bowled out for 49 by South Africa in their first innings there.
For Pakistanis of a certain generation, tours to the antipodes are tied in to memories that are easily evoked - of godforsaken hours on wintry nights, of hope springing eternal, and of batsmen struggling to cope with alien conditions
Yet it wasn't in the first innings that Pakistan lost this Test match in New Zealand. Top-order collapses, as mentioned earlier, have always been a part of Pakistan's away tours. What they lacked here was a failure to learn from the first innings. Having seen their approach to prolonging innings without shifting gears fail in the first innings, Pakistan doubled down on it in the second. Australia had just shown why even the opposite of doing what Pakistan did can fail. If there is any lesson to learn from this, or from this year in general, it's that extremism towards any single approach is not exactly ideal.
At least that is something Pakistan can work upon, even if they will badly miss Misbah-ul-Haq in the middle order. What they can't work on - and this is something that continues to affect them - is their tail.
As pitches have in general gone from the homogenisation of the last decade to getting back to their true selves over the past few years, home teams have become more dominant, but there has also been another trend: the strength of teams' lower-order batting can make or break games. England's successes over the past 12 months might have more to do with their lower order than their middle order, for instance. Australia's decline from the heights of the 2013-14 Ashes has a lot to do with their lower order's failings too.
This year has been seen as an improvement for Pakistan's tail - the Oval Test being held up as an example. Yet despite that match, and despite Sohail Khan's efforts in New Zealand, Pakistan are one of only three teams whose last four batsmen (Nos. 8-11) have averaged under 15 this year. (This is still an upgrade on the rest of the decade, where Pakistan have competed with Zimbabwe for the wooden spoon.)
And yet, for all these problems, Pakistan have rarely had it this good. In the history of the country, only four times have they gone more than five Test series without losing one, only three times have they done so with a streak as long as seven series. The first of those three was from 1985 to 1989, when Pakistan went ten series without losing, as Javed and Imran built the greatest team in Pakistan's history. That streak ended on a tour down under, where Pakistan's top five averaged 25 at a combined run rate of under 2.3. The second streak followed the spot-fixing scandal, and ended with a series where Misbah was banned from a Test because of slow over rates. The third is right now, Pakistan haven't lost a series in seven - but with Misbah missing and the batsmen following the template of their ancestors, history might be ready to repeat itself.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, commentator, co-manager of the Islamabad United PSL franchise, and co-host of the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag