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Why did Pakistan sedate Rawalpindi, their liveliest Test pitch?

The occasion - a home Test against Australia - was great. But the game itself fell flat

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
08-Mar-2022
Imam-ul-Haq and Abdullah Shafique started solidly in the second innings, Pakistan v Australia, 1st Test, Rawalpindi, 5th day, March 8, 2022

The Rawalpindi pitch: Runs, runs and more runs. But no real life.  •  Getty Images

Imam-ul-Haq and Abdullah Shafique got together in the middle, and had a little chat and a fist-bump. It ended as it had begun with Pakistan's openers at the crease and Australia's bowlers toiling away. If something happened in the middle, you'd be forgiven for forgetting it; history certainly will.
Five days, 1187 runs, 14 wickets, and lots of existential dread after this history-making Test started, the umpires put the players out of their misery. If Pakistan believed the reticence of the so-called Big Three (Australia, England and India) to visit this part of the world was detrimental to Test cricket, the last five days were an odd way to make the point.
It was wholesome enough watching Australia touch down on Pakistani soil for the first time in overs 23 years, have the touring party gush over the hospitality and food, and listen to the CA and ACA chief executives talk about how safe everyone felt here. But the real proof of a corner being turned - and Pakistan Cricket's end-goal - isn't the wall-to-wall coverage of a box office side playing Test cricket in Pakistan. It's for tours like this become so routine they no longer make newspaper headlines.
The PCB might be relieved we're not at that stage yet or the scrutiny on this surface would have been significantly more forensic, the criticism much more pointed. That the cricket is still secondary to the event has been the saving grace of the past week. Because, while Australia's visit has been handled almost to perfection, the preparations for the cricket - you know, the reason they were here in the first place - have been rather more ham-fisted.
There are myriad factors contributing to the orgy of ennui that consumed the ether around the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium, but what's most unforgivable is how utterly unnecessary this was. Pakistan cricket may have a million issues, but the Pindi pitch isn't one. There have only been two other Test matches where a side had a worse strike rate than Australia's 478 balls per wicket and they happened 64 and 50 years ago respectively. It's little short of travesty that Rawalpindi will now rank so high up in a list it has no business belonging to.
Recall that the most recent Test on this surface was one of the matches of 2021. South Africa's stockpile of quality seam bowling is more intimidating than perhaps any other nation's and so there was substantial angst about whether there was any home advantage to speak of. But despite Pakistan's efforts to tame the natural predispositions of the strip, the need to ensure a quality contest was always at the forefront. In a game where the momentum ebbed and flowed, Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi took nine of the ten South Africa wickets in the fourth innings, a time when the home side might have wanted the surface to start breaking up.
The memories of that game had left a particularly tantalising aftertaste, and the brouhaha of the context of Australia's visit aside, it was the prospect of similarly engrossing cricket that made the first Test feel like such a grand occasion. Australia's well-rounded pace attack was equipped to adjust to the varying conditions Pindi throws up, and since Faheem Ashraf's return to the Test fold, Pakistan's inveterate problems with balancing their side appeared to have melted away. If you enjoyed the buzz around an Australian visit, there was plenty in it for you. And if you wanted to nerd out over Test cricket, you were still nicely sorted.
However, as Pakistan's injury list piled up, the furtiveness around the pitch grew. Haris Rauf contracted Covid-19 and was ruled out. Hasan Ali, Test player of 2021 for Pakistan, was also injured. And, it appears, once Ashraf's absence became official, so too did any realistic hopes of a positive result for Pakistan in Rawalpindi. When the covers were removed on the morning of the first Test, they revealed a flat, dried out husk of a deck, not a blade of grass in sight.
After becoming PCB chairman, Ramiz Raja had singled out the state of domestic pitches as one of the key reasons holding Pakistan cricket back. "Until the pitches are fixed in Pakistan, our cricket won't rise. Pitches must be competitive, and there must be a balance between bat and ball. My mission statement is that I want Pakistan to defeat Australia, South Africa and New Zealand in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand." With a reputation for micromanagement, Ramiz went on to say he thought of himself as a curator and had a brochure he read every day called "How to Prepare a Pitch". Turns out it might take more than a brochure to become a curator.
Sports fans have fickle memories, and if Pakistan find themselves in the World Test Championship final, the decision to sedate the liveliest pitch in Pakistan might look like a masterclass rather than a miscalculation. But where Pakistan have yelled themselves hoarse reminding other nations of their wider obligations to cricket, they would do well to remember they are not exempt from those very obligations.
Ultimately, the expense, the hassle, the stress, the inconvenience to residents, commuters and spectators, the security risks are all considered a fair trade in Pakistan so people can throng stadiums and huddle around TV screens enjoying what most countries take for granted: international cricket in their nation. Tour dates are announced with breathless excitement; every update is a headline, every press conference a moment. Ticket websites crash as they are overwhelmed; fans line up hours ahead of the start and brave excessive security measures.
It's hard to argue those crowds - it was one of the best-attended Test matches in Pakistan in ages - weren't heavily short-changed. Even a captain as diplomatic as Pat Cummins couldn't stop himself saying "it was probably clear" there was an "effort to nullify the pace bowling", and that it wasn't a fair contest between bat and ball.
There has been reputational damage to Test cricket in general and the Pindi pitch in particular. This is the surface Pakistan supporters have used as evidence that the country offers a diversity of conditions not seen elsewhere on the subcontinent to this degree. They might find it's suddenly become much harder to make that case after what the cricket world was subjected to over the last five days.
It seems like a fair bit to lose for four World Test Championship points.

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