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Spin troubles see Pakistan falter on well laid-out plans

Nauman Ali and Sajid Khan's ineffectiveness on home pitches meant Pakistan were outspinned by Australia in the three Tests

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
A home series loss - rare as they are these days - can discombobulate any captain, and it appeared to have that effect on Babar Azam too. When, at the post-match presentations, he appeared to suggest Pakistan had dominated two of the three Test matches - including one they had conceded a 408-run first innings lead in - the straw he appeared to be clutching was invisible to the average naked eye.
A few moments later though, when he had a bit more time to reflect, he was more nuanced when assessing Pakistan's team selection. The role and effectiveness of Sajid Khan and Nauman Ali will undersee forensic scrutiny in the post-mortem of the series defeat, and with good reason.
While Nauman was the joint third-highest wicket-taker this series, six of his nine wickets came in the drawn Test in Rawalpindi, most of them low-value by nature because of the lack of remaining jeopardy in the contest. Sajid, meanwhile managed just four wickets at nearly 120 each.
"The main thing is the combination, and you pick players accordingly," Babar said, addressing the issue. "We have our offspinner [Sajid] who is a good batter, and Nauman Ali is coming along with a good bowling show. I don't think even their legspinner [Mitchell Swepson] got enough help. Most of the wickets were taken by offspinners."
Offspinners here might as well be code for 'Nathan Lyon', because Sajid certainly wasn't among the wickets. The irony of Pakistan preparing wickets to neutralize the opposition's fast bowlers and bank on their spinners to do the business on pitches that would hopefully deteriorate was that the only day all series the wicket began to break up, it was the opposition spinner with over 400 wickets to his name in full flow.
At a time when his position in the side was under severe pressure, Lyon took five wickets, helping run through Pakistan on a series-deciding final day.
In general, though, it appeared making the pitches batter-friendly didn't automatically mean it cooperated with the spinners. Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins remained the trump cards for Australia throughout the series, while Shaheen Afridi and Naseem Shah were consistently more dangerous than the spinners for the hosts.
Pakistan gambled somewhat on Australia struggling to find an effective second spinner, but while that part of the plan paid off, the sterility of Pakistan's own spinners meant they were hoisted by their own petard.
There was some malcontent around Zahid Mahmood's absence this series, but it isn't like the two men who kept him out didn't make the grade on merit. In the 2020-21 Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, Sajid and Nauman led the wickets charts with 67 and 61 respectively, and averages in the mid-20s, followed by Mahmood. Since the revamping of the domestic structure three seasons ago, Nauman and Sajid remain streets ahead of the rest, with 136 and 119 wickets respectively.
With both having some international experience under their belt, Pakistan assumed they would have enough to overwhelm Australia in familiar home conditions. In the most recent Test before this series, after all, Sajid had picked up 12 wickets in Bangladesh to spearhead a sensational win for Pakistan - the same Bangladesh side who went on to win away in New Zealand the following Test.
Nauman, meanwhile, has been solid if unspectacular through his Pakistan journey, with little indication there are superior bowlers in the system being kept out. The opposition here, of course deserves credit - particularly Usman Khawaja, who enjoyed a series for the ages, and relied heavily on his impregnable technique against spin to keep the bowlers toiling.
There will be the invariable calls for Yasir Shah; in Pakistan, after all, a silver bullet is always more attractive than a systemic fix. But even if the complications around his recent legal troubles and fitness issues are set aside, the evidence that Yasir is the bowler he was in Pakistan's halcyon UAE days is scant.
Since October 2019, his 32 wickets have come at more than 46 apiece, and the change of home venue from the UAE to Pakistan has done him few favours. At nearly 36, it feels more like a passing of the peak than a loss of form.
What should worry head coach Saqlain Mushtaq and his Pakistan side is that there isn't, for once, comfort to be drawn from blaming poor planning or ineptitude. Pakistan were outcaptained, though there is no shame in that when the opposition was led by a man as charismatic and confident as Cummins.
They were outbatted and even out-fast-bowled too; but then again, Australia would back themselves to do that to most sides too.
But in a series where Pakistan picked the best spinners they had and threw them at Australia, the visitors managed to out-spin them on their own turf. That must be hard to take. No wonder Babar felt so discombobulated.

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