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Pakistan, and the curious case of collapsing on flat tracks

It's a curiously Pakistani problem, and even when it isn't, there's still the issue of such pitches masking the brittle nature of a batting line-up in transition

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Another day, another batting slide for Pakistan  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

Another day, another batting slide for Pakistan  •  Matthew Lewis/Getty Images

He's bowled 18 overs, this Jack Leach. He's got one wicket for 70. Saud, meanwhile, has looked supremely comfortable in the middle. How many wickets did our man Abrar Ahmed have when he'd bowled 18 overs? Can't remember exactly, but it was a lot more than one. We'll check later, but for now let's enjoy this overwhelming show of batting dominance.
Better up that scoring rate, though, Saud. You're 59 off 104. We didn't have much to do this summer, so we watched the way England bat. We couldn't quite believe it, so we made sure we watched it up close in Pindi. And now we find this sort of scoring rate dull.
Boom! Did you see the way he chipped that over the offside? His use of the feet against this supposedly brilliant spinner who somehow has 99 Test wickets? How did we never notice how harmless he is? Saud's going to do this again, you know. Look, there he goes!
The length was shorter this time, maybe this Leach bloke has a trick or two up his sleeve. Anyway, James Anderson's running after it. He's never getting there, he's so old Pakistan probably wasn't even a democracy yet when he made his debut. Oh, wait, he's got there and caught it?
Well, at least Rizzy bhai's still there, even if his intent is as reliable as a New Year's resolution by the time February rolls around. Come on, Rizzy bhai. We've defended you when people say you're conservative but 6 off 41 balls? By 41 balls, the English start thinking about some chap named Gilbert Jessop. If I never hear about him again, it won't be a moment too soon.
Now we're talking! Did you see that skip down the pitch, that caress back down the pitch, as sleek and powerful as an Italian racecar? But what's this Leach gone and done? He's turned a ball, beaten the edge, and cleaned Rizzy bhai up? It seems to happen a lot to him now, doesn't it?


Those two dismissals might have been very different in style, but they represented something of a sliding doors moment, coming as they did in the space of four overs as the smoggy Multan morning gave way to watery winter sunshine. As Pakistan crept into the ascendancy, Saud Shakeel went after a ball he didn't get to the pitch of and had no control over. Mohammad Rizwan, meanwhile, had played two attacking shots in 42 balls, and Leach had to vary little as he probed with the length ball, searching for the extra grip to beat Rizwan's bat.
They would herald a collapse that saw Pakistan lose seven wickets for 37 runs - more to a slew of inexplicable shots than anything spectacular the bowlers did - thrusting England into an ascendancy they are unlikely to relinquish.
In a way that's amusingly specific to this cricket team, Pakistan somehow find themselves in a situation where they prepare too many flat pitches, and yet also collapse in a heap on them. In the last nine months alone, this side have been rolled over for 148 on a pitch in Karachi on which Australia had managed 556 for 9 declared, collapsed in Lahore from 248 for 3 to 268, and then lost all ten wickets, after being 77 for no loss, on the final day of that game to cede the series to Australia. A similar collapse followed against Sri Lanka on the final day in Galle, where Pakistan succumbed from the relative comfort of 176 of 2 to fold well before stumps for 261. In Rawalpindi earlier this week, on a wicket so moribund the Pakistan head coach Saqlain Mushtaq called it "very flat" and the PCB chairman Ramiz Raja termed it "embarrassing", Pakistan capitulated spectacularly after tea, losing their final five wickets for nine runs.
Multan might have been watching this - Pakistan's latest hit in an album no one asked for - in the flesh for the first time, but by now it's become something of a familiar sight. Azhar Ali's dropping, a decision made on the eve of this second Test, demonstrated Pakistan's recognition that a problem needs solving, but the strength of an omission invariably hinges on its replacement. That is why Asad Shafiq's departure was more easily smoothed over. Fawad Alam came in, showed he belonged - and, ironically, might have been the ideal batter to have in the middle order on a spinning track such as this. Azhar's batting shoes, after all, are giant ones to fill, and his replacement Mohammad Nawaz isn't really geared to filling them anyway.
Rizwan might be like a student in class whose grades you needn't worry about, but concerns are beginning to surface on that front too. The panoply of issues that plague Pakistan's Test side mean the wicketkeeper's form isn't the most pressing, but in his previous 20 innings, he's only managed two scores in excess of 50, and averages 22.88 across his last nine.
Just as damagingly, some of the more benign pitches have masked the scent of decay in a batting line-up experiencing its greatest transition since MisYou collectively walked away. Imam-ul-Haq, despite his average of 54.75 over the past year, remains unproven at this level, with little evidence to suggest dropping him for Abid Ali in 2019 wasn't the right call - and that average is propped up by two legendarily poor pitches in Rawalpindi, without which it drops to the mid 20s.
Abdullah Shafique's inexperience adds another variable to a batting line-up that's increasingly fluid, while the middle order duo of Saud Shakeel and Salman Ali Agha is tasked with carrying a workload recently borne by Azhar, Shafiq and Fawad. It's easy to recall Pakistan's struggles when Misbah and Younis stepped away, and Pakistan will be disquieted by the reminder that Azhar and Shafiq, the princes of Pakistan's middle order, didn't quite step up to replace them as had been originally hoped. And unlike Azhar and Shafiq, there are no princes this time; the line of succession is suddenly barren.
As England tot up a significant lead, it's impossible not to feel the fourth-innings target they set has already broached the territory of the insurmountable. And on days like today in Multan, it's perhaps easier to laugh at it all rather than worry about it.

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