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Match Analysis

Babar Azam offers delusion over solution as Pakistan's shortcomings are exposed

Pakistan captain faces whitewash but fails to recognise own part in team's downfall

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Babar Azam lost in thought at the presentations, Pakistan vs England, 2nd Test, Multan, 4th day, December 12, 2022

A whitewash looms for Babar Azam, but his public utterances suggest he's not fully aware of Pakistan's failings  •  Getty Images

"The last few Test matches we've played we've dominated."
Babar Azam looked down at the press pack on the eve of the third Test, and then he said it. It was the nonchalance with which it was said, just as much as the substance in the words that had just escaped his lips. Much like a comedian always ready with a follow-up in case the punchline doesn't land, the Pakistan captain insouciantly glided over his words, moving on as if it were filler material for his main point. It was a statement of such staggering delusion it might have been delivered from a Bucharest balcony in December 1989 than a Karachi press conference room in December 2022.
It would, of course, be outrageous to compare Nicolae Ceausescu with Babar Azam. (Ceausescu, after all, never led his country to four successive home Test defeats.) But it took only four days from that balcony speech in Bucharest for reality to cut through 33 years earlier, and it will take exactly four days to avenge the affront it caused in Karachi. England might still need a further 55 runs to officially secure an unprecedented 3-0 whitewash on Pakistani soil, but this fortress has already been breached.
Pakistan haven't been a world-beating Test side for quite a while now. Since ascending to the top of the Test rankings in 2016, they have the worst win-loss ratio in the format after West Indies; once Tests against Zimbabwe, Ireland and Bangladesh are excluded, they have won 10 and lost 25 of their last 42 matches. But that cannot exculpate the malaise they find themselves in during this Babar era, when, having seemingly adapted smoothly to cricket back home in Pakistan from the UAE, they have now lost four home Tests for the first time ever.
The bigger issue Pakistan have, perhaps, is not their failure to accept how much this Test side has decayed, but their seeming inability to do something about the things they can control. Bereft of their first-choice fast-bowling attack, Pakistan spent the entire series trying to balance their side in three different ways. They had about as much success as a sixth-former riding a see-saw with a toddler at the other end.
They would do without their allrounders altogether in Pindi, insisting Salman Ali Agha was - in Saqlain Mushtaq's words - "80% batter, 20% allrounder". In Multan, both Faheem Ashraf and Mohammad Nawaz were drafted in, before, like a bear in a Grimm Brothers fairytale, they found a combination they believed was just right. However, on a spinning track in Karachi, they decided to drop spin-bowling allrounder Mohammad Nawaz. That might have meant they really, really valued Faheem's contribution with the ball, only for him to send down just one over out of 82 in England's first innings. And Salman Ali Agha, that 20% allrounder? Ditto.
The picture the past year or so paints is a particularly bleak one for Pakistan's selection woes, but also, specifically, for Babar's in-match captaincy. Turning to Mohammad Wasim on the second morning ahead of Faheem with England on the attack appeared to fly in the face of received wisdom around what each bowler's respective strength is. Faheem's unerring lines and lengths have tied down opposition batters, even against this otherwise belligerent England side, while Wasim Jnr's reverse swing with the aging ball made him an ideal candidate for the back-end. Sure enough, Wasim's first two overs went for 19; despite a fine old-ball spell, he would end up being Pakistan's most expensive bowler of the innings.
Babar's use of spinners, meanwhile, has also come under scrutiny, particularly in an away defeat in Galle, as well as the drawn Test against Australia in Karachi this year. It's thrown in sharp relief by Ben Stokes' management of his own bowling resources, because it isn't as if England's team selections have made for straightforward decision-making. In Pindi, armed only with a 40-year old James Anderson and Ollie Robinson for pace resources and spin proving less venomous on the final day than England might have hoped, he would send down 20 overs by himself, dodgy knee and all.
Stokes' use of the part-time spin of Will Jacks, and more recently Joe Root - extending even to opening with the former England captain on Sunday - has yielded 11 wickets this series. Rehan Ahmed, meanwhile, was held back for 41 overs on the third day before being unleashed in the second hour of the afternoon; the teenager would end up becoming the youngest debutant to take five wickets and lead England off the pitch.
Stokes opened the first-innings bowling with Jack Leach in the third Test - the first time in 101 years England have thrown their newest new ball to a spinner. Mark Wood - needing nursing in his own way - has been deployed to devastating effect in bursts through the last two Tests, most notably with a short-ball barrage in the final session in Multan. While Babar, seemingly on autopilot, continued to plug away at England's lower-order with spinners that the visitors treated with disdain, Wood has been used to mop up Pakistan's tail with clinical success.
England's position of strength on the final night of this series shines an even greater light on the gap between these two Test sides at the moment, one that - with the different directions these two are pulling in - is fast becoming a chasm. It is perhaps crueller to be played than killed off; perhaps even Babar would have preferred being put out of their misery today instead of having one more night to think about where this team - his team - is at, where he's led them to.
It's difficult enough to solve problems in Test-match cricket, but infinitely harder when the existence of those problems is never acknowledged. Pakistan have not dominated the last few Test matches. But the problem with going to war with reality is the only weapon you have is your determination to shield yourself from it. Just because you refuse to see it does not mean others fail to see it, either, and certainly does not mean you're inoculated from its consequences. It need not take a revolution for that basic fact to be acknowledged.

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