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Match Analysis

Pitch imperfect from Pakistan as duff selection deepens their woes

England cut loose against an ill-balanced attack, on another benign Pindi surface

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
01-Dec-2022
Mohammad Ali endured a tough day on Test debut  •  AFP/Getty Images

Mohammad Ali endured a tough day on Test debut  •  AFP/Getty Images

Just over 24 hours ago, England put out their starting eleven for the first Test, to general amusement from just about everyone who follows red-ball cricket in Pakistan. The idea of a bowling attack comprising Ollie Robinson, Jack Leach, a 40-year old James Anderson, and Ben Stokes as the fourth seamer was deemed so light as to be tactically naïve.
Liam Livingstone at eight? Harry Brook in the Test squad? What were England playing at, thinking they could play Bazball in Pakistan?
Across 75 surreal overs in Rawalpindi on Thursday, England went about answering those questions. By the time the early-setting December sun put Pakistan out of their misery, England had racked up a first-day world-record 506 for 4, effectively putting the game out of their opponents' reach in a little over two sessions.
England in this kind of mood, on a pitch that gives them so little to fear, may feel like they're unstoppable, but an hour out from the toss, Pakistan did something that had seemed impossible a day earlier - They outdid England in the mirth-inducing team selection face-off.
The legspin decision
Yasir Shah had been dropped after an indifferent run and Pakistan were in need of a legspinner. In the squad they had named, they had two to choose from: Abrar Ahmed and Zahid Mahmood. You know how selectors sometimes find themselves needing to make invidious decisions with little to separate two players? This really didn't seem like one of them.
For starters, Abrar and Zahid played for the same side, Sindh, in the recently concluded Quaid-e-Azam trophy season. Abrar was the leading wicket-taker in the competition, taking 43 wickets in seven matches at 21.95. Zahid, by contrast, managed 13 in five, each wicket costing 45.76 runs.
When both spinners were available to Sindh and they wished to play just one, it was Zahid who dropped to the bench. And for those who like a spinner to be able to keep a lid on the runs? Well, Abrar's economy rate through the season was 2.97, while Zahid gave away 3.58 runs per overs. Abrar is a decade younger than Zahid, and therefore more attractive as a long-term investment, as the Yasir Shah era draws towards a close.
If ever there had felt like a dead certainty in a Pakistan starting XI, this was it. And yet, when the team reveal came, it was Zahid who found himself being handed his Test cap by Mohammad Rizwan.
"We wanted to do justice," Pakistan coach Saqlain Mushtaq said at the close of play. "One guy [Zahid] has been in the team environment for a year, and has come close to playing without getting an opportunity. Abrar has performed in domestic cricket, but we don't want to break a queue and fast-track someone when someone else has been waiting their turn for a year. Zahid was in the waiting list, so we decided to do him justice."
In Pakistan cricket, keeping dissent and dissatisfaction to a minimum is a notoriously difficult task, and it's perhaps unfair to belittle what appeared a sincere attempt to keep a squad player happy. However, form leaned heavily in the other direction, and as the day panned out, perhaps that showed.
Zahid's first over saw him concede 12 runs, including boundaries off a reverse sweep and a sweep. By the end of the day, his figures read 23-1-160-2: the most expensive full-time bowler of the pack.
All-rounders
The last Test match Faheem Ashraf played Test cricket, Pakistan were under the pump on the first day. It was against Australia in Karachi, where the visitors' openers ran away in the first session and a half, scoring at well over four runs an over. Sound familiar?
On that occasion, with most of his frontline options firing blanks and finding no respite in his specialist spinners, Babar Azam had turned to Faheem in the hour before tea. An asphyxiatingly accurate spell followed in which Australia scored just 11 runs in 14 overs, with Faheem sending down four maiden overs on the bounce.
Unless you are particularly uncharitable, it's difficult to point to a Test where Faheem Ashraf hasn't either contributed with bat or ball. He's dropped down the pecking order for Pakistan since Australia's visit in March, for reasons that haven't quite been made clear, but in a bowling line-up that featured three debutants and a teenager, a little more seam-bowling experience might not have gone amiss. He has always had a knack for picking up wickets, but just as importantly, Pakistan have often turned to him to rein in opposition batting line-ups that have threatened to run away with a first-innings score.
But on a day when they needed to wrestle back control, Faheem wasn't to be found in Pakistan's starting line-up. Neither, for that matter, was left-arm spin allrounder Mohammad Nawaz, who has provided that all-round balance in Faheem's absence over the last few Tests. Saqlain did say, with characteristically mystical flourish, that Pakistan had, in Saud Shakeel, a player who was "80 percent batter, 20 percent allrounder", but the 38 runs he conceded in five overs suggested that Pakistan could have done with a 50-50 option at least.
The absence of a player who'd more conventionally be called an allrounder also means something particularly alarming for Pakistan when they do eventually come out to bat. Remember how amusing it was that England had Livingstone batting at eight? Well, Pakistan have Naseem Shah carded at that number.
Squad selection
Perhaps everyone knows by now that Hasan Ali's a streaky bowler, which makes trusting him inherently difficult. Indifferent performances in the last two series - including one at home against Australia in March - saw his Test stock reduced to the point that Pakistan felt he was no longer part of their best squad with England visiting.
But selection decisions or performance evaluations don't happen in a vacuum. Shaheen Shah Afridi is sitting out the series and, without him, the bowling attack is especially wet behind the ears. The series against Australia was played on excessively placid pitches anyway, and in the year before that, Hasan went on a run in which he took 24 wickets in three Tests and ended up being named Pakistan's Test bowler of the year.
Meanwhile, it was hard not to feel sorry for Mohammad Ali, a nagging line and length bowler on his best day. A debut on a track as flat as this, against a batting line-up as belligerent as England's, felt like little more than a hospital pass, even if a visibly nervous Ali had a wretched day both with ball and in the field. Besides, if Pakistan really wanted a bowler of that ilk in their side, you wondered why Mohammad Abbas didn't make the squad, with his 25 Tests confirming him as a veteran in this bowling line-up.
As the adage goes, you always look a better player out of the side on a bad day. Even allowing for the fact that winter has set in to make pitch preparation more complicated, this Pindi pitch bore very little resemblance to the surfaces the venue has prepared in the domestic Quaid-e-Azam trophy, and a lot more to the one rated "poor" against Australia nine months ago.
Perhaps any bowling line-up would have struggled to make an impact, but in preparing this surface, it didn't seem like Pakistan could have made things any easier for England. But when they announced their side, they managed to do just that.

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