Match Analysis

Agha Salman ticks off little milestones with characteristic domestic-cricket grit

Salman looked to beat SL at their own game, answering unerring patience with assiduous steadfastness

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Agha Salman gets down for a sweep, Sri Lanka vs Pakistan, 2nd Test, Galle, 2nd day, July 25, 2022

Agha Salman gets down for a sweep  •  AFP/Getty Images

There was surprising candour to Mohammad Nawaz's admission after the first day that Pakistan's bowling plans to Sri Lanka might have constituted a form of strategic naivety.
He lamented the number of easy runs Pakistan had given away as they went chasing after the wickets - Sri Lanka had racked up over 300 by stumps - meaning the impact of the steady fall of wickets was undermined by the equally unceasing trickle of runs. Had Pakistan, he mused, focused on bogging the batters down, Pakistan's exigency for breakthroughs might have been satisfied more economically.
Agha Salman, still bedding into this side playing his second Test, wouldn't be quite as frank to level a similar charge at his fellow batters. But the tactical muddle Pakistan's bowlers found themselves in wasn't restricted to that department. When Pakistan came out to bat on the stroke of lunch after bowling Sri Lanka out for 378, the visitors' batting disconcertion was similarly impossible to conceal under the glare of the afternoon sun.
"They were bowling very well and not giving runs away," Salman said. "They were playing a patient game and our patience was a little bit lacking. I spoke to Yousuf bhai [Mohammad Yousuf, batting coach] and he says if you play under your eye and close to your body, that is the way to do it. Once you spend time out there, batting gets a bit easier."
Abdullah Shafique's early dismissal set the tone, but the ripple effects of Azhar Ali's omission meant Pakistan's best batter Babar Azam was pushed up to a batting position where he is currently a shadow of the phenomenon that operates as a Test No. 4; his batting average drops from nearly 60 to about 25 when he promotes himself. Mohammad Rizwan, too, has never batted as high as No. 4, where he came in today, and just as he enters a red-ball dry patch, this kind of tinkering is unlikely to do him many favours.
In addition, Pakistan's apparent anxiety to push the scoring rate up, looking to reprise the role Sri Lanka's openers had played for their side on the first morning, looked frenetic and rash in the manner of Babar and Imam's cheap dismissals. In Test cricket, particularly in Sri Lanka, it is difficult to tether yourself to a predetermined scoring rate, simply because the variance in the opposition's bowling quality and plans is often too great to permit such inflexibility.
Sri Lanka's spinners weren't operating along the same scheme that Pakistan's had the previous day; having learnt a lesson from the visitors' shortcomings, Prabath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Mendis stuck to consistent lines, and waited for Pakistan to make their mistakes as they looked to force the issue. They did not need to be devastating when being disciplined would get the job done, and as Pakistan's top and middle order began to fold, solidity was always going to get the better of sensationalism. While Pakistan might have prattled along at four an over in the early stages of their innings, it was neither meaningful nor sustainable, and never remotely threatened to lull Sri Lanka into feeling that it might have been.
Before long, the run rate had dipped, as it was always going to, but in Salman, Pakistan had someone who understood the importance of being out there. Not just in the cliched sense that he didn't seem prepared to toss away his wicket with alacrity, but the fact that Agha was out there at all, in a Pakistan XI, is a remarkable show of the Pakistan management's faith in his Test abilities. He hadn't played a Test before, but in the first Test, when Pakistan felt the middle order needed to be whittled down by one, it was Fawad Alam, not Salman, who ran the drinks. Despite a poor debut Test, and with pressure for Alam's return mounting, Pakistan chose to cast aside Azhar, the second-highest scorer for the side since the start of 2020, to make way for the left-hander, when dropping Salman would have been the easy choice.
Going in pursuit of a handful of dopamine-infused quick runs might have been the easy choice for Salman himself, especially as the pitch became two-paced and the bounce got harder to trust. Salman, instead, opted to stick with the characteristic domestic grind that has seen him gradually claw his way into this Test side through sustained, incremental progress, eschewing the short, pot-holed road for the longer, better-paved one.
He was in control of 83.33% of his deliveries, primarily focused on keeping the good balls out. Sri Lanka persisted with much the same ploy that worked so well against his team-mates, with the spinners plugging away at that teasing length between good and full, the menacingly expanding rough threatening to ensnare him at the first sign of an error. But alongside Yasir Shah, Salman looked to beat Sri Lanka at their own game, answering unerring patience with assiduous steadfastness of his own.
The little milestones were ticked off - a follow-on avoided here, a maiden half-century brought up there - but the tangled web Pakistan find themselves in could never be climbed out of through one dogged partnership. A large part of Pakistan's frustrations, though, will stem from the rich part they have played in weaving it themselves.

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