Matches (15)
ENG v PAK (1)
ENG v PAK (W) (1)
T20WC Warm-up (6)
Vitality Blast (5)
CE Cup (2)

Takeaways: Are Pakistan dark horses for the 2023 World Test Championship?

Also, is it sustainable for them to approach all series like they did against South Africa?

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi took nine second-innings wickets between them, Pakistan vs South Africa, 2nd Test, Rawalpindi, 5th day, February 8, 2021

Hasan Ali and Shaheen Afridi took nine second-innings wickets between them  •  PCB

After Pakistan wrapped up a famous win in Rawalpindi to seal just their second series victory against South Africa, ESPNcricinfo looks at what lessons can be learned from an absorbing couple of Tests in Pakistan.
Pakistan will prepare pitches to maximise home advantage
It was this second Test in Rawalpindi that was the real giveaway. The Karachi Test produced outrageous turn, but a curator barely has to break sweat to get a Karachi pitch behaving that way. When the action moved to Rawalpindi, Pakistan demonstrated how eager they were to make up for lost time in maximising any edge playing at home can give you.
Rawalpindi is a fast bowler's paradise, and has always been so. The milder climate, the harder surface, the greater moisture in winter has meant quick bowlers have always thrived in a city that produced the likes of Shoaib Akhtar. Pakistan have always prided themselves on the richness of their pace-bowling history, throwing the absence of that tradition in the rest of the subcontinent into sharp relief.
This time, Pakistan dispensed with all of that and swallowed their pride. Recognising that South Africa didn't possess as much quality in the spin department, head coach Misbah-ul-Haq declared that Pakistan were trying to dry out the surface days in advance to get it to crack up earlier. They shelved any thoughts of an extra fast bowler and lined up with two spinners once more. They wanted to win, and everything else was secondary.
It might not have panned out quite like that, but this series is an indicator for what New Zealand, Australia and England can expect when they finally rock up here in the next two years. Pakistan are at home, and they want everyone to know it.
Fast bowlers remain a factor in Pakistan more than anywhere else in Asia
In the battle between the Pindi groundsmen and the surface itself, there was a clear winner. No matter what the groundstaff tried - and it was evident to anyone paying attention they did whatever cutting edge soil science would permit - three of the four five-wicket hauls went to quick bowlers, including a career-best ten-for by Hasan Ali. But for a brief period on the third evening when Pakistan struggled to negotiate George Linde and Keshav Maharaj, fast bowlers continued to carry the greater threat for both sides. And on the final day, by which time, had this pitch been more pliant to the groundstaff's needs, it would have been a minefield, Shaheen Afridi and Hasan took nine of South Africa's 10 wickets.
This suggests that Pakistan could produce some diverse cricket at home. There are places like Karachi, where having quality spinners is an asset, but those conditions are not replicable everywhere. Once Test cricket branches out past Karachi and Rawalpindi, the varying climates of Lahore, Multan and other potential venues means there may be a variance to conditions in Pakistan to a degree not seen on the subcontinent.
That means most visiting sides may feel they have a chance at success here, just as South Africa had their opportunities in both Test matches. Equally, Pakistan's fast bowlers need not worry about redundancy, and the second Test shows Pakistan will never fully turn its back on their storied fast-bowling stockpile.
The way Pakistan won this series is unsustainable
The openers can't buy a run, Azhar Ali hasn't fully emerged from a slump in form, Babar Azam had his least prolific series in well over a year, and the spin bowlers were largely anonymous for most of this Test - and yet Pakistan still managed a clean sweep.
A 2-0 scoreline can gloss over all of that, but Pakistan ignore these concerns at their peril. Faheem Ashraf was the highest scorer for the hosts, but that's as much an indictment of the rest of the order as it is a tribute to the all-rounder's utility. Mohammad Rizwan - named Pakistan's Test cricketer of the year today - is taking on much more responsibility with the bat than an ideal Test side would accord to a No.6 wicketkeeper-batsman. Abid Ali has, ten Test matches in, still scored half his Test runs in his first two, and averages under 17 since and the other opener doesn't even exist currently.
It is encouraging that the lower-middle order contributed, and the tail wagged; Pakistan have recently been accused of carrying three number 11s in their side, so this makes for a welcome change. But it isn't a replacement strategy for a misfiring top order, and while Azam's indifferent series was most likely a one-off, the top of the order continues to be a cause for concern.
Babar Azam and Mohammad Rizwan are a better captain/vice-captain combo than many feared
Like an umpire, a doctor or a politician, it's generally when a captain is bad at their job that they tend to be noticed. And perhaps the biggest compliment you could pay Azam this series is that few people cribbed his on-field captaincy. The bowling changes were sharp and proactive, and, bar a little spell on the final morning, the field placements made sense. It is, of course, easier on these grounds that he will have known since childhood, but the hierarchy at the PCB may be relieved Azam isn't quite as overwhelmed with captaincy as many feared he might be. He doesn't talk about the game in the most engaging way, but that doesn't mean he has no ideas worth putting into practice.
And alongside him, it pays to have a deputy like Rizwan, whose blossoming confidence in his role is one of the highlights of Pakistan over the last year. Not content with the runs and flawless wicketkeeping, he's assumed a more vocal leadership role on the field than even Azam himself. Having had the experience of captaincy in New Zealand would not have hurt, despite the result, and now the Azam-Rizwan double act looks promising for Pakistan.
Pakistan - dark horses for WTC 2023?
On a final, speculative note, the series win might provide a template for how Pakistan approach hosting England, New Zealand and Australia, all of whom are due a visit during the 2023 World Test Championship league cycle. If Pakistan can take advantage as they did of South Africa, they might be able to capitalise on a somewhat easier run when it comes to away series: they travel to Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the West Indies in that league cycle, giving them perhaps the clearest shot at a final berth that a side of their quality will ever have.

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