Match Analysis

Tidy Faheem Ashraf gives Pakistan an opening, but floodgates stay shut

Just when it seemed like Australia's soft underbelly could be exposed, Pakistan inexplicably moved away from seam bowling completely

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Faheem Ashraf bowling on return, Pakistan vs Australia, 2nd Test, Karachi, March 12, 2022

Faheem Ashraf has rarely failed to impress in Test cricket, and he pulled his weight again on Saturday  •  AFP/Getty Images

The National Stadium in Karachi might not quite be the MCG, but it's certainly a big ground. So when David Warner danced down the wicket to wallop Sajid Khan over mid-off for six - as if he hadn't yet left Rawalpindi - as early as the 11th over, the visitors' intentions seemed fairly obvious. Hasan Ali had just been prised out of the attack as Usman Khawaja punished any deviation in line, and the early jitters a new ball naturally spawns in Pakistan had begun to vanish.
Sajid had spoken about how he set Warner up in Rawalpindi, observing how the Australian opener kept going back no matter how full he bowled. Well, Warner made sure he couldn't say that today. A few overs later, he danced out of his crease, and despite not getting to the pitch, creamed Sajid over mid-off for six more. Two balls earlier, it was Khawaja who had taken the attack to Sajid. Slithering out of his crease with the quiet elegance of a synchronised diver breaking a pool surface without making a splash, he targeted that well-peppered mid-off region beyond the boundary, and the openers were blasting Pakistan's premier spinner out of the attack.
So Babar Azam did what he didn't have the luxury of doing in Rawalpindi and turned to Faheem Ashraf. It's been an odd start to what still feels like a budding Test career for Ashraf, who spent the best part of the first three years of his Test career out of the side. Which is bizarre because Ashraf is yet to play a Test match he hasn't substantively contributed in, either with bat or ball. Quietly, almost by default, a man who broke into the national side through his white-ball prowess has manoeuvred himself into a position of indispensability in Pakistan's Test match side.
Ashraf was the man whose unavailability appeared to spook the hosts so much they all but admitted to neutering the liveliest deck in Pakistan in the first Test. So eager were they to have him available he was brought back a day after he tested positive for Covid-19, with a subsequent negative test the following day putting him in the clear.
Six balls after that Sajid mauling, Ashraf, in the middle of a typically tidy spell, made his mark once more. On a pitch that looked like it was flattening out under the baking Karachi sun, he found enough deviation of the seam to kiss Warner's outside edge through to Mohammad Rizwan. As so often, once the door appeared shut on Pakistan, Ashraf was the locksmith who had worked them back in. Of his 23 Test wickets, more than a third - eight - have broken partnerships of 50 runs or more.
So when Australia's third wicket partnership surpassed 50, Babar's thoughts turned to his partnership-breaker once more. Australia had been ticking along at nearly four, so with potence and economy both required, Ashraf was pressed into service once more.
Australia might have been 160 for 2, but like a boxer awaiting the bell, they knew for now, they needed to hang on till tea. Ashraf was sniffing closer and closer, and with Shaheen on from the other end, Australia had no respite
What followed was an intoxicating hour of Test match cricket under the blazing Karachi sun. The energy levels hadn't yet sapped, and as Ashraf and Shaheen sent down three successive maidens, the whiff of an opportunity began to waft through the field. Khawaja and Steve Smith were set, yes, but as they battled and scrapped, they suddenly appeared vulnerable. The scoring ground to a halt, and Ashraf - that white-ball specialist, the occasional dibbly-dobbler - suddenly had two of the world's leading batters on the ropes. There was some tail-in to Smith that, even by Smith's standards, had him fidgeting about, while there was enough flirting with Khawaja's outside edge to suggest further dalliances would be forthcoming.
The nervous energy crept through the Karachi crowd. Not the sort that has you leaping from your seats, more the kind that tantalising anticipation of a payoff can produce. Australia might have been 160 for 2, but like a boxer awaiting the bell, they knew for now, they needed to hang on till tea. Ashraf was sniffing closer and closer, and with Shaheen on from the other end, Australia had no respite. With the relative inexperience of Travis Head, Cameron Green and Alex Carey in these conditions, Pakistan felt the visitors had a soft underbelly, and a wicket could open the floodgates.
The value of that session perhaps truly became clear in third session that would have been soporific if it wasn't so bizarre. Like the plot device of a convoluted mystery novel where the more outlandish points are never quite explained, Pakistan, for no discernible reason, turned away from seam bowling completely until the second new ball. Babar turned to himself and Azhar Ali before he'd resort to the seamers as the session threatened to descend into farce.
Even Ashraf, given the second new ball ahead of Hasan Ali, for once lacked teeth as Khawaja, now past a hundred, and Smith, stuck in. But there was time enough for yet another facet of Ashraf's all-round game to come to the fore, as a left-handed pluck, seemingly out of thin air, sent Smith on his way seven balls before the end of play.
The payoff might have come too late to offer Babar's side much satisfaction. Ashraf, who Test cricket has kept waiting for so long, will know that more than most.

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