• 28 Apr - 04 May, 2018
  • Sohaib ALvi
  • Sports

Very rarely has a tour started with so much emphasis on one player left out preceding it. The last I recall was when Pakistan embarked on a tour of England in 2010 with neither Mohammad Yousuf nor Mohammad Younus. But then both had been banned for a year for disciplinary reasons by admittedly a farce committee that was hell bent on finding scapegoats for a raucous tour that PCB and coach Intikhab Alam was most at fault for.

Perhaps you could recall the side that left for South Africa in 1998 without Wasim Akram. But then he was stated to be not fully fit and there were other issues with him that Majid Khan, the then CEO of PCB, was not going to tolerate.

Definitely the closest that comes to a situation witnessed in the last week is when Pakistan left for India in late 1979 with skipper Asif Iqbal ensuring that Sarfraz Nawaz was not on the plane. It was the result of a personal quarrel between the two and Asif carried the belief that he would be a disturbing influence on the team.

Thus, it is not entirely out of the ordinary for PCB and its selectors to leave out Fawad Alam whom many felt should have come into the side considering the lack of experience in the batting line up, in fact, the whole side. There are five who have yet to play a Test for Pakistan. Fakhar Zaman, Faheem Ashraf, Imam-ul-Haq, Usman Salahuddin and Saad Ali. But the first two have, nevertheless, been travelling and playing with the ODI national team under Sarfraz and Mickey Arthur for the past couple of years. However for Saad Ali, it’s his first time for any format.

But when you see that the most experienced cricketer in the side is Sarfraz Ahmed himself by making his ODI debut for Pakistan in 2007. But he made his Test Debut in January 2010, six months after Mohammad Amir did, who has played Tests for the longest time among the current tourists. Azhar Ali played for the first time in June 2010 and Asad Shafiq a few months later.

As such, even the most experienced have played Tests for less than eight years and the eldest among the four – Azhar Ali – is 33. Compare that to Pakistan’s last tour two years back and there was Misbah over 40, Younus approaching 39 in the batting and we all remember their tons which won us the two Tests at Lord’s and The Oval.

In Irish and English conditions the ball continues to swing even after it passes the stumps. That the three Tests against the Brits are coming in end of May and first week of June, when there is normally cloud cover and a bit of rain, the dampness in the air and moisture on the pitch will test the best of techniques. Pakistan have found that out to their chagrin time and again ever since Aamer Sohail and Saeed Anwar departed.

I have assumed that Azhar Ali will open with Sami Aslam who got a fine 90 last time he played at The Oval; and this was after he’d been flown in to strengthen the side following puerile batting in the second and third Tests. That was summer of 106. Since then he’s got another score in the 90s but other than that not much to infuse confidence against the moving ball.

Who bats at No.3 is the million dollar question. Babar Azam hasn’t got a Test record that compares with his ODI average. And experience has shown that it is anathema for Pakistan to move Asad Shafiq from his No.6 position. Other than these two, it seems that both Mickey and Sarfraz will play the obdurate Haris Sohail. For the sixth batting spot it will really be a toss-up between Fakhar Zaman, Usman Salahuddin, Saad Ali and Imam-ul-Haq. Who gets selected will depend on the batting strategy that the coach puts forward.

One of those strategies that sources reveal is that Mickey might consider playing Fakhar at No.6. To me that is upsetting as Asad Shafiq has scored most, if not all of his hundreds batting at No.6. He just doesn’t click at any other position and even then it was not at his best form when he played in West Indies a year back. He hasn’t had much cricket and therefore, to move him into an unfamiliar role at a time when he’s trying to rediscover himself will be playing with fire.

Mickey may try opening with Fakhar and Sami and playing Azhar at No.3. Again Azhar has recently been set as opener and the experiment to play him one down failed last time. Having said that, the question also is whether Fakhar can see off the new ball keeping in mind the cavalier attitude he carries.

Or is it that Pakistan spring a surprise by putting in an all-rounder at No.6 position and pushing Asad up one notch. Either of Faheem Ashraf, Saad Ali and Shadab Ahmed can slip into the standard all-rounder slot at No.6. That doesn’t mean the other two won’t play in the same XI. It’s just that if Pakistan plays an all-rounder (even Sarfraz can bat one position up than his normal No.7) then they can play four specialist bowlers plus one who can also bat well. They also have Haris Sohail as a backup bowler. Mickey counts Asad Shafiq but that is more of a Joe Root style. Brought in when nothing seems to be working.

But the bowling will be discussed at length in another piece soon. For now, it’s Pakistan’s Achilles heel that needs to be addressed. They have shot themselves in the foot by not taking Fawad and hence are left with not too much experience in the longer term batting needs.

Mickey and Sarfraz now have to decide whether to experiment at the top and play a flamboyant Fakhar Zaman which would make the eyes of Stuart Broad and Jimmy Anderson light up? And in case they do, who partners him? Or should they go with a sedate pair of Azhar Ali and Sami Aslam and either play Fakhar or Imam-ul-Haq at one down or ignore him altogether and play Babar Azam where he’s played before. After all he’s now capable, or at least should be, of adjusting his game to English conditions.

Whatever it is, Pakistan after a long time faces its first test of entering a five-day game without both Misbah and Younus. Sarfraz finds this a tough predicament especially as he is poised to captain Pakistan in his first ever away Test series if we take the two-Test series against Sri Lanka in UAE as a ‘home’ series. Such are the vagaries of Pakistan cricket these days. •