Azhar Ali struggle versus Duanne Olivier the microcosm of a mismatch

12:32 PM ET

  • Danyal Rasool at Newlands

Pakistan might have tried to turn a chapter after Centurion, but they keep finding it’s the same old story. On a morning where, put in to bat, they lost their first five wickets inside 20 overs, Sarfraz Ahmed’s unchanged batting order found the narrative of the Test had begun in that same unchanged vein.

No dismissal epitomised that more than Azhar Ali‘s, theoretically Pakistan’s best batsman in these conditions. For the third time in as many innings, he copped a short ball from Duanne Olivier, failed to fend it to safety, and found himself heading back to the pavilion cheaply.

It is a tactic Olivier, in particular, has employed with devastating consequences against Azhar. Of the 34 balls Olivier has bowled to Azhar in three innings, 22 have been short, producing just eight runs and all three dismissals. Of the other 57 balls Azhar has been on the receiving end of, just 21 fell short of a good length, with fuller balls allowing him to score at over a run a ball (15 in 14).

Pakistan batting coach Grant Flower was surprised at Azhar’s struggles against the short ball after the first Test. “I’m very surprised, because he usually doesn’t have a problem with the short ball,” he told ESPNcricinfo. “That took me by total surprise. He definitely knows what he’s going to get in the next Test, albeit on an easier pitch to bat on. But I can’t see the South Africans relenting. In the pressure of the match, he was probably just indecisive.”

While Flower, like perhaps everyone else, was prescient enough to know what the hosts’ tactics would be against Azhar, he has been less successful in helping his batsman to cope. Among the 19 balls Azhar faced in his short-lived stay at Newlands, over half were banged in short. When Olivier was introduced into the attack, every one of the five balls to Azhar put the Pakistan batsman on the back foot. The one that dismissed him was nearly a carbon copy of those that felled him in Centurion, with Azhar flaccidly pushing it to first slip.

Cheap dismissals set the tone as Pakistan were eventually dismissed for 177, the same team that trudged off at Centurion, dejected and demoralised. The challenges they face are well understood, predictable, even. They were out on New Year’s Day at 9.30am, practising for nearly four hours, but the possibility of producing the goods against a fearsome South African attack still appears remote.

The bout between Azhar and Olivier is a microcosm, while the larger contest presently looks like a mismatch.

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