Danyal Rasool in Cape Town
It generally pays for a team to know who will open the batting in South Africa without relying on the chronic injury of one player to throw up a convenient candidate. It’s usually helpful if the specialist opener’s technique isn’t so questionable, his confidence so shot, that he’s shunted down the order to number six, a position he’s only batted at once before in international cricket, in a T20I nearly two years ago.
It’s often advantageous, when the bowlers are tiring, their pace dropping and the new ball approaching, to have a legitimate fifth option instead of two part-timers with three Test wickets between them. It’s generally why, if it’s at all possible and they’re not called Pakistan, that teams do these things.
This was a day on which the excuses Pakistan had made for their decisions rang hollow even to them. Fakhar Zaman is a fantastically exciting prospect for Pakistan, albeit in other formats, and preferably in the other hemisphere. Picking him as the first-choice opener on this tour, on the basis of a debut in Abu Dhabi, was an iffy selection; it wasn’t too hard to foresee that he might find himself ill-equipped to handle the pace and bounce of these pitches and the stupendously good South African seam attack.
In the build-up to this series, coach Mickey Arthur had emphasised that this tour would be the true test of Pakistan’s development, and said he “reckoned we could do well”. For all that, they have ended up looking ill-prepared for this examination.
A day after Arthur said he was reluctant to pick Faheem Ashraf because he wasn’t yet an allrounder, just a bowler who could bat a bit, Fakhar was sent to bat at six, one spot away from where Faheem might have batted. It is hard to imagine he would have struggled more.
Fakhar was given every possible advantage a batsman might need in these conditions. He came in with the shine well and truly off the ball. in the 46th over. Asad Shafiq and Shan Masood had tired an all-pace attack out for much of a warm afternoon. Kagiso Rabada’s pace had dropped slightly in the preceding hour. And yet, off just the eighth ball Fakhar faced at number six in South Africa, he swung hopefully towards midwicket. If his feet moved, you could be forgiven for having missed it. The ball looped high in the air, almost inevitably, and Rabada completed a simple caught-and-bowled.
The lack of communication between the PCB and Mohammad Hafeez earlier in the summer didn’t help, with the allrounder retiring from Test cricket after the series against Australia and New Zealand in the UAE. Chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq said at the time that Hafeez, had he been available, would have toured South Africa with the Test team, meaning the selectors were given precious little notice, and precious little time in which to scramble together an opening partner for Imam-ul-Haq for perhaps the hardest cricketing job in the world; opening the batting in South Africa.
Masood had, more than once, spoken of his contentment at coming in one-down, batting when the openers had taken some – though not much, really – of the shine off the new ball. He was promoted to open today; Azhar Ali might have seemed the more natural candidate, averaging over 47 in that position with the vast experience he brings. Masood, though, as he has done all series, brought to the opening slot his new, sound technique, and a plan to combat the short ball that didn’t include panic. He scored 61 to add to his 44 in the first innings and 65 in Centurion, having looked by a mile Pakistan’s most consistent batsman.
And yet, even this one positive Pakistan will draw from the tour can hardly be attributed to a tactical masterstroke. Masood came into the Pakistan squad off the back of several impressive scores with the A team against New Zealand and England, which would have made it difficult to ignore him while Pakistan were short of genuine contenders for the top order. But it wasn’t until Haris Sohail’s knee flared up on the morning of the first Test that Masood got his opportunity. If Masood had looked as solid at combating the short ball in the nets as he did out in the middle, you might have thought he wouldn’t need a last-minute injury to earn his place in the side.
Yes, they batted well when everyone expected them to fold tamely. Yes, Shafiq looked like the gorgeous little player he blossoms into every now and again, invariably flattering to deceive but irresistible for long enough to shore up his place for another handful of games. There is a reason Pakistan have ever won only two Test matches in South Africa, and a side perfectly selected, well drilled and properly organised would have still been massive underdogs. But even allowing for all that, Pakistan have found themselves in positions of relative competitiveness in this series, particularly on the second evening in Centurion.
The comical, farcical drama at the end of today’s play, with play called off in view of a full house under perfect light, may dominate much of the attention between now and when play resumes tomorrow as South Africa knock off the 41 they need to seal the series. But Pakistan, who appeared to tear up the batting order halfway through the Test as an admission of their own failure, must reflect whether it isn’t just the cricket but also the decision-making where they have come up short.