Danyal Rasool in Cape Town
Why should this come as a surprise? For a team that lost its last series to New Zealand in the UAE, and has seen its Test-match form plunge over the last two years, a tour of South Africa was an unlikely platform for rejuvenation.
This isn’t the series, in isolation, to call for people’s heads, neither is it the one to decry the failures of the management or the long-term vision of the PCB. What happened in Cape Town today, apparently irreversibly setting the wheels in motion for a series defeat and another short-lived Test, is the inevitable consequence of a side in its worst rut in a decade playing in a country where it has enjoyed the least success.
Pakistan have, recently, seemed to write off losses of form as temporary slumps at inopportune moments rather than grave issues to be dug into and resolved. Azhar Ali hasn’t been the batsman he was supposed to be after Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan’s twin retirements, which means that in every match they go into, Pakistan hope to see something from a player who has shown little substantial evidence of delivering it.
In Asad Shafiq, Pakistan have perhaps their most wonderfully talented batsman in a generation, but, as Shan Masood pointed out today, “It doesn’t matter how good you look while you’re at the crease, all that matters is the runs on the board you have to show for it.”
Pointing out that Shafiq got a hundred in Abu Dhabi against New Zealand, as Mickey Arthur has done often when questioned about the 32-year-old, yet another score in a losing cause, does little to suggest he can steady the ship against Dale Steyn, Kagiso Rabada, Vernon Philander and Duanne Olivier.
Consider that the best batsman for Pakistan all series has been Masood, a player who owed his place in the side to Haris Sohail’s dodgy knee. and who before this series hadn’t played a Test match for 14 months. These pitches may be poles apart from the ones he rediscovered his form on over the past year, but the confidence he has mustered from an improved technique and success on the field has enabled him to become one of the few Pakistan players who look like they might have a big score in them.
Waiting in the wings, Mohammad Rizwan has also been in splendid form, scoring 825 runs in his last 14 innings across first-class and List A cricket at an average a shade under 92. They include scored of 141*, 98 and 73 against the England Lions, and 105* and 116* against New Zealand A. Batting coach Grant Flower has said Rizwan has looked good in the nets here in South Africa too. He may have failed to make an iota of difference to either the series scoreline or the match situation here in Cape Town today, but going in with an unchanged top six to the one that managed a meagre 181 and 190 in Centurion, what different results could Pakistan have expected?
Fakhar Zaman has been taken out of limited-overs cricket and forced to open against the red ball. His technique might work in Abu Dhabi, as it did on his debut, but pitted against the South African pace attack away, it has more holes than a pack of Polo mints. He has, now, in three innings, fallen in each of the ways an aggressive player with a work-in-progress technique might be dismissed in South Africa. In Centurion on day one, he edged Dale Steyn to the slips when he was better off leaving. In the second innings there, he played a pressure-release shot right down deep square leg’s throat, and here in Cape Town he scooped into the air a nasty Dale Steyn bouncer. Who could have predicted that a pinch-hitting white-ball specialist reared on the pitches of Pakistan and the UAE might have a hard time in South Africa?
Sarfraz Ahmed scored runs, which may do his confidence a world of good, given the extreme pressure he was under. The trend, however, suggests much work still lies ahead of him in his bid to return to form; his half-century today was just the fourth time in 20 innings that he had crossed 30. Captains often take pride in teams being built in their image, and while this is true of Sarfraz, it is true in the worst possible way. The captain, like this Pakistan team, has seen his form become patchy, and is no longer the force he once was.
Perhaps these are indeed the best Pakistan have got, as Mickey Arthur said recently. Perhaps Saad Ali and Usman Salahuddin, two batsmen who toured England with the Test side while only getting one game between them, won’t cut it at this level just yet. Perhaps Fawad Alam, meandering his way to a first-class average around 60 for the best part of the last five years, isn’t at the right age, or possesses a technique too dodgy for international cricket. Perhaps Rizwan, sat with his feet up watching his team-mates come and go from the changing room, is indeed better as a reserve player than an active one, only to get a chance when someone’s groin is strained or shoulder is bruised.
Those are all legitimate positions to hold. But a glance at the team that has actually been putting on the Test whites for Pakistan warrants real concern. This batting line-up (MisYou removed) has largely retained the same core group while losing 13 of its last 20 Tests – which could soon become 14 of 21 – over the past two years or so. They have lost home series against Sri Lanka and New Zealand, and questions over the reliability of the openers, the steel of the middle order and the form of the captain have remained more or less constant. Why shouldn’t South Africa roll them over under Table Mountain’s gaze?