Danyal Rasool in Cape Town
“Horses for courses” is one of the pithier selectorial phrases in cricket. It has justified, or tried to justify, calls based on players’ particular talents, and in an increasingly data-driven sport, helped inform selection calls based on format, context and, of course, location. It is why Steve O’Keefe played for Australia in Pune in 2017, and the reason Will Somerville and Ajaz Patel made their New Zealand debuts against Pakistan in the last two months, keeping Tim Southee and Neil Wagner out of the side. Essentially, it’s about picking players likeliest to succeed in the conditions games will be played in.
In Faheem Ashraf, Pakistan have the type of seam-bowling allrounder Faf du Plessis waxed lyrical over in Centurion, saying a seam bowler who batted at seven was a combination to be found in “a perfectly balanced Test team”.
It was an option Pakistan used with relative success in Ireland and England, with Faheem scoring 83 on debut in Malahide and a 38-ball 37 at Lord’s to pile greater pressure on England. At Headingley, where Sarfraz Ahmed’s side found themselves on the wrong end of a hiding, he was their best bowler, taking 3 for 60 even as Pakistan suffered an innings defeat.
These performances led to thoughts of Faheem featuring even in the UAE where, even if his brand of seam bowling would find limited purchase, his canny ability with the bat would go further than it had in the British Isles. When that didn’t materialise, it was horses for courses that justified it, with Mickey Arthur eager to play two spinners and Sarfraz Ahmed at seven. That squeezed Faheem out, and if it felt a tad harsh on a player who seemed to improve with each passing match, it was at least fathomable.
South Africa appeared to be the perfect place to unleash the talents of a player who has looked, more seriously than any other, capable of filling the role last played consistently in Pakistan’s line-up by Abdul Razzaq. If his bowling had looked a threat under the cloud cover in England and Ireland, it was likely to be a handful on the bouncy pitches in Centurion and Cape Town. Preciously, it was a potent fifth-bowling option against batsmen of South Africa’s quality, likely to come in handy as one partnership or other wore the stock quartet down.
If Pakistan won’t play him here, as has been the case for the first two Tests, what does it say about Faheem’s Test-match prospects? The horses-for-courses equivalent of benching Faheem Ashraf here is Frankel taking a year off at Ascot.
Even Arthur effectively acknowledged after the first Test that playing without Faheem had been a mistake, though in that particular instance Yasir Shah would have been the player to miss out. Today, somewhat bizarrely, he refused to characterise Faheem as a seam-bowling allrounder, instead calling him “a bowler who bats a little bit at the moment. We’re hoping to get him into that allrounder role.”
“He’s going to get a game, there’s absolutely no doubt about it,” Arthur said. “When we sit down and select, we do so with the balance of the team in mind. After Centurion, we felt we needed six batsmen, we looked at the wicket, we thought there was enough work there for three seamers. We knew if we could take the game deep, the spinner would come into it.”
That is a colossal “if” which didn’t work in Centurion, and hasn’t worked in Cape Town either.
It isn’t like the need for five bowlers hasn’t arisen either. Today, as Faf du Plessis and Temba Bavuma batted Pakistan out of the game, Pakistan turned to the gentle medium-pace of Shan Masood and the offspin of Asad Shafiq while the bowlers enjoyed a breather. And if you’ve got 177 on the board, that becomes a problem. The eight overs Masood and Shafiq bowled today went for 31 runs, casting Pakistan further back into the wilderness in a game they must not lose if they are to avoid yet another series defeat in South Africa.
Should they decide to play Faheem in place of Fakhar Zaman or Imam-ul-Haq, they have the added advantage of a proven opener at this level. Azhar Ali may now occupy a spot in the middle order, but in 35 innings as opener he averages 47.25, which is better than his career average of 44.12. That way, Shan Masood keeps his place at number three, where he’s regularly attributed his success to the openers taking the shine off the ball, and no batsman is shunted into a position too high for them.
The strongest argument against Faheem’s inclusion has been Pakistan’s nervousness about shortening an already fragile batting order, but who could bet on him scoring significantly fewer runs across the series than, say, Fakhar?
Since Razzaq’s retirement, Pakistan, along with India, have turned to the fifth and sixth bowling option for under 15% of their overs, less than any other Test side. Shorn of a genuine fifth bowler, Pakistan have opted instead to have their specialists plugging away into fatigue and injury, alleviated by the occasional gentle legspin of Azhar Ali at best.
It is perhaps why Junaid Khan’s knees will never be the same again, and why Mohamad Amir was so overloaded he sat out an entire home summer this year. Even today, Amir’s pace was down; according to Cricviz, he bowled more deliveries in the 120-132 kph range – 61% – than in any other innings in his Test career. Arthur himself contrasted the relative pace of the two attacks.
“Our bowlers struggled a little bit with the comeback spells in terms of pace,” he said. “The difference is the South African pacers bowled at 145 kph while our bowlers only managed 135 kph, and at this level those 10 kilometres are very significant.”
The presence of an allrounder could alleviate these concerns, yet Pakistan have routinely spurned that option. This was simply the most baffling example of it.
“I’ve sat and thought about five bowlers a hell of a lot, and there’s two ways of doing it,” Arthur said. “You can go out with five bowlers or four, and we went with four. Rightly or wrongly, it’ll play out in the end.”
Whether it plays out rightly or wrongly isn’t much of a question at this point, but the wider trend of Pakistan’s reticence over using a fifth bowling option makes it hard to take Arthur’s comments about considering the strategy in detail at face value. For whatever reason, the Pakistan coach has been reluctant to opt for a five-bowler strategy anywhere in the world. The Ireland and England Tests last year were very much the exception to the rule. In those Tests, the batting ability of Faheem – he averages 30.75 from four innings with a half-century – and Shadab Khan allowed Pakistan to pad up a historically fragile tail.
For two Tests in a row now, Pakistan have botched up their team balance and personnel. It’s not just a case of getting marginal calls wrong; these are bread-and-butter decisions they have floundered over. Tours to South Africa are harder for Pakistan than visits anywhere else, and a perfectly selected team in good form would still likely end up second-best. South Africa certainly do not need added assistance from their guests in the form of confounding selections, and they have been offered that advantage for two matches in a row.