Danyal Rasool in Centurion
It was perhaps fitting the final unmasking came after tea. The wake up call Pakistan have long needed to heed regarding the malaise of their middle order was, one can only hope, delivered with everyone concerned fully alert following the afternoon cuppa. The layers of cotton wool Pakistan have so carefully wrapped around the middle order must surely begin to wear thin now.
The tale of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq’s coming of age following MisYou’s retirement is as hackneyed as it has so far proved wholly unfounded. Just as in the recent series against New Zealand, at Leeds against England and at Abu Dhabi versus Sri Lanka last year, the pair, along with the dismally out of form Sarfraz Ahmed, have given away wickets when players of their experience needed to hang tough. Today, they even had the excuse of added pressure owing to a misfiring top order stripped away from them. Pakistan walked in at tea with the score 100 for 1; the three hadn’t even come out to bat yet. Having faced a combined 25 balls and added six measly runs to the total, they were back in the hut, the supposed maturation delayed for yet one more Test.
All three have seen their averages drop following MisYou’s retirement, dramatically so in Azhar and Sarfraz’s case. Azhar’s career average stands at 44.88; it is 32.28 since the pair retired. Sarfraz has seen his own plummet from 37.98 to 25.33. Shafiq has endured the smallest dip (39.40 to 35.95), but he has for years been the caterpillar who will one day blossom into butterfly. It is safe to say he is very much still a caterpillar, yet to even sprout wings, let alone take flight.
Mickey Arthur has long been a staunch defender of Shafiq’s, only recently pointing to the fact he got a century in Abu Dhabi just last month. What the scorecard won’t tell you is, for the second time in three Tests, he was dismissed just when Pakistan needed to bat New Zealand out of the game, with the predictable collapse that followed encumbering efforts to do just that. In the second innings, he was dismissed first ball by Will Somerville as Pakistan crumbled inside 56.1 overs to lose the series.
Today, his dismissal was close to unforgivable. With Pakistan looking to steady the ship after the quick wickets of Imam-ul-Haq and Azhar had put them under pressure, he swung lavishly at Dale Steyn; it was the widest ball he had faced all innings, and he nicked to Quinton de Kock. Just one delivery earlier, he had had an lbw call overturned in his favour by a hair’s breadth. You would think it might have given him cause to refocus.
Azhar’s own dismissal was a tawdry way to get out for such a quality batsman. He had come in after Imam was dismissed in the first over after tea, and, in theory, was just the man for the consolidation job. Perhaps the bounce of Duanne Olivier – which had ensnared him in the first innings – was playing tricks with his mind, but a short ball he could comfortably have ducked under was jabbed aimlessly to the onside. It caught the top edge, with Rabada completing a smart diving catch. Far from steadying the ship, Pakistan’s best batsman had left it rocking ominously.
Sarfraz is, paradoxically, the one you could at once take the greatest and the least issue with. His plight is the greatest because he is in the most wretched rut of his career – one Test match accounts for over 38% of his runs since MisYou departed. As captain of a side that has seen its Test performances and rankings drop like a stone in that period, the pressure on him has been intense and the scrutiny unrelenting. That he edged to the slips off the second ball was among the lesser surprising spectacles Test cricket will throw up, but Pakistan still had to watch their captain depart for a pair for just the fourth time in their history (and one of them was Waqar Younis). But at the same time, he has looked so helpless at the crease – for all six balls across two innings he has been out there – it is perhaps easier to feel sorry for him than anything else.
You could damn them by statistics; you won’t exactly be short of material. For one, the trio has managed 1838 runs in the time since MisYou at 31.15. The rest of the top seven (nightwatchmen excluded) have, in that same period, scored 2607 runs at 36.2. The idea that this middle order has been, or will become, the rock of the batting line-up is beginning to wear thin.
But it is what you don’t get from scorecards that is most jarring. Sarfraz was, in the years before he became captain, a free-flowing strokemaker who could manipulate any cricket ball to a part of the ground where a gap might exist. Now, he barely seems to know how to keep the ball far enough away from the edge of his bat, or the middle of the stumps. With his captaincy at the same time not exactly earning him accolade after accolade, the gaze on him is so intense you would be permitted to feel a bit sorry for him.
Azhar and Asad are simply batsmen who could have done so much more with the ability at their disposal, the princes in waiting of the batting line-up, readying themselves for a smooth transition to a leadership role after the abdication of MisYou. That it hasn’t panned out that way casts an unfavourable light, undeniably, on them, but also on the support staff around them whose job it is to help them take the next step. It is a job in which they have, so far, decidedly failed to live up to expectations.
They have got themselves out at the wrong times, often in ways unbecoming of batsmen of their class, and cost their side heavily as a result. Azhar’s drop in form is more marked, but it has perhaps been Shafiq more guilty of that description. Today, however, both of them wilted under a blazing evening sun at Centurion, along with Sarfraz, rehoused in the dugout when batsmen with realised potentials might have been out there winning a rare Test match against South Africa away. Even Shan Masood, one of just two who emerged from the Pakistan camp with any credit, couldn’t stop himself when asked how he felt watching the collapse from the other end.
“There was a bit of frustration. You wish that one of your partners and they were all good enough to get stuck in and get runs on this wicket.”
That castigation by a junior who hasn’t played in over a year is about as stinging a rebuke as anyone can deliver. For the spine of the Pakistan batting lineup, the time to stand up straight is long overdue.