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What's eating Sarfraz Ahmed ahead of the UK tour?
Pakistan tour of Ireland and England

What's eating Sarfraz Ahmed ahead of the UK tour?

The memories of Pakistan’s last trip to the United Kingdom are still fresh. A team that had ‘just’ managed to qualify for the tournament in 2015 and without any bigwig stars in its team thrashed arguably the best limited overs side India in the final to win their first ICC Champions Trophy. It has all gone uphill for the men in green in the limited overs internationals since, but the format has now changed. They were cudgelled by a naive Sri Lankan team in their fortress UAE when they last played the format – their first home series loss since 2007.

Pakistan now face the challenge from Ireland and England in the UK. After being granted a full membership and Test status by the ICC last June, Ireland will host Pakistan for their maiden Test match from May 11. Afterwards, Pakistan will ascend the English soil from May 24 for two tests. This tour will also be Sarfraz Ahmed’s first challenge outside Asia. While the indefatigable captain and wicketkeeper of the side has reaped praise for his success in shorter formats, he will need a few apples to grind to prosper in the longer format.

History

England has not been a kind host for Pakistan. They have played 51 Tests against England in England and have won just 11, suffered defeat in 22 while 18 ended in a draw. In their recent five series at the venue, they managed a win in only one series (back in 1996).

Their match by match numbers in the 21st century also present a dismal picture where they have won only four of the 14 test matches and have lost nine. However, this dip in performance is not unfamiliar to Asian tourists as they have all struggled during their time in England but to Pakistan’s luck, they have struggled the least. Pakistan’s win-loss ratio in England vs England (0.500) is the best for any Asian team, followed by Sri Lanka (0.375) and India (0.200).

Recent form

Pakistan stormed to number 1 in the ICC Test Rankings one series after Mickey Arthur was appointed as coach of the national team, but since then, it has all been earthward for the men in green. Off the six series they have played under Mickey Arthur, they secured a win in only two (both vs West Indies), drew one (vs England) and have lost three including one in UAE – their first since embracing the venue as their home.

Outside UAE, they have lost 6 of their last eight Test matches (including five straight losses) and have won just two.

The opening conundrum

Openers stitch partnerships to build a platform from where the middle order can launch. The opening has been Pakistan’s age-old dilemma, and their history with openers has been shady. Since the start of this decade, Pakistan openers average only 26.23 in Test matches outside the home (or UAE for Pakistan). This is the lowest for any team except Zimbabwe. Pakistan has also tried 14 different pairs during this period. The same team averages 43.70 for the first wicket in matches played at home which is third-best for any team.

This stark contrast in average opening partnerships both in and outside the home is reflective of Pakistani openers’ inability to handle swing and somewhat alien playing conditions and will definitely be a headache for Sarfraz Ahmed.

The search for a reliable all-rounder

Every team wants players who can contribute in more than one facet of the game. This might not be a fact, but historically, all-rounders have made teams dominant in Tests which is evident from the fact that the No.1 Test team in the world, India, has two all-rounders in the top 5 of ICC Test All-rounder Rankings. South Africa, No.2 in Test rankings, has two in Top 10.

Misbah-ul-Haq had Mohammad Hafeez for a major part of his career as captain, but ever since the Professor was suspended from bowling in international cricket, there has been no genuine all-rounder in the national side that could contribute with both bat and ball. They have tried Iftikhar Ahmed, Mohammad Nawaz, Shadab Khan and Haris Sohail in the meantime but neither of them has made a substantial contribution with both bat and ball. In the current foray, they have retained Shadab Khan and Haris Sohail as well as giving a maiden call-up to Faheem Ashraf in the hope that one of them will solve their all-rounder problem and provide the necessary stability to the team.

Babar Azam’s Test form

There is no doubt that in a short international career, Babar Azam has proved himself as one of the best limited overs cricketers in the country. In just 40 ODI innings, the right-handed batsman has scored centuries equal to all his cousin Akmals combined. He is also the fastest Pakistani to score 500 runs in T20I cricket, but it is his Test form that is sceptical. In 11 Test matches, he has scored 475 runs at an average of 23.75 with the help of four half-centuries. He has been out for a single digit score in 10 of his 22 innings which include five ducks and his last century in first-class cricket was in November 2015.

With all his form and skill in LOI cricket, this series might be his last chance to cement a place in Pakistan’s Test XI.

Inexperienced bowling unit

198 is the total amount of Test wickets taken by the Pakistan squad travelling to the UK while James Anderson alone has 531. Pakistan have lost their most experienced bowler Yasir Shah who will need a 10-week rehabilitation routine due to a stress fracture to his hip. Their most experienced fast bowler Wahab Riaz was left out of the squad for not having won a match for the team in a long time. Sohail Khan, un-dear to Pakistan coach, will also miss out.

Off the three, Yasir Shah will be the one missed badly by Sarfraz as he was the leading wicket-taker for his team when Pakistan last toured England and has been a consistent inspiration to the young bowling artillery.