Last week, Pakistan embarked upon a tour of the United Kingdom to play three Tests, including one in Ireland, along with two first-class matches and one two-day warm-up game. The final squad has begged several questions on selection and team composition, some of which do not hold up in light of previous trends.
Pakistan have proceeded with two uncapped opening batsmen: Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman. This means that if batting mainstay Azhar Ali continues to bat at one-down then at least one of these two will be making his Test debut as an opener. Generally, we don’t see an opener kicking off his career in England especially at the start of the summer, due to unfavourable conditions for top-order batsmen. Many teams, in fact, consider it a poor strategy to ask a player to open on debut against the new ball in conditions that support swing bowling.
That’s why Australia have not handed any opening batsman a Test cap in England in 25 years, and India and Pakistan have not done it in 20 years. Even England itself prefers to give debuts to opening batsmen outside home conditions, preferably in Asia where the new ball is less threatening and the swing minimal. This is why three of the last four England opening batsmen have made their debuts in the subcontinent – Keaton Jennings (Mumbai), Haseeb Hameed (Rajkot) and Ben Duckett (Chittagong). Considering these factors, Pakistan have made a confusing call to have two uncapped opening batsmen in the Test squad.
Last year, South Africa saved a batsman as talented as Aiden Markram from debuting in England. Even though he was part of the squad, the Proteas opened with Heino Kuhn and made Markram wait until the home series against Bangladesh. To borrow words from a South African journalist, Kuhn took the bullet for Markram. The latter today is one of the top ten batsmen in the ICC Test rankings.
While Imam’s selection has received a lot of criticism due to being the nephew of the chief selector, it is the process under which Fakhar has been fast-tracked to the Test side that is more astonishing. Fakhar has been part of the team management’s plans to play Test cricket for a while. Last year, he signed a deal with Somerset to play both T20 and first-class cricket, but his NOC was revoked because Pakistan wanted him for a fitness test and to fulfil domestic commitments.
This despite the possibility that he might be touring England in less than a year. A few months later, he was allowed to play in the Bangladesh Premier League despite his domestic commitments not being completed. This month he was named in the Test squad even though he has played only two first-class matches in more than a year.
If Pakistan really wanted him to play Tests in England then perhaps the ideal move would have been to let him play for Somerset last year. Even India, who do not lend players to overseas teams, have been encouraging their players to play county cricket because of an upcoming Test tour to England.
So much so, we might see Virat Kohli skipping the one-off Test against Afghanistan for the sake of county cricket. Ishant Sharma and Cheteshwar Pujara are already in England playing for Sussex and Yorkshire whereas Ravichandran Ashwin last year played for Worcestershire.
If Pakistan believe that domestic commitments should be a priority over county cricket and that was the reason to revoke Fakhar’s NOC then the question that arises is, on what grounds did they allow Mohammad Abbas to join Leicestershire this month while there was a training camp going in Lahore?
While there are more than enough backups for the openers, there is no one to stand-in for Sarfraz Ahmed. Although his place in the squad should not be in doubt and he has not of missed any Test due to injury or niggles, having only one gloveman for a tour to England is strategically wrong at many levels. Of the last ten visiting teams to England, no one has travelled with only one wicketkeeper.
Some would baulk at the notion citing Pakistan’s series in England as a short tour. It actually is not. Pakistan will play not only three Tests, but also two first-class matches and a two-day warm-up match. Even with Sarfraz’s history of not missing a Test in the past, it is questionable to go on a 45-day tour having five first-class matches with only one keeper. The decision to have only one gloveman in the squad looks more absurd knowing that under the new rules a substitute can also keep wickets.
It should not be forgotten that England is the toughest place to keep wickets and the chances of developing niggles there are higher than other places. In Pakistan’s tour of England in 2006, Rashid Latif offered to keep wickets in place of Kamran Akmal to give him rest in a practice match, but Akmal declined. Akmal continued to play with niggles and that, according to experts, triggered his downfall. It should also be remembered that Sarfraz himself restarted his Test career only after an injury to Adnan Akmal during Sri Lanka’s tour of the UAE in 2014.
But for some odd reason Pakistan have stopped carrying a second wicketkeeper on tours. Last year even on a two-month-long tour to the West Indies, which requires at least 24 hours to fly a player in from the subcontinent, nobody knew what would have happened had Sarfraz picked an injury a day or two before a Test. Pakistan seems not to heed the dictum ‘hope for the best, plan for the worst.’
It has been two years, and Pakistan have not figured out who is their next best spinner after Yasir Shah, who is nursing a hip injury and won’t feature against England. Pakistan picked Mohammad Nawaz as the second spinner for the tours of New Zealand and Australia in 2016. Yasir got injured before the warm-up match in Cairns and Pakistan suddenly realised that Nawaz is not the correct backup option, so they added Asghar to the squad.
A few months later when Pakistan decided to play with an extra spinner to share Yasir’s workload in Barbados, Asghar was given a back seat and instead Shadab Khan was handed a Test cap. Pakistan lost the Test and team realised Shadab wasn’t ready for long cricket. Later in the year, Pakistan picked Bilal Asif and Asghar along with Yasir for the series against Sri Lanka.
Shadab, who wasn’t even considered as the third spinner in the previous series against Sri Lanka, is now back in the team and Asghar, who has been with the team in the last three series, has been dropped without giving him a chance.
That raises many questions. If Shadab had been in the plans then why was he not selected for the Sri Lanka series? What has Shadab done since that series to warrant a place in the Test side? Are two matches in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy without any notable performance enough for a recall? Knowing that Pakistan will rely more on pace and a spinner’s job will be to hold runs from one end, wasn’t it better to have a left-arm spinner like Asghar, or a left-arm all-rounder like Nawaz or even Kashif Bhatti, rather than leg-spinners who are prone to leaking runs?
If Pakistan were looking for a wicket-taking option who could also bat then why not Asif, knowing that four of the top six England batters are lefties with off-spin weakness? It has been forgotten that Pakistan had played Iftikhar Ahmed as the second spinner at The Oval two years ago mainly to counter the southpaws in the England team.
Is it correct to have only one spinner in the squad? Who would bowl in case of an injury or other unavoidable circumstances? Have Pakistan forgotten that when Yasir got injured before the first Test against England in Abu Dhabi in 2015, they could not get his replacement in time and were forced to play with three seamers – an unusual combination for them in the UAE, and that they might have lost the Test on the final day if bad light had not halted play?