From Lord’s highs, it took merely a week for Pakistan to come down crashing after an innings defeat at Headingley. The reaction to the loss was massive given how the hopes were inflated by the Lord’s win.
As soon as Pakistan fell from the highs of Lord’s victory to a thumping defeat at Headingley, the senior trio of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and skipper Sarfraz Ahmed came under fire. And rightly so, as the main responsibility of shouldering the Test side fell on Azhar and Shafiq after the departure of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.
In Sarfraz’ first series at the helm as Test skipper last year, Pakistan struggled in their fortress, UAE, and surrendered 2-0 to Sri Lanka. The culprits were their batsmen. And despite decent showing against Ireland in Malahide and England at Lord’s, the lack of runs from Azhar and Shafiq, coupled with an inexperienced batting line-up was exposed at Headingley.
Being out of favour for the limited overs sides, along with their recent dwindling forms, Pakistan should have sent Azhar and Shafiq for county exposure ahead of their tour to Ireland and the UK. Since their last Test match against Sri Lanka in the first week of October, Azhar only played two ODIs against the Kiwis in New Zealand. Although Shafiq got to play the Pakistan Super League for Quetta Gladiators, he failed to live up to the expectations, scoring just 116 runs at an average of 16.57 in eight outings.
Other than these, most of their batsmen were going to play red ball cricket for the first time in English conditions.
Before the start of the series, Pakistan would have taken the 1-1 result with both hands. There is no harm in losing the Test match, but it was perhaps the way Pakistan surrendered the second Test after the boosting the expectations with Lord’s win that incited a strong reaction from both fans and media.
No taking away the credit from the English side for learning from their mistakes in Lord’s Test and bouncing back strongly, but Pakistan could have done a few things differently. But they were found wanting as the English pacers adjusted their lengths, pitching it up more often, as well as their batsmen taking a leaf out of Jos Buttler’s book by standing outside the crease to negate Abbas’ swing.
For Pakistan, the senior batsmen were always expected to shoulder the responsibility given an inexperienced line-up, playing for the first time in England.
Other than their batting techniques, another important aspect that has come under criticism is the batting position of Azhar and Shafiq. Since the 2016 tour of England, where he switched to the opening spot in the last Test, Azhar has played only five Tests at No.3, including the first three Tests of the said England tour and two games against Sri Lanka last year. He has averaged 37.7 in five games and scored just one hundred at one-down. On the other hand, he averages 51.7 in the 15 games he has opened in since then, with four tons to his name, including a triple-hundred against the Windies in the UAE and a double-hundred against the Aussies in Melbourne. Hence the numbers clearly suggest that Azhar has adjusted well to the opening spot, and if Mickey Arthur’s comments are anything to go by, he is likely to remain at the top for the foreseeable future. The technical issues will be better addressed by getting more exposure in swinging conditions and county stints over the next few years can be helpful in this regard, given Pakistan are scheduled to tour England once again in the summer of 2020.
The case of Asad Shafiq is significantly complicated. He has struggled over the past two years, averaging just 32.5 in 20 games. And a lot of that has to do with Shafiq’s changing batting spots in the middle order. Shafiq remained a permanent No.6 for Pakistan for the most of Misbah’s tenure. But his shuffling, which started around the time Azhar was switched to the opening spot, triggered a loss in form. In the last two years, Shafiq has struggled at his usual No.6 spot, averaging just 26.11 in 18 innings, with only one hundred to his name in the period. Meanwhile, his averages at third, fourth and fifth spot have been relatively better, where he has played 17 innings – 9 at No.4. If Azhar continues to open for Pakistan, Shafiq is expected to remain at No.4. On the technical side, Shafiq has continuously struggled against deliveries targeting his stumps, falling over on numerous occasions. Shafiq has been especially vulnerable to deliveries coming into him from a wider angle as he takes a leg-side stance. Given his prowess to play cut shots, bowlers have worked him out well by regularly darting in from outside off. While Shafiq is arguably the most technically sound batsmen in this Pakistani side, he needs to weed out these issues which have impacted his form in the past two years.
Since Pakistan’s last tour of England in 2016, Sarfraz scored at an average of 30.3 in 35 innings, scoring seven fifties. His form has especially deteriorated since he took over the reins of the side, with his average falling to 19.7 in the five games. In his case, an overly aggressive approach, as well as a weak technique for English conditions, has harmed him. Although he has scored some runs on relatively flat pitches in Australia in their last tour Down Under, Sarfraz has struggled to cope with the swinging English conditions.
As far as his batting position is concerned, Sarfraz batted at No.7 for almost all of Misbah’s tenure. Since their departure, Sarfraz has come at No.6 with Shafiq moving up the order. If we analyse Sarfraz’ purple patch of 2014, in all of his three centuries, Sarfraz was aided by Asad Shafiq at the other end as well as relatively low-pressure situations where Sarfraz could bat freely. Shafiq and Sarfraz had added 93, 124 and 59 in those three innings respectively. Over the years, their partnership has remained a strong suit down the order as the pair averages almost 50 runs in 24 innings together.
The number of innings has fallen in the past two years since Pakistan started shuffling Shafiq’s position. With Shafiq now coming in at four and Sarfraz stepping up to No.6, the pair will have to forge new partnerships.
Overall, a relatively inexperienced Pakistani side has done well on tour. Going forward, with their next tour of England in sight two years down the road, Pakistan should get their premier Test players regular game time; including county deals to get more exposure to the conditions. With their chances of featuring in the limited over international side looking bleak, Azhar and Shafiq will be better off focusing their energies on the longest format and working on their techniques. Moreover, Sarfraz will also need to step up as his team’s good performances cannot continue to mask his personal struggles with the bat.