Sarfraz Ahmed’s captaincy has come under scrutiny in the last month starting from Asia Cup in the UAE where Pakistan were knocked out before the final. It came under critical observation once again yesterday when Pakistan failed to take Australia’s ten wickets in 140 overs, including 90 on the last day in Dubai.
Sarfraz’s tactics on the last day surprised many including the team coach Mickey Arthur, who in the post-match interview to Ten Sports said that his plan was to start day-five with Mohammad Abbas, the best bowler of the match. But Sarfraz changed the strategy by opening the bowling with Wahab Riaz and Bilal Asif. Sarfraz thought Riaz’s reverse swing and Bilal’s off-spinners would be the best way to tackle the southpaws Usman Khawaja and Travis Head but it didn’t work out.
The more surprising tactic came afterwards when he brought Yasir Shah as third bowler of the day reducing Abbas’s role to fourth. The best bowler of the match remaining absent for 15 overs and one hour is the strategy that has been widely criticised. Moreover, giving the second new ball to Haris Sohail and making too many changes in the field were some other tactics that Sarfraz will find hard to justify.
Having said that it should not be forgotten that Sarfraz is still a young captain. The series against Australia is his only third series as Test captain, second in the home conditions and first where he was on field on day-five for three sessions. Oscar Wilde once said that experience is the name we give to our mistakes. The fifth day of Dubai should not slip out of Sarfraz’s mind moving head in the season in which Pakistan has seven more Tests to play.
Errors come at heavy cost in cricket. India learned that at The Oval last year when Fakhar Zaman was reprieved because of a no-ball. When the Durham wicketkeeper Chris Scott dropped Brian Lara at 18 in Birmingham in 1994, he remarked I suppose Lara will get a hundred now. Little did he know that 18 would go on to become the highest score in first-class history – 501 not out.
There is no denying the fact that Usman Khawaja batted out of his skin to save the match for Australia and his rearguard innings was one of the best played by an Australian in Asia. Khawaja scored 226 runs (85 and 141) in the match but that came after Pakistan gave him three chances. Sarfraz missed a stumping chance when he was on 17 in the first innings and did not review the decision when the umpire wrongly ruled him not out on 38. In the second innings, he was dropped by Asad Shafiq on 47. Knowing that his wicket was followed by a major batting collapse in the first innings and minor in the second innings, Pakistan must regret giving him three chances.
Travis Head, who went on to score 72 in the second innings, was also reprieved on 44 when once again Sarfraz decided against challenging a wrong decision by the umpire whereas in the first innings Yasir Shah dropped Mitchell Marsh off his own bowling. After having a thorough look at the list of these errors, it is surprising that Pakistan still came within two wickets of winning the Test.
The percentage of teams enforcing the follow-on in Tests until 2000 was 88 percent. Since then it has gone down to 53 percent. No, it is not because of what happened at the Eden Gardens in 2001 as Steve Waugh made the teams bat again five out of five teams after losing in Kolkata. The follow-on strategy has changed mainly because of two reasons - 1) Player management 2) Ability of batsmen to score at brisk pace.
In the last four years, Pakistan have decided against enforcing follow-on six out of six times in Tests in Asia. That has been done because of the reason number one mentioned above but the reason number two has been totally ignored.
Pakistan’s decision to not enforce f/o perhaps cannot be questioned because most of those games were played in hot weather but their batting strategy after not enforcing follow-on should come under scrutiny. Against Australia in Dubai, despite a lead of 280 runs, Pakistan’s run-rate in the second innings was below 3.00 for the first 30 overs and it picked some pace only few overs before the declaration. Had their batsmen looked to score more runs throughout the innings, it would have given them an hour or 10 overs more to bowl out Australia.