If you were to make a list of the most heart-throbbing cricketers in the world today, who would you put down first? Virat Kohli? MS Dhoni? Pat Cummins? Jos Buttler? Shahid Afridi is still around, eh? Let’s narrow it down further to get rid of your unwanted biases.
Which cricketer has had the season of his life? No, it’s not Kohli. Narrow it down to mere mortals.
It’s a seam-bowling all-rounder born in New Zealand. He bowls fast and makes the XI as a batsman when the hamstring is not perfectly alright. Comes in a World Cup final at home, sees through the chase just about, wins it in the super over and bowls 140 clicks two weeks later in an Ashes contest. Cool gig, cooler guy. Benjamin Andrew Stokes is no normal cricketer and guess what? You must remember the name.
How do you value such a cricketer? You could look at his IPL salary but it’s Test cricket we are talking about. How do you measure the worth of a cricketer in Test cricket who grinds out when necessary and then takes apart the bowling attacks? Teams are not blessed with genuine seam-bowling all-rounders and England have a few up their ranks.
Could Stokes, Woakes, Curran make England absolutely invincible at home when they reach their peak? How can other teams follow suit to beat England in England? India, Pakistan, South Africa, Australia, West Indies have all beaten England comprehensively of late but that has not been enough to win them series. Do teams need to rethink their combination starting from Pakistan this summer?
Here, I present my case on how teams might have been missing a trick in choosing their combinations.
20 tests have been played in England over the last 3 seasons and the numbers for non-frontline bowlers are compelling and also, as a case in point, describe the genius of the guy I talked about above. Players batting below number 7 can normally be considered as front-line bowlers. However, in certain cases, teams have gone with quite a few all-rounders till number 8 or 9, mainly England with Sam Curran or Moeen Ali. To make it easier to comprehend, all bowlers who would probably not make the XI, if not for their batting, are considered non-frontline or 5th and 6th bowlers. As an example, Stokes is a non-frontline bowler while Woakes is not one because of bowling being his primary suit.
Now, what do these numbers highlight in terms of team combinations? 6 batters, 4 bowlers and an all-rounder somewhere in between? Or do you trust your main bowlers to get through a long Test series? What kind of a fifth bowler do you need if you decide to select one?
England have shown a clear penchant for going with 6 or even 7 options in the majority of their Tests at home and they boast of a strong record in this period with 13 solid wins. It is no surprise being the home team, they have had not just the right combinations but players like Stokes who could be entrusted with a major share of the overs. The lag between how much a non-frontline bowler has bowled for visiting teams and England is massive, however, and perhaps the difference between winning and losing.
In Pakistan’s context, they do not need to develop someone of Ben Stokes’ calibre for their upcoming tour but must formulate a strategy around 5 bowlers with Mohammad Rizwan batting at 6. The aggressive option, undoubtedly, is to back your top 5 to get enough runs. As the cliché goes, if they don’t, the one extra batsman would not set the world alight either. By the time teams get their combination right for an overseas tour, the series is either gone or their frontline bowlers have spent a lot of time under the sun getting smashed.
How can you then counter the ‘one short batsman’ in the team? Shadab Khan, Faheem Ashraf or Bilal Asif? Despite Yasir Shah’s heroics with the bat in Australia, could Pakistan bank on him at 7? The answer to this is a team probably needs someone whose batting is more reliable than his bowling at this position. Teams, at times, set unrealistic expectations for their all-rounders but it is best to realize your all-rounder at 7 is there to bowl 10-12 overs a day and support the main strikers.
One player who has shown improvement the most with the bat for Pakistan is Shadab Khan evidenced by his stellar performance in the HBL PSL and he did have a successful tour with the bat in these conditions two years back.. Ideally, teams would want a seam all-rounder and exploit the potential rough in the 2nd innings with a genuine spinner but unfortunately for Pakistan, Faheem has not stepped up in this regard. Having a spin option available in Shadab allows Pakistan to go all out with 4 genuine seamers below him in the XI and keep Yasir Shah only as a backup option in the squad.
For credence, leg-spinners have not done too well in England of late and neither has Yasir – Pakistan’s premier spin bowler in Tests. Pakistan have never been known to bench senior players in a big series or tournament. So if history is to go by, Yasir might either be bowling with Shadab on Day 1 of the opening Test when there will be no assistance for spinners or Pakistan would be going with only Yasir resulting in 4 bowlers and alternatively Faheem at 7 that will shorten their batting strength. One can thus hope predictable selection patterns in the Pakistan camp become outdated come the England tour.