Not that any further affirmation was needed, but Pakistan's plight in the ODI series against England underscores the immateriality of our batting in determining our fortunes on the field. Of course this is hardly an original point given that Pakistan has always been viewed as a breeding ground for legendary bowlers capable of changing a game and flawed batsmen guilty of squandering it. That's not meant to be a generalisation since we have given the world the likes of Miandad, Inzamam, Yousuf and Younis. But how instrumental have names such as those been in truly sustaining and perpetuating a winning culture when compared to names like Imran, Wasim and Waqar.
A test series against England provides a perfect barometer to gauge the continuing applicability of this fact. Some of our greatest victories have come against this opposition and, more often than not, the outcome was conclusively decided by the manner with which we mastered the leather rather than how we wielded the willow.
It has always been so.
Two decades ago it was Imran sprinting in to teach England a few lessons about the game they created. His successors, Wasim and Waqar, gave the colonial masters no respite and firmly reversed their way into the psychologies of their batsmen. Shoaib Akhtar brought them crashing down from a post-Ashes high (reinvigorating his career in the process) and, even in abject defeat, Asif and Amir proved that true genius can still stand out.
And so it remains, with our bowlers once again responsible for arguably our most memorable and certainly most emphatic triumph against this rival. However the weapons deployed this time around were not quite the same. Victory came from a familiar blueprint but executed through altogether different means. For the first time, Pakistan relied wholeheartedly on a spin centered bowling attack and it drew dramatic dividends, thanks in no small part to the exponents of the strategy proving to be exceptional pliers of their craft – one being a late blooming prodigy and the other a conservative strategist.
It's not the first time a spinner bearing a green passport has bamboozled the English batsmen. Mushtaq Ahmed, Saqlain and others have tasted success against this opposition. However, even at the peak of their powers the specter of the fast bowler always loomed. Wasim would match Saqlain blow for blow. Mushtaq would carve his way through a lineup but not before Waqar shed first blood. Even Danish had his day in the sun only made possible by the relentlessness of the class of seamers around him. Spinners have prospered but usually with the support of their quicker colleagues and certainly never at their expense.
Which is why this period of Pakistan test dominance is unprecedented given that it is perched on the fingers of our spinners rather than on the backs of our fast bowlers. Umar Gul is a fine pace-man but let's not fool ourselves here - someone or the other would have invariably scavenged the wickets he was admirably able to accumulate. From the opening day of the test series we have unabashedly placed our aspirations on the slow bowlers and they have not let us down.
A combination of factors can account for the effectiveness of spin at this point in time. Ajmal and Rehman deserve a fair share of the credit both for their talent and dogged discipline. We're all accustomed to the wolf-like tendencies of our bowling unit. Once we sniff a kill or sense of weakness we rush at it falling over ourselves to pick at the carcass. It is another matter altogether to respect your opponent’s ascendancy and patiently wait for a slip, not allowing your intensity to flag and maintaining faith that when the slip does come you are good enough to exploit it. As exhilarating as Ajmal and Rehman’s shark attack was during England's second innings at Abu Dhabi, the manner in which the duo waited out Trott and Cook in the first innings was equally impressive as was their measured deconstruction of the batting order in the final innings of the third test.
The tracks have certainly played a part though not to a disproportionate extent. Turn has not been extravagant and neither has bounce been variable, a far cry from some sub-continental dustbowls. However, the pitches have been slow, allowing the ball to grip off the surface and thereby amplify the key features of the arsenal of both spinners: precision and control. This is perhaps the best batting lineup in the world today and they were undone not by balls spitting of gaping rough patches. A strategy this one-dimensional would have certainly drawn the attention of England's support staff and analysts. Rather, it was the measured use of an accommodating pitch which paved the way towards England's downfall.
There is also a decidedly defensive aspect to this phenomenon which should not be understated. Tactically, spin bowling is conventionally viewed as a defensive strategy (particularly against tourists). This is especially true under our cricketing ethos where success has usually been reliant on pitches and conditions which favour seam and swing. Spin was relegated to a filler role, celebrated for its achievements only after the fast bowlers were given ample time to express themselves. Perhaps then it is almost serendipitous that two notionally defensive bowlers should be captained by an unapologetically defensive skipper. Given the composition and particular strengths of our bowling attack, this may have been the right time for Misbah-ul-Haq to exhort his philosophy of patience, discipline and the avoidance of temptation. Under him, Ajmal and Rehman (and other spinners) have all the time in the world to go about their game plans and wait patiently for the batsmen to fall into their subtle traps.
The long-term sustainability of a reliance on spin though is questionable and perhaps not welcome. Ajmal and Rehman are potent options on most surfaces (more so Ajmal), but all conditions and oppositions do not call for a two-pronged spin attack despite the legitimate weaknesses of non-subcontinental teams against spin. We have at our disposal a more than competent seam attack which has suddenly become the most underrated in the world thanks to the headlines garnered by our spinners. It would be a mistake to turn our back on the skill that has historically defined us. England’s rise to the top of the pile has been centered around the swinging ball and Misbah would do well to acknowledge this world-wide vulnerability in future team selection.
For him, it’s a good problem to have.
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