The better team lost. At least that’s what the Pakistani fans would like to believe. The critics, though, would be wiser in their analysis, carefully weighing the strengths and the weaknesses of the Sri Lankans as well as the ‘home’ side which was taking the field for the first time in a Test series sans stalwarts Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.
And yet, Pakistan should have won both the Tests had they played to their potential and not squandered the many opportunities that came their way.
Sri Lanka, on the other hand, pretty much surprised themselves with the 2-0 result following a dismal twelve months in the game that all but earned them the tag of favourite whipping boys of cricket.
Sport can sometimes be cruel. Ill-luck can intrude unexpectedly and play havoc with a player or a team’s progress. But frankly, Pakistan have no such excuses for the series loss, essentially because their approach in both the Test matches seemed unstructured and bereft of clarity. They were found woefully wanting even when chasing down a meagre target of 134 in Abu Dhabi or a sizeable 317 in Dubai, a fact that speaks a lot about the lack of skill and mental strength in their ranks.
Pakistan’s diehard fans would still be expressing their loyalties by putting the shock defeats to the team’s unpredictable traits. However, what has really irked the experts and the former players has been the inflexible approach of Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed and head coach Mickey Arthur throughout the contests, as well as their attitude that frequently bordered on arrogance.
To begin with, Arthur issued a rather rude statement on the eve of the series saying ‘The good thing with cricket is, you farewell two legends of the game but the next training session there are other people in their place and off you go. I think we have had enough of this talk about Pakistan missing Younis and Misbah, we should now look ahead to a new era of Pakistan cricket.’
That was totally uncalled for and not in the right spirit to be honest. Decades have gone by since the retirement of cricketing greats like Imran Khan, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and others, but not a day goes by without their feats being recalled or their irreparable losses being mourned.
One could only put it to Arthur’s short-sightedness if he seriously believed that this Pakistan side could come out of the shadows of a 10,000-run man or Pakistan’s most successful skipper in a jiffy to conquer any Test side, even if it were the beleaguered Sri Lanka.
Arthur and Sarfraz erred badly in selection of the playing eleven too. But more than the error of judgment, it was their obstinacy to ring any changes in the Dubai Test that undid them in the end.
Making it obvious they did not learn any lessons from the Abu Dhabi defeat, where Pakistan clearly went in a spinner short, they botched up the bowling equation yet again by playing three seamers and Yasir Shah in the second Test to eventually pay the price.
How Sri Lanka managed to fit in three seamers and two spinners in their Test eleven is no rocket science. But, perhaps, our skipper-coach duo is either too dumb or way too arrogant to have given it a thought.
A fifty each by openers Shan Masood and Sami Aslam in the first Test allowed them a second chance but they could not grab it in Dubai, even with one hand. Shan, playing his twelfth Test match, has not matured as an opening batsman and would have to reinvent himself — both in technique and temperament — if he harbours any hopes of making a comeback to the Test team in future.
The team management’s persistence with Babar Azam — who has appeared to be completely out of sorts in five-day cricket despite half a dozen Test outings — and the unimpressive Mohammad Amir in Dubai Test also defied logic.
Amir had looked gawky and less than hundred per cent fit at Abu Dhabi but was still preferred for Dubai — only to leave the field mid-way through the Test.
With the prolific Usman Salahuddin, talented spinner Mohammad Asghar, young all-rounder Bilal Asif and pacer Mir Hamza waiting in the dug out, Pakistan surely had a decent bench strength which Sarfraz and Arthur chose not to utilise for reasons best known to them.
The batting, at best, looked pedestrian during the entire series, the Asad-Shafique-Sarfraz partnership on the fourth day of Dubai Test notwithstanding. The bowling, too, in spite of Yasir’s bag never really looked incisive enough to bowl out the opposition twice. Besides, with the experienced Rangana Herath proving to be a thorn in the Pakistan side at Abu Dhabi, there was no counter plan or strategy in place at Dubai to blunt the wily spinner, a fact that reflected poorly on coach Arthur and the bevy of coaches accompanying the national team.
More importantly, it is Sarfraz’s captaincy that is suddenly under the scanner now, along with Arthur’s coaching stint, the successive Test defeats quite nullifying the euphoria of the grand Champions Trophy win in England last June.
It is one thing to be an aggressive skipper, but quite another to be a thinking one. Sarfraz has often tried to lead the team on his instinct, a formula that has a 70-30 chance of success in the limited overs cricket but only a 30-70 chance of working in the Tests.
In the five day game, every session is a different ball game and a single session could turn the game on its head, a lesson Sarfraz needs to learn quickly. His dismissal to reckless shots at crucial times in both the Test matches, too, did not go down well with the critics who surely expected better of him in the crisis situations.
To be fair to him, the captaincy in all three formats could probably have taken its toll on him. Many of those who reposed faith in him as the ideal choice for Tests, ODIs and T20s, are quick to lambast him and are compelled to review their stance. However, it is way too early to carry out a post mortem on him. Rather he should be given confidence for the series ahead.
Thankfully for Sarfraz, Pakistan will be playing only ODIs and T20 games until May 2018 when the team embarks for the tough England tour to play a series that includes two Test matches. The wicketkeeper-batsman will be well advised to learn the ropes of Test captaincy during this period from his predecessors Younis and Misbah, because theirs is the legacy that Sarfraz and his team-mates will have to uphold in England and beyond.
Published in Dawn, October 12th, 2017