WHEN Sarfraz Ahmed walks out to toss with William Porterfield, he will be as nervous as Ireland’s captain.

While William will be tossing up for the first time in a Test match — and will join J Lillywhite (England), DW Gregory (Australia), OR Dunell (South Africa), K Nunes (West Indies), TC Lowry (New Zealand) CK Nayudu (India), AH Kardar (Pakistan), B Warnapura (Sri Lanka), DL Houghton (Zimbabwe), Naimur Rahman (Bangladesh) who did so for their countries, Sarfraz will be aware that should it be overcast, his experienced men and young batting charges will be batting as if with fishing rods.

He will be hard pressed to decide what his batsmen’s true worth is — Canterbury or Northampton. For that matter, it is Hobson’s Choice for both are Division Two Teams. Worse, Pakistani batting fared poorly against Kent who were placed fifth in Division Two last season.

Yes, it was overcast, the ball was seaming but if one watches the dismissals of top batsmen there was the perennial playing over the inswinger, the dab to the wicketkeeper or first slip and the mistimed cut for a play-on to the stumps. All reeking of lack of technique and a limited overs attitude.

And with the weather forecast in Malahide, in the Dublin suburbs set to be cloudy, even the aging Boyd Rankin (33) and Tim Murtagh (36) will pose some serious questions even to the better prepared touring batsmen.

Sarfraz will be most worried that the one batsman who hasn’t been in the runs in three outings has been the one he is most relying on to defy the Irish opening bowlers -- Azhar Ali. The Pakistani opener, with a Test average of 46.62 (that turns into 31.92 in Test matches in British Isles) has scores of 15, 9 and 10 (run out) on the tour so far.

Normally a poor run going into the first Test weighs on an opener who needs time at the crease to fully acclimatise to the swing of the new ball. All that can be hoped is that Azhar will weigh in with all his experience against what is a goodish attack but not unplayable. Sarfraz needs him there to give not just a good start but confidence to the young wards coming in after him.

But before they do, what of his partner? Surely it has to be Imam-ul-Haq, someone whom many, including myself, were questioning as to whether he deserves a place in the squad ahead of Fawad Alam. Yes, the point rises once again that these are Division Two bowlers against whom he has scores of 61, 11 and 59 not out. If I was the tour selector I would have played Sami Aslam and Imam-ul-Haq at Northampton to give both a level playing field in better weather conditions. But now playing Imam is a certain choice, especially as Haris Sohail has proven that at No.3 he has the temperament and technique to play seam and swing with two fifties in the game against Northamptonshire.

Despite a sound 186 not out at Northamptonshire I still feel Asad Shafiq must bat at No.6 where he has more centuries (9) than Sir Garry Sobers at that number. He bats well with tail-enders and (selfishly) needs some runs from the top order to get going. That way he bats well with the tail as he did with Amir and Rahat at Northampton.

I would still push Babar Azam at No.4 especially as he as displayed more self-belief and self-constraint. He is getting out to loose shots when he gets settled in, often on the offside. It is just a matter of sitting him down and telling him how good he is.

So who bats at No. 5 if Asad is to be held back at his record breaking number? Well Sarfraz tried something by playing five specialist batsmen and then himself but it hasn’t worked as he’s put together 12 runs in two innings. Should he take the chance and bat at No.5? Or should he go back to No. 7 and play a specialist batsman in Saad Ali or Usman Salahuddin who haven’t featured in the two games or play Faheem Ashraf up the order and play therefore five bowlers?

The answer would depend on how he ranks the Irish batsmen and whether four bowlers are enough to get 20 wicket sin the Test.

If not then he will play Fahim Ashraf as an allrounder either at No. 6 by sending Asad Shafiq to No.4 or play Fahim at No. 5. Otherwise Sarfraz can move himself up and play Fahim at No.7 in case Mickey Arthur decides to play five specialist batsmen, two allrounders (Fahim and Sarfraz) and three specialist bowlers.

That would be the three pacers Mohammad Amir, Rahat Ali and Mohammad Abbas plus the leg spinning prodigy that Shadab Ahmed is turning out to be, especially following his ten-for at Northampton.

But what will still worry Sarfraz is Amir who has 1-122 in 42 overs on the tour and went wicketless at Northampton. Azhar Mahmood has called him the spearhead but so far he’s bringing up the rear. And it was left to Abbas to clean up Northants with 4-62; Rahat Ali’s 4 wickets in the game making an equal impact.

Nevertheless the fact remains these were Division Two batsmen and bowlers and remember Joe Denly and Rob Newton both scored a ton against the cream of Pakistan’s bowling.

So when the toss is made Sarfraz may continue looking up and praying even as the coin falls down. It won’t be only William Porterfield who will be nervous.

Published in Dawn, May 9th, 2018

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