IN the end it was all about nerves as I had predicted in my last column. Balbirnie, who in his stance and demeanour but not much else reminds me of a young Greg Chappell, fumbled in the slips and Babar Azam received a life to make the Irish regret it. Considering Pakistan lost another once he was out for a well made half century (that may have saved his place for Lord’s), it could well have been a turning point.

It was like Rahat Ali at Adelaide in the 2015 World Cup knockout game against Australia, dropping Watson during a fearsome Wahab spell that was putting Australia on the back foot. That was a do or die game just as it was at Malahide. No second chances. A lone-Test ‘series’. And Balbirnie could not have felt more alone.

Pakistan on the other hand held their nerve. First when they were five down for 159 in the first innings, and then when they were 14-3 in the second. In both instances the Irish slipped in the slips, dropping the debutant Faheem Ashraf three times.

Nevertheless, nerves or not, Pakistan have every reason to be proud of a fighting win. Malahide ’18 was almost Edgbaston ’71 for Pakistan. In both cases Pakistan batted first and enforced the follow on. Then, a bespectacled young man scored 274 and a fast medium swing bowler Asif Masood took 9 wickets; for both it was their first Test in the British Isles. On Tuesday it was a bespectacled young man who scored 74 not out and a fast medium swing bowler who finished with 9 wickets. Both were playing their first Test in the British Isles. At Edgbaston the last day was washed out with England five down in the second innings and still less than Pakistan’s first innings. At Malahide the first day was washed out, and Pakistan were five down in their second innings when the match ended.

And though Imam lacked the longevity of Zaheer Abbas and Mohammad Abbas had not the handle moustache of Asif Masood, they established their own identity. What must be credited to Imam was that he displayed remarkable mental strength and played a swashbuckling innings given the circumstances. Like his uncle (whom I had earlier accused of nepotism in his selection) in the 1992 World Cup he showed no pressure in a knock out game and played his shots. Imam’s fifty was made in just 61 balls at a time when more conservative thought would have been to dig in. Of course tougher times are ahead against Anderson and Broad and then against Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

But clearly he has been well mentored by either Inzamam or Mickey Arthur in keeping calm and scoring runs; or by his own design chooses to play his natural game. He decided not to be overawed by the fear that if he got out playing that flashy cut to backward point off a rising ball he would be castigated by all for recklessness at a time when Pakistan needed a man to hold one end. His square cuts and drives were exquisite as well as impactful.

Of Abbas, well he did what he was picked for. He swung it when he was not pin point on the stumps. Eight of his nine wickets were from either good or full length, something that Wahab Riaz would probably not have done under the circumstances with all his experience. That is why he was dropped. Abbas won a game with his first Test appearance in British conditions something Wahab had admittedly done at Lord’s 2010 with a five-for; but since teetered off that gambit with a range of full tosses and short of a length deliveries in his last two years. Abbas did not bowl a single full toss in the first innings 4-44, such was his control.

And most of all was the fact that it were the Under 25’s that batted Ireland out of the game — Faheem Ashraf, Shadab Khan, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam. Add to that the 28-year old Mohammad Abbas and the 26-year old Mohammad Amir and it was a point run home — MisYou were not missed.

Success and accolades to the young ones aside, what have we learned from this match? Well firstly that we almost lost it had it not been for Irish fielding. Faheem who scored a flowing 83 was dropped at 24, 36 and 72. Held first even the second time, Pakistan may not have crossed 250 in their first innings given what happened after he left.

In the second innings Pakistan could have been 60-4 and 100 runs away from their target had Balbirnie clung to a relatively easy chance for a slipsman. The Irish still haven’t mastered the fact that you stay low till the batsman has played his shot, as its easier to rise up to take a catch than to go down again for one.

The there was the period when Kevin O’Brien and Stuart Thompson were putting on that partnership that made one wonder whether this could be the fourth time in Test matches — 1894 (England at Sydney), 1981 (England at Headingly), 2001 (India at Kolkata) — that a team following on wins the game. Each time it had been Australia who faced this ignominy so this would have been the first time in Test history that another nation would have seen this fate.

Pakistani top order is still floundering. That a seasoned campaigner like Azhar Ali could bat weirdly in his very first over and that the top order begins caving in when chasing smaller scores is seriously worrisome. Again the problem is that they are playing away from their body.

That Pakistan got themselves into a position from where they just barely bailed out is also the fault of Sarfraz Ahmed who had a torrid game with captaincy, gloves and bat (even if he was out to a dubious decision second time). Except for the first innings of Ireland Pakistan couldn’t put their foot on their throat once they had them down. Once Kevin and Thompson and then Kayne got their sights right the Pakistani attack looked pedestrian and even disinterested in taking a wicket.

There was clearly a leadership crisis as snicks were flying around with only one slip in place. Neither was Haris Sohail or Azhar Ali given the option to break a partnership, as the irregular bowler often does in Test cricket. Strange tactics from someone as aggressive as Sarfraz. Doesn’t matter if they were instructions from the dressing room; the captain should be his own man on the field.

Yes in British conditions, the ball wobbles even after passing the stumps but at this level you don’t spill the easier ones as Sarfraz did. Also, what scared me during the Irish second innings was when Sarfraz dropped Stuart Thompson after he had just come in and then, as they walked to the other end he and Azhar seemed to be laughing at some joke. The partnership went to 114 and almost cost Pakistan the game. Was it complacency as Pakistan were at the time seemingly on way to winning by an innings?

Sarfraz should be the weariest of this. He was on tour of Australia in 2009-10 when Pakistan failed to chase 170-odd after Kamran Akmal had earlier dropped Mike Hussey three times. Then he was captain when Pakistan failed to chase 136 against Sri Lanka last year; and was vice captain earlier to that in West Indies when Pakistan were scuttled for 81 in quest of 187.

Mickey Arthur is a pragmatic man and he should be sitting down with Sarfraz especially to ram home the point that it isn’t over till it’s over. That should be the first lesson from victory at Malahide.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2018

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