Comment: Striking a balance in playing XI is key for Sarfraz, Arthur

Published October 7, 2018
Captain Sarfraz Ahmed. ─ File
Captain Sarfraz Ahmed. ─ File

THE last time Australia were here in UAE they were roundly thrashed by Pakistan. One can say the only difference now is that Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan are missing from the batting of the ‘hosts’ and Steve Smith and David Warner from the tourists. But that difference stands up taller than most. It takes away most of the gloss from the series but perhaps, judging from the Pakistani performance against England this summer without Misbah, Younis and the tourists show against Pakistan ‘A’ this week, it’s going to be a pretty even battle; perhaps the advantage slightly Pakistan’s way given their level of acclimatization to the conditions over the years.

The only thing pulling Pakistan down is that they haven’t played Test cricket since they were beaten 0-2 in the Tests series here by Sri Lanka round about this time. But that was mainly because of the idiocy of Pakistan not playing two spinners. That stupidity is unlikely to be repeated when Sarfraz sets out to toss on Sunday unless Mickey Arthur has an aberration of pacers running through a team that breeds on playing pace. Mickey is also sure to play two spinners because he apologized last time for not doing so.

Question then is whether he will play Hafeez and use his off spin or throw in specialist offie Bilal Asif. Apparently Mickey is pretty miffed at Hafeez being sent over when he hadn’t asked for him. Maybe he’s taken it as a personal insult that Hafeez is here despite not giving the fitness test before the Asia Cup and him having not personally supervised him if he has given one now. Having said that scoring a double century and grabbing some wickets in domestic cricket under testing conditions should be proof enough, with or without the YoYo test.

Given the coach’s past record and at present a bit of a silent tiff between him and the former Pakistani opener, Mickey may just use his casting vote to have a top order of Azhar, Imam and Haris Sohail and sit down Hafeez. In that case Bilal Asif should be making his way to the center. I doubt that if Mickey does relent to the selectors’ pressure and plays Hafeez that he will also play Bilal. This is because Hafeez can only take the place of Haris Sohail who batted superbly in England. That makes for two off spinners and lack of a left arm spinner in the final line up.

Yes there is the possibility that Hafeez opens with Imam and then Azhar, Asad Shafiq, Babar Azam follow with Haris Sohail at No.6. But that leaves space for four specialist bowlers. Given the heat Pakistan might just opt for five specialist bowlers and play Sarfraz at No.6. That allows for three specialist spinners and two pacers even as two of each were enough to bring down Australia at the height of their form and combination in 2014.

Further, the jury is still out whether Hafeez can deliver at Test level following his changed bowling action. In limited overs format

batsmen have a greater tendency to play across the line or take a risk against even a good ball. But in Tests they can wait it out. Pakistan needs a wicket-taking off spinner not a run blocker.

The bowling combination will indeed take some thinking. Do Pakistan play Sarfraz at No.6 and go in with two specialist spinners and three pacers? Or three spinners and two pacers? Or do they play the extra batsman, Sarfraz drops down to No.7 and they then go in with two spinners and two pacers? In the latter case do they play two leggies in Yasir and Shadab or pair up Yasir with Bilal Asif?

In the first scenario they can throw in Yasir and Shadab/Bilal with their differing styles to team up with maybe Wahab Riaz, Mir Hamza and Faheem Ashraf as that strengthens the batting as well. In the second case they go in with Yasir, Shahdab and Bilal with perhaps Wahab and Mir Hamza and in the third these two pacers team up with Yasir and Bilal.

That is why I think Mickey and Sarfraz will play a batsman short and rely on Sarfraz as the allrounder at No.6. In this case best to also play Faheem Ashraf and Shadab to bolster the batting.

Lastly, I note that Australians have chosen to this time target Azhar Ali. There is an old tradition that their best bowler targets the opposition’s best batsman. McGrath would always go after Lara for example and that was given as his official role. It is also a psychological warfare tool. It is designed to bring under pressure Pakistan’s best performing batsman, who scored a double hundred last time against Australia in the Boxing Day Test less than two years ago.

But that is another day, another test. Australia’s known for their resilience against all odds. Nevertheless if Pakistan play their cards right and attack with spin, it will be advantage Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, October 7th, 2018

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