Pakistan will wonder how they lost their first Test in a biosecure bubble? The youngish men from the East, fully tested and socially distanced, came, saw, and conquered for two and half days, only for the pesky natives to mount a surprise revolt.

This was cricket in the grand tradition of Pakistan, building unbounded hope among their followers to dash it on the rocks of business as usual. Pakistan have now lost seven consecutive away Tests since beating England at Lord’s in 2018.

England were down and out in the match until Josh Buttler and Chris Woakes, the last recognised batting pair, went on a thrilling counter attack to pull off a surprise victory. That’s how close Pakistan got.

England did little else worthy of a win, so the mystery is what happened to Pakistan during that match defining partnership on the fourth and final day?

Up to then, Azhar Ali had marshalled his bowlers well, except for underusing Shadab Khan. The bowlers had generally responded with control and discipline.

But all the good work was undone when Woakes and Buttler came together. Pakistan bowled loosely, the field was set deep, and the bowling changes stopped making sense. Either the plan was wrong or there was no plan?

Perhaps Pakistan thought their work was done and relaxed too early? By the time the possibility of defeat occurred to them, the match was gone, the momentum all with England. As well as Woakes and Buttler played, Pakistan’s disarray was most perplexing.

There was much that was good about Pakistan’s performance. The discipline in the first innings, to leave the moving ball and get forward with confidence, was straight from the textbooks of Misbah ul-Haq and Younus Khan.

Nobody embodies that more than Shan Masood, a player who has employed this method to overcome his weaknesses outside off stump, and is Pakistan’s most improved batsman. A third consecutive Test hundred places Shan in the company of greats. His temperament is his best asset.

The fast bowlers showed their own discipline until Woakes and Buttler counter attacked. Mohammad Abbas and Shaheen Afridi, in particular, kept England’s batsmen under pressure with sharp lines and reliable lengths. Naseem Shah took a vital wicket in each innings, and will have learnt more about the consistency required to be successful at this level.

The other plus is Mohammad Rizwan, possibly the safest hands behind the stumps seen in Pakistan’s colours. Any question marks over his batting are worth bearing considering the impact of his wicket keeping.

That leaves much for Pakistan to ponder. This is an inexperienced Pakistan team that also suffers from playing so few Tests each year. It needs time to develop and learn the art of winning Test matches.

The batting is light, with a new opening partnership and a long tail. Abid Ali is unproven despite his stunning start to international cricket, and Rizwan and Shadab look misfits at six and seven in Test cricket.

Shadab’s selection made sense but the way he was used didn’t. Why pick a fifth bowler and hardly use him, especially with runs in hand? Shadab’s answer must be to work further on his batting, to become a true all-rounder, a worthy Test number six or seven.

That creates great pressure on the middle order, a situation that Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq are perfectly familiar with. They excelled as a support act to the mighty pairing of Younis and Misbah but now that the onus is on them to lead the batting and take responsibility, life is proving more difficult.

It says something that Babar Azam is already more highly rated. It says something about Babar’s rare ability, for sure, but it says more about the failure of Azhar and Asad to take the next step in their careers. It’s a mental leap that only the true greats manage, and only a truly great player can thrive in the pressure of Pakistan’s middle order.

Pressure of a different kind is a bowler’s main weapon, and despite his many wickets, Yasir Shah didn’t create enough pressure given the helpful conditions and his pedigree as a leg spinner. England’s second innings was a dream scenario for him, but Yasir was loose when it mattered and only refocused when it was too late.

Some of this was his captain’s responsibility, for using spinners and seamers at wrong moments. Indeed, Azhar has a problem given that his form is poor and his captaincy is unconvincing. He has lived under the shadow of Misbah’s captaincy, and it must be hard to break free with your formidable captain looking over your shoulder as chief selector and head coach.

The series is far from lost but Pakistan threw away a golden opportunity at Old Trafford. Whether they can now pull it back at Southampton given the inexperience in the team seems unlikely. But this emerging team has already shown that it has potential to become more than the sum of its parts.

Clearly, the team is learning its trade, and the deeper question for Pakistan’s administrators is how long they will give these players? Test cricket is not a place for such a sudden influx of inexperience but once you opt for that strategy you need to give people in the cricket biobubble the space to fail.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2020

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