WHEN the rain left Southampton, it took with it Pakistan’s slim hopes of squaring a third consecutive Test series in England. It also sharpened the regret of the brief lack of focus that cost Pakistan the first Test at Old Trafford. Small margins have large consequences, and this is a series that a thoroughbred Pakistan might well have won.

England’s greater experience and higher quality counted in the end, although Pakistan worked themselves into a dominant position in each of the first two Tests. But England took control of the third Test with a record-breaking fifth partnership between Zac Crawley and Jos Buttler. Only a memorable hundred from Azhar Ali clawed his team back into the contest.

Other than the fascinating cricket on display, this was a series of landmarks. Azhar reached 6000 Test runs. Babar Azam got to 2000. And, most impressive of all, James Anderson snared his 600th Test wicket, with Joe Root holding Azhar at first slip in the final innings of the series.

The Test started optimistically for Pakistan when England were reduced to 127 for 4 after choosing to bat. England then batted well but Pakistan allowed the game to drift away from them, a failing that Azhar is making a habit of.

He wasn’t helped by his bowlers who never exerted sufficient pressure. The pace bowlers threatened little. Naseem Shah, for example, was generally too wide of off stump. Yasir Shah was inconsistent. The overall strategy seemed wrong and too defensive for the game situation when one wicket would have opened up England’s lower order.

Overall, though, the bowlers performed encouragingly in the series. Mohammad Abbas was probing without playing a decisive hand. Yasir Shah looked dangerous in bursts but never strangled England in the way a spinner of his pedigree should be capable of. Naseem took important wickets although this series must be a lesson to him that a bowler of his type needs to attack the stumps more.

Most convincing was Shaheen Shah Afridi, a constant and disciplined threat with the new ball. It was easy to forget that he is young and learning too. That further education should focus on how to be more dangerous with the old ball.

Indeed, reverse swing featured little in this series, partly because of the damp conditions but possibly also hampered by the Covid-19 regulations for ball handling.

Pakistan’s batting was a greater worry. The main problem is that the senior players—Azhar, Babar, and Asad Shafiq—didn’t shoulder enough of the load until Azhar’s century. The transition from support act to lead is a difficult one and, on this evidence, Azhar and Babar look capable of making that step while Asad is a spent force.

Senior failures placed too much pressure on the newer batsmen. Shan Masood began the series like a new man but quickly regressed to his old self. Abid Ali struggled with the movement. Both players are limited by their shot options, and slow scoring invites pressure. Pakistan’s opening pairing is far from settled.

In their own ways, Fawad Alam and Shadab Khan promised more. The scorecard will try to persuade you that Fawad failed in his comeback series after an 11-year absence, but the eyewitness account is something different.

Fawad looked organised with a good technique and temperament. It may be too late for him at this level but he showed enough to seriously question why he was overlooked for so long, especially given his first class record and Pakistan’s problems with batting?

Shadab was unlucky to lose his place after the Old Trafford Test, considering his impact in Pakistan’s first innings of the series. There was a logic to it, though, since he was underbowled as a fifth bowler. The question here is one of strategy not ability. Shadab’s response must be to develop further as a batsman, because he has clear potential, and make himself indispensable.

The main gain for Pakistan was in its wicketkeeper. Mohammad Rizwan was a revelation with his glovework, and a deserved man of the series. Only Rashid Latif is in the same category for Pakistan.

But, if possible, it was Rizwan’s batting that was more pleasing. He began nervously, underselling his talent, but by the end of the tour he looked Pakistan’s best batsman after Babar.

Overall, England were inexperienced in batting while Pakistan were inexperienced in all areas. That difference proved decisive. A good captain can bridge the gap but as magnificently as Azhar batted in the final Test his captaincy is often found wanting.

When a team consistently lets slip dominant positions then the captaincy requires examination. But there are no credible alternatives to Azhar in this team, and captaincy by default is never a ticket to success.

At least Azhar showed he is capable of leading with the bat. The hope is that this century will transform his captaincy but it is hard to see how it will do so at this stage of his career?

The bigger question for Pakistan is how long the selectors are willing to back inexperience? The team is short on experience in first class cricket, let alone Test cricket, and Test cricket is a place to perfect your game not learn it.

Pakistan has plentiful talent, no doubt, but the art of evolving international teams without wide fluctuations in performance and results is an art that the Pakistan Cricket Board has failed to master for at least two decades.

Lest we forget, Pakistan were ranked the world’s best Test team in 2016. It may be another four years before this group of players develops sufficiently to challenge for the top again.

Kamran Abbasi’s new cricket book, ‘Englistan: An immigrant’s journey on the turbulent winds of Pakistan cricket’, is now available via Amazon.

Published in Dawn, August 30th, 2020

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