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Reverse swing: Test of times

June 24, 2012

The tour of Sri Lanka has been off to rather a turbulent start. The T20 rubber was tied 1-1, while the ODI contest was taken by Sri Lanka 3-1, with one match ending without a result due to rain. By the time this column appears, the first Test of the 3-Test series will be two days old. Weather-permitting, either Pakistan or Sri Lanka will be in the driving seat at this point. Pakistan has come into this Test on an uninterrupted streak of five consecutive Test victories, including the landmark 3-0 whitewash over England earlier this year. This would normally suggest that momentum is with Pakistan, but after the disappointment of the ODI losses, nothing can be taken for granted.

The common theme in each of the four defeats (three ODIs and one T20) thus far on this tour is the fragility of Pakistan’s batting line up. In the T20 loss, Pakistan failed to chase a relatively modest target of 132. In two of the ODI defeats, they failed to reach 280 and 243, both on flat tracks, while in the final ODI they were unable to drive home advantages built earlier in the innings and could only set the opposition a target of 248, which was overtaken. Even in the third ODI, which was abandoned due to rain after only 6.5 overs, Pakistan had been reduced to 12 for two.

Except for Azhar Ali, who has rapidly emerged as the most valuable of Pakistan’s new batting generation, every other batsman was either an underachiever or a miserable failure. Most disappointing of all were the stalwarts Mohammad Hafeez and Younis Khan. Hafeez’s scoring sequence in the six limited-overs innings on this tour has been zero, 24, 37, 14, zero, zero, and six. Younis, who did not play in the T20 matches, fared even worse, with scores of five, four, and one, before getting dropped from the final ODI. Hafeez too would have been dropped but for his talent to bowl tight wicket-to-wicket off-spin. Both men have looked completely out of sorts at the crease, but they remain integral to Pakistan’s Test batting line-up. How Pakistan fares in the Tests will depend to a large extent on whether they can shake off their lack of form.

Apart from Hafeez and Younis, another sore point in Pakistan’s ongoing batting struggles is Umar Akmal. He has unquestioned talent and continues to generate lofty expectations, but repeatedly buckles under pressure. Coming into this tour he was Pakistan’s best batsman in the international ODI rankings, placed10th in the world. But excluding a poor umpiring decision that was not his fault, and an unbeaten fifty in the last ODI (and that too in a losing cause), he has failed to produce any innings of substance.

The way Umar approaches his game, it gives the impression that in his mind he is already a great batsman. Yet the reality is quite different. While he is technically adept and has the skill to play pace and spin with equal ease all around the wicket, there is much more to great batsmanship. You need a cool head, inner psychological strength, and mastery over the complex arts of longevity at the crease. Umar has shown no evidence that he possesses any of these. As it is, he has been axed from Pakistan’s Test squad. If he continues to squander his God-given gifts, he is in danger of getting dropped from all formats.

As a result of all this instability, Pakistan has entered the Test series in a state of uncertainty. Selection options for the Tests are limited, with Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar forming a steady opening pair, Azhar cemented at number three, and Younis Khan and Misbahul Haq forming the core of the middle-order. Excellent bowling resources allow Pakistan to play another specialist batsman at the number six spot, for which there is a four-way tussle between Asad Shafiq, Faisal Iqbal, Mohammad Ayub, and Afaq Raheem.

For the opening Test, the nod has most likely been given to Asad, who has a creditable Test record averaging 37.47 from 13 matches with one century and four 50s, including a superb 58 made under pressure against England in the second Test at Abu Dhabi last January. An additional twist is that Misbah will not be in the playing XI for the opening Test after being penalised by the ICC for Pakistan's slow over-rate in the last ODI. This could provide an opening to Faisal Iqbal; he has not played a Test in two-and-a-half years, and has a mediocre average at 26.76, but he has had a solid domestic season. Ayub and Afaq, meanwhile, are untried Test novices; their chances of playing depend on how the other batsmen perform, and how much confidence they can inspire in captain Misbah and coach Dav Whatmore during practice sessions.

Pakistan’s Test record under Misbah, whose captaincy tenure began in November 2010, has been highly impressive, with nine victories and only one defeat (in addition to five draws). Hafeez will lead the team in Misbah's absence, but expectations are still bound to be high. Shaky performance in the limited-overs games may have dented the team’s confidence, but overcoming such dips is a routine demand of the professional circuit. It will be important for the squad to regroup and refresh themselves while clearing the mind from the clutter of self-doubt. They have done it before, and they can certainly do so again.