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Making dead rubbers count

February 24, 2013

pakistan south africa 3rd test, pakistan south africa centurion
Dale Steyn celebrates the wicket of Mohammad Hafeez. -Photo by AFP

In the lead up to the third Test, Misbah-ul Haq talked repeatedly about the team’s wish to take one match at a time, and how much they wanted to salvage some pride from a lost series. That, as the play on the first two days has shown, was easier said than done.

This was an unfamiliar feeling for this team. Pakistan has not had a dead rubber Test match since the infamous tour to Australia in 2009/10 when a heartbreaking 2nd Test loss, in a match that Pakistan had dominated for more days than not, was followed by an insipid 3rd Test where Pakistan lost by more than 200 runs, and failed to bowl Australia out in both the innings. And for most of the time at SuperSport Park thus far, the match has seemed to be a sequel to Hobart, even down to Pakistan failing to reach the follow-on requirement. But for the efforts of two youngsters Pakistan would have been in an even worse predicament than they are despite their lackluster efforts in the field.

Pakistan’s record in dead rubbers is indicative of the sort of team they have been. They have played seven dead rubbers (having lost the series already) in the last 15 years, losing five of them. While these matches have often been against teams better than them – hence the fact that they are playing dead rubbers – Pakistan’s nature also makes such matches a problem for them. They’ve generally been a team that has relied on momentum and mood swings for their successes. In dead rubbers, where the momentum is already against them, and they’re, obviously, not in the most spritely of moods, they’ve let the game get away from them. In four of those five losses they’ve allowed the opposition to score 440+ in their first innings of the Test match – the exception being Oval 2006.

Pakistan’s modus operandi as Team Misbah has been to be choke-artists of the highest order. Between Misbah taking over and the start of this series they were the only international side with an economy rate under 3 in this time period. Even as they’ve lost this series, they’ve often controlled South Africa’s batting – in both the first innings the economy rate was less than 3.2; only when their batting had already failed them did the bowlers allow South Africa to run away with the match in their second innings of the two Tests.

In the Centurion Test, the run rate never got below 3.8 after the new ball overs. Of course, there are those who argue that Pakistan itself needs to be more attacking when batting, but as the display on the 2nd day showed this group of individuals are at their best when they try to remain within the limitation due to their talent and flaws. In many ways, Pakistan’s first innings at SuperSport Park has been an even worse showing than the first innings at Wanderers: the pitch had far fewer demons in it, two of the four seamers they faced were backups, they no longer have the excuse of being unfamiliar with the country, the recently flown in opener Imran Farhat looked comfortable, there was little in the weather that could aid swing bowling. Fast-forward and the unknown Kyle Abbott is already a household name in South Africa.

The most conspicuous evidence of Pakistan’s mood on the first day could be seen from the over rate, and their play after the loss of wickets. Alviro Petersen’s wicket led to 24 runs in the next five overs, allowing Hashim Amla to get in. Then Ehsan Adil got rid of Graeme Smith, but yet again Pakistan’s bowlers failed to apply further pressure; the next six overs went for 27. When Ehsan got rid of Francois du Plessis immediately after lunch Pakistan had the opportunity to apply the choke-hold, an opportunity they failed to grasp, conceding 24 in the following 5 overs. And the entirety of the partnerships for the 6th and 7th wickets was representative of a team not playing at full tilt.

Yet Pakistan ended the South African innings at a score that the team wasn’t wholly dissatisfied with. The reasons for that – and the most obvious positives from the first innings play – were the bowling of the Rahat Ali and Ehsan Adil. Pakistan went in with a hugely inexperienced attack (a combined total of two Test appearances, and less than 100 First Class matches) and even on a greenish pitch Pakistan would not have relied on that duo to be making the breakthroughs. Both of them were somewhat erratic, but both can be pleased with their auditions. It was not a surprise that the two Pakistani bowlers with the most at stake in this match were the ones who struck. With most of Pakistan’s cricket over the next three years being in Asia – and with Junaid, Umar Gul and Irfan the obvious candidates to fight for the two pacer spots in the XI – the duo needed a good showing to not fall by the wayside like many before them (Mohammad Khalil, Abdur Rauf and Fazl-e-Akbar immediately spring to mind).

But of course, the bowling effort was left looking far worse than it actually was, thanks to the fielding of the Pakistan side and the batsman’s failure. On perhaps the easiest conditions they’ve had to bat on through this whole series, Pakistan were able to take the shine off the new ball, before succumbing to an all too familiar collapse. It may be distressing, but it is nothing new.