Success: A Pakistani Evaluation
04 Dec 2005
By: George Roberts
Coming into this three-match Test series, a hung-over and fatigued England side were anointed rather brashly and foolishly as clear favourites. A rejuvenated Pakistani squad however, toughened by a fiercely fought tour in India and encouraged by success in the Caribbean, were quietly forming into a sharp and promising sub-continental outfit. Backed up by some indifferent and tired cricket from the tourists, and typically arid pitches, they methodically disposed of England.
The infighting and whirlwind changes that have dogged Pakistan for so long appear to have gradually faded away, to be replaced by a blend of experience and sprightly youthfulness. Though personnel changes were made fairly frequently throughout the series, there seemed to be a little more careful deliberation than rash impulsion than before. It is inevitable that there will be failures, Hasan Raza being a prime example, but at least he was given a second bite at the fruitful cherry this time around.
The openers' berths are at least half-filled at last. Salman Butt, possibly the revelation of the series, racked up exactly 300 runs at sixty an innings. Although his uncertain prodding outside the off-stump and erratic playing of the bouncer must be evened out, he should remain a fixture at the top of the order for some time. The big question on everybody's lips is who will join him there. Shoaib Malik, as much as his talent suggests and his off-spin is useful, clearly doesn't have the temperament to open a Test innings. Perhaps the most decisive decision Pakistan must make before the Indians arrive is whether to stick or twist - more likely, given Malik's paltry average of 22, the latter. Then the option of who to replace him with will emerge: will the selectors traipse through the recent past and give a previously tried opener (Taufeeq Umar, Imran Farhat, Yasir Hameed) another opportunity, or will a new contender be plucked from the domestic circuit?
If the opener's slot is a cause for concern, the middle order is almost set in concrete. Younis Khan did not have the best of series, but nether the less contributed amply, while Mohammad Yousuf appears settled at number four. Inzamam is enjoying is the best form of his life and the returning Shahid Afridi provides the heavy artillery from the crucial number six position. The importance of his 92 at Faisalabad cannot be underestimated, as Pakistan now have an almost genuine all-rounder who could be particularly potent outside of Asia, where a second front-line spinner will rarely be employed. I fear though is that Pakistan may plug Malik's loose position with Afridi, limiting his natural game and removing the panic button from the opposing captain's fingers.
Before the series, there was much doubt about the consistency of Shoaib Ahktar and how the rest of the pace battery would fair. Shoaib answered the question with several blistering spells at both Faisalabad and Lahore. His new found energy and commitment impressed those who had criticised him in the past, and he has unearthed a devastating new weapon: a sly slower ball. Naved-ul-Hasan has emerged as his perfect new-ball partner while he also offers the additional skill of reverse swing. However the Pakistanis may have reached the end of their patience with Mohammad Sami, as the enigmatic fast bowler, despite producing some exceptional deliveries, remained a little wild and unpredictable, not unlike England's own Jimmy Anderson. With a long line of pace bowlers, including Umar Gul, Mohammad Asif and Shahid Nazir queuing up for his place, Sami's days may be limited. Once fit again, Abdul Razzaq should reclaim his spot from Sami, providing Pakistan with a general all-rounder, ideally batting behind gloveman Kamran Akmal at number eight.
One has to feel for Shoaib Malik and Shabbir Ahmed, and question the success of the biomechanical analysis at the University of Western Australia. Surely if a bowler's action is passed as legitimate in Perth then it should not be reported officially to the ICC. The whole system must be reviewed if bowlers such as Shabbir are constantly being reported for suspect actions having been cleared officially on numerous occasions. Despite only playing in a solitary Test at Multan, I was greatly impressed by Shabbir, who exhibited a concise and effective action unusual amongst Pakistanis. He should also, once his fustrating little detour to Australia is over, be reinstated to the Test squad, if not to the line-up itself. With severe doubts over Malik's batting, his wickets at Lahore, mainly contrived due to the impulsive sweeping of the English batsmen, are unlikely to persuade the selectors to continue their perseverance with him.
Lastly we come to the lumbering dozy giant of Inzamam-ul-Haq, who has quite literally shook the turf of three Pakistani cities in the last few weeks, a joyous sight that has enlightened the horrific conditions in which the local people north of Islamabad are living having been affected by the earthquake. His batting, which reaped three hundreds and two fifties at an average of over one hundred, has blossomed like never before this year, and it now appears inconceivable as to why the ICC World XI panel did not select him in their initial party for the Super Series. On the field too, his captaincy has shone. The rotation of his bowlers mirrored and often bettered that of Michael Vaughan, his opposite number, while his field placings were astute and the general vibes from the Pakistani camp oozed confidence, calm and new-found professionalism, something that Bob Woolmer may be credited for.
Building upon these sturdy foundations is crucial. If the Pakistanis are caught out by England in the one-dayers, or they panic when India tour next-year due to over-patriotic tumult within the country, the foundations will cave in as they have so often in the past. The Indo-Pak series will have an extra edge next year now, one that will be amplified even further should Sri Lanka lose to the Indians over the next few weeks: the title of the Best Team in Asia may be up for grabs.