33rd National Games 2019
- 30 Nov - 06 Dec, 2019
For a while the Test match at Abu Dhabi wobbled and gave Sarfraz Ahmed a few misbeats no doubt. But as in one of the Tests earlier this summer, Imam Ul Haq started the chase as if he was having a sweet hit in an anonymous club game. There was no tension in his strokeplay, no signs of nervousness, that so embodies Pakistani batsmen especially when chasing a reasonable target to win a Test.
But then on the 4th morning the Black Cap spinners gobbled up three wickets in nine balls for eight runs and Pakistan were haunted by the memory of a year ago when they collapsed against Sri Lanka, chasing a total less than 150.
It took a fine partnership between Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali to see Pakistan through troubled waters and steady the ship. But a mixture of poor judgement, especially the shots that Bilal Asif and Hasan Ali played contributed to their unimaginable defeat.
Now that Pakistan have failed the first Test (pun intended) but their loss clearly indicates that the New Zealanders are far tougher than their neighbours across the Tasman Sea were in the Test series that preceded this one, barring of course the Aussie fightback on the fifth day of the first Test.
The way the Black Caps fought back after being bowled out for the lowest first innings score in Abu Dhabi – and that after winning the toss – they rallied to cede a less than 100 runs lead; 74 to be exact. Pakistan were well set to get more than that by the end of the first day. Then in the second innings young ones Nicholls and Watling put together an iron clad partnership of 112 for the fifth wicket. For 51 overs they defied everything that Sarfraz Ahmed threw at them, and for the first time in the Test match an entire session went without a wicket falling.
But it took the magician Yasir Shah to get through them and then Hasan Ali, who must have created a world record for taking two wickets in an over three times in one Test Match, wrapped up the rest for only 29 runs.
And what does Pakistan take away from this Test match despite the defeat? Well, first of all some confidence in the other bowlers who previously relied mostly on Abbas to give them the breakthroughs. For the first time in his Test career Abbas went wicketless in an innings. Normally that would have set Pakistan back but the surprise package for this Test, Hasan Ali, stepped up for a five-for. It was quite unexpected, considering he was brought in more as Abbas’ opening partner than anything else. And he had had not too happy an outing in the ODIs against the Kiwis. An inspired selection indeed as he took his first 5-wicket haul in a Test Innings.
By contrast there hangs a question mark on Bilal Asif, playing his third Test. On a pitch offering turn he failed to get a wicket in the second innings and only one in the first. The Kiwi debutant bowled far better than him against batsmen renowned for playing spin well. His inconsistency must be worrying the team think tank. He got into the wickets in the first innings of the first Test against Australia but had none in the second innings which Australia managed to draw. And a similar story in the second Test there. It seems he is being read more and more by the batsmen with the help of analysts. And when they don’t self-inflict he finds it difficult to prise them out.
Following the success of medium pace against the Kiwis, Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz Ahmed might well go with either Faheem Ashraf or Shaheen Afridi in the second Test and rely on part timers Haris Sohail and Hafeez to bowl the other aspects of spin. Haris of course was instrumental in starting a Kiwi collapse in the first innings and extracted turn as did Hafeez.
The other cause of worry remains to be Azhar Ali, though he batted resolutely in the second innings almost taking Pakistan to victory. He’s had a Test average of under 20 this calendar year. Something perhaps that prompted him to retire from ODIs to focus on his batting in the larger format. Yes he drags on longer than others when getting runs but this time his outings have been extremely demure. At times he seems to lose the confidence to even rotate the strike. He is too good a batsman to be dropped however. Perhaps it is just a lean patch that he is going through, just like many of the greats also. The work monotony does catch on.
Thankfully though Sarfraz’s captaincy has improved by several notches and confirmation of his leadership till the World Cup has no doubt brewed in him some self-confidence. He was lacking that in the Asia Cup. But he has become calmer when his fielders foul up or when the bowler sways in his designated line and length.
Finally, full marks to the groundsman on preparing a sporting pitch at Abu Dhabi, even though it tilted toward the bowlers. And if it did it then so be it for the quality of cricket was extremely captivating and there seemed to be a balance in the game. That is a rarity in the UAE even if Tests here have ended more times in a result than they have been drawn. Of course it is the Pakistani spinners that have ensured that, bowling against batsmen not very well versed with the slow, turning ball. But it’s not often that a Test in UAE finishes on the fourth afternoon. •