Ben Jones casts his eye over another difficult day for the hosts at Lord’s, and celebrates Pakistan’s adaptability.
Yesterday, Pakistan offered up a masterclass in how to bowl in English conditions; today they demonstrated to their hosts how they should bat. Part II of the visitors’ clinic saw them pass England’s first innings total, and swell their lead to a commanding 166 at the close. Central to their resistance were the twin top-order efforts of Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq. Both passed fifty, although neither went on to put their name on the honours board, but both of Pakistan’s senior players stood firm, stayed patient, and adapted their techniques to succeed in these conditions.
In discussion of his batsmen’s improved performance, Mickey Arthur said that there had been an increased focus on “playing the ball later”, and playing it “under your eyes”. Yet in truth, this didn’t entirely ring true for the innings of Shafiq – he played the ball further down the pitch than any other top order batsman in this match.
Normally, you’d be inclined to agree with Arthur’s truism, and say that the key to surviving a spell of good swing bowling is to play the ball late, and that Shafiq’s early impact points would be a cause for concern. However, the Pakistan No.4 married batting out of his crease, and coming at the ball, with an increased desire to get onto the front foot. Typically, Shafiq plays 65% of his shots against pace off the front foot. Today, he lifted that to 76%.
As such, whilst Shafiq was striking the ball early in its path from the bowler’s hand to the keeper, he combined it with a pronounced forward press which allowed to him to heed the other aspect of Arthur’s advice – that is, to play the ball under your eyes.
After all this, Ben Stokes’ dismissal of Shafiq was a rather ironic affair. Shafiq’s technique is naturally geared towards dominating the short ball – he averages 420 with the cut shot in the last four years – but the changes to his method which helped him succeed today, eventually cost him his wicket. Shafiq’s adapted technique helps survive swing, but he was undone by a short, quicker delivery from the English all-rounder, caught off a ball that reared up. The effect of the speed was clearly exaggerated by the fact Shafiq was batting more out of his crease than anyone else, and indeed more than he himself usually does. Such is the price of adapting a well-grooved technique.
However, Ben Stokes did grow into the role of enforcer throughout the day. England’s typical approach of hitting line and length and allowing the ball to do the work suddenly seemed inert and ineffective, in scenes remarkably similar to those bathed in Australian sunshine just six months ago. Stokes and Mark Wood bowled 52% short deliveries after lunch, and it seemed like their best chance of drawing a breakthrough. As well as the short pitched ball to remove Shafiq, Stokes drew Sarfraz Ahmed into a compulsive hook after a prolonged period of short pitched bowling. Bowling with the second new ball, he hit the well-set Babar Azam on the forearm and left him in considerable discomfort, and the Pakistan man was forced to leave the field on 68. Yet again irony was the most prominent feeling – Babar averages over 45 against the short ball in Tests, compared to 10.66 against full balls. England’s persistence with bowling back of a length was what allowed him to reach his half-century, but also cost him his place at the crease, if not his wicket.
The other Pakistani batsman to make substantial changes to their approach, if not their technique, was the opener Azhar Ali. Azhar’s innings lasted 136 balls, the second longest of the match, and it was patience which dominated his strategy. Typically, Azhar leaves 24% his deliveries against pace, but in the face of English bowlers eager to drag their side back into the match, he left 35%.
In isolation, this could have simply elongated his stay with no obvious means of scoring, but there was a clear plan at work. 73% of Azhar’s runs came on the off-side, which considering he usually scores just 48% through that half of the field, is a staggering switch-up. He insisted, stoically, on refusing to be drawn into attacking the more dangerous straight balls, targeting the wider deliveries shown in the graphic below.
Azhar and Asad put on a magnificent display of how to adapt a fundamentally sound Test match technique in order to prosper in specific conditions. England will have to bat in these conditions tomorrow, against an in-form Mohammad Abbas, and they would do well to take a leaf out of their opponents’ book. In particular, setting oneself up further down the track could be an effective way of approaching Abbas.
As the graphic above makes rather plain, in the last four years no seam bowler (with 20 wickets to their name) has a lower bowling average than Abbas; but none of those bowlers have been slower. If England’s left-handers (for it’s they who make up the majority of Abbas’ Test haul) can take their lead from Shafiq and aim to make contact with the ball around two metres from the stumps, rather than allowing themselves to get too deep in their crease, then they may yet find a way back into this contest. For now, they’ll reflect on a day where the visitors looked more at home, and the hosts looked all at sea.
Ben Jones is an analyst with CricViz. @benjonescricket