After the remarkable events in Dubai, Pakistan somehow head to Abu Dhabi with the series level. Ben Jones analyses to what extent Pakistan were to blame for the epic rearguard in Dubai, and what they need to do differently in the second Test.
How much of what happened in the fourth innings at Dubai was Pakistan’s fault? That will be the question reverberating around the mind of every Pakistan player, coach, and fan, as we move to Abu Dhabi for the second Test in this brief but already enthralling series. How many of those 134 wicketless overs were wicketless because of the genius of Usman Khawaja’s batting, and how many were wicketless because of strategic, technical, and temperamental failings on the part of Mickey Arthur’s side?
Before we dive in too deep, it’s important to remember that regardless of the redoubled efforts of the visitors, Pakistan’s batting line-up were utterly dominant in Dubai; only once since the start of 2017 have they played a lower percentage of false shots than the 8.9% they managed in the first Test, as demonstrative as any figure in showing how little Australia’s bowlers troubled them. This was never a game Sarfraz Ahmed’s side were in danger of losing. However, the fact that Pakistan have only recorded a lower false shot percentage as a bowling side in three Tests since the start of 2016 is a cause for concern – for all the hype, when it came to the crunch, they were toothless.
In part, this was due to the conditions, less the fact that the surface offered little to the bowlers and more that it didn’t appear to deteriorate across the five days. In the second innings, Yasir Shah averaged 5.2° of spin, exactly the same as in the first innings, while both Mohammad Hafeez and Bilal Asif found less spin second time around; whilst this could well be influenced by the physical demands of being in the field for 140 consecutive overs, it’s a clear indicator that the surface wasn’t breaking up, a crucial and generally reliable element to consider when planning a strategy for UAE Tests. The acceleration of the game in the last 1.5 days is a classic feature of five day matches in the country, and its absence in Dubai last week was unexpected, and influential. For that, Pakistan cannot be blamed.
However, they can – and should – be blamed for going away from the tactics which brought them success in the first innings, which set about a collapse and dismissed Australia for just 202. As much as the climactic rearguard showed that Tim Paine’s side had the ability to play cautious, orthodox defensive cricket, the first innings showed nothing of the sort – six of the ten wickets to fall were the result of an attacking stroke, up on the Test average of 44% of first innings wickets falling in such a manner. To a greater or lesser extent, Pakistan were able to play on Australia’s patience, and no player better exemplified this than Mohammad Abbas. In his distinctive style, Abbas targeted the stumps unerringly in the first innings, with 34% of his deliveries projected to either hit or clip the wicket. It was mightily effective, the Australians unable to get him away – Abbas has never bowled more than four overs in a Test innings with a lower economy rate than he did in the first dig at Dubai – and the pressure proved too great to withstand. The four wickets he claimed appeared to have the match all but won on that third day.
Yet in the second innings, only 26% of Abbas’ deliveries were predicted to hit the stumps. Surely, with invariable bounce traditionally coming into play, one would expect a seamer to target the stumps more – but there was no such pattern for Abbas. His economy rate rose from 1.5rpo to 2.07rpo, perhaps the seductive presence of reverse swing (his average movement in the second innings was 1.4°, up from 1° in the first) causing his focus to move away from the destructive insistence on hitting a good line and length. The sense of Abbas operating as a spinner, toiling away at one end whilst the more explosive Wahab Riaz and Yasir Shah worked at the other, was as absent in the second innings as it was defining in the first. Pakistan need to have faith in the ‘Misbah-era’ solidity which saw them dominate in these conditions; patience served them well in the first three days, and there was no reason to abandon it.
Putting aside the success or lack thereof that they found with it, it is reasonable to say that Pakistan did superbly in finding that reverse-swing. In none of the last 19 Tests in the UAE has any side found more swing in the fourth innings than the 1.5° Wahab and Abbas averaged in Dubai. This could be read in one of two ways – either Pakistan were exhibiting extraordinary skills on a flat deck, not getting the requisite luck, or they were squandering unusually high degrees of movement with under-par bowling performances. Either way, it does hint at a more aggressive style that would reject the more reactive tactics of Misbah’s captaincy, a potentially progressive move – but one which did not need to be introduced at such a crucial juncture.
One vital link between that Misbah-era and this one is Yasir Shah. In his first 11 Tests in the UAE, under Misbah’s captaincy, Shah took 71 wickets at an average of 24.90, an average that drops to just 18.10 in the second innings; in the two Tests he’s played in the UAE under Sarfraz’s captaincy, he’s taken 12 wickets at an average of 35.41. Injury issues have no doubt played their part in this brief dip, but the effect it has had on Pakistan’s overall pattern of play is clear. The flurry of wickets at the end of the Test is crucial for winning in these conditions, and whilst Yasir looked to be going through the gears as he claimed the wickets of Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle during the final moments of the Dubai Test, he rarely looked as threatening as he has been in recent years. This could be for any number of reasons, but there have been some changes to his game in the last 12 months which could be behind it. In those first 11 matches under Misbah in the UAE, his average speed was 84.8kph, but has dropped to 82.2kph since the start of 2017. That zip through the air, and the resulting kick off the pitch, is a key part of Yasir’s threat, and any evidence that implies his bowling speed is slowing should be reflected on. It’s not affecting his drift, maintaining an average of 1.6° of movement across those two eras, but on the tired surfaces of Dubai and Abu Dhabi a spinner bringing that external element of pace, just as it is with a seam bowler, can be a crucial factor. If physically capable of doing so, Yasir could do with getting that nip back when he hands his cap over in Abu Dhabi.
On top of these technical issues, fortune played its part in Dubai. In the first innings, Australia lost a wicket for every eight false shots they played; in the second innings, it was a wicket every 14 false shots. Given that in the last two years of Test cricket the average wicket is equivalent to nine false shots, Pakistan were slightly lucky in the first innings, and significantly unlucky in the second – though this is a forgiving version of events, and one which doesn’t ascribe blame to Sarfraz Ahmed for not setting fields that would be considered attacking enough to punish these errors. It’s easy to criticise Sarfraz’s increasingly exasperated demeanour across the final innings of the Test, but we mustn’t be too lead by results – if the scowls were on the face of a victorious Virat Kohli, they could just as easily be held up as inspirationally high-standards. Sarfraz wasn’t excellent, but the impact of his strategic errors were minimal, I would argue.
The sheer number of records that Usman Khawaja broke throughout his innings is testament to what an outlier it was. Resistance of that kind, for whatever reason, is rare. Equally, it was an outlier in terms of Khawaja’s own ability – he scored more runs in that fourth innings century than he had done in Asia in his whole career before Dubai. But on reflection, away from the scolding-hot narrative of Khawaja saving Australia in spinning conditions against the country of his birth, a more even apportioning of blame seems fair. Pakistan were seduced by the reverse-swing they were finding, their spinners increasingly frustrated by the docile pitch, and they moved away from their strategic base. For that they deserve criticism.
However, you’d suggest that Pakistan need to do little more than revert to their first innings tactics (perhaps not even changing the team, save for Imam-ul-Haq’a replacement) if they are to come out as winners in Abu Dhabi. Khawaja is unlikely to be able to repeat his heroics – though my, what a performance it would be if he could – and Australia’s batting line-up hasn’t improved in the space of one Test. Justin Langer may be able inspire his troops to see Khawaja’s century as similar to Alastair Cook’s in India back in 2012, where an individual triumph set the template for collective success – but that’s unlikely, given the pool of talent available. If Abbas can stick to the plan, if Yasir can find that extra 3kph, and calm heads can prevail, then Pakistan should take the second Test and the series.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.