Sarfraz Ahmed’s 94 on the first day in Abu Dhabi was crucial in keeping the hosts in the game. Ben Jones analyses another classic counter-attack from the Pakistan skipper.
Sarfraz Ahmed arrived at the crease at 57-5, with his side reeling. The first innings of an Asian Test is not supposed to be when finger spinners thrive, but Nathan Lyon was in the middle of a match-defining spell; four wickets in six balls had taken Pakistan’s WinViz from 41% to 26%, and the sense of spiralling momentum was gathering pace. After the wonder/debacle in Dubai, Mickey Arthur’s side needed to stop the rot, and the first session could not have been further from that. Lyon wasn’t even bowling that well – just one of those four wickets was more likely to take a delivery than the base rate, according to Wicket Probability. Pakistan were in a hole, and had only themselves to blame.
What followed was, in many ways, a classic Sarfraz innings. We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that Sarfraz comes to the crease after the second new ball has been softened again, and in a flurry of attacking fervour taking the innings to declaration point. He naturally bats at a tempo apart from his countrymen, injecting an urgent intent into a succession of teams who have tended to take it slow and steady.
But to do so with a high-profile series potentially on the line, against the best Test spinner in the world with his tail up, is quite a different prospect. Yet attack he did.
But he didn’t just blast the ball to all parts. His attacking shot percentage of 39% wasn’t particularly high, given that he’s exceeded it five times in his last 11 innings where he’s batted for longer than 20 ball. No, the main strategy behind the innings was about staying busy. He left just 3.8% of the balls bowled to him, less than a quarter of the Test average.
For a while, Sarfraz’s innings was the second longest in the CricViz database to include no leaves. Behind only Steve Smith’s century against Sri Lanka in 2016, Sarfraz’s knock was as busy as could be for his first 115 deliveries, which saw him play at every ball sent down to him. This isn’t a shock. Sarfraz’s record rotating the strike, ticking the scoreboard over, is excellent. In the UAE, he’s dismissed only every 119 times he plays a rotating stroke, comfortably in excess of 84, the average for all players in the country. The Pakistan skipper excels at scoring, but not exploding, in UAE Tests.
However, it’s a skill which has been applied all over the world. Since full ball-by-ball records began to be recorded, in 1999, Sarfraz has the lowest dot-ball percentage of any Test batsman to face 1000 balls. If you’ve ever watched Sarfraz bat and thought that the game seems to speed up when he comes to the crease, you’re right; no player makes things happen more than him, in this regard.
Today, it was brilliantly effective. Without having to take undue risk – his 12.3% false shot percentage is below the Test average – he was able to pull his side through a tough period where the game could have been lost. When he departed, playing one of his few loose strokes trying to hoik Marnus Labuschagne over mid-wicket, Pakistan’s WinViz had risen back to 45%. On top of this, his departure from the crease with the bat wasn’t the end of his impact on the day – a stunning, balletic catch to dismiss Usman Khawaja just before the end of the day boosted WinViz above 50% for the first time in the Test. From a huge low ebb, Pakistan had essentially recovered, and for that they can thanks their captain.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.