Pakistan will line up against Australia without the talismanic Mohammad Amir, but as Ben Jones points out, the absence of the left-armer could see Pakistan improve as a whole.
On the face of it, the absence of Mohammad Amir from Pakistan’s 18-man squad for the series against Australia feels momentous. Since the retirement of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, Amir is arguably the most recognisable Pakistan cricketer on the planet. His performances on the big stage, from when he blitzed England in 2010, to his battle with Virat Kohli in the 2017 Champions Trophy Final, are among the most memorable of any in the modern era. The decision by Mickey Arthur to not include him in the squad is a marker, and one which will undoubtedly have repercussions off the pitch.
However, there has been less resistance to the decision than one might expect, because in reality, Amir’s reputation has far exceeded his overall returns for some time now. In the series against Sri Lanka last October, the last to take place in the United Arab Emirates, Amir took only one wicket. He is a man renowned globally for sensational spells of attacking bowling, but since the start of 2016, the only Pakistan seamer with a worse strike rate in Tests is Rahat Ali.
To an extent, Amir’s been unlucky. Only seven bowlers have seen more catches go down off their bowling since he returned to Test cricket, and all of them have played more matches in that time. If every one had been taken, perhaps we would be talking about Amir as a pivotal figure for Pakistan ahead of a high-profile series.
But they weren’t taken, and right now the decision to drop Amir makes sense. He is not the bowler he was. However, the real justification can be found when the potential balance of the attack is considered. In all likelihood, Pakistan will field Faheem Ashraf as their third seamer, with Yasir Shah and Shadab Khan forming the bulk of the attack. However, given Shadab’s immense potential as a batsman, they could well take an attacking option, leaving out Faheem and batting Shadab at No.7, fielding an aggressive trio of seamers – Wahab Riaz, Hasan Ali and Mohammad Abbas.
It makes sense to go in this direction. If Australia are going to compete in this series, it’ll be because their batting has over-performed, and focusing on limiting the opportunity for such over-performance is logical, snuffing out the resistance before it begins. Equally, the balance of this potential seam attack is unlike anything Pakistan have been able to field in recent times, because each of the three components offers something genuinely unique.
Mohammad Abbas bowls the most good length balls of any Pakistan seamer, with 53% of his deliveries in that tricky in-between zone. In this regard, he stands out not only amongst his countrymen; in the past year or so, Abbas has been one of the most consistent, accurate bowlers in the world. Since Abbas debuted, only Stuart Broad has pitched a higher proportion of his deliveries on a good line and a good length.
Hasan Ali is a man who’s made his reputation as an ODI star, and that shows in his red ball strategy. More than any other Pakistan seamer since the start of 2016, he targets the stumps; 18% of his deliveries in Test cricket would have gone on to hit them. He also finds the most swing of any Pakistan bowler in this period, the average of 0.98° a high figure considering that more than half of his deliveries have been in the UAE or the West Indies.
Wahab Riaz’s reputation as an ‘enforcer’ is justified; since the start of 2016, no Pakistan seamer bowls the most short balls, pitching his deliveries 8m or shorter 46% of the time. He’s also the quickest Pakistan bowler, his average speed in that time a seriously sharp 138.8kph. So as a threesome, Abbas, Hasan and Wahab has everything you need; a consistent line and length bowler, a swing bowler, and a rapid bang-it-in-option.
The reshuffle might make Pakistan a more potent new ball bowling unit as well. Amir has opened the bowling in every Test match he’s played, and his presence in the side necessarily demands that he is given the new ball; however, he averages just 38.09 in the first ten overs of Test innings since he returned to international cricket. With Amir out of the side, Sarfraz arguably has greater flexibility in this area. The record of the two main seam options suggests that Pakistan are perfectly capable of coping without Amir in this regard, given that since the start of 2016, Wahab Riaz averages 16.25 in the first 10 overs of the innings; Abbas averages 16.33.
Even aside from the seam options, the greater flexibility of the attack may allow Sarfraz to turn to Yasir Shah early, the spinner averaging just 16.57 in the opening 10 overs and perhaps representing an aggressive early option.
Of course, the intangible element which boosts Amir’s reputation is that he bowls unplayable deliveries, that could get through any defence. However, even in this regard there is little evidence to support his reputation; of the four main seamers we’ve been discussing Amir has just the third best record when it comes to penetrating batsmen’s defences. If Sarfraz needs a breakthrough and wants someone to try and bowl jaffas, Abbas and Hasan will be able to do just fine.
In truth, it’s hard to make a case that Pakistan will miss Amir too much in terms of his returns on the scorecard. They may miss his fiery character, his combative approach to the game, which can inspire those around him to aspire for greater performance, but in terms of the wickets column, they should be able to cope. Hopefully when he returns to the side – which you’d imagine will happen at some point, regardless of how this series goes – he’ll be new and improved once more, but for now, Mohammad Amir Mk III will have to wait in the wings.
Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.