As a morose looking Misbah-ul-Haq recently made his sullen way back to the pavilion in the all-important second innings during the first Test match against New Zealand in Christchurch, journalists from around the globe were probably half-way through writing the usual “Pakistan batsmen fail again in alien conditions” type match reports.
Predictably, the contents of these reports would have centered around overblown descriptions of good bowling performances by the Pakistan bowlers but would also contain ample references to issues that the visiting batsmen have had against the 'moving' ball during recent times.
Invariably, such news items would also include references to the likes of Zaheer Abbas or Javed Miandad or even Inzamam-ul-Haq who on previous tours may have outshone their hosts to deliver magnificent match-winning performances. The belief that the beleaguered current crop of Pakistan batsmen, based on their previous world-class performances would come good soon, would be another theme which is quite common in such news articles.
However, as those who live in the real world agree upon, hoping for Pakistan batsmen to do well away from Asian conditions is simply an exercise in futility, a fool’s errand which inevitably ends in tears. To think that this is a new phenomenon, somehow borne out of Pakistan cricket’s inability to host international teams is an incorrect assumption as well.
The power of Pakistan's bowling compared to the Wasim Akram-Waqar Younis era where Pakistan bowlers would have easily delivered soul destroying performances has diminished considerably. Putting sub one-hundred and fifty totals and then getting the opposition out for lesser totals used to be a realistic expectation which is not true anymore.
What the Pakistan team of today is faced with is dependence on big innings from a few usual suspects in the shape of Younis Khan, Misbah and Azhar Ali in Tests or some unlikely quick-fire runs from the likes of Sharjeel Khan in the shorter forms of the game. The rest of the script then consists of Yasir Shah heroics or some stupendous display by the fast-bowlers to take the game away from the opposition. All this of course is true on Asian style batting friendly pitches. The term “lateral movement” or “seaming conditions” are not generally associated with what is found in home conditions and when exposed to, what are euphemistically described as 'foreign' conditions, Pakistan batsmen generally fail in a humiliating fashion.
In the olden days when a video analyst was a luxury and where the sum-total of knowledge of opposition bowlers was confined to a few outdated newspaper cuttings, there could have been an argument for Pakistan batsmen struggling in alien conditions against unfamiliar opponents. However, in today’s world where the knowledge of any bowler’s full armoury is one Google search away, the element of surprise is no longer a factor which makes it even harder to understand the predicament of visiting Pakistan batsmen. There is also certainly no lack of technical help in terms of a dedicated batting coach and decent training facilities for Pakistan batsmen.
So, what ails the Pakistan batsmen on tour in conditions where the ball is likely to deviate more than the gun-barrel straight direction they are used to in home conditions? The theory that it is less of a technical issue and more of a mental one does hold some water.
The body-language of some players, once Pakistan lost the toss in their recent loss to New Zealand, seemed to paint a picture of a team which does not believe it has the capability to battle in such conditions. The 'caught in the headlights' syndrome of some batsmen meant that even easy scoring opportunities were missed due to anxiety over batting conditions. Exactly how batsmen of the calibre of Younis Khan who is closing in on the ten-thousand run mark in Tests could have capitulated to the debutant Colin de Grandhomme and ended up with a paltry three runs in this first Test against New Zealand defies imagination. Was the bowling so unplayable and conditions so alien that players like Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali who score hundreds for the fun of it in familiar conditions were made to look like rookies by a new kid on the block?
Or perhaps, there is a more plausible explanation to all this. The Pakistan Cricket Board, who pulled out all the stops for the tour of England in the shape of camps and an early arrival in the country to allow players to acclimatize with conditions, did nothing of that sort for the tour of New Zealand. The result of the first Test was thus a testament to an all round lack of preparation and could well have been different with more forethought by the PCB. Add to that the early summer in New Zealand which offers cold and unfamiliar conditions for Pakistan players and the whole planning aspect of some of the foreign tours becomes questionable.
Of course, the fact that Pakistan batsmen’s actual batting skills may not be designed for playing on pitches which offer such movement could well be the reason. Anyone following Pakistan’s premier domestic tournament, the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, would be able to see a worrying trend of low scores wherever the pitches have aided the bowlers. The ability to grind it out and take the game to the opposition seems to have gone missing in domestic batsmen and that weakness is perhaps manifesting itself in the performances overseas.
There is no denying that whenever Pakistan batsmen have produced excellent performances overseas, their bowlers have delivered victories with ease. The concern is that such batting heroics are few and far between. With the two most senior batsmen, Misbah and Younis, on the verge of retirement the onus to take the battle to the opposition is fast shifting to the younger generation but the continued weakness to master bowling away from home, especially where seam and movement hold sway will continue to reverse any progress the Pakistan team will make. They may be rated number two in Test matches as of now but a few more repeats of Christchurch could see them slide down the rankings.
Only time will tell if the lessons of Christchurch are learnt, but the bigger concern is that Pakistan seems to be producing a generation of batsmen who are inept at handling any sort of lateral movement.
Saj Sadiq (@Saj_PakPassio