'Be careful what you wish for' is a phrase that is relevant to many a Pakistani cricket fan. A number of them had claimed to be tired of the 'tuk-tuk' approach by Misbah-ul-Haq and his teammates and some could not wait for the former captain to retire. Despite leading Pakistan to the No 1 Test ranking, Misbah was hardly flavour of the month for a large number of Pakistani cricket lovers. They asked for a more aggressive approach, they asked for more positivity from the team, they wanted a dynamic style of cricket and they wanted a leader who would ensure that his team attacked the opposition.
So up popped Sarfraz Ahmed to take the helm after Misbah called it a day. To say his reign as skipper got off to an inauspicious start would be a huge understatement. Pakistan's cricket in Abu Dhabi was at times baffling, the tactics mystifying, their team selection bewildering and the approach when batting was nothing short of painstaking and muddled.
Such is the volatility and unpredictability of the Pakistan cricket team that any result was possible on the final day in Abu Dhabi. Sri Lanka were on the back foot with four wickets lost at the end of the fourth day and did not have a lot of batting to come. Stronger and more consistent teams would have gone into the fifth day as overwhelming favourites against what was on paper, a very weak and inexperienced Sri Lankan team. Without Kumar Sangakkara or Mahela Jayawardene, this Sri Lankan team was there for the taking, but after a tremendous effort from Yasir Shah and his bowling colleagues, Pakistan's fragile batting let things slip and let the Sri Lankans back into a match that Pakistan should have wrapped up comfortably.
Admittedly, the wicket in Abu Dhabi was not conducive to dashing stroke-play, but the way the Pakistani batsmen went into their shells in both innings had an ominous feel about it and played into the hands of the wily fox Rangana Herath, who made a mockery of the Pakistani batsmen at times. Herath must be licking his lips every time he comes up against Pakistan and over the years, he has helped himself to 100 Test wickets against his favourite opposition.
Up against a fifth-day wicket having some uneven bounce and taking spin, and Herath with his array of tricks ideally suited to these conditions, the Pakistani batsmen were found wanting. With only 136 required to win, it needed a calculated and positive approach from one of the top-order batsmen, but none of them applied themselves. A game plan that included attacking intent from one of the top four would have been ideal, but there was no thinking out-of-the-box from the Pakistani think-tank. Some mental grit and application was required, instead the inexperienced players showed that they were novices at this level and when the going got tough, they fell short and capitulated. The experienced Azhar Ali was the key to victory and when he failed in Pakistan's second innings, the result was almost inevitable.
The impressive Haris Sohail who was making his Test debut and playing in a first-class match for the first time since 2014, batted like a seasoned veteran and showed some resolve and promise but when he was out, the result was a mere formality. Despite the defeat, Sohail can look back on an impressive first Test match and he is one of a very small number of Pakistani players who can walk away from Abu Dhabi with their heads held high and with some pride in their performance. His career has been ruined by injury to date, but Pakistani cricket followers will be hoping that the injury curse that has plagued him is now finally over and he can settle down and produce the sort of performances of which he is capable in the coming years.
On the other hand, the Abu Dhabi Test match was one to forget for Asad Shafiq. He looked uncomfortable at the crease, short of confidence and looked well below par. He dropped important catches and did not appear to be himself. Asad has been an almost ever-present in the Pakistan Test team since 2010 and the hopes were that together with Ali, they could take over the mantle left by Misbah and Younis Khan. Pakistan now needs Asad to up his game and become a world-beater and not someone who bats in the shadow of the best batsmen in the team. Pakistan needs Asad to become that best batsman and only time will tell if he has the skill and mental toughness to be the go-to batsman for Pakistan.
It will invariably take time for the young Pakistani batsmen to settle into their roles and losing players of the calibre of Misbah and Younis will affect any team. Change will not happen overnight and the selectors, media and fans will have to be patient; but 'patience' isn't a word that is very popular in Pakistani cricketing circles. There may be some bad days before good days arrive.
However, the likes of Babar Azam, Shan Masood and Sami Aslam will need to learn quickly and improve their stroke-play and shot selection. They do not have the cushion of the two now-retired veterans on which to fall back and a lack of concentration will now become more glaring without Misbah and Younis there to tidy up and cover the youngsters' errors and shortcomings.