The first Test Pakistan played when they were forced to make the UAE their home back in 2010 was in Dubai. After four days of that match, Pakistan found themselves on 109-for-2 needing a heroic performance from someone to survive the fifth day. Instead, they got three. Younis Khan, Azhar Ali and Misbah-ul-Haq combined to bat for 94.1 overs with only Azhar losing his wicket in the process. Thus, began Pakistan’s journey in the desert.
Over the following seven years they did not lose a single series in the Emirates – and one of the reasons behind their success was that they never allowed any other team to emulate what they had themselves done back in 2010. And it wasn’t for a lack of trying either.
When Australia last toured here, four years ago, they found themselves at 59-for-4 with a day left to survive in the first Test. Thanks to fifties from Steven Smith and Mitchell Johnson they would drag the game into the final session, but they would fall 21.5 overs short of securing an unlikely draw in Dubai, with Zulfiqar Babar and Yasir Shah taking nine of the 10 wickets in the fourth innings.
A year later it was England’s turn. Again, Pakistan went into the final day in Dubai after a declaration and a target that had put the win out of the equation for the touring side; again, they required the whole day to get England’s final seven wickets. Fifties from Joe Root and Adil Rashid brought England close, but they fell 39 balls short of an escape. Again, the victory was down to Pakistan’s spin twins – Yasir and Zulfiqar took seven of the wickets in the fourth innings.
A year later, they would follow a similar script, now with a ball with a more pinkish hue. West Indies entered the final day of their day-night Test in Dubai with eight wickets in hand and 251 runs to get – in a better position than what either England or Australia had been. They too fell short though, by 56 runs, and perhaps more agonisingly, by 12 overs.
Almost as a tribute to all this, Pakistan took their show on the road. The last Test Pakistan ever played with Misbah and Younis brought them victory with only six balls left in the game. The Windies entered the final day with nine wickets in hand and just under 300 to get, but a five-for for Yasir undid them. It was an appropriate tribute to all that had come before.
This was the context to the final day in Dubai that Pakistan had for the first Test against Australia. Sarfraz Ahmed was asked the questions Misbah was repeatedly asked, particularly in Dubai, and what he ended up building his legacy on. At the first time of asking, Sarfraz disappointed.
Of course, luck deserted Pakistan on the final day, from edges flying past to missing reviews that would have overturned the umpire’s decision, but Pakistan dug their own grave. The Dubai wicket tends to help spinners on days three and four, but by day five, it’s usually far too slow to elicit a collapse. What the bowling team requires is to consistently chip away at the rearguard, particularly at the start of the day.
Pakistan took three wickets in the first session of day five against Australia in 2014; they took 3 against England in 2015, two versus Windies in 2016 and 3 against the same opponent in Dominica. In each of those escapes, they struck early on the final day, meaning that the rearguard they had to face was from the lower middle order and the tail. None of that happened here today. Pakistan began with Bilal Asif and Wahab Riaz – which meant that despite Bilal’s six-fer in the first innings, Pakistan were holding back their best two bowlers. It took forty minutes for Yasir to have a bowl, while Abbas bowled only one over before drinks in the first session. There was lethargy from Pakistan, an expectation that this under-strength Australia team would fold by itself. By the time Pakistan realised that they were in a dogfight they were playing catch-up. It was in that first session, which ended up wicketless, that Pakistan lost the initiative. Usman Khawaja was set and was going to make his birthplace suffer.
Pakistan struck twice with the new ball after lunch, but again they failed to press their advantage. Abbas didn’t get to have a bowl with new ball till it was 16 overs old, instead, the ball was shared by Mohammad Hafeez and, bizarrely, Haris Sohail. That was the other aspect where Sarfraz will end up being questioned over – ten overs on the final day were bowled by Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq, without either of them threatening at any point. Misbah was often accused of over-bowling his leading spinners, but as Sarfraz’s folly today showed it’s better to over-bowl your best weapons than under-bowl them.
And that’s the shadow that hangs over Sarfraz. Misbah (and later Azhar Ali)’s ODI record meant that the turnaround of the national team in white ball cricket secured Sarfraz’s role as the leader, but now three Tests into his tenure in the Emirates Sarfraz’s record reads: zero wins, one draw and two losses. A land that Misbah turned into a fortress has become a quagmire for Sarfraz. Of course, much of the Pakistani punditocracy took Pakistan’s record in the UAE for granted, but you wouldn’t have expected the team to. Sarfraz was part of each of those four escapes that came before – the expectation was that he had learnt how to deal in such scenarios from his elders. Day 5 at Dubai proved otherwise. Pakistan will hope that this day ends up teaching him the lessons that those victories didn’t.
Of course, it would be idiotic to call for his removal – although that’s a position that’s gaining steam in Pakistan right now. Sarfraz remains Pakistan’s best option both as a wicketkeeper and the captain, both due to his track record and a lack of alternatives. But Pakistan needs scapegoats – in case of anything but a win, there’s always someone who needs to be sacrificed.
And the obvious candidate for that is not Sarfraz.
Wahab Riaz was brought in to the team to play his first match – in any format – for Pakistan in over a year. He was brought in specifically to be the guy who Sarfraz could turn to when the spinners were blunted, and he could provide the pace and reverse swing required to get breakthroughs. It’s a role that he has served successfully before – including being the man-of-the-match in that Dubai win against England in 2015. But he failed here, being spectacularly unspectacular, almost the anti-Wahab in this Test match.
He bowled at under 140kph, kept things tight but rarely threatened. Prior to this, Pakistan had seen two Wahabs – the whirlwind that can take over a game or the rocket launcher with a faulty aim; here he was neither of those. He bowled from a shortened run-up, his pace was lower than it has ever been before, and he neither threatened nor did he get tonked around.
Pakistan got neither the good nor the bad side of Wahab, instead, all they got were a couple of spells that could best be described as “meh.” It’s quite possible that this will be the last Test that Wahab plays for at least the immediate future. He will end up being the sacrificial lamb from this Test match, but there are far bigger questions for Pakistan to answer – questions that they have dealt with successfully before, but appear to have forgotten the answers to. Pakistan went into this series almost seeing it as warm-up to the supposedly much tougher New Zealand series later in the season. Now they are wondering whether after seven years of being unbeaten in the desert they are about to lose everything.
All it takes is one bad day. As Pakistan proved today.