Pakistan vs Sri Lanka: Curious selection and puzzling decisions mar Sarfraz Ahmed's debut series as Test skipper

Fortress UAE has fallen, or so the headlines will scream for a few days as passionate followers of Pakistan cricket take time to absorb the news of their first Test series loss in the UAE since 2002

Saj Sadiq, October 11, 2017

Fortress UAE has fallen, or so the headlines will scream for a few days as passionate followers of Pakistani cricket take time to absorb the news of their first Test series loss in the UAE since 2002.

Sri Lanka, to their immense credit, looked like a spent force prior to this series but transformed themselves into a formidable unit once they got the measure of a below-par and disorganised Pakistan Test team. Winning and losing in sports is a given, but the manner of capitulation matters and that has left Pakistan fans scratching their heads and wondering about the causes of their Test team’s demise in the UAE, in a series they were expected to win with ease.

Whilst the visitor’s triumph cannot be downplayed in any shape or form, there is a strong case for laying the blame on Pakistan’s shock defeat on some curious and puzzling selection decisions which may well go a long way in explaining the 2-0 Test whitewash at the hands of Sri Lanka.

Sri Lanka players celebrate the dismissal of Mohammad Amir. AP

Sri Lanka players celebrate the dismissal of Mohammad Amir. AP

As has been apparent to any observer of Pakistan’s recent Test history, the reliance on two dependable work-horses in the shape of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan has been the basis of their more than commendable record on the placid pitches of the UAE. What obviously went unnoticed or was not fully appreciated every time the Pakistan team lifted a series trophy was the immense role the two stalwarts would play in rescuing, stabilising and then propelling the Pakistan innings to ultimately match-winning scores.

The retirement of Misbah and Younis, whilst providing space for newcomers to make names for themselves, also exposed the soft underbelly of the Pakistan team. The middle order that had for years balanced the need for recovering from regular disastrous starts with providing the platform for big scores was now devoid of its most important ingredients.

What Pakistan needed was a rethink of its strategy and to bring in openers who could provide the kind of starts which would help the new middle order settle in. The selection of Shan Masood was a curious one as it seems that he has the same technical flaws in his batting that he had the last time he was dropped from international cricket. The Pakistan think-tank felt that Azhar Ali who had regularly opened in previous times was best suited for the No 3 slot. Whilst this strategy did work in the first innings of the first and second Tests, it failed miserably overall.

For reasons best known to Azhar, he failed to make any real impact in the second Test possibly due to the weight of expectations and the stress of trying to balance the need to hold the innings together as well as to attack the opposition bowlers. He would probably have been a bit more relaxed if he didn't have to worry about Asad Shafiq whose failures in the first Test probably turned him into a walking wicket. Shafiq's strange desire to defend at all costs saw him put in some disappointing performances in three innings of the series. When he did decide to come out of his self-imposed shell in the second innings in Dubai, he was a changed player but it happened all too late for a beleaguered Pakistan batting lineup.

Babar Azam’s rise in the limited-overs formats has been great news for Pakistan but his disappointments in the longer format of the game are evident and a case for the consistent Usman Salahuddin who carried drinks for the tour to have played in the all-important second Test was a strong one. It appeared that the Pakistan team management, confronted with a possible series loss, was paralysed with fear and chose the easy route. Azam’s eight runs in Dubai — consisting of an undignified duck in the second innings — was a good example of what a low-on-confidence player can do to himself, and this should have been spotted by the coach and captain beforehand.

In his post-match comments after the defeat in Dubai, Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed was unequivocal in his blame on the batsmen for his side’s defeat. He repeated the fact that the inability to capitalsze on good starts was a reason why his team could not get to the big scores which had been norm during Misbah’s reign in the UAE. But what Sarfaraz seemed to gloss over was the fact that the Pakistan batting order only faced such high scores due to the failure of the bowling lineup.

Yasir Shah bowled close to 152 overs for his 16 wickets in the series which is commendable for someone who was close to being ignored by the selectors due to fitness issues, but reflects badly on the effectiveness of the rest of the bowling attack and also raises questions why a second spinner was not picked.

Over the years, Pakistan has always favoured a two-man spin attack in the UAE but were possibly carried away by their successes in England during the Champions Trophy, decided to invest in a three-man pace attack with just one specialist spinner. They suffered a defeat in the first Test with the same type of attack and surprisingly decided to persist with it in the second Test with disastrous consequences.

Bilal Asif or Mohammad Asghar could have been brought in to help Shah in the second Test, but Mickey Arthur and Sarfraz chose to bring in Wahab Riaz for an injured Hasan Ali. While Wahab did do some damage to the Sri Lankans in the second innings of the day/night Test in Dubai, the many runs he gave away in the first innings possibly put too much pressure on Pakistan’s batting lineup. Mohammad Amir’s injury appeared to be an open secret, but for reasons best known to the Pakistan team management, he was selected for the second Test only to limp off during the first innings and become a spectator for the rest of the match. He did make a cameo appearance as the last rites were being performed for his side’s innings.

No amount of praise is enough to congratulate the visiting Sri Lanka team for their performance. They bowled and batted with conviction and were clearly a team who had a point to prove, which they did. In his defence, one could argue that this was Sarfraz’s debut series as Test captain and he could be forgiven for making a few tactical mistakes, but lessons need to be learnt quickly regarding team selection, tactics and how best to utilise the players at his disposal.

The series against Sri Lanka raised more questions than answers for Pakistan:

Why were out-of-form batsmen selected?
Why were clearly unfit and injured players selected?
Why were batsmen persisted with who were struggling?
Why wasn't a second frontline spinner played?

These questions are obvious to many and can be linked to Pakistan suffering their humiliating loss to Sri Lanka. Will lessons be learnt? Only time will tell.

Updated Date: Oct 11, 2017

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