Pakistan batting in a tense and closely-fought Test match after losing early wickets, with another Misbah-ul-Haq-Younis Khan rescue act taking the side to a score of safety. For most followers of Pakistani cricket, it was a storyline that they had become familiar with in the Test format for many years
But like all good things, that golden phase of Pakistan cricket also reached its logical end when both stalwarts, with some magnificent performances to their name, retired with dignity and pride after guiding their side to a historic Test series victory against the West Indies in May 2017.
During the intervening months, the emphasis shifted squarely to the shorter formats with Pakistan’s victorious Champions Trophy campaign and the landmark home series against World XI, the focus now is back to the longest format with the upcoming two-match Test series in UAE against the touring Sri Lanka side.
Whilst general interest in a ‘home’ Test series being played in the UAE has been on the decline for a few years now, the series against Sri Lanka may ignite some curiosity as it will also be the debut series as Pakistan Test captain for Sarfraz Ahmed.
Known for his aggressive style of captaincy which involves a regular tongue-lashing on his own players should they err on the field, the 30-year-old Karachiite has undoubtedly endeared himself to the fans and his team by leading them to a string of series victories in the limited-overs formats starting with the home series against the West Indies, the tour of the Caribbean, winning the Champions Trophy and most recently in the Independence Cup in Lahore.
Given that Test matches have different requirements in terms of strategy and temperament, the first Test in Abu Dhabi, which starts on the 28 September, will present a unique and tough challenge for Sarfraz’s leadership skills.
His ability to show patience with his teammates will test his soft skills to the maximum as well as his understanding of the game. Spending many hours behind the stumps in the 36 Tests that he has appeared in so far, he has played under the captaincy of the likes of Misbah and Mohammad Yousuf, and both would have given him some insight into the demands of Test cricket. That experience should be on display in Abu Dhabi, which will prove vital for both Sarfraz as well as for Pakistan.
The 16-member Pakistan Test squad has a slightly unfamiliar look to it, more so due to the absence of legends Misbah and Younis, as well as the inclusion of five new names. In head coach Mickey Arthur’s words, the team that steps onto the field on Thursday will inaugurate a ‘new chapter’ in the history of Pakistan cricket.
The safety net provided by the presence of the two veterans will not be cast this time around, and it will undoubtedly be a supreme test of skills and perseverance for the likes of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq aside from the leader, who will now form the backbone of a somewhat brittle Pakistan batting line-up.
Whilst Babar Azam has shown great strength of character in his nascent Test career, the Pakistan team will look for him to step up and convert those good starts into innings of significance. In Usman Salahuddin and Haris Sohail, Pakistan will look for more support in their middle-order. Usman is a consistent performer in domestic cricket and has shown steady progress with each passing season, and deserves his chance in the starting XI. The injury-hit Sohail can provide the skipper with some variety if the requirements are for a southpaw in the middle-order.
Azhar will undoubtedly now be required to play the role of the leader in the batting unit and is likely to move back to number three. The choice of openers appears to be the left-handed duo of Sami Aslam and Shan Masood who should be able to hold their own on the docile pitches of the UAE.
Whether Pakistan choose to pick a balanced 'two-pacer-two-spinner' attack into the games will be dependent largely on the nature of the pitches, but it is inconceivable that any Pakistan Test bowling line-up will be without the services of Mohammad Amir or Yasir Shah — who is on the verge becoming the fastest spinner to 150 wickets in Tests. The selectors may also have an eye on giving Mohammad Abbas more chances to show his worth on slow tracks, with Hasan Ali also a good option if reverse-swing will be a factor.
Regardless of what bowling attack Pakistan fields during the series, and despite the batting-friendly nature of the pitches, a Sri Lanka side which has recently struggled for form and consistency should, in theory, be easy prey for a side that considers UAE its fortress.
Apart from established names in the Pakistan squad, followers of the game would be very interested in seeing some of the five uncapped players, including the likes of Mir Hamza, Bilal Asif and Mohammad Asghar, make their first Test appearance for Pakistan. A series played on UAE pitches would be the ideal opportunity to blood some young talent and one would expect coach Arthur and Sarfraz to make some interesting decisions in this regard.
With Pakistan languishing at sixth in the Test rankings, it will be important for the new captain to find his feet in the most testing format of the game as soon as possible. In a sense, his job would be slightly easier as Pakistan take on a Sri Lankan side low on confidence in the familiar environment of the UAE.
The tried and tested ‘score big and unleash your spinners’ approach will probably be put to good use again by Pakistan in the two Test matches and a series victory for the home-side should be achieved. Whilst the visitors may seem an easy opposition given its recent record, Sarfraz and Co will be well advised to proceed with caution as Dinesh Chandimal’s men will be hurting after recent criticism and disappointing performances.