If you saw Pakistan’s pace bowlers reduce England to 12 for 3 in five overs earlier this month, and wondered how it was possible that very attack appeared so comprehensively helpless against a 22-year-old and a supposed imposter in Test cricket for the best part of a hundred overs, a stat about Babar Azam might shed some light.
Before the Covid-19 pandemic shut down all cricket, Babar was the world’s most in-form Test batsman, and had scored five hundreds and six half-centuries in 10 Tests. The centuries had come in Pakistan and the UAE, as well as Brisbane, with a 97 in Adelaide. That was to say nothing of the demolition Dale Steyn suffered at his hands at Supersport Park in a Test series in 2018-19 where the pitches were, even by South African standards, exceptionally spicy. He smashed 10 boundaries in a 24-ball burst against Steyn, scoring a breezy 79-ball 71. Around him, 15 wickets fell on the first day, and the game was done before tea on the third.
While he seems to have found the keys to Test batting, the same player has managed just three hundreds in 36 first-class games in Pakistan. He averages four runs fewer in first-class cricket than Test cricket – where his average is already depressed by a surprisingly slow start to his career. And none of this is unusual.
Batting in domestic cricket in Pakistan is hard. Domestic pitches have been increasingly tweaked to favour fast bowlers, with a year-on-year decrease in average first innings totals in recent times, and a corresponding decrease in the number of spinners featuring in the top wickets charts (not since 2014 have more than two spinners featured among the top 30 wicket-takers).
In the 2018-19 Quaid-e-Azam trophy, more than half the teams batting first failed to reach 250. In 2017, four of the XI, including Mohammad Abbas, taking part in this Test were part of a game that didn’t see three figures reached in any of the four innings. Not a single wicket fell to a spinner.
There is little about that which suggests bowlers frequently find themselves in situations that require 359-run partnerships to be broken. Two of Pakistan’s trio of fast bowlers lack much experience anyway, and most of what they do have is geared towards running through an opposition quickly. It may explain why they fell away somewhat spectacularly after Jos Buttler and Zak Crawley settled on a somewhat lifeless wicket, but also shed light on their torpidity with a second new ball that looked like it might have been ready to cooperate had someone known what to do with it.
Pakistan took the new ball immediately yesterday, and conceded 15 runs off the first two deliveries, including three no-balls and four leg byes; with the first new ball, it wasn’t until the 51st over that Pakistan leaked an extra. It was more harbinger than anomaly; Shaheen in particular would struggle throughout the rest of the England innings, bowling full and wide begging to be cover driven, only to over-correct for England to clip him into the onside. Fourteen such balls produced 24 runs, epitomised by conceding three boundaries in an over to Chris Woakes off the same line and length he had plundered for so many in that match-winning – potentially series winning – 84 at Old Trafford.
It is unfair, perhaps, to single out Shaheen, whose poor games are impressively widely spaced out for someone of his age, but Pakistan found themselves in a nearly identical situation in Adelaide last year. After an opener called Burns (Joe on that occasion) nicked off early, Australia piled on a 361-run stand, the bowling attack – three of the four part of this game – becoming progressively toothless as the runs accumulated. As here, the batsmen taking the attack to Pakistan caused them to go into their shell bowling and in the field, and Shaheen aside, no bowler managed a single wicket in 127 overs.
Naseem didn’t play that Test and was supremely unlucky not to have a wicket to show for the sheer number of times he beat both Buttler and Crawley’s outside edge. That he stuck to that plan is a sign of the speed with which he is demonstrating the sort of patience usually accompanied by several years more experience than he has. It will be one of the more encouraging sights for fast bowling coach Waqar Younis as Naseem looks to transform into a consistently brilliant bowler, and not simply a bowler of brilliant deliveries.
It is on days like these, though, that the extreme youth of the two thirds of this bowling attack, begin to show. Naseem’s visible frustration – it appeared at times he was on the verge of tears – is best concealed from an opposition, and though Shaheen might be the anointed leader of the attack, this won’t be the last difficult day he endures as he continues to develop. Abbas arguably got the greatest use out of the second new ball, wicketless though he might have been, but movement once it gets softer, a necessary tool for someone who bowls at that pace, remains elusive.
The fast-bowling trio may have left no doubt they have the ability to prosper at this level, and have given a decent enough account of themselves over the three Tests, but they only combined for 12 of the 26 English wickets that fell. In England, of all places, that ratio simply isn’t good enough for an attack Pakistan will look to get the most out of for the best part of the next decade. England’s pace attack, for comparison, is responsible for 27 of the 28 wickets that have fallen to bowlers thus far.
It’s also worth reflecting on the crucially sensitive role Waqar Younis, in his third stint as head or bowling coach, has been entrusted with. Pakistan continue to produce wonders of fast bowling season upon season, but no pair has managed to match combine quality with longevity since arguably he, alongside Wasim Akram, called it a day. There is no Pakistan fast bowler among the top 26 most prolific pacers since September 2010, when the spot-fixing scandal broke out.
And while Waqar, who alongside head coach Misbah-ul-Haq was appointed a year ago, has had enough time to get his feet under the table, it is not yet obvious that he’s been able to instil some of the same qualities in his charges as he was so obviously blessed with. Naseem’s gather is reminiscent of Waqar’s, but not yet the reverse swing with the old ball that came so naturally to the coach.
There hasn’t been that learning curve Pakistan promised following that wretched Test series in Australia; the impotence of the pacers with the softer ball remains just as poignant. The strategic lapses as recently as Old Trafford were repeated regularly through the day; Woakes wasn’t tied up or pushed back, and Crawley was spoonfed the half-volley for the cover drive far too regularly. There may well be a longer-term plan, but Pakistan aren’t historically renowned for showing patience with either player or coach.
Of course, it doesn’t help when it turns out that 22-year-old is really rather good, and the supposed imposter is the real deal after all.