The remarkable turnaround of Pakistan cricket was swiftly completed as they came back from a shock defeat against Zimbabwe and brought the high-flying Proteas back down to earth with a seven-wicket win in the first match of their two-Test series with South Africa.
This was Pakistan’s second Test win under Dav Whatmore since he took over early last year (the first was in Zimbabwe) and stretched Pakistan’s dominance in Abu Dhabi, their adopted homeland for cricket.
The authority they had over South Africa for long periods was unbelievable, but the "hosts," with the sun, the sweat and the empty seats giving them a homely feeling, took brave, albeit risky, decisions and were lucky not to have them backfire.
Playing Just 4 Bowlers
Mohammad Hafeez’s omission from the Test squad meant that Pakistan will be going in with one less bowling option.
Pakistan lack all-rounders, especially fast-bowling options, in all formats of the game, so when Hafeez was not selected a tricky decision presented itself to Misbah-ul-Haq. His replacement, Shan Masood, was a batsman.
Pakistan’s unpredictable and frail batting lineup could not afford any more jolts. Adding a fifth bowler would’ve meant weakening the batting. But going in with four bowlers—and relying on Younus Khan or Azhar Ali—against the top-ranked Test side in the world spelled disaster.
But Misbah took the risk, hoping that the players’ fitness and nature would back him up in the opening Test. Pakistan are most likely to retain the XI from Abu Dhabi for the second Test, but it is time they look for, and invest in, a Test all-rounder.
Top-Order’s Usual Dismissals
The batting, the usual culprit, came good.
The openers put on a century stand—Pakistan’s first in 22 Test innings. Azhar Ali’s poor run continued, but Misbah carried on his golden form. Even Asad Shafiq chipped in, timing the ball as well as he does. Younus got a snorter in the first innings, but experience and patience, as Pakistan wobbled early in the short chase, helped the side past the finish line.
But does one success guarantee a change of fortunes? The three dismissals in the second innings reeked complacency. Pakistan batsmen just refuse to learn from their mistakes. Dismissed when driving and edging has become a hobby more than anything else. Masood and Manzoor did put on a fine show in the first innings, but they probably forgot who Dale Steyn and Vernon Philander were and their skills with the ball.
Neither opener had to play at the ball that cost them. But they opted to. And that resulted in their failure. Azhar was too eager to get the match done with, and that resulted in his failure. The faults are easy to be forgotten when you beat the best team in the world but Pakistan batsmen must remember, a series win is a Test win away, and Steyn and Co are aware of those gaping holes in the hosts’ frail batting lineup.
Is Ajmal Too Tired to Bowl?
Saeed Ajmal has been Pakistan’s trump card in all three formats for a number of years now.
A Pakistan lineup without Ajmal is unimaginable, especially in crucial matches and against tough opposition. Pakistan’s bowling coach Mohammad Akram told me earlier this year that adequate backup is sought eagerly not just to allow Ajmal a break but also an option should the champion off-spinner break down.
Ajmal, in Zimbabwe and in the opening Test against South Africa, looked tired. He told me earlier this year that he had opted for the Sri Lanka Premier League (that didn’t take off this year) as opposed to the Caribbean version since that was closer to home and meant less travel. That is a sign of the bowler being tired. Ajmal isn't getting younger, although his efforts with the bat, the ball and in the field certainly prove otherwise.
With Pakistan going in with just four bowlers, the workload isn’t reduced either. He bowled almost 62 overs in the match and spent almost 177 in the middle (fielding and batting). The effort and the responsibility add plenty on top.
Pakistan need to rotate the workload. The reliance on Ajmal is natural and justified, but the team needs to plan for the day when the playing XI will be missing his name or even when his performance graph takes a dip.
The Remaining Bits...
Not too much else went wrong with Pakistan’s show in Abu Dhabi.
Adnan Akmal was mostly safe with the gloves, but his drops could’ve proved costly. His fumbled dismissals to get rid of Graeme Smith and Philander could’ve gone the other way and washed away the hard work by his teammates earlier in the match.
For the hosts to go on and clinch the series next week, Pakistan must leave complacency in their hotel rooms. South Africa will be raring to stage a comeback—a sneak preview delivered by Steyn and Philander late on Day 4—and knowing Pakistan, they can fall to their lowest depths with utmost ease, especially after reaching soaring heights.