Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Test Series vs South Africa should be the Long Term Vision

Pakistan’s tour of Sri Lanka was disappointing on several fronts. Just like in 2009, they come home beaten in both the major formats of the game. However, there were some bright individual performances and players who caught the spotlight this time. Encouragingly, for Pakistan it was the younger players in the side. Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Junaid Khan all boosted their reputation as the future of Pakistan cricket. Pakistan’s 7 series unbeaten streak in test matches finally came to an end, however Misbah ul Haq maintains the highest win/loss ratio in history of the game after captaining in now 17 tests. Technically, one can perhaps argue that he is still unbeaten in series given he did not play at Galle during the 1st test (which was lost & decided series outcome) due to somewhat of a questionable suspension. Despite losing the series, Pakistan have now entered the top 4 in the ICC test rankings, the highest position currently by an Asian side.

The current England – South Africa series is one that must be eagerly followed by the Pakistani fans & management. For one, you have Pakistan further strengthening their position on the ICC test championship if England wins. For two, Pakistan will be touring South Africa at the beginning of next year and therefore they will want a thorough look at the opposition they will be up against. Thirdly, given that Pakistan whitewashed the world number 1s, their finest hour in their history up to now, they will want to see how phenomenal the achievement is or if they had started the beginning of a declining period for Strauss and co.

England were outclassed at the Kia Oval during the series opener. After dominating the first day with Vice-captain Cook reaching his 20th test century for the three lions, the visitors bounced back and in the end sealed an innings win over a side that are a formidable force on home shores. Hashim Amla became the first South African to achieve a triple century, and it was unbeaten too. The artistic batsmen made the English attack toil and rather made them look very ordinary. Kallis eased his way into the series with an unbeaten century in an unmoveable 3rd wicket stand between the two big right handers. Smith celebrated his 100th test in the best fashion possible, bringing up 3 figures as his unorthodox play irritated the life out of the English attack. Dale Steyn and Imran Tahir then came to the party and showcased their skills on a wearing track as the hosts not only lost the test match, but in the process failed to make South Africa bat again when Asad Rauf raised the finger to an ever-passionate Imran Tahir appeal.

One wonders if Smith and South Africa will see the back of a 3rd long term England leader. We’ve had Nasser Hussain in the 2003 summer, Michael Vaughan in the 2008 summer and now Andrew Strauss could be under the firing line in 2012.

England have had a mixed year. They have won 3 of their 4 Twenty20 internationals, looking in good form ahead of their defence of the world title in September. In the 50 over format they have been unbeaten, won 10 of their 11 ODIs this year with one wash-out. The change in playing regulations which were implemented last October has worked wonders for them with the 2 new white balls at each end as they have the bowlers to exploit it up front and the stodgy complete product batsmen who play test matches regularly to overcome the period without too many a hiccup through a solid technical basis and clear method of operating. However, in the main format, they just have not been putting in the standard of performances which are worthy of their status as the best side in the world and many would say best English side of all time, although admirers of Mike Brearley and Vaughan may have something to add here, losing 5 of their 9 tests this year with a draw at Edgbaston during the rain affect dead rubber West Indies 3rd test. It’s difficult to achieve sustained success across all 3 versions of the game, but if you had to pick one, test matches surely will be at the top of the wish list with success in this format
forming the foundation for limited over success as well and not at the expense of it.

South Africa have got everything. All bases are covered - A left-right hand opening combination, a powerful experienced middle order capable of attritional grind, inventiveness and assertiveness, a potent and highly threatening seam attack and now also have the services of a journeyman leg-spinner in the form of Imran Tahir. Finally, an athletic fielding unit and reliable slip cordon. They have a knowledgeable bowling coach in Donald who knows the tricks of the trade better than most and a head coach in Gary Kirsten who is well respected & highly successful. On paper, they are the best test side out there. That of course can become a reality once this series has concluded and there is every chance Pakistan will be up against the World Number 1s to commence their calendar year in 2013 as well when they will tour the African continent for the first time since early 2007.

Pakistan will have their work cut out to compete in South Africa. Traditionally, they have struggled in this part of the world. Statistically and consistency wise which are two key ingredients in measuring the success rate of a side, Captain Misbah’s Pakistan for many of us is the best Pakistani outfit many have seen in our lifetime, a chapter of unimaginable stability, professionalism and on field discipline in what is renowned to be a chaotic environment to manage. However, it will surprise few if they are walloped on the green tops next year. Take a
moment to consider the reaction if they manage to draw or win against them. How highly that would be regarded both in terms of the achievement itself and the overall rating of the team which will only get more impressive than it already stands.

Conquering South Africa has to be a long term vision for Mr Whatmore and Misbah ul Haq. They must start planning and preparing for that series soon if they want to give them a chance. It has to be at the top of the priority list.

The lack of potency in the seam attack is an area of concern. Umar Gul was out of sorts in Sri Lanka as the spearhead of the seam attack, sending down 62 overs for the solitary wicket. He will definitely need to lift his game and be at his best if Pakistan is to stand any chance. Usually 3 seamers is the way forward in South Africa, but does Pakistan possess the quality to follow the formula and bench one of their key performers in the side’s resurgence, Abdur Rehman?

I do believe the batting will do alright; their patience and discipline levels are that high that they will find a way of sticking it out, coming through and putting totals on the board. If you are temperamentally unflustered, the occasional technical deficiency will be overshadowed with sheer grit and determination. Taufeeq Umar has fond memories in this part of the world. Azhar Ali and Younis Khan come to mind when talking about batsmen who are technically well equipped to score consistently everywhere. Misbah ul Haq used to captain Imran Tahir at the Pakistan “A” side and the effectiveness of the wrist spinner should be limited against a middle order who know the bowler and play spin well.

Pakistan unfortunately does not play much high profile test cricket between now and the 3 tests in Johannesburg, Cape Town and Centurion next February, but they need to start thinking seriously about this series and planning accordingly. Priding and protecting their top 4 status in the real business is a wiser long term priority for a side with the 3rd highest win/loss ratio in the 5 day game after Australia and England.

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