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Mapping Pakistan's downfall in Tests: Domestic discomfort, vanishing pace attack

Three years after bagging the No.1 Test rank, Pakistan have managed just eight Test victories in 26 matches, better only to Bangladesh among top-9 full-member nations, and have slipped well below to No.8 spot in the ICC Test rankings.

Aratrick Mondal Aratrick Mondal
New Delhi Published on: December 02, 2019 20:26 IST
australia vs pakistan, pakistan cricket team
Image Source : GETTY

Muhammad Rizwan of Pakistan is bowled during day four of the Second Test match in the series between Australia and Pakistan at Adelaide Oval on December 02, 2019

Imagine an alternate universe keeping recent Test cricket results in perspective - Sri Lanka whitewash Australia at home and Pakistan draw England in England to maintain and in the process become the No.1 Test team. If I say, these were all a reality even three years back, even avid Pakistan cricket fans would have a hard time to recollect. The year was 2016, Misbah-ul-Haq was the skipper and on August 22, Pakistan had claimed the No.1 spot in Test rankings following India's washed out Test against West Indies in Trinidad, but largely on the back of an unbeaten run in Test cricket from August 2014. They had beaten Sri Lanka in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh in Bangladesh, whitewashed Australia in the UAE and drew against New Zealand (in UAE) and England (in England).

Three years hence, Pakistan have managed just eight Test victories in 26 matches, better only to Bangladesh among top-9 full-member nations, and have slipped well below to No.8 spot in the ICC Test rankings. Their only Test series win came against West Indies (home and away) and against Ireland which was a one-off encounter while also securing a praise-worthy draw in England (1-1). They were whitewashed five times in that period one of which was in the UAE (against Sri Lanka).

Pakistan in Tests since August 2016

Series Venue Result Margin Year
vs West Indies UAE Won 2-1 2016
vs New Zealand New Zealand Lost 0-2 2016
vs Australia Australia Lost 0-3 2016
vs West Indies West Indies Won 2-1 2017
vs Sri Lanka UAE Lost 0-2 2017
vs Ireland Ireland Won 1-0 2018
vs England England Draw 1-1 2018
vs Australia UAE Won 1-0 2018
vs New Zealand UAE Lost 1-2 2018
vs South Africa South Africa Lost 0-3 2018
vs Australia Australia Lost 0-2 2019

Domestic discomfort

"Indian cricket invested everything in their first-class cricket over the years. And we as Pakistan have hardly done anything for our first-class cricket. We have been changing it every year. Our first-class cricket has been run by some random journalist for some odd reason and why for so many years," former Pakistan fast bowler Wasim Akram had said back in June during the nation's poor campaign in World Cup 2019.

Even while Pakistan had made their Test debut as a nation back in the 50s following which they had also secured wins against India, England and Australia, the nation was devoid of a fully-functioning domestic cricket structure. At the turn of the following decade, domestic cricket began to expand and by the 70s, Pakistan were among the top competitors in the format alongside world-tormentor West Indies. However, much of the rise of Pakistani cricket was due to County Cricket. In fact, eight players out of the playing XI that beat Australia in Sydney in 1977 had played County Cricket.

Soon there were banks and airlines offering jobs to players in the off-season and many benefitted from the system. And this brought a massive turnaround in Pakistan cricket. The players weren't worried about money during the off-season and about their retirement. They could, meanwhile, hone their skills with County experience and the nation slowly emerged among the best teams in world cricket.

However, with changing time, Pakistan failed to evolve and adapt. County put restrictions on the number of foreign players, the international workload increased, and Pakistan cricket became stagnant. Meanwhile, there was a change in pitches across the country which became a major factor behind the nation witnessing a decline in pace and wrist-spin options.

It was only in September this year that Pakistan Cricket Board took a major step to overhaul its domestic structure. They reduced the number of teams from 16 to six provinces which will also have their respective second XI to compete in a different competition. This restructuring has led to six provinces handing out annual contracts to 32 players unless they are part of PCB's central contract.

Lack of proper replacements, fall in pace attack

With dust-filled domestic tracks changing to green tops, pacers and leggies had little role to play. Hence, fast bowlers began concentrating on swing and seam while spinners became darters. However, statistics pertaining to Pakistan's pace attack over the last three years and that compared to their winning run between August 2014 and 2016 have been largely misleading. During their unbeaten run, the pace attack averaged 32.86 and had a strike rate of 62.44 which was bettered only in 2018 when they averaged 20.58 while bagging 90 wickets, the year they had secured a win in Ireland and a Test series draw in England while also suffering a whitewash in South Africa.

Pakistan pace attack since August 2014

Year Wicket Average Strike Rate
Aug 2014 to Aug 2016 116 36.21 65
2016 66 34.72 63.54
2017 56 28.53 66.03
2018 90 20.58 45.4
2019 29 32.86 62.44

Sarfaraz sacked - by management and by public

Misbah was a hugely respected Pakistan skipper during his time and the only amount of criticism he faced was due to team defeats or selection issues. However, Sarfaraz Ahmed, his successor, was not just subjected to normal criticisms on team defeats, he was publicly shamed by fans. On the other hand, Sarfaraz too failed to justify his role in the team, performing poorly as a leader and as a batsman. 

Change in responsibility

Under Misbah, Pakistan witnessed a slow and patient rise in their dominance before becoming the world no.1 Test side in 2016. In seven years under his captaincy, Pakistan won 26 matches - the most under any Pakistani captain. The team also had the best batting and bowling average under his captaincy. However, following his retirement in April 2017, Pakistan handed over the responsibility to Sarfaraz Ahmed, who was seen as Misbah's natural successor. Moreover, with Sarfaraz having spent a lot of time under Misbah's captaincy, the selectors did not have a second thought about their decision. But Sarfaraz managed to register only four Test wins as a captain in 13 matches. He was eventually removed following Pakistan's humiliating exit from World Cup 2019 and Azhar Ali was given the responsibility.

Captain Span Mat Won Lost Tied Draw W/L Batting average Bowling average
Misbah-ul-Haq 2010-2017 56 26 19 0 11 1.368 35.74 32.47
Sarfaraz Ahmed 2017-2019 13 4 8 0 1 0.5 27.75 26.68

Road ahead...

Yes, it has been another defeat for Pakistan on the road following their whitewash in Australia. But this team is a far newer team with skipper Azhar Ali captaining Pakistan in Tests only for the third time. The road is only upward and onward for here on. They need to have a more holistic approach towards team building, starting with the bowling attack. Shaheen Afridi with Musa Khan and Naseem Shah should be looked after properly in a bid to extract the best out the young pace lot. And Pakistan need to grow a stronger batting lineup around Babar Azam. It is only expected that Pakistan can improve from hereon with Misbah by their side as their head coach.

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