Pakistan batsmen panicking is nothing new. They have made it a trend, a habit, a team trademark in the last 12 months. So when they were set a tricky 136-run target on a wearing fifth-day track in the first Test against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi on Monday (October 2), the prediction was that it wouldn’t be easy. Some felt straightaway that was beyond them.
That turned out to be the case, as Pakistan were shot out by the wily old fox, Rangana Herath, for a paltry 111, losing by 21 runs.
The collapse was their sixth under Mickey Arthur, who took over in May last year. If you go back to the start of batting coach Grant Flower’s tenure in July 2014, then the number easily rises to more than a dozen.
To chase down the small target, Pakistan needed a good partnership, that too at the top of the order. But it did not come and the top order started to crumble. The choice of two openers in Sami Aslam and Shan Masood was always tricky, as Sami was making his comeback while the other had a failure in the last Test. They did put up a century stand in the first innings but looked totally out of sorts on the fifth day. But, then again, what was the guarantee that even the experienced Ahmed Shehzad and Mohammad Hafeez would have fared better? For the trend has become so entrenched.
Obviously, Arthur was disappointed and feeling the pressure. This was Pakistan’s tenth loss in 16 Tests under him, while they have won six: Two against England and four against Windies.
“The only thing I can say, and it’s not a mitigating excuse at all, but that’s a young batting line-up, obviously trying to find their way,” said Arthur after the match. “Losing Azhar Ali was quite important and we discussed that at the break, that we needed one good partnership and we wanted that up front. But we didn’t get that and that put us under pressure. We’re always going to be under pressure as the game goes on because we couldn’t expect the tail to get us over the line.”
After the drawn series in England last year, the slides appeared on the tour of New Zealand. They went from 53 for 1 to 133 all out and 58 for 1 to 171 all out in the first Test in Christchurch and then lost 10 wickets for 99 runs in Hamilton while chasing 369 on the last day.
In Melbourne, they were shot out for 163 runs on a flat pitch and then in Sydney, nine wickets fell on the final day. Finally, against Windies, Pakistan lost ten wickets for a mere 81 runs to lose the Bridgetown Test.
It would be unfair not to mention the brilliant chase in the Brisbane Test last year when Pakistan almost pulled off a sensational win. They were set a mammoth 490 to win and a brilliant 137-run knock from Asad Shafiq almost took them to the finish line before they lost by 39 runs.
Jalaluddin, the former paceman, had an explanation for why Pakistan came so close in Brisbane. “It was a mammoth target and Pakistani batsmen would have thought that it’s beyond our reach so batted in a relaxed manner. Had it been a 280-290 target, they would have panicked,” he reasoned.
That’s what happened on Monday.
As expected, Sri Lanka opened with Herath and he started the slide with a straighter one to Sami, who played for the spin and was smartly snapped up at slip. That made it four for one.
The next over, Pakistan lost the key wicket of Azhar, who was squared up by a lovely outswinger from Suranga Lakmal, and the edge went to the lively Niroshan Dickwella: Seven for two. Masood’s faulty technique was again exposed as he danced down to Dilruwan Perera and bent his knees too much and the forward push went off pad and glove to short cover – 16 for 3.
Babar Azam was uneasy from the start. Misbah-ul-Haq had rightly pointed out that Babar needed to improve his game against spin. Despite his success in shorter games, Babar has struggled in the longer format. He was dropped twice off Perera but Dickwella finally made up for his sloppy work and Babar walked back to make it 32 for 4.
Shafiq has had a lean phase, his last 11 outings in Tests have just one half-century and dropping two catches in the morning session couldn’t have done his confidence any good. He was beaten prodding and pushing and never looked set during his 20. Then he made a big mistake, trying to cut Herath to one that turned and reared off the surface. Shafiq completed his shot, or simply guided it to slip, to make it 36 for 5.
That left the fight to Sarfraz Ahmed in his maiden Test as captain and Haris Sohail, on debut.
They both batted sensibly, Sarfraz in his usual attacking style, to take Pakistan to 67 for 5 at tea. In between, Sarfraz survived an lbw review, much to his relief. The press box was buzzing with Waqar Younis saying, “It will be a one-wicket win (for Pakistan).” But it was probably Waqar relieving himself of the stress than actually making a prediction.
But the break came to Sri Lanka’s rescue and broke Pakistan’s momentum. Fifth over after the resumption, Herath had another key wicket. Sarfraz came down the pitch missed the ball but it deflected off his pads and ended with the reach of Dickwella, who gleefully shattered the stumps, and it was 78 for 6.
Sohail and Hasan Ali fought for 20 runs but Pakistan lost the last four wickets for just 13 runs to complete another fifth-day slump.
Flower, whose contract will be up for review soon, last year admitted that each batting failure added to the pressure on him. “If the coach is unsuccessful over a long period of time, there is a good chance he is not going to keep his job,” he had said. “You can only say so much, get them all the practice they want in the nets, talk to the players, but the players have to make the right judgement at the crease as it’s their own career at the end of the day.”
That’s something the Pakistan batsmen will have to learn sooner rather than later.