“It was by no means an exciting day of cricket, but it was clever and smart, which are few of the traits needed to succeed in the format”
Even as the Indian Test Team are trouncing their rudderless opponents West Indies, making the cricketing world sit up and debate about the declining fortunes of Test cricket around the globe, Pakistan are epitomizing the struggles of the five-day format to the T, grinding it out and battling heat, humidity and inspired spells of bowling to tire out Australia at Dubai.
Periods of ugly cricket, where batsmen left deliveries or offered a dead bat to the ferocious inswingers by Peter Siddle or Mitchell Starc would have forced viewers to switch on their snooze button, but what was witnessed in UAE was yet another brand of Test cricket where the batting side are playing for time, piling on the troubles upon the Aussie side that is clearly struggling, both in terms of arsenal and mental strength. Though it has been six months since the ball tampering saga panned out, audiences around the world would not have stopped reminding the Tim Paine-led side of the atrocities that the much-feared yet the much-despised side had committed at Newlands to send cricket into disrepute.
Equipped with the burden of their deeds, the depleted Australian side were further inflicted with pain as their opponents were determined to bat on, with the opening pair of Imam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Hafeez lasting 63 overs and 205 runs to land the opening punch in the two-match bout. However, the side who now play their home games at the Emirates, would be aware of the importance of wearing out the rivals in the country, and though the 63-over marathon would have seemed akin to the timeless Test match of 1939, there have been 12 longer opening wicket stands in UAE than what the duo managed on Day 1.
The intention was clear. Stretch the first innings target but also tire out the bowlers who were prepared to bowl in the right areas. Bowling in conditions that are placid requires immense patience, ball after ball, and the only aim that a pacer can have against a batting unit so eager to not offer any atrocious shot is to keep pitching in the right length areas, whilst hoping for the player at the other end to make a mistake.
However, Hafeez, returning to the international fold after impressive outings in domestic cricket, displayed just how a player should bat in sweltering conditions, offering just 16.8% attacking shots in 208 balls to score his first hundred in over two years. He did score with a strike-rate of 60.58, which might not seem so mind-numbing, but the phases where he wall-stoned the rivals into a clueless heap, especially in the first session on Day 1, indicated how Pakistan would tackle the Test match.
With both Imam and Hafeez not willing to offer a shot in madness, the Aussies were forced to experiment with their lines and lengths, eventually forcing Nathan Lyon into the attack as early as the ninth over. While Hafeez showcased the reasons why his surname of The Professor had stuck to him, Imam impressed with his footwork, dancing back and forth to offer a series of defensive strokes in the hostile weather. There were the occasional boundaries that brought life into an almost-still match, but that too was evaporated when Haris Sohail and Azhar Ali dug in during the final session on Day 1.
16 overs yielded just 16 runs but all the hard work came to nought when Ali lofted a drive off Jon Holland to the jubilant palms of Starc, but it was only a prelude of what was to greet the visitors on Day 2. The Australians were exhausted, tired and drained, with Starc showing signs of cramps and Siddle mentally fazed after the unerring discipline that fetched only one wicket.
The second day brought with it the same ingredient for success in Tests in UAE – long drawn out hours of patience without excitement or edge-of-the-seat moments. Sohail and Asad Shafiq dug their heals to wear Australia down, forcing them into submission. Just as on the first day, Pakistan whiled away time after lunch scoring 45 runs in the first 18 overs, with Shafiq on 9 off 54 before pushing gears to end the session with 43 runs off the last nine.
With the sole intention of drawing out any energy left in the hapless Australian attack, Pakistan superbly stole away the game by really gritting it out. The first 11 overs of the day fetched only 7 runs, and Shafiq took 21 deliveries to get to his first run. By the end of the innings, Starc was sapped of all strength, Siddle’s medium-pace was hardly proving effective in placid conditions, Mitchell Marsh had gone for aplenty and Holland had failed to deliver what was expected of him. Only Lyon never quite fell away but lack of support from the other end meant that he was the sole bowler who threatened to deliver.
Pakistan played it out smartly. The first aim was to get to 400 -the side has won seven and drawn one game in eight matches when they have managed to cross the mark in the first innings at UAE – and the players were clever to abide time, frustrate the bowlers to eventually end with 482. It was by no means an exciting day of cricket, but it was clever and smart, which are few of the traits needed to succeed in the format.