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Opinion

Pakistan's middle order holds the key against Australia

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Expert
19th November, 2019
28

Pakistan boast a fragile opening pair, a talent-laden middle order and an unpredictable attack as they head into the first Test against Australia at the Gabba tomorrow.

The tourists are coming off a ten-month absence from Test cricket, having not played since they copped a 3-0 hiding in South Africa at the start of this year.

Here is Pakistan’s biggest strength, their biggest weakness and the biggest unknown about the world’s No. 7 ranked Test team.

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Biggest weakness: fragile at top and bottom
Pakistan for years have searched for an opening pair that can do a serviceable job in Test cricket. This has been a major shortcoming. In Shan Masood and Imam-ul-Haq they look set to play two unproven Test openers against Australia.

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Masood and Ul-Haq boast commanding list A records, averaging 54 and 44 respectively. But both have ordinary first-class stats and poor Test records to date, with Masood averaging 26 from his 15 Tests and Ul-Haq averaging 28 after ten matches.

Both openers have a habit of pushing at balls outside off stump with hard hands. While they can get away with this in white-ball cricket, it has caused them issues in Tests. Josh Hazlewood and Pat Cummins in particular will challenge their patience in the channel outside off stump.

At the other end of the batting line-up Pakistan have the weakest tail in world cricket. In Yasir Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas and Imran Khan – the four bowlers I expect Pakistan to pick – the tourists have four genuine No. 11 batsmen. Combined, that quartet have played 61 Tests and returned the paltry total of 600 runs at an average of nine.

Australia will know that they can finish the innings off quickly once they get the sixth wicket. Given the way express quick Mitchell Starc regularly runs through even strong tails, Pakistan’s lower order could be obliterated.

Imam ul-Haq. (AP Photo/Aijaz Rahi)

Biggest strength: quality middle order
In Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Babar Azam Pakistan have a three-four-five combination with the talent and technique to do very well in Australia.

The veteran Ali has a terrific Test record (5669 runs at 43) and was exceptional last time Pakistan toured Australia, with 406 runs at 81. Pakistan’s weak opening combinations have long put pressure on Ali at first drop, yet he has handled that responsibility very well. He has no problems against the kind of pace and bounce the home quicks can generate and is an excellent player of spin.

Behind Ali at No. 4 Shafiq was also impressive on Pakistan’s most recent tour of Australia, making 239 runs at 40. His overall Test record against Australia – 514 runs at 43 – is also very good. Shafiq is easy to overlook. He doesn’t have the flair of Ali or the classical style of Azam. Instead Shafiq is a grafter. He’s also in scorching touch, making 101* and 119 in his only two innings in Pakistan’s warm-up matches.

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Then there’s Azam, the white ball superstar who’s yet to properly make his mark on Tests. Azam’s first-class record – just four tons from 55 matches – is surprisingly underwhelming for an outrageously talented batsman with a technique which appears well suited to the longest format.

After 21 Tests he averages 35 and has just 100 in the bank. At 25 years old I sense he could soon explode in Tests. It won’t shock me if, in two or three years, he has become one of the elite batsmen in this format. Could this be his breakout series? He floundered last time in Australia, averaging 11 from his six Test innings. But he’s bossed it in the warm-up matches, making a glorious 157 against a strong Australia A attack followed by 63 in his only other innings. Azam looks to be in prime form.

azhar-ali-pakistan-test-cricket-2016

Azhar Ali. (AP Photo/Eranga Jayawardena)

Biggest unknown: how will their attack fare?
Leg spinner Yasir Shah has been the bedrock of the Pakistan attack over the past five years, averaging a whopping 5.8 wickets per Test in that time. Yet on Pakistan’s last tour he was destroyed by the Australian batting line-up. Not only did he average 84 with the ball across three Tests but he also bled runs, going at 4.54 runs per over. Yasir incredibly conceded 674 runs across those three Tests.

Visiting Test spinners routinely struggle in Australia. Yasir is unlikely to have a major impact on this series but Pakistan need him to at least offer them some control by bowling long, tight spells so they can rotate their quicks from the other end.

In Mohammad Abbas and Shaheen Afridi the visitors have a new-ball pair with the ability and variety to cause major problems for the Australian top order. Abbas has made a freakishly good start to his Test career, with 66 wickets at 19 to date. He ran amok against the Aussies in the UAE last year, taking 17 wickets at ten. Abbas has a rare ability to land the ball on a testing line and length over and over and over again. He will pose a major LBW threat to both Joe Burns and Marnus Labuschagne and will come around the wicket and challenge David Warner’s inside and outside edges.

The 19-year-old Afridi, meanwhile, is an immense talent. The left armer is 198 centimetres tall, swings the ball late, gets startling bounce and has good accuracy for such a green bowler. He will be expensive at times but he is a natural wicket taker. If Abbas and Yasir can build pressure, Afridi will have the freedom to chase wickets, something he does very well.

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Then there’s right arm quick Imran Khan, who I expect to be the fourth bowler. Khan hasn’t played a Test in three years, since taking 2-154 off just 33 overs against Australia at the SCG. He recently produced a terrific spell of swing bowling at Perth Stadium to run through Australia A with 5-32. The question mark over Khan has always been his fitness and ability to maintain his standard across long innings in the field. If he leaks runs like he did that time at the SCG, it will throw the whole attack off kilter.

I have no idea what to make of this Pakistan bowling unit. It has the talent to run through Australia yet could just as easily fall apart and lean far too heavily on the genius of Abbas.

Predicted Pakistan line-up

  1. Imam-ul-Haq
  2. Shan Masood
  3. Azhar Ali
  4. Asad Shafiq
  5. Babar Azam
  6. Iftikhar Ahmed
  7. Mohammad Rizwan
  8. Yasir Shah
  9. Shaheen Afridi
  10. Mohammad Abbas
  11. Imran Khan