Pakistan’s tour of South Africa was expected to be a shock to the system for Sarfraz Ahmed’s team. After suffering ‘home’ series defeats to Sri Lanka and New Zealand over the previous season, the South Asian side were always going to have a tough time in the rainbow nation. Just how tough was not known.
The first Test defied expectations with Pakistan well-placed in their second innings at 101-1 and looking good to set a target of 250 before imploding to 190 all out and a target of 149. The South Africans were let off the hook and there was no turning back from there.
In the Cape Town Test, the Proteas unleashed a four-man pace attack with three of them – Kagiso Rabada, Duanne Olivier and Dale Steyn – unrelenting with their pace and short-pitched bowling. The sight of Steyn bowling over 140kph at the age of 35 even in his third and fourth spells showed just how much of an uphill battle the Pakistan batsmen faced.
They failed in the New Year’s Test as well. Yes, Pakistan almost scored 300 in the second innings but there was an element of luck to it as tailenders slogged and connected.
As Sarfraz and Mickey Arthur sift through the wreckage of the Test tour, they can afford a smile when looking at the performances of two batsmen – Shan Masood and Babar Azam.
Masood was not even supposed to be here. He was a late replacement in the first Test – 90 minutes before start of play in fact – after Haris Sohail injured his knee. Padding up at such short notice, Masood got better and better with each passing innings and has received widespread praise from commentators Kevin Pietersen and Graeme Smith for his technique and composure.
Pietersen is a fan of the amount of time Masood has while facing the most fearsome pace attack in the world, while Smith made it a point to meet the Pakistan batsman and tell him he is doing an excellent job. For a batsman who was not even on the radar, it has been a meteoric rise. Scores of 19, 65, 44, 61 in a series where his team’s batting has collapsed is truly remarkable.
Then we have Babar, the future of Pakistan batting. In both Tests, the talented middle order batsman came up with crucial knocks when the pressure was truly on. In the Centurion Test, it was his 71 in the first essay that took Pakistan to a respectable 181 that made a match out of it. And in the second innings in Cape Town, his 72 from just 87 balls is one of the most audacious innings you will see in the face of imminent defeat.
These two talented and technically gifted batsmen have shown the path that Pakistan’s cricket needs to take. It is obvious there are technically proficient batsmen in Pakistan’s domestic cricket and they only need to be given an opportunity at the right time. They may not be a Virat Kohli but you don’t need to be one to succeed in Test cricket.
Now that the Pakistan management has witnessed the success of Masood in the most hostile of environments, they can breathe easy knowing that the batting pool is not dry and that they only need to cast their net far and wide while also rewarding consistent performers – like Fawad Alam.
Pakistan are still hamstrung by underwhelming bowlers Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah while the batting form of Fakhar Zaman and Sarfraz is not much to write home about. Going forward, getting team selections right – like having all-rounder Faheem Ashraf in seaming conditions – and taking players from first-class cricket to the Test arena will ensure the Test machine moves along slowly but smoothly.