Pakistan’s latest batting disaster led to a heated team meeting post-play in Centurion and it could yet lead to some big changes ahead of the second Test in Cape Town next week.
Pakistan were well-placed at tea on the second day of the first Test, 100 for 1 at the break with a lead of 58 and two set batsmen in Imam-ul-Haq and Shan Masood. Imam, however, chopped on in the first over after tea and, as has happened so often over the last couple of years, Pakistan’s batting fell apart, failing even to see out the session.
The collapses have been a regular feature through the tenure of Mickey Arthurbut the problem has become acute since the departures of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan in April 2017. But perhaps because Pakistan were in such a promising position this time, the anger and frustration in the dressing room post-play tipped over.
Arthur is understood to have had, what several sources described variously as a “strong” and “honest” discussion with his batsmen. A few of the batsmen “were reminded of their responsibilities”, according to a team source, though particular focus fell on the dismissals of the senior-most trio in the side: captain Sarfraz Ahmed, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq.
Sarfraz fell for a duck – a pair for the Test – chasing a wide ball and edging to slip; Shafiq edged a lazy waft behind, the ball after having he was reprieved by DRS which over-ruled an lbw decision; Azhar got into a terrible tangle off a short ball, unsure whether to defend or pull. They were told, in clear terms, that their dismissals were “soft”.
It was the latest in a series of cheap dismissals for the trio in crunch situations. Twice in the recent home series against New Zealand, the three failed or fell at inopportune moments in chasing a low total or trying to bat out less than a day to save a Test.
But it is a trend since Sarfraz took over the Test captaincy last year. It began with all three failing in a low chase against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi. Sarfraz and Shafiq briefly raised hopes of a successful 300-plus chase in the very next Testin Dubai, before the captain fell sweeping early on the fifth day. Azhar and Shafiq were part of a mini-collapse in a chase of 160 against Ireland in Malahide, which left Pakistan tottering at 14 for 3 before Babar Azam and Imam saw them home (Sarfraz failed in that chase too, though the win was all but sealed by then).
And then, against New Zealand, having taken Pakistan all but home at 130 for 3 in a chase of 176, Shafiq fell on the stroke of lunch, precipitating a collapse in which Sarfraz fell for 3. Azhar was last man out for 65, unable to find ways to score the five runs that would’ve won the Test.
In the final Test, again in Abu Dhabi, Azhar and Shafiq both made first-innings hundreds, but careless dismissals led to a collapse which let the advantage slip. And when tasked to bat out an hour less than a full day on the final day, the trio once again failed, contributing 33 runs between them (Shafiq fell for a first-ball duck).
There were even suggestions in the meeting of “big changes” ahead of the next Test. The nature of those is as yet unclear, however, and would depend on the result of this Test – South Africa need 149 runs to go one-up in the series.
Though Sarfraz has been under pressure for some time now, and acknowledgedas much before this tour, it is difficult to see Pakistan doing anything drastic with their captain mid-tour. Azhar’s experience at the top of the order with an inexperienced opening pair insulates him to a degree for now, and he does average 40.36 since the start of Pakistan’s home season.
That leaves Shafiq in greatest danger. He holds the Pakistan record for the most number of consecutive Tests played (62 and counting), but not only have his returns been poor this year, the manner and timing of his dismissals have started attracting attention. It will not be easy convincing Sarfraz to drop him but, especially if Pakistan lose in Centurion, that might become an easier option.
Reports in Pakistan suggest the meeting was more than just heated, with words exchanged between Sarfraz and Arthur. There are even suggestions that equipment was thrown around but that has been denied by players and staff, some of whom are unhappy that news of the dressing-room meeting leaked out.
The PCB issued a statement, reiterating that nothing untoward had happened: “As per the norm, Mickey held a debriefing meeting at the end of the day’s play which was held in a cordial atmosphere with inputs from team members and management as is the usual practice.
“Any speculation about coach’s angry behaviour towards the players is grossly exaggerated.”