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Manchester Test Preview: A Pakistani Perspective

Pakistan’s win at Lord’s was a performance typical of the classic era Pakistani teams where the batsmen, even on flat wickets, usually scored just about enough runs to allow their bowlers to barge through the opposition’s batting line-up.

England have remained surprisingly distracted so far. I choose the term ‘remained’ because I have just read Alistair Cook’s reaction on Pakistan’s post-match press-ups. They were so preoccupied with Mohammad Amir’s return that they conveniently chose to ignore a leg-spinner who has been hailed as an exceptional talent by some of the very best and who tormented this very line-up last year. They should know that their bowlers, despite the absence of Anderson and Stokes, managed to bowl Pakistani out for a combined score of 550 odd. They should realise the value of the resolve shown by James Vince and Garry Ballance and, should they play Woakes and Stokes together, which they probably would, consider playing Adil Rashid in place of Moeen Ali on a wicket which is bound to be harder than the Lord’s one.

Two years ago, India won at Lord’s in similar fashion to go one up before surrendering the next three matches abysmally. England would hope that Pakistani follow suit. Interesting, one of those games was at Manchester and another at the Oval, where Pakistanis play their second and fourth tests. More significantly, these two games lasted a combined total of five (05) days during which India failed to reach 200 and were humiliated by an innings on each count. The worst aspect of India’s surrender was that over half of the wickets were gifted to the second-string England bowlers – Moeen Ali, Chris Jordan (remember him?) and Chris Woakes, the 2014 edition being significantly inferior to what we saw at Lord’s last weekend.

Pakistanis did little better than India though. The last time they played at Manchester was a decade ago and suffered a similar three-day hammering. However, that too was a typically signature performance of the worst kind that Pakistani teams are capable of producing. The wicket was bone hard but had a hint of uneven bounce as Jonathan Agnew observed in that year’s C&G Cricket Year. Steven Harmison was bound to be a threat, yet was he good enough to get the (then) second cheapest 10-wicket haul against Pakistan? To top it all, like their predecessors at Perth in 1981 (and on so many other occasions), Pakistanis ensured that the only other bowler who took wickets on a supposedly fast and bouncy wicket was not a fast-bowler; it was the left-arm spinner Monty Panesar. In between, their bowlers, already bereft of their main strike weapons of the past season, Muhammad Asif and Shoaib Akhtar, failed to provide any control and aided by dropped catches (I remember one – Cook dropped in the 40s and later scoring a big hundred), England easily posted an impregnable first innings lead.

This Old Trafford game will see the return of James Anderson, who has been outstanding against Pakistan, to play on his home soil as well Chris Woakes, the force-multiplying all-rounder. Those backing England argue that while the hosts’ batting failed to post 300, they can make up for it by bowling Pakistan for even less through their first-choice attack on helpful wickets with the batting order beefed up by the return of Stokes. The other camp believes that it still does not strengthen the batting enough.

Younis Khan would remember the 2006 test here when he was the only Pakistani batsman to play with authority in an otherwise shameful defeat. Even more interestingly, he was also there when five years earlier, Pakistan won at Old Trafford where his contribution with the bat was again crucial. Yet more interesting is the fact that that particular match, with some missed no-balls, remains England’s last test defeat at the ground. Along the way, England have defeated almost every team they have faced and apart from a surprisingly close win over the West Indies in 2007, it has pretty much remained one-way traffic.

So how should Pakistan approach this game? For starters, they should look back at 1997 when England, 1-0 in the series, decided to prepare a green top against Australia and their captain and opener, the horribly out-of-form Mark Taylor, still decided he had to bat first because he wanted ‘Shane Warne to bowl last on that track’. As it would turned out, Australia would limp to a sub-par score all through a magnificent, attritional Steve Waugh century before Taylor would cry havoc and let slip Shane Warne on England. On a wicket where England would be raring to bowl first, there could never a more apt template especially given the kind of hold Yasir Shah has established over England (26 wickets in 3 tests, none of them at home). Furthermore, Pakistan’s bowling attack, regardless of its potential, has mostly bowled on the slow, low Asian wickets. Their way to go would be back Yasir Shah while remaining alert to any opportunity that may arrive: They could fall into the kind of groove that makes Pakistani fast-bowlers fearful or could find some early swing with the new ball or indeed can get it to reverse in a more effective way than at Lord’s.

Back in 2001,Pakistan’s own test win was again a very typical Pakistani performance: The batting, that started in somewhat cold, murky conditions, was aggressive and improved progressively as the sun came out and gave just about enough runs to the bowlers to secure a morale-boosting first innings lead after the innings defeat at Lord’s. In the second innings, every bowler stayed put with his job description: Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis rolled back the years to deliver their last test-match winning performance at the former’s adopted homeground while Saqlain Mushtaq kept bowling all day long going about his duty to bowl maiden after maiden that culminated in a middle-order collapse of 6 for 29 in 12 overs or something.

Pakistanis have little choice but to persist with Muhammad Hafeez and Shan Masood. There simply were not enough tour games to allow another opener a useful run in the middle. The bowling, after it delivered, looks like unlikely to get changed either. These are the perils associated with such selection: Even though Pakistanis would not mind having a right-armed fast-bowler in their line-up, the three left-armers have done just about enough to earn their selection.

England are surely going to play Stokes and Anderson. There is little doubt that the bowling would test Pakistan far more than it did at Lord’s but is Stokes going to add the kind of value he added to England’s batting line-up in South Africa? That, I feel, is unlikely.

However, going back to those two English defeats, we can clearly see that both these games that England lost showed a clear state of mind: Mark Taylor, not worried about his own embarrassing failures with the bat, wanted to have Shane Warne get the best of the wicket and Waqar Younis, the Pakistani captain, similarly was not tempted by the conditions at the toss to opt for a bowl. In reality, that was never on anyway because Pakistanis simply did not have the kind of attack suited to that kind of wicket: Regardless of the skill that you might possess, a bowler used to flat, dry tracks is never comfortable if suddenly presented with an English wicket.

Another important factor was the way the team’s most crucial batsman stood up: For Australia, it was the limited but extremely courageous Steve Waugh who fought out of his skin to hit two of his greatest hundreds on a difficult track. Four years later, Inzimam nearly repeated the show with one of his great doubles, inspiring everyone else to stand up. Asad Shafiq looked Pakistan’s most assured batsman at Lord’s but is too low at number six to play that kind of a role. In fact, he is primed to do what Younis Khan, now batting at Inzimam’s number 4 position, did in 2001. The lead must be taken up by Younis and Misbah, the senior men of the team and they should do what their predecessors did a decade and a half-ago, witnessed by Younis himself in real-time: Bat first, put on enough runs  and then let the bowlers prey on English nerves, not used to being under pressure at home in general, and Manchester in particular.

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