By Jamie Alter for Cricket Next
Pakistan’s 3-0 sweep of England, the No. 1 Test team, in the UAE was the most glittering result for a team that has managed to hold its own on the field despite facing a mountain of problems off it. Here’s a look at the key players in Pakistan’s resurgence as a Test team.
Ten months ago, Misbah-ul-Haq was a condemned man whose time as an international cricketer seemed over after he was made the scapegoat for Pakistan’s defeat to India in the World Cup semi-final in Mohali. Today, he is being heralded as an astute leader of a team bristling with pride and rightful claims to being a top-level Test side. Handed the captaincy ahead of Pakistan’s series against South Africa in the UAE in 2010, the soft-spoken, almost laidback Misbah has been hugely influential in steering Pakistan from a host of troubles and to series wins over New Zealand, Zimbabwe, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and England – not to forget a draw with South Africa – and just the anomaly of a 1-1 scoreline against West Indies.
He hasn’t always been a proactive captain – his reluctance to push for a win against Sri Lanka in Sharjah last November attracted criticism – but his numbers as leader have been highly impressive: 15 matches, 1165 runs, average 64.72, with one century and 12 fifties. That one century – an unbeaten 102 in the second innings at Basseterre – played a big role in Pakistan leveling the two-Test series in the West Indies in May 2011. Innings of 99 and 70 not out earned him the Man-of-the-Match award in Wellington in January 2011, and those were clutch innings in a draw that gave Pakistan their first series victory outside the subcontinent since a triumph in New Zealand in 2003-04, and their first anywhere since 2006-07. In the first innings of the second Test against England in Abu Dhabi, Misbah top-scored with 84 on day in which the opposition dominated, and what a key innings it proved.
If there is one player who personifies Pakistan’s new-found aggression and fluency, it is the leader of their immensely proficient spin attack. Ajmal, 34, has been a constant threat to opposing teams with his accurate, nagging and attacking offspin, with his doosra causing batsmen much strife. His role as a strike bowler – he has bowled 696 overs in those 12 Tests, the most for any Pakistan bowler – has taken pressure off Umar Gul and meant he has been relied on to consistently take wickets. His success is staggering.
In 12 Tests under Misbah, Ajmal has reaped 77 wickets an average of 22.63 and strike-rate of 54.20 – significantly lower than career figures of 26.70 and 61.20. Along the way he picked up Man-of-the-Match awards for eight wickets in a nine-wicket win over Sri Lanka and in Dubai and 10 – including a career-best 7 for 55 – in a 10-wicket win over England at the same venue. He was the leading Test wicket-taker in 2011, and so far this year he has grabbed 24 wickets in three Tests against England.
In this recent series, the England batsmen were largely baffled by Ajmal’s variety. In the second Test, he became the fastest Pakistan bowler to 100 Tests, and to make his achievement more remarkable, he has not played a single of his 20 Tests at home.
If Ajmal has been an expected success during Pakistan’s run under Misbah, then the 31-year-old Abdur Rehman has been a surprise package. In 13 Tests, this canny left-arm spinner – enjoying unexpected success in his late-blooming career – has been a constant threat with 64 wickets at an average of 26.57. With an almost immaculate line and length he has attained turn and dip while convincing batsmen to play back when they should have been forward. Nothing summed this up better than the series against England, when he made several reputed batsmen appear hapless against spin, none more so than Eoin Morgan.
However, it was Rehman’s Man-of-the-Match performance against New Zealand at Hamilton in January 2011 that really made him a certainty in the playing XI. His three wickets in each innings and a crucial innings of 28 helped propel Pakistan to victory in the first Test. This year, a career-best 6 for 25 routed England for 72 as Pakistan grabbed the series in Abu Dhabi, and in the final Test his 5 for 40 was decisive in Pakistan reducing England’s lead to 42. His 19 wickets in the series played a huge role in a 3-0 scoreline, and highlighted what a key ingredient Rehman has been for Pakistan.
Like Ajmal, he has bowled a lot of overs – 683.4 – while rarely allowing the batsmen to dominate. Rehman’s batting has been handy too, with an average of 13.s8 and a half-century offering some stability to the lower order.
The only fast bowler to play consistently under Misbah, Umar Gul has carried himself with discipline all throughout. Ajmal and Rehman have hogged the wickets, but Gul’s 49 victims at 29.79 have been every bit as crucial in the team’s success.
The reliance on spin has eased Gul’s workload – he has bowled 452.5 overs in 13 matches – and this has undoubtedly led to the tall fast bowler not breaking down from injury, as he was prone to do so earlier in his career. His eight-wicket haul at Wellington was a stand-out effort in overseas conditions, and even on tracks in the UAE he has plugged away relentlessly, as 29 wickets from eight matches show.
In the first Test in Abu Dhabi, Gul responded to a flat surface with a hostile spell on the third day – during which he surpassed 150 Test wickets – as his new-ball incursions bagged him four wickets before Ajmal and Rehman wrapped up the rest. In the third Test in Abu Dhabi, Gul’s four wickets on the final day set the course of the match categorically towards Pakistan. The spinners have been the talking point of Pakistan’s success, but Gul’s role cannot he underestimated.
At last looking like he belongs at Test-match level, Mohammad Hafeez has flourished in his latest avatar as opener and key ingredient in Pakistan’s spin-heavy bowling attack.
With the bat, he has offered solidity to a top order that has for too long been shaky, scoring 967 runs in 15 Tests at an average of 38.68, including two centuries and four fifties. With Taufeeq Umar – another cricketer enjoying a new lease on his international career – Hafeez has stitched together three century stands and four of 50 or more. For a side that used to regularly chop and change openers during the last decade, Hafeez’s pairing with Taufeeq over 15 Tests has been nothing short of solid.
Relied on heavily with the ball – he has bowled 250 overs – Hafeez has repaid the faith with 51 wickets at 26.36. His brisk offspin has helped Ajmal and Rehman take much-needed breaks in the field, and when tossed the new ball in Guyana he responded with wickets. The highlight of Hafeez’s run over these 15 Tests was a fine all-round performance against Zimbabwe in Bulawayo, where Hafeez followed a quick-fire 119 with four wickets and a brisk 38 in a successful chase.
Given an extended run as opener after a four-year hiatus, the 30-year-old Taufeeq has scored 1055 runs in 15 Tests under Misbah while averaging 39.07. His batting hasn’t always been attractive, as a strike-rate of 43.18 indicates, but the fact that he has been able to deliver platforms has been immense. Two fifties in New Zealand helped blunt the threat of the home team’s pace bowlers in seam-friendly conditions, and his 135 in the second innings against West Indies at Basseterre helped Pakistan level the series.
A career-best 236 followed against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi, as Pakistan drew the first Test. It was a marathon effort that helped grind Sri Lanka patiently through the second day, and Taufeeq was just pipped by Kumar Sangakkara for the Man-of-the-Match award. A seventh Test hundred would come against Bangladesh soon after.
Taufeeq’s form trailed off after a fifty in the first innings of the series against England, but his success in Pakistan’s resurgence merits further persistence.
The former Pakistan captain has come back excellently from a ban imposed by the PCB after allegations that he had been partially responsible for infighting within the team. His 1138 runs at 66.94, including four centuries and four fifties, have been invaluable to Pakistan.
His presence in the middle order has steadied the team numerous times, not least when he scored centuries against South Africa and Sri Lanka to go with twin fifties against New Zealand at Wellington. But his most responsible innings came in the second innings of the third Test against England, as an out of form Younis took the game away from the opposition with a superbly crafted century. Yet again, he had summoned the resolve to produce a century when his detractors were gunning for him.
Of the younger players that have flourished under Misbah, 26-year-old Azhar Ali has been the most successful. His 1220 runs from 15 matches at 50.83 include two centuries and 11 fifties, and he has been a consistent performer at No. 3. Three consecutive half-centuries against South Africa got him going after an indifferent start to his career, and from there he ploughed on with fifties against each of the teams he played. His two centuries – 100 against Sri Lanka and 157 against England – were proof that Azhar has a long career ahead of him.