What is it stake you ask, in this second and final Test of an always low-stakes rivalry? The ICC will focus on the rankings – if Pakistan don’t win, they drop to seventh, the lowest they have been since January 2010. Late August 2016, when they officially became number one, suddenly feels much more than just 13-and-a-bit months away.
That might not sting as much though as, potentially, the end of one of the proudest streaks in international cricket. Two days after the scheduled end of this Test – October 12 – will mark exactly a decade since Pakistan last lost a home series – 1-0 to South Africa.
One can crib about the semantics of ‘home’ – that Pakistan have only played one actual series since then in their actual home and the rest in their adopted home of the UAE – but that should actually add lustre to a remarkable run. Since 1970, Australia, West Indies, India and New Zealand have had ten-year plus undefeated streaks at home and they all had the benefit of playing at their real home. Pakistan themselves went undefeated in Pakistan between 1980 and 1995, but given the circumstances of this run, it is at least the match of that.
What it will mark, more definitively, is the end of the MisYou era. That end had begun in Abu Dhabi, not so much with the final-day collapse and loss, but with the decision to play three pace bowlers and a lone spinner. Misbah, if he could help it, rarely went that way.
Pakistan want to persist with three fast bowlers because they feel it is now their strength, though Wahab Riaz will come in for Hasan Ali, who has a slight niggle in his left glutes that management is keen to rest ahead of the limited-overs games.
The pitch is dry, conditions hot and humid and Sri Lanka will play three spinners. This is the problem with two-Test series, that there isn’t enough time to know whether a strategy shift such as this has worked and should be persevered with or dumped. There were murmurs throughout Abu Dhabi about shifting from two spinners to three fast bowlers, but in truth, it wasn’t Pakistan’s bowling, or their bowling combination, that messed up there.
By and large, and especially in the second innings, the attack did well. If there was a question mark it was over the most experienced of the trio of fast bowlers. Mohammad Amir went wicketless in the Test and other than a late second-innings spell in which a catch was spilled off his bowling, he did not look quite right.
By Mickey Arthur’s admission, Amir started the Test poorly on the first morning and some observers felt the switch in conditions, from bowling in England with Essex and then bowling in the extreme heat of Abu Dhabi played a part. Just two first-class matches ago, after all, he took his second career ten-for, to add to a summer in which he bowled his most decisive spell since his return in 2016 – against India in the Champions Trophy final.
“Amir did bowl well in Abu Dhabi but unfortunately did not get wickets. I’m sure he will give us a better performance here.”
The real problem, which pre-dates Sarfraz’s ascension, is with the batting – one might quip that is an issue that pre-dates the creation of Pakistan itself. The last-day collapses are stacking up, but so too is the pressure on Asad Shafiq.
Shafiq had as poor a second half of the Test as imaginable, first dropping two catches in Sri Lanka’s second innings at slip, and then undone by a combination of a good ball and indecisive strokeplay when he was on 20 in the chase. His first-innings 39 was more assured but it bore clear signs of the extra responsibility his seniority now demands. It means he is averaging less than 31 in 16 Tests since the start of the England series in 2016 – a curious run given it includes two memorable hundreds and a handful of important fifties.
Arthur was unequivocal in his backing for Shafiq after the Abu Dhabi Test, insisting that he was a major part of this side’s future. But Pakistan don’t play another Test till next May, and that too in England, a break long enough to work against a Test-specialist like Shafiq.
Sarfraz – and you’ll note a pattern here – is not worried.
“Asad was playing really well in that first innings but just got out. In the second innings he got a good ball. I have full confidence in him – he is our main batsman and I’m confident he will show his form in this Test and hopefully help us win it.”
Most of Sarfraz’s work in the days since Abu Dhabi has been of this nature – to give his team the confidence that one bad innings does not make them a bad side. Pakistan have chosen not to practice too much in the days since.
“We worked on a few key things that we got wrong, like the fact that we went into our shells and played a little slow when batting,” he said. “We’ve spoken about that, but mostly we’ve told the guys to play their natural games and to not be scared of failure. One good or bad performance doesn’t make a difference. The main thing is we have to back them.”
Pakistan don’t often go into a Test in the UAE needing to win it to save the series. It has happened only once before, that too against Sri Lanka, nearly four years ago. Then, they produced the memorable Maghrib chase to level the series. Sarfraz played a key role in it, moved up the order to give the chase some oomph. It is the moment where his rise began to where he now sits. And he now admits he should’ve gone up in the small chase last week. He will learn. Pakistan needs him to.