Pakistan cricket team must have gained a lot of confidence after their nine-wicket win in the four-day match against Northamptonshire, but it is always advisable not to read much into a win achieved in a side game, against a weakened opponent.
The strength of county teams pitted against a touring side is usually weak as the hosts don’t allow visitors to gain the much-desired workout and rest their key players. Notts did the same but still gave Pakistan bowling some much-needed work out as their captain Rob Newton pulled up a fighting hundred in the second innings. Still, Pakistan were given a modest 1330-run target to win the match on the final day which they achieved through Haris Sohail’s second fifty in the match and another critics-defying half century by Imam-ul-Haq, wrongly targeted for being the nephew of chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq.
Asad Shafiq’s unconquered hundred and leg-spinner Shadab Khan’s ten wickets in the match were the bright spots of the last outing before the one-off Test against Ireland, starting from Friday. Pakistan needed one of the two from Asad and Azhar to get tuned up before the Tests, two to follow against England after the Irish challenge.
That Asad stood out and Azhar failed gives a mixed feeling to the team management. It could have been a bigger worry for Pakistan had Asad been caught on 13 and before 50 on the second occasion. But dropped catches are part and parcel of the game so Asad’s 186 not out must have given him enough confidence. Barring Imam’s 61 in an otherwise dismal 168 all out against Kent in the first tour match, the whole batting unit had surrendered and failed. Azhar’s contributions in the three innings have been 15, 9 and 10 including a laughable run out in the second innings against Notts.
But as they say, class is permanent, form is temporary. By this adage, Azhar is bound to come good in the Tests. He has proved it on more than one occasion. Pakistan will need Azhar more than anyone.
Shadab’s coming of age is admirable. Pakistan were jolted by the injury to their key wicket taker Yasir Shah and then him being ruled out of the UK tour.
A bowler with 89 wickets in the last 16 Tests and an overall record of 165 wickets in just 28 Tests is bound to be a big miss. Pakistan had hoped that Shadab will fill in the void to some extent, but the side game has hinted that Shadab is able to give that semblance of hope to the team.
The team played against Notts will be more or less same Pakistan will field against Ireland. Maybe, the tie will be between Faheem Ashraf and Hasan Ali. In the end, Hasan may get the nod as he has a slight advantage of playing tow Tests than Faheem’s none.
Pakistan’s other two worries will be the lack of runs from skipper Sarfraz Ahmed and just one wicket in three innings for spearhead Mohammad Amir. After Azhar and Asad, Sarfraz is the most experienced batsman in the side and once the top order is gone much hope rests on his shoulders. He has three hundred to his name in Tests so he is looked upon as someone who must contribute healthily in team’s total.
Sarfraz has managed four and eight in the two outings and his challenge against a mature Irish and formidable England attacks will be stiff. Babar Azam also hit a fifty in the first innings must have given a lot of satisfaction to the team management, flaked for preferring him in both the side games and not giving a chance to either Saad Ali or Usman Salahuddin.
Amir bowled 15 overs for the only wicket against Kent and bowled 27 wicket-less overs at Notts. The debate that he is not as venomous as before the ban has once again heated up. Although since his return Amir has 44 wickets in 16 Tests, the second best behind Yasir, it still shows a downward trend in his wicket-taking ability. Amir’s intention to play five day Tests less to prolong his career may have lessened his intensity.
On the way to Malahide in Dublin, Pakistan team management must keep their feet on the ground as Ireland will not be an easy opponent. William Porterfield led team may be playing their inaugural Tests but they have the ability to stand to the challenge in the conditions they are used to of playing for years. Besides Porterfield, they have Paul Stirling, Gary Wilkinson, Ed Joyce and O’Brien brothers (Naill) and Kevin) and a potent bowling attack which has five good and accurate fast bowlers.
So Pakistan must guard against complacency. Friday will be a new day. Ireland will be pumped up in their inaugural and historic Test. Pakistan will have to be up for the challenge.