Pakistan’s first training session ahead of Thursday’s first Test against Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi looked as so many training sessions do. A few players underwent some fitness work. The bowlers got a good workout. The batsmen netted well. Standard stuff. Except, of course, for two glaring, massive holes, where, ordinarily, one would have spotted the two men who set so much of the tone during precisely these pre-match sessions.
It was the Test side’s first pre-match practice session without Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, two men never known to be underprepared for a game and guiding lights for so many of this squad. It did feel a little different, as one member of the squad said on the sidelines. How could it not, given the influence of the two over seven years?
That absence is what will occupy Pakistan’s minds over the next couple of weeks, and then into further challenges next year. A lopsided calendar (made so by a tour to India that was never going to happen) means the two Tests against Sri Lanka are the only ones they play until next May, when they travel to England.
This, then, as coach Mickey Arthur said, is “a new dawn” for Pakistan’s Test side under the leadership of Sarfraz Ahmed. The Test side needs a little work too, though it isn’t nearly as drastic as previous transitions have been.
A historic series win in the Caribbean – and an exultant farewell to Misbah and Younis – masked a period in which Pakistan lost seven out of nine Tests. It soured the end of Misbah’s tenure slightly and was sparked, as Misbah himself admitted, by a complacent loss to West Indies in Sharjah last year.
“Things are shaping up well and this is a real challenge for us. We had a good chat with the boys this morning,” Arthur said. “The challenge is there and it’s a new chapter, a new dawn for our Test team.
“I think we’re ranked sixth at the moment and we have to work on getting it down. We have set ourselves some realistic goals. South Africa 2019 [Pakistan are scheduled to tour there at the end of 2018] is our ultimate goal. That’s where we want to be where we think we can be with this group of players.”
One of the immediate challenges will be to replace the pair in Pakistan’s middle order. Over 15,000 Test runs, 44 hundreds, 15 century stands and an average partnership worth nearly 70 is not going to be replaced, of course, and Pakistan will not expect that from Haris Sohail and Usman Salahuddin, the two middle-order men who come into the squad.
Much, instead, will fall on the men Misbah and Younis have helped prepare.
“Of course it will be very unfair to the guys you bring in to the team to say they are the replacements,” Arthur said. “I think it is now on people like Azhar Ali, who has been superb for us last year in the Tests. Asad Shafiq, and to a lesser extent Babar Azam – it is incumbent on those three guys standing up taking the bulk of the runs now.
“The other guys are young and inexperienced and are where Azam was a year ago and Shafiq a couple of years ago.”
Nevertheless, it will likely necessitate a shuffling of the batting order. Azhar has been Pakistan’s best Test batsman over the last year and though he has been their opener in that time, he could move back to one-down where he began his Test career and where he is said to be more comfortable.
If Pakistan open with Sami Aslam and Shan Masood, that would mean giving only one debut in the middle order and, given that he bowls some slow left-arm orthodox, Sohail would make more sense than Salahuddin.
A problem with Azhar’s right knee had put his participation in some doubt last week, but with the help of some treatment, he is moving freely and fit to play. His presence for Pakistan will be essential – he has over 1500 runs since July 2016, at an average of 57.
“Every series we go into we want to win, as we are judged on that,” Arthur said. “It is a new dawn for us as we are going to see some fresh and young faces. I think that is very exciting in taking the team forward.” (Courtesy ESPN Cricinfo)