Babar Azam and Pakistan's bowling conundrum

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19 Aug 2021 | 06:12 AM
authorAakash Sivasubramaniam

Babar Azam and Pakistan's bowling conundrum

Post Pakistan’s loss in the first Test, plenty of questions were raised over Babar’s choice of bowlers. But could he have done better?

Just moments after West Indies completed the improbable win over Pakistan, after being reduced to 114/7 earlier in the day, questions were raised over Babar Azam’s captaincy. It even led to former Pakistan spinner Danish Kaneria tweeting out in humiliation about Azam’s reluctance to bring on Yasir Shah into the attack as the Windies lower-order walked out to bat. In hindsight, it looks like a decision that could have turned the tide but at that moment, could it have?

Now there is no definite answer to what could have happened but we certainly know what had happened. In the first innings, the leg-spinner gave away 46 runs in his 13 overs, bowling a single maiden, which put a lot of pressure on the bowling unit. 

It wasn’t certainly a one-off incident for the leg-spinner, prior to the series had picked up 11 wickets in his last three Tests, out of which two were at home on a familiar turf for him. While he has an impeccable record against the Windies, his second-favourite opponent, after New Zealand, with 46 wickets against them, it has come four years ago. 

Yasir Shah has endured a tough run in the last two years

Since then, his form has taken a tumble, a big one at it – averaging 101.33 in 2019, 35.72 in 2020 and more recently, 37.75 albeit three of his last eight Tests being played at home. In the last two years, no spinner in world cricket, in the longest format average higher than the Pakistan leg-spinner and has a higher strike-rate – 48.5 and 79. 

The problem has been his ineffectiveness in the first two days of the game. He averages 97.8 and has a strike rate of 147.7. His average is the second worst among bowlers who have bowled 100+ overs in the first two days of Tests since 2019. While there might have been a case for the management to consider him on the basis of his batting displays, the leg-spinner has to start focusing on his main trade before he finds himself on the axing list. 

Shaheen Shah Afridi has turned to the red-ball page

When Shaheen Shah Afridi broke into the Pakistan setup, in 2018 at the age of 18, there was a clear case of his talent on display but with the white-ball. Combined in the white-ball formats, the prodigal talent has picked up 85 wickets, averaging a mere 26.01 but more importantly his lethal strike-rate, at 26.70 and 20.10 in ODIs and T20Is respectively has made him stand out amidst the other Pakistan bowlers. 

What if I tell you that his strike rate in the longest format is 53.50, and his average 27.65, would it make him a great bowler in red-ball? His record away from home, an average of 28.18 has certainly put his red-ball prowess in a cloud of doubt. However, the faith instilled in him by the skipper Babar Azam has been noteworthy. More notably, under his leadership, the left-arm pacer has picked up 25 wickets, his most under any skipper, repaying his trust with dividends. 

While he has picked up eight wickets against West Indies in the first Test, at an astonishing average of 13.62, and a strike rate of 29, does it mean that he has slowly turned the white-page over to fill in the red pages?

Mohammad Abbas and his rather ineffectiveness 

While the three-pacer strategy has certainly not paid off for Pakistan in the first Test, there is a strong possibility that they might adapt to the situation and be creative, with two spinners. With Faheem Ashraf in the line-up, it provides Babar Azam with as many as four pacers, which was deemed one-too many post the loss in the first Test. So, who gets the axe?

Quantum of difference : Mohammad Abbas with the new and old cherry

Since Mohammad Abbas’ breakthrough year in 2018, his numbers paint a sorry tale, especially considering how he had averaged 13.76 during his peak. In the years that succeeded his best, the right-arm seam bowler picked up 26 wickets in total, 12 less than what he did in just 2018 alone. Not just that, his performance has seen a vivid downgrade, with his average reading 44.63, 31.30 and 33.60, which only shows that his impact with the ball has withered.

If you take out new ball from his hand, since 2019, his average drops down from 27.5 in the first 20 overs to 52 by the end of the 60th over, which shows that his effectiveness reduces as the ball gets old.

Can Pakistan do more damage with two spinners?

All fingers point towards Nauman Ali, a finger-spinner, who Pakistan’s bowling coach Waqar Younis stated as ‘unlucky’ to miss out because of the conditions on offer. There presents an opportunity for Nauman Ali to do more damage, both with the bat and ball.

Considering that Pakistan already possess a seam bowling all-rounder in the form of Faheem Ashraf, who had more impact in the second innings than Abbas, there is a strong chance that the management will pick Ali ahead of Abbas for the second Test. 

Spin isn't certainly West Indies' cup of tea

However, there is a catch, a mighty one, in the last five innings at Kingston, spinners have only bagged four wickets, with it all coming in 2019, against Bangladesh. Since 2018, the strike rate for spinners in West Indies has been 78.6, ranks ninth out of the eleven Test playing nations.

Playing two spinners might be a tempting choice but given the fate of how West Indies as a country have fared for the spinners, the management would be looking elsewhere, Naseem Shah or even hand a debut to Shahnawaz Dahani.

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West Indies vs PakistanPakistan Tour of West Indies, 2021PakistanYasir ShahMohammad AbbasShaheen Afridi

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