@swaris16 4 minute read
Faheem Ashraf could be the answer to several of Pakistan’s problems, if only they show him more faith, writes Sarah Waris.
David Warner had threatened to bat like only Warner can – dancing down the wicket, muscling the floated deliveries for maximums and successfully attempting a lofted drive. The first Pakistan-Australia Test was a snoozefest, and the visitors were desperate to entertain in the second. Who better than left-handed Warner to lead the charge?
Australia had raced away to 82-0 in the 18th over of their first innings, with the new ball duo of Shaheen Afridi and Hasan Ali proving toothless. Along with his opening partner Usman Khawaja, Warner had creamed Pakistan’s premier spinner Sajid Khan for three sixes in six overs and Pakistan were under the pump.
Faheem Ashraf, who had missed the first Test due to a positive Covid-19 test, was brought on, and soon after, he found the required deviation to brush past Warner’s outside edge and give Pakistan a crucial breakthrough. It added to his impressive resume of top batters dismissed, having already picked up Jonny Bairstow (twice), Quinton de Kock, Faf du Plessis and Kane Williamson in the past.
He also sent down four maidens in a row in Karachi in the last session on day one, tightening the run flow as Australia scored 11 runs in 14 overs. With Australia just failing to secure victory late on day five, the lost time proved crucial.
Faheem was dropped in the next Test match. With scores of 83, 91, 48, 64 and 78* among his first 12 Test innings, his presence was missed as Pakistan lost their last seven wickets for 20 runs in their first innings. Sajid, with a first-class batting average of just over 18, was Pakistan’s No.7, with each of Pakistan’s last four batters scoring a duck.
This is the tale of Faheem’s career so far. In basically every game he has played, he has contributed in one way or another, starting from making 83 on debut against Ireland. From then up until the start of this year, he averaged at least 35 with the bat or at most 22 with the ball in all but two of the Tests he played. But it’s not clear exactly what he is or where his strengths lie, and Pakistan and Babar Azam do not quite know what to make of him. He missed the first Test against England, started at No.8 in the next two, and bowled just 12 overs across four innings. Having a good all-rounder can make it feel like a team has 12 players. Here, it was like Pakistan were playing with 10.
Faheem’s struggles align with Pakistan’s – inconsistent selection, and a lack of clarity about what exactly they are or want to be. In the first Test, they went in with 19-year-old Naseem Shah as the attack leader, accompanied by three debutants. Could Faheem’s 14 Tests of experience come in handy? Could his partnership-breaking ways have found a way through as England racked up hundred after hundred?
In the second, Mohammad Rizwan batted at No.5, with six bowling options below him. And yet three of those bowlers bowled nearly 80 per cent of Pakistan’s overs between them, with Faheem, Salman Agha and Mohammad Ali all broadly unusued. Faheem moving from No.8 in the first innings to No.6 in the second betrays their lack of understanding of the best middle-order combination.
In the third, Pakistan brought back in a batter, but again relied on just two bowlers, Abrar Ahmed and Nauman Ali bowling all but 15 of the 81.4 overs in England’s first innings between them.
When Australia toured Pakistan earlier this year, Ramiz Raja explained that flat tracks were Pakistan’s only hope of competing. Now England have toured, and Raja wants Pakistan to tear up the XI, follow England’s method, and pick their T20 players – though who is meant by this is not clear. A sense of inferiority is present, with instructions changing by the series.
But this is also about Babar Azam. It is he who chooses who to throw the ball to in the middle, who is charged with coaxing the best out of the players given to him. A player like Faheem, clearly an asset, but in a way that can change by the Test, presents a challenge to a captain. Babar, so far, has struggled to meet it, instead opting to bowl his preferred options over and over.
“The difference between the captains has been stark, really,” Nasser Hussain said after day two at Karachi. “Babar very orthodox, very… almost textbook. ‘I’ll just bowl the bowlers that are my favourite bowlers that I think might get wickets’. Whereas Stokes is thinking out of the box all the time, he’ll throw the ball randomly to someone if he fancies it, a bit of gut feel. I didn’t feel Babar captained particularly well today, it was very orthodox.
“It was almost like, ‘this will spin so Nauman Ali and Abrar Ahmed will be our two wickets and we’ll bowl them out’. And when it didn’t spin as much, he didn’t have a Plan B, he didn’t go to Salman Agha.”
Faheem is not a silver bullet. It’s true that its not obvious if his batting or his bowling is his strength, and in a way, it’s understandable that Pakistan aren’t ready to trust him as a full-time No.7 or as a third seamer in every Test match. But he is a prism, and through him the extent of Pakistan’s problems become clearer.