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Salman Agha’s role in Pakistan’s Test side is finally becoming clear

Salman Agha celebrates the wicket of Daryl Mitchell on day one of the second Pakistan-New Zealand Test at Karachi
Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 3 minute read

Salman Agha claimed three wickets on day one against New Zealand, a performance which makes his role in Pakistan’s Test side clearer, writes Ben Gardner.

At tea on day one, the second Test against New Zealand was following a pattern Pakistan have become familiar with. A touring side was in the process of building up a big total, untroubled, on a placid surface. Only two sessions were gone, but already the hosts would have been fearing another battle for survival, another home Test gone without the taste of victory.

Devon Conway, having fallen eight short of a century in the first Test, had already made amends in the second, while Kane Williamson, who made 200 in that opening draw, was set and eyeing another epic.


Naseem Shah looked the only threat of note. Finding reverse swing, he was responsible for Pakistan’s sole breakthrough, Tom Latham trapped in front, and continued to probe. But coming back after injury, he needed support.

Soon after the break, a moment came and went that you could already see being pointed as a ‘what could have been’ at the end of the game. Naseem beat Williamson’s outside edge. There was only a whisper of an appeal and no review. And UltraEdge showed the thinnest of spikes. The second-wicket stand joined the first in reaching three figures.

By this point, Salman Agha had already been asked to shoulder an unusually heavy bowling workload. With Hassan Ali recalled, his was the role of second spinner, and with Abrar Ahmed loose and struggling for his typical penetration, Salman got through seven overs in the first two sessions, more than all but two of his innings in his Test career so far. He had looked far from out of place in his Test career so far, with a half-century in his second Test, two more against England, and finally a maiden hundred in the first Test against New Zealand, but it wasn’t clear exactly what that place was. Batting at No.6 against Sri Lanka but then dropping down to No.7 for Pakistan’s home engagements, he was a luxury player in a team struggling for the basics, with the position and profile but not the workload of an all-rounder.

In a way, he was a symbol of the confusion surrounding Pakistan, a team boasting of several star talents, but unable to settle on a combination or a gameplan, with injuries and absences disrupting them. Did they want to bat slow and big or take the attack to the opposition? Would they count on pace or spin, leave grass on the pitch or bank on reverse swing? The instructions changed by the game, with a change of management bringing yet another rethink. Amid all this, Salman has been there, in no way responsible, but also not much more than a bystander.

The plan for this Test was understood to be to prepare a helpful surface for the quicks, with a green tinge visible in the days leading up to it. Nauman Ali was duly left out. But only a hint of pace differentiated it from the flat, true Pakistan pitches on which they struggled against Australia and England. It was this that afforded Salman his chance.

His early efforts offered little to get excited about. He bowled tidily enough, and there looked to be turn on offer, but he couldn’t beat the bat. But as he settled into his spell, his threat grew, and by stumps, he had changed the game. An over after that missed review, he found dip and turn to surprise Conway. The opener attempted to defend, but the ball was simply too good. The outside edge was found. An over later, Naseem found Williamson’s edge again, thicker this time, with no doubt possible. Pakistan were back in it. Henry Nicholls struck Salman for a pair of boundaries, but he soon struck again, with the best delivery of the three: Daryl Mitchell stretched forward, but the dip foxed him as it had Conway, the bat not to the pitch, and then there was that turn again, the gap pierced.

The third was the fortune that comes from a tight spell, Nicholls attempting to pounce on a shorter delivery and edging behind. This time, Babar Azam did review. By stumps, Salman had bowled 20 overs, more than in his first four home Tests combined, and claimed three wickets, more than in his Test career to date. The scoreline had morphed from 234-1 to 309-6, and Pakistan had the upper hand.

Where does this leave Salman? It’s too early to tout him as a regular second spinner. His Test average still reads 56.60, and his first-class average is still above 40, with 100 wickets in 84 games the ratio of a part-timer. But he at least makes more sense in Pakistan’s side, as an insurance for when the conditions are misread and as an option to turn to when the rest are struggling. He could at time be a top-six option, and if Pakistan are comfortable with their keeper in the top six, Salman, if offering some value with the ball, works at No.7 too. Babar will also have gained clues about how best to use his off-spinner, who clearly benefitted from an extended spell, rather than being asked to fill in when no one else wanted to bowl.

There is still plenty for Pakistan to work on. Hassan Ali looked more like his insipid 2022 avatar than his incisive 2021 version. It’s still hard to work out what Pakistan sees in Mir Hamza, operating generally below 80mph, without the extreme control or skill that can make such bowlers an asset. Babar is still a work in progress as captain – had Pakistan had a second spinner, Salman might well have been little used again, another example of his issues with finding a plan b. But what they need first is a win, in any sort of manner. Salman has given them a shot at that, and shown some of the way forward.

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