England registered one of their finest away wins in Test cricket yesterday against Pakistan after toiling for five days on a disappointing Rawalpindi pitch.
Records tumbled as both sides scored relentless runs on a track that offered no support for the bowlers, but brilliant captaincy and a risky approach from the visitors saw them emerge victorious during the final moments of the Test.
The pitch at Rawalpindi has received criticism from all quarters, with the ICC likely to sanction the venue for its poor curation.
Several factors, from Pakistan’s conservative approach to the game to lack of expertise, are all to blame and the situation is unlikely to improve for the remaining two Tests against England this month.
Runs flow as England take Bazball global
Numerous records were broken during the five days of the first Test as batsmen from both sides took an aggressive approach to the game.
1768 runs were scored during the Test – the highest-ever in a Test after timeless Tests – were phased out. Much of the credit goes to England’s batsmen, who internalised the Bazball approach and executed it to perfection in an away game for the first time.
England became the first team to score more than 500 runs on the opening day of a Test match despite overs being lost due to poor light. Pakistan’s batsmen in the first innings were equally aggressive, and at one point in the game, it looked like the hosts might register a spectacular win and put the Bazball approach into doubt.
But Ben Stokes’ decision to risk a loss to force an outcome bore fruit as England’s seamers came through in the last two sessions to secure their victory.
Dark ages of pitch preparation
This is not the first time that Pakistan’s tracks for Tests have been called into question. Earlier this year, Pindi stadium received a demerit point from the ICC for a below-average track. The scrutiny over Test pitches has come under scrutiny since Ramiz Raja took over as PCB Chairman, but there has been no tangible change on the ground.
A major factor in the poor quality of the pitches is Pakistan’s lack of experience in curating tracks for international games.
Owing to a long absence of international teams from Pakistan’s shores, pitches were often prepared for and used by domestic teams, often exclusively made of domestic players. As a result, it is difficult to estimate the balance that a pitch offers between bat and ball and that inexperience is reflected in international fixtures.
Inexperience alone cannot explain the poor performance of the pitch as Pakistan has delivered two superb wickets for the series against South Africa last year with both games producing absorbing contests.
While South Asian tracks are known as a batsman’s paradise, they often offer significant support to the spinners to balance the scale by the late stages of a Test match. But the Rawalpindi track was as flat as it could get and neither side could rely on their spinners to pick wickets.
Terming the pitch “embarrassing”, Ramiz Raja has warned that the situation is unlikely to improve in the near term. This might be an indication that the next two Tests against England could also see flat decks, making the series a toiling endeavour for the bowlers.
While inexperience is one side of the coin, Pakistan’s approach to the series has also received a lot of criticism.
It is reported that the Rawalpindi track was initially full of grass, suggesting that the wicket offered good support to bowlers. But just days later, the pitch was stripped out of it all with even Babar Azam expressing surprise and disappointment that his suggestions were ignored.
Like their fixtures against Australia and South Africa, Pakistan’s intent going into this series was to avoid losing at all costs, even if that means playing out a long and boring fixture that ends in a draw. That mentality reflected on the final day of the fixture with Pakistan’s middle-order effectively playing for time rather than the achievable target – a clear sign of the fear of failure.
Ramiz Raja is often considered one of the most vocal advocates of an aggressive approach to the game. But Pakistan’s actions often are not matching with the words that come out from the management and the players. Ramiz Raja has also been accused in the past of micromanaging pitch curation – a task that is better left to experts.
Pakistan’s captain Babar Azam is also receiving some criticism for his conservative approach onthe field, and for waiting for a breakthrough to present itself rather than creating opportunities.
The ICC is likely to look into the Rawalpindi track’s performance in detail before making a call on sanctioning the venue.
While the hosts could escape with just one demerit point earlier this year, the pitch is likely to be rated poorly this time around – resulting in three demerit points. With four demerit points, Rawalpindi staff need to avoid any major slip-ups for the next five years as five demerit points warrant a suspension of the ground for a year.
As for the rest of the series, the PCB has sent their batting coach Muhammad Yousuf and other officials to Multan to supervise the pitch preparation first-hand.
It remains to be seen how the pitch turns out but is once again likely to tilt the balance highly towards batsmen.
England can adapt to the circumstances and play two long drawn-out fixtures as they already have the lead, but it is unlikely that they will do so. Both Tests are likely to be high-scoring games.
Pakistan’s tracks need outside expertise and a more sustainable solution like drop-in pitches from outside the country.
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