Along with ending the long break from playing Test cricket at home, Pakistan would be looking to end a winless – indeed, losing – streak in the format when the first Test against Sri Lanka begins in Rawalpindi tomorrow. It is a fresh start in so many ways – almost like making a debut, as Shan Masood put it – and captain Azhar Ali is very aware that Pakistan have lost all their five Tests in the past 12 months, in South Africa and Australia.
“Test cricket’s return to Pakistan after ten years is an opportunity for us to get back on the winning track,” Ali said. “We had a tough series in Australia and it’s very unfortunate the way we lost there. It was disappointing. But moving forward, we see this home series as an opportunity and advantage to turn things around.
“We are excited to be back at home and our grounds are alive again. Cricket is our pride and we will have to quickly return to our groove to give our nation and the team confidence. It’s a moment of joy for not only the players but the nation. We will try our best to rectify the mistakes we made recently, and will improve wherever we have been lacking. We have outstanding talent in our squad. They have potential, and if we implement it, our results will be stable.”
Pakistan last ‘home’ series against Sri Lanka was in the UAE in 2017, which they lost 2-0 to bring an end to their blemishless record there. Since moving to the UAE, Pakistan were the only team to not lose a home Test series. They played nine series in the UAE between 2010 and 2017, won five of them and drew four.
“Yes, Mickey does have a lot of insight about us, but we are also ready and believe that whatever the challenge he will throw at us, we will counter”
Azhar Ali on Mickey Arthur
“You can never take Sri Lanka easy, they have always been a tough opponent regardless of whether they are playing at home or away,” Ali said. “Their bowling and batting is very disciplined and if you have to challenge them, you really have to come hard and be disciplined. We were lacking both with bat and ball in our previous series in Australia, but we have to come back quickly. Test cricket demands discipline, and you have be consistent as well. You can’t win in one session but lose in another session.”
In Australia, Pakistan picked up just 13 wickets over two Test matches, losing both by an innings. Against Sri Lanka in Rawalpindi, they are likely to field three fast bowlers – Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah and Usman Shinwari – alongside Yasir Shah.
“In Australia, we struggled to take 20 wickets, and it has been like this in our last few outings. But obviously we have a new attack, and we cannot write the new fast bowlers off straightaway. They are young, but experience is something they can get by playing more cricket, and we can’t buy it,” Ali said. “It is a home venue this time, and these boys have been bowling on these tracks in first-class cricket and this will prove the difference in lifting their performance.
“We feel this is the best bowling attack we have, and they have to take wickets with the new ball. Yasir Shah, our ace spinner, has struggled in Australia. That is because we weren’t able to get wickets up front with the new ball.”
Adding a dash of spice to the proceedings will be the fact that Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s coach till recently, is now in the opposition camp. Arthur’s intimate knowledge of Pakistani cricketers could make a difference, Ali acknowledged. “Definitely, if someone is with you for so long, he does have a lot of information about you. But in cricket these days, we all have a lot of knowledge about each other’s strengths and weaknesses, but yet players score runs. Like David Warner recently.
“Good players cope because they also know that they will be attacked on their weaker points, so they work with counter-attack. Yes, Mickey does have a lot of insight about us, but we are also ready and believe that whatever the challenge he will throw at us, we will counter.”
His own batting hasn’t been at its best in recent times. Ali’s career average is still a healthy 42.45, but in the last two years, he has gone at 24.08, tallying just 602 runs in 13 Tests.
“Whoever is the captain obviously have a playing role as well, and it is really important for me to perform,” he said. “I realise that I am unfortunately not making runs, but I am trying to revive my form. My form is good, unfortunately I am not able to transform it into runs. Sometime all you need is runs to get all the things back to normal. I am in international cricket now for nearly ten years, and with such experience, the purpose is to think how I can contribute to win games for my team. It is also important for me as captain to score runs to give a message across the board and lead from the front.”