There must be something in the water at Combermere High School in Bridgetown. The school has produced more Test cricketers than any similar institution in the Caribbean, having had a player representing them in nearly every West Indies Test team that has taken the field. It counts, amongst others, Sir Frank Worrell, the great West Indies captain, as one of its alumni. Thus, it wouldn’t be unfair to suggest that students there could dream of donning the West Indies’ jersey in years to come.
A few years ago, as the West Indies lurched from one disaster to another, there must have been several students who would have dreamt of changing the team’s fortunes. Earlier this year, Roston Chase provided the platform for a famous draw against India in Kingston. Here at Sharjah, it was Chase’s wickets that appeared to open the gates for a Pakistan comeback yesterday. But it was at that moment that Chase’s batch-mate from his school days, Shane Dowrich, joined another schoolmate of theirs at the crease.
The tourists had lost half their side, having not even reached half the score in their chase. The fretting wouldn’t last long. As the shadows lengthened, Dowrich took the charge to an increasingly desperate Pakistan. At the other end, Kraigg Brathwaite – who had spent every single minute of the four days of the Test by then on the field itself – went along his merry way. By the close of play, Pakistan only had a glimmer of hope left. Today morning that was extinguished too.
A morning that was expected to make them fret, the duo chased down the remaining 39 runs they needed overnight in as many minutes. For the first time in nearly a decade, they had won an away Test against a high ranked Test team – and a tour that had been the definition of abysmal, finally had something for them to cheer about.
Of course Pakistan played their part, far more than they would like to admit. Over the last two days, the theme of the questioning towards them has had to do with complacency; and even if they were more keen to point towards fatigue as the foremost factor, it wasn’t just the intensity that was lacking. For perhaps the first time in a fourth innings defence here, it was Pakistan’s tactics that were found lacking.
The conversation at the Sharjah Stadium over the last three days had focused on Pakistan’s squad for the New Zealand tour. Those who were keen to question whether the team had shifted their focus elsewhere had been doing the same themselves. Chief among those discussions were the reports of the disagreements over Zulfiqar Babar, with the captain on one side and the remaining decision makers on the other. Considering that it had supposedly been Misbah who wanted to take him to the Antipodes, the way he used Zulfiqar in the fourth innings here was a damning indictment of his own faith in the spinner.
A man, who just two years ago had been Pakistan’s foremost weapon in successful fourth innings defenses against Australia, was used for just three overs in the final innings in Sharjah. It wasn’t as if he was taken apart during that time either, an economy rate of just one certainly doesn’t suggest so. Instead, Misbah relied on his pacers to partner Yasir Shah to earn him a win.
By the end, the pacers had bowled half the overs Pakistan would deliver in the innings. After six years of spin strangulation, it was quite the detour from what had made him Pakistan’s most successful captain. Asked about it, Misbah had a terse response saying, “Regarding not bowling the spinners, you would be better off getting the answer to that question from the groundsman, who made this pitch. If the ball isn’t turning even on day 5, how will you bowl your spinners. It’s simple.”
That wasn’t the only way Misbah had been uncharacteristic in this innings. Of course 153 was far too small a target to defend on a wicket that wasn’t doing much, but Misbah and his spinners have defended less in the past. The key to Misbah’s success, far too often leading to tut-tutting from up in the commentary boxes throughout the world, had been the fields he had set his bowlers.
His belief that every run ought to be earned, and that the best way to elicit a mistake from modern batsmen is to deny them the joy of hitting boundaries, has been consistently effective. But as Dowrich and Brathwaite dug in last evening, he appeared to discard that. At one stage, with the game still in the balance, he had just the one boundary rider for both the batsmen, asking them to hit over the top, asking them to do what the commentators had always suggested to him and he had never taken note of. The result, as even he would have expected, was easy runs. Dowirch, in particular, took advantage of the attacking fields, hitting over the top and accelerating after a slow start. By the end, the last 50 off Dowrich’s 60 runs had come off just 51 balls.
Misbah, unlike Arthur yesterday, admitted to complacency though. “It was in our minds, and it is very important for us, considering where we are – at number 1 or 2 in Test cricket – and the reputation we now have throughout the world that you play every match at the standards you have set for yourselves,” he said. “Overall though, you can say that in such a series sometimes you start relaxing on the inside due to which you get these sort of performances. I think that is what happened to us. I think we didn’t truly respect the opposition and we paid the price for it. Going into the next two series, we know they are big series, that regardless of conditions we can perform well anywhere against any team.”
And that’s really been the story of Sharjah. Pakistan, pretty much since the end of the England series, have been focused on the tour to the Southern Hemisphere this winter. Of most concern to Pakistan, there might be the state of their slip catching. It was one of the few weak point the team had even in England, and it was one of the reasons Pakistan found themselves unable to defend the target in the fourth innings, after they had dropped two catches in the first three overs of this innings.
Misbah, as is his wont, tried to rationalize his way through the consistent incompetence in the slips saying, “Its unfortunate for us, due to the changes we have made in the XI that we have to change the slip cordon every time. Apart from Younis Khan and Asad Shafiq, we don’t really have any consistency in the slip cordon because of the changes we have had. In this match, we couldn’t put Azhar there because of the number of times he’s been hit on his hands through this series when fielding at short leg. We didn’t have Sami in the team before and we are trying to make him a regular fielder there now too.”
“But I think, and I read this on twitter sometimes, people when referring to catches in the slips say that ‘somebody dropped a sitter’. I think only someone who has never played cricket in his life can call a slip catch there a sitter. Because no matter how easy it seems, it isn’t that easy. Even world class slip catchers drop multiple catches there sometimes. I think the only solution we have for that is to have guys who field there permanently, who are specialists at that position. Because no amount of practice can be a substitute for fielding there repeatedly in a match. So that is what we are focusing on now.”
Thus Pakistan can now finally focus on what they’ve wanted to focus on since August. West Indies, meanwhile, can finally elate in a big Test win. And as has so often been the case, they have to thank Combermere High School for it.