Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Pakistan back at the Oval, their happy hunting ground

After the euphoria at Lord's, hammering at Old Trafford, and embarassment at Edgbaston, Pakistan move to their favorite ground in England, the Oval. Pakistan's record at the Oval, 4 wins and 3 losses, is better than their record at all other grounds in England.

The Oval has always been kind to Pakistan.

Great wins at the Oval

The Oval is where Pakistan won their first ever test match in England on their first ever tour to the country in 1954.

The Oval is where Pakistan sealed their historic series wins in 1992 and 1996.

The Oval is where Pakistan won their only test during their last visit to England in 2010.

Besides all these happy Oval memories, there is also the forfeited test of 2006. Even during that test Pakistan was in a winning position before Inzamam Ul Haq decided to take a stand against the very questionable Darrel Hair.

If we ignore that forfeited test, Pakistan have not lost at the Oval since 1967, in almost half a century.

Power Packed Bowler Performances at the Oval

Pakistan's 4 victories at the Oval have all been on the back of power packed performances by the pacers and spinners.

1954: Fazal Mahmood 6-53 and 6-46; England bowled out for 130 and 143.

1992: Wasim Akram 6-67 and 3-36; Waqar Younis 5-52; England bowled out for 207 and 174.

1996: Wasim Akram 3-83 and 3-67; Mushtaq Ahmed 6-78; England bowled out for 326 and 242.

2010: Wahab Riaz 5-63; Mohammad Aamer 5-52; England bowled out for 233 and 222.

Quite similar to Pakistan's win at Lords in the first test of this series, which seems like such a distant memory now.

Bold Steps to be taken at the Oval

Questions are already being asked on whether Pakistan can bounce back from their defeat at Edgbaston or not. Rarely do teams return from the embarrassment of collapsing in 2 sessions. However, Pakistan did bounce back from the hammering at Old Trafford to dominate England at Edgbaston for the first half of the test.

Based on that, there is no reason why Pakistan cannot bounce back at the Oval. But certain bold steps will need to be taken.

Shan Masood was replaced by Sami Aslam for the third test, a change that did wonders for Pakistan. Their other opener, Mohammad Hafeez has been out of sorts; despite an average in excess of 50 in tests in Asia, Hafeez has been a mere passenger in tests outside Asia. Pakistan don't have another replacement opener in their squad so the coach and captain need to think outside the box.

Either of Azhar Ali or Sarfraz Ahmed can be asked to open for this all important final test of the series.

That will then allow Pakistan to either play Iftikhar Ahmed, a middle order batsman who can bowl some off spin, or a specialist bowler, who can add to Pakistan's tiring 4-man bowling attack.

Pakistan's tail is so weak that the urge to play a 5th bowler will probably be curbed. Though if you think about it, Hafeez'z non-contribution pretty much has meant that Pakistan have been playing with 5 batsman and the wicketkeeper.

There is no doubt about the fact that Younis Khan will have to rediscover his form of old. He has been a stalwart for Pakistan and has not had a test series without a 50 in over a decade. This is a rare bad series for him and it shocks me that people are asking for him to be dropped given his contributions to the test team over the past decade.

Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed have been crucial to Pakistan's success at test level. So much so that their ducks in the final innings at Edgbaston were their first ever such scores after 49 and 43 innings respectively. For Sarfraz, it was his first ever in tests.

Having said that, Pakistan's batting has always been questionable, especially when away from Asian conditions. It has always been their bowling that has won them test matches.

In both the innings at Lord's and in the first innings at Edgbaston, Pakistan's bowlers managed to restrict England for under 300. This is what is needed again at the Oval. Aamer and Yasir need to discover their magic.

What a win at the Oval will mean

A win at the Oval will put Pakistan within touching distance of the number 1 ranking in test cricket for the first time since the inception of the rankings. As long as Pakistan win, Australia lose or draw their third test against Sri Lanka, and India don't win both their remaining tests against West Indies, Pakistan will be number 1.

That will be an achievement and a half for them. For Misbah, it will be the culmination and a well deserved award for 6 years in command of a team that he lifted from the ruins in 2010.

For Pakistan it will be an epic story of a turnaround for a team that was left embarrassed by the News of the World the last time they were in England.

For a team that has remained unbeaten at "home" under Misbah, it will be a vindication. It will be enough for critics to at least consider the fact that this team can also win away from home.

It is all to play for at the Oval and there is enough meaning to the test for Pakistan to lift themselves and make sure that they continue their winning ways at the Oval and remain undefeated at the ground for 50 years!

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