Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed couldn’t kick on after a counter-attacking fifty © Getty
“Engrossing” is what would perfectly sum up the second day of the Johannesburg Test. It showcased everything (almost) that can happen in a match at this level. Chances were put down. Shies at stumps yielded the batting side five runs, that also twice. We also saw swarms of flies interrupting bowlers in their run-ups.
But, what remained constant was Pakistan, despite having their moments with both bat and ball, inched closer and closer to yet another resounding defeat. Their captain may claim that “the match is still on” but a mere glance at the score sheet is enough to know how different the truth is.
Despite the hosts putting down four catches, including one of their better fielders Temba Bavuma, and missing a stumping chance in the first session, Pakistan were five wickets down by Lunch.
But, there remained a hope. A hope that on a surface that has largely favoured batsmen, and which keeps on baking every hour with sun shining on it, Pakistan might just surmount South Africa’s first innings score. But, in the end, for the fourth time in five innings, Pakistan failed to cross the 200-run mark.
Babar Azam and Sarfraz Ahmed bossed the daunting South African pace attack on either side of the Lunch break as the two put on a scintillating counter-punching sixth-wicket stand. At the fag end of the morning session, Azam, once again, took on Dale Steyn, smashing him for five fours in 12 balls to get the upper hand in their duel once again. This time, there were no edges or soft-handed dabs to the vacant third-man region. Rather, flashing cuts and drilling drives.
And, when Sarfraz walked out amidst the Babar-Steyn matchup, he drove Vernon Philander for two classical free-flowing cover drives. His next four balls after Lunch off the same bowler would garner two more boundaries, the first one off being a dropped chance.
The Babar-Sarfraz pair would add 69 runs in 50 balls after Lunch out of their 61-ball 78-run stand, with boundaries, the commanding ones, being a regular feature. But, there’s another feature that has been more consistent of almost every Pakistan batting effort over the last two years. And, it would soon take over.
Just one ball after reaching his fifty, Sarfraz handed Hashim Amla a comfortable catch, almost how it is during the slip-catching session, as he attempted a dab off Kagiso Rabada which sparked yet another collapse. The very next over, Babar top-edged to fine-leg fielder trying to pull Duanne Olivier’s bouncer well over his eye-line. Included in the side to add depth to the batting lineup, Fahim Ashraf was bounced out the first ball. After that, it was only formalities as South Africa wrapped up Pakistan well inside fifty overs.
“I think we played a couple of bad shots,” Sarfraz said, reflecting on the batting collapse which saw Pakistan’s last five wickets add only 16 runs to their 185-run total. “My shot was a bad shot. Babar also played a bad shot. Amongst the last five wickets, there were three due to bad shots: Mine’s, Babar’s, and Fahim’s. Had we not played them, maybe we would have been in a much better position. This is a problem that we have been facing for the last 10-12 innings. In the first Test match as well, when Imam got out we started to lose wickets. The same problem we faced in the Cape Town Test and now as well. We have to work on this.
“I think we had a chance to get 262 runs. But, we couldn’t manage to. During my partnership with Babar, we were only thinking about playing positive cricket. Unfortunately, I couldn’t score more than 50. Had I gotten 60-70 runs more, our position would have been much better. But, at the moment match is still on.”
With the pressure of captaincy taking over, Sarfraz’s batting has gone downhill. He has lost that free-flowing ability of his which made him a permanent fixture in Pakistan’s Test set up when it seemed that the wicketkeeping spot only belonged to a person with an “Akmal” surname. But, after a long time, that fluency seemed to have returned. There were glimpses of it at Cape Town. Today, it saw him set a record for the third fastest fifty for a Pakistan captain.
“There was no feet movement in my first two innings of the tour because of which I struggled. I haven’t worked a lot on my technique, but now I have begun to move my feet which is helping me. You have to remain in the positive mindset and look to score off the bad balls which they don’t serve many. That’s how [Aiden] Markram and Hashim [Amla] bhai also played. Here, if you are not playing with the positive mindset, you would get out anytime.”
For an umpteenth time, the onus of taking Pakistan over the line lied on the bowlers. The frequency with which it has been occurring makes one feel for the bowlers. Ramiz Raja would go a step further and wonder loudly while commentating that why there hadn’t been an uprising by the bowlers against the batsmen for performing poorly.
Mohammad Amir accounted for Dean Elgar’s wicket with a beauty. Mohammad Abbas’s subtle seam movement compounded the pressure on hosts as Aiden Markam nicked a scorching length ball, that tailed away, to the Pakistan skipper. With Theunis de Bruyn and Hashim Amla looking to stage a recovery, Ashraf, bowling his first over, in the 15th over of the innings delivered a double-wicket maiden, accounting for the wickets of de Bruyn and debutant Zubayr Hamza. At that time, the scorecard read 45 for 4. But, the fact that by stumps South Africa had added 90 more runs for only the added loss of Temba Bavuma, is what frustrated Sarfraz and made him admit “it can be said to be South Africa’s day because they took eight wickets and scored 135 runs”.
“I think our bowling, especially the last 45 minutes, we weren’t up to the mark. We bowled really well overall but the last one hour we didn’t bowl well. At the moment, if you talk about our bowling attack, we are only bowling well in patches. If we bowl well consistently throughout an innings, I don’t think South Africa will score as many runs against us.”
Despite two wickets down for just 17 runs at stumps on day one, Pakistan could’ve been given a chance in the match. But, after what transpired on Saturday, the series now seems all set to be wrapped up in, or just over, nine days.