Misbah's deadcatting, and the decline of Pakistan's pace factory

Much needs to be done before a Pakistan fast-bowling unit is the finished article Getty Images

Lynton Crosby, an Australian political strategist, came up with the concept of the Dead Cat Strategy, but Misbah-ul-Haq is the one who has exploited it to its full potential recently. Loosely defined, the tactic involves diverting attention from a complex issue you would rather not address to a simpler one, preferably with the populist appeal to dominate the agenda. That might not have been front and centre on Misbah's mind, but his squad selection for the Test series in Australia had the sort of effect Crosby himself would have been proud of.

Sat in a press conference room at Gaddafi Stadium last month, Misbah reeled off the names of the teenaged fast bowlers Pakistan were taking to Australia: Shaheen Shah Afridi was going, of course, as was Mohammad Musa, and the real kicker, 16-year-old Naseem Shah.

It led, predictably, to one of the most entrenched feedback loops there is in cricket: how much fast-bowling talent there is in Pakistan, and how the production line never quite seems to run dry. It was undoubtedly a happier discussion as far as the head coach and chief selector - Misbah, both - was concerned. After all, his tenure had begun with a home T20I series whitewash to Sri Lanka, followed by the unceremonious removal of captain Sarfaraz Ahmed from the Test and T20I teams.

The talk would move back to the sorry state of affairs after a genuinely horrific three-match T20I series in Australia, but that's when the trump card was rolled out. Naseem would make his debut in the first Test at the Gabba. Having lost his mother just a week earlier, his courage was to be lauded. For large stretches of the game, he was the quickest, regularly topping 145, and even going up to 148 occasionally. He dealt a painful blow to the elbow to Joe Burns, who had unwisely chosen to eschew an armguard when facing the debutant. He was exciting, fast, young, and Pakistani. The feedback loop went into overdrive.

At the other end, Australia stuck with the three pacers they have used for the best part of the past decade. Pat Cummins was the least experienced of the lot, having played only 26 Test matches, largely because he spent half a decade out dealing with recurring injuries. Even so, that was 11 more Tests than the three Pakistan quicks at Brisbane had played combined. Josh Hazlewood, who made his debut less than five years ago, will play his 50th in Adelaide this week. In Pakistan's history, Imran Khan, Sarfraz Nawaz, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis are the only fast bowlers to have lined up in more Test matches. Mitchell Starc's 228 Test wickets, or indeed Hazlewood's 190, are only bettered in Pakistan by Imran, Wasim and Waqar.

But instead of becoming iconoclastic about Pakistan's reputation as a fast-bowling nirvana, let's stick with the more recent era. The side had one of its most lethal fast-bowling partnerships in Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir ripped out following the spot-fixing scandal in August 2010, and had to start anew. And while the excitement around any new Pakistan pacer is always fairly frenzied, what's also high is turnover. In the nine years since, Pakistan have handed three or more Test caps to 16 fast bowlers; for Australia, that number is nine.

Now who, at this moment, would you reasonably feel will feature in a Test match for Pakistan in one of those fast-bowling slots? You might have said Mohamad Abbas last week, yet here we are. Afridi's the next name on that list, but this, remember, is a 19-year-old who has played no more than four Tests, and opinions change rather swiftly in Pakistan. Hasan Ali's injury came at an unfortunate time, but even when he was on top of the world in the ODI rankings, Pakistan never quite seemed sure about picking him in the Test side.

It isn't just a conundrum for this particular series, but one Pakistan has wrestled with for much of the past decade. Wahab Riaz's hype and explosiveness could never stand up to the consistency of the longest format, and by the time he retired, he was never a serious red-ball option anyway. Pakistan struggled to manage Amir's workload to his satisfaction, while he struggled to get his form back up to those frankly unrealistic levels of 2010. Imran Khan was, without putting too fine a point on it, the sort of bowler they wouldn't have looked twice at while they still had the other Imran Khan fresh in their memories.

And yet, there was a reason he made his debut when he did; Imran was, as were many like him, prolific on the domestic circuit. Aizaz Cheema, Tanvir Ahmed, Mohammad Talha and Bilawal Bhatti all played Test cricket for the same reason, though the lack of success they enjoyed at that level was perhaps the most eloquent rebuke to the quality of pitches in first-class cricket in Pakistan. Medium-fast bowlers just need to land the ball in the vicinity of a good length and allow the pitch to do the rest, and there was little motivation to improve one's skillset.

Bhatti, for example, averaged 48.5 with the ball in two Tests, 73.16 in ten ODIs and 51 in nine T20Is with an economy rate of 9.80. Yet, in the three seasons before he made his Test debut, on the domestic circuit he took 76 wickets at 18.73 (2011-12), 28 wickets at 24.03 (12-13) and 9 wickets at 23.77 (13-14).

In the nine years since that Lord's Test, not a single Pakistan pace bowler has featured in the top 25 Test match wicket-takers; Riaz's 76, coming at an average of 35.11, is at No. 26. Above Wahab are half a dozen Australians, five Englishmen, four South Africans, three each from New Zealand, West Indies and India, and one from Sri Lanka. Jasprit Bumrah, who only made his Test debut last year, already has 62. If Doug Bracewell were Pakistani, he would be the second-most prolific Test fast bowler for them. If Pakistan is a factory for pace bowling, a lot of the products of late have been defective.

And this is the dilemma the board might have put itself in. If you think you have got an unlimited supply of fast bowlers, you're less motivated to appreciate them, invest in them, and care for them. Pakistan have already seen multiple bowlers, most prominently Wahab, Sohail Khan, Rumman Raees and Junaid Khan, come back vastly diminished from injury, while the likes of Rahat Ali and Imran have stagnated, never quite able to improve even as they accumulated experience At some point, it has to be something the coaching and medical staff must take responsibility for. Particularly when you look across to the other changing room, specifically at Cummins, who at one point seemed lost to injury. He is, instead, the best bowler in the world right now.

In hindsight, there wasn't too much wriggle-room Misbah had when he announced the squad, following the retirements of Amir and Wahab and the injury to Hasan. They didn't help themselves by then leaving out their most reliable bowler Abbas in Brisbane, but that those two absences necessitated the naming of such an inexperienced bowling attack suggests there is much work to be done before a Pakistan fast-bowling line-up can be considered the finished article.

It will require expert coaching, commitments to world-class medical treatment, and perhaps psychological support for a young attack likely to be subjected to the most fierce criticism when results are poor. Pakistan have discarded fast bowlers as readily as they have hyped them up of late, but if the factory really is shutting down, these last specimens must be treated like the collector's items they should be.