Mathematicians must hate it when the rest of us non-mathematicians think we are being clever in saying things like the whole is greater – or less – than the sum of its parts. How can the total ever be less than the sum of the numbers adding up to it? This is not philosophy; this is maths. Two plus two has to be four. It can be nothing else, not more or less.
So it is with the greatest respect to all mathematicians that this line is wheeled out again, this time in application to this Pakistan pace attack – of which the whole currently feels distinctly less than what it should be given the sum of its individual parts.
No doubt skeptics might join mathematicians in arguing that actually, the attack equals exactly the sum of its constituents; that this, the first day of Brisbane and Australia near enough 300 for just three, is how good any combination of Mohammad Amir, Rahat Ali, Wahab Riaz, Sohail Khan and Imran Khan can ever be.
But how? At least in theory it looks like an excess of riches unlike any Pakistan have been able to call upon in recent times. Remember, after all, those fun days about a decade ago when the prospect of some combination of Mohammad Asif, Shoaib Akhtar, Umar Gul, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan, Shahid Nazir, Shabbir Ahmed and (we might as well throw him in) Mohammad Sami generated enough drool to turn a crater into an ocean? And yet, somehow, no potent attack from that could ever really turn out together, and certainly not for long enough for it to matter.
Some just weren’t as good as was thought; there were drugs and there were injuries; there were dodgy actions and bad haircuts; there were fights and bans; and there was Asif, a force not ever knowingly tamed by anyone, batsmen, friends, lovers or administrators.
So it must be a blessing right now that they can at least pick from the five pace options they have every Test they play. And it should be a blessing that together the quintet cover so many bases. A bit of swing in the air? No worries, Sohail will touch you up a little. Need a bit of nasty? Please, Wahab. Something cute and reliable, maybe for those UAE pitches? Thanks Rahat. Maybe a back-of-a-length, into-the-wind toiler when everyone else pulls a sickie? Ladies and gentlemen – the Imran Khan who isn’t that one. And the cherry on top of this, the glue that holds them together, that once-in-a-generation star? Welcome back Amir.
And yet, on days like today, and on a number of them through the tours of England and New Zealand, these options have either not seemed enough, or that there are more bases to cover than Pakistan thought. In part it is because a four-man attack with negligible part-time options is always going to be thin in modern cricket. Over in India, two sides are currently playing what seems to be the future, with five, six, even seven options in any one innings.
With just four, the whole operation is fragile. In England that was at its most acute with Sohail around, looking as if he had just one spell in which to make it count in an entire Test. When Amir went off briefly in Brisbane, the Test may as well have been over, Pakistan already floored. The big outfields, the heat, the crowds and often the surfaces – Australia is ruthless in stretching thin attacks to the point of tearing them up. Without an allrounder they can do little about that, except fret and complain that they haven’t spent the last few years trying to develop one.
They have not always known which permutation of the five suits their purposes, or the surface, best. Rotation is a reality and Pakistan have played on a variety of pitches this year, but seven changes to their pace bowling combination in ten Tests – no matter the divergence in conditions – suggests they are not sure what works.In one sense, Pakistan are still adjusting to the return of Mohammad Amir © Cricket Australia/Getty Images
The three in Brisbane are the three who played the first Test at Lord’s this summer and then, as now, it isn’t obvious that it is the right three. Rahat, in particular, has struggled in the opening innings of the three series he has played away from home this year – and with limited resources, one misfiring bowler is fatal. Even accounting for the left-handers in Australia’s line-up, might Imran not have been a sturdier option?
In one sense, Pakistan are still adjusting to the return of Amir. They had made peace with what resources they had in his absence. Junaid Khan had skipped out of his shadow. Imran emerged. Mohammad Irfan briefly looked like he could have a Test career. Wahab found his calling. Instead, Amir waltzed back into the side once his ban ended and the men who had been holding fort either faded away, like Junaid, or began missing out, like Imran, Wahab and Rahat, who have all sat out Tests because Amir has already assumed the status of an automatic selection.
Is it time then, even as early as the first skirmishes of this series, for some reassessment? That Wahab is a deliverer of good-to-great spells rather than being a good-to-great bowler and that Rahat is a slow learner? And as for Amir, maybe the swing-friendly summer of 2010 and what followed swelled in our heads the memories of how good he really was.
Maybe the maths is right, that this attack is only as good as its numbers, which aren’t great. After all, at various points in England and New Zealand, they have collectively squandered helpful conditions.
Or, as they did today, they have bowled well enough intermittently but bowled boundary balls often enough to create no pressure, deflecting it instead on Yasir Shah and earning the mistrust of their captain. The depth of that was damning enough in Misbah-ul-Haq not using two fast bowlers in tandem from the 11th over of the innings until the second new ball, as if he was trying to hide one on the first day of a series in a country where there is no place to hide.