The allrounder’s ability to counterattack with the bat was sorely missed in Lahore
Pakistan were five wickets down, and the sickening panic engulfing the Gaddafi Stadium felt fully justified. It’s Pakistan Day, a national holiday, and so for a Test held from Monday to Friday, today inevitably drew the biggest crowd. Today, when the sun disappeared behind a blanket of clouds and a fresh evening breeze began to blow just as Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins began their merciless assault on Pakistan’s lower order.
It wasn’t a fair fight in the fading light. Ashraf would watch from the dugout as the second half of this lopsided Pakistan side collapsed in on itself. While Australia’s last five added 211 to their first-innings total, Pakistan’s fell for four runs – the worst five-wicket collapse in their Test history. It left Australia with a 123-run lead; that Carey-Green partnership had put together 135 on its own.
Which takes us back to the first morning, and the audible exclamations of surprise when Pakistan’s team sheet came out. It wasn’t so much that Naseem had been included, but the man he’d edged out into the XI. The merit of a selection decision cannot be viewed in the vacuum of the incoming player’s performance, but what a side loses in the value of the player who makes way.
There will be the usual scepticism around Ashraf’s ability to survive pace bowling of the class of Cummins and Starc, but then again, even Babar was visibly struggling when Australia’s two spearheads pushed past the ramparts after two sessions of laying siege to Pakistan’s batting line-up. That was the other aspect to the drama of that final hour, the asphyxiating hold Australia held over Pakistan even while the wickets didn’t come. It might have looked somnambulant, but the effect it had was stifling.
Of course all that might have proved too hot for Ashraf to handle, too, but that only further underscored the value of having him out there instead of the hapless Sajid. The unique threat Ashraf poses with the bat means any runs he made would have broken the shackles, a department where his pedigree outmatches any of his team-mates. South Africa don’t exactly possess a toothless fast-bowling attack either, but on a spicier pitch in Karachi, an attack comprising Kagiso Rabada, Anrich Nortje and Lungi Ngidi was flayed for an 84-ball 64 as Pakistan took a commanding first-innings lead to set up a seven-wicket win. The following Test, an unbeaten first-innings 78 helped Pakistan obtain a 71-run first-innings lead, and a 95-run win. The idea it would have made little difference to have Ashraf out there instead of Sajid feels a touch far-fetched.
Only the most miserable curmudgeon would refuse to enjoy the magically joyful display that young fast bowling talent Naseem put on over the first two days, but the sacrifice required to make that happen mustn’t be forgotten. You don’t get to max out your credit cards while shielding yourself from the final implications, and Ashraf’s exclusion incurred a debt to this Pakistan side. In the lengthening shadows and the dimming sky, Starc and Cummins ensured that debt was paid tonight.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000