The rise of Pakistan’s Test team: The secret to Pakistan’s UAE success

In Part 4 of our five-part series detailing the rise of Pakistan's Test team ahead of the West Indies series in the UAE, Paul Radley explores what makes the Emirates such hospitable territory for the Pakistanis.

Ultimately, it is not too complicated why Pakistan fare so well in the UAE even though they as much as any touring side are still visitors – it's the pitch, stupid. Gareth Copley / Getty Images
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This is Part 4 of a five-part series in the lead-up to the first Test between Pakistan and West Indies in the UAE, starting on Thursday, looking at the rise of the Pakistan Test team.

How hard can touring the UAE really be for the side listed as the “away” team? It is easy to think a trip here must, superficially at least, be the easy way to tour the subcontinent for cricket.

Beautiful beaches. The best hotels. Minimal travel between matches. Immaculate playing and training facilities. Low-level security detail. Non-vociferous, less-than-partisan home crowds.

Much of the population do not have a particular interest outside of their cricket, either.

So for the players to slide away from view away from the ground is presumably more easily done than it would be in Pakistan itself, for example.

And, after all, this is no more a home for Pakistan than anyone else. These are, always remember, neutral venues used because of circumstance.

Cricketers of all nationalities are often happy to pick this country as a holiday destination, too.

“I absolutely love Dubai,” said James Taylor, the former batsman who was part of the England side conquered by Pakistan in the Tests of last winter.

“If I was to go somewhere right now, it would be Dubai. I loved that trip, it was amazing.

“So I don’t think there are any factors from that point of view, the lads love it.”

• PART 1: David Kendix explains the maths

• PART 2: In UAE, an existential longing for home

• PART 3: Ajmal, Azhar and Wahab's favourite UAE moments

• PART 5: Misbah-ul-Haq, a record that does not skip

Then why has it so far proved impossible to win a series against Pakistan in the UAE?

It is all about what happens inside the boundary ropes, rather than beyond, according to the opposition view.

A foreign field

Why is here so much more home for Pakistan than everyone else? Take last winter’s conquered opponents, England, for example.

There are around 250,000 British expatriates living in the UAE – a long way short of the number of Pakistanis, admittedly, but still a sizeable community.

The Pakistan team never want for travelling support wherever they go, anyway. They were in the majority during the three Tests the sides played at the end of 2015, as well as in 2012.

England’s emerging cricketers are regular visitors to the country, too, thanks to their board’s strong relationship with the ICC Academy at Dubai Sports City, and another one between the MCC and Abu Dhabi.

James Vince provides a good example – albeit an extreme case. Last winter, he played for England’s limited-overs side against Pakistan in November, stayed in Dubai for the Lions tour in December and January, then played for Karachi Kings in the Pakistan Super League in February.

Pakistan’s national team players were not even here all that time. Managing his visa arrangements must have been a nightmare.

And yet, despite England’s familiarity with this part of the world, to date they have played six Tests here and lost five.

“You couldn’t wish for a better place to come and tour,” said Paul Franks, a former England bowler who served as the UAE coach this summer.

“You are not just cooped up in your hotel room worrying about where your next room service meal is coming from.

“Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and the country as a whole is a beautiful place to play cricket.

“But what Pakistan have managed to do is create a stronghold that builds confidence for them, which we haven’t seen from other teams when they visit that part of the world.”

It’s the pitch, stupid!

A stronghold that is built largely on a small strip of turf, right in the middle of each of the three venues. The central wicket block is what sets this out as home for Pakistan more than anything else.

At Dubai International Stadium, the soil for the pitch is imported from Nandipur in Pakistan, the same used at Lahore’s Qaddafi Stadium.

Sharjah’s wicket was relaid last June, with the top surface scraped off and replaced by soil also imported from Pakistan.

“I think it is just simply from a pitch perspective,” Mickey Arthur, the Pakistan coach, said of their pre-eminence in UAE.

“The actual cricket conditions are very similar to what it would be like in the subcontinent.”

Arthur is here in charge of Pakistan now, but he is also in a minority of people who have tasted success as an opposition coach in the UAE. It was a small sample, but he was coach when Australia won a short limited-overs series against Pakistan in tough climatic conditions in September 2012.

“The heat is oppressive, it’s hot, and Pakistan play really well here because they are really patient, and the spinners come into the game more,” he said.

“The game starts off slowly, the wickets are flat and so the first innings become crucial.

“Then the game quickens up as the spinners come more and more into the game as the pitches deteriorate. Pakistan have mastered that. Their spinners are incredibly patient, and they do a wonderful job.”

Taylor agrees.

“I think, even though it is not Pakistan’s actual home, it is their home,” Taylor said. “They are very much used to the conditions, their senior men have stepped up, and they seem to keep finding cricketers that do a really good job, like [leg-spinner] Yasir Shah is now.”

Playing patience

The greatest virtue during Tests in the UAE – for batsmen, bowlers, and spectators alike – is usually patience. More than any other side, Pakistan have proved to be masters at sitting in when a game appears to be in a lull, then striking when a small opening arises.

“It can be pretty boring cricket,” Taylor said. “There are times where there is not a lot going on, then when it does it can happen quite quickly.”

Taylor played only one of the three Tests during England’s 2-0 loss to Pakistan last winter. He excelled on a pitch in Sharjah that was taking prodigious turn, making his Test best score of 76 in the first innings.

That wicket was an anomaly.

Even though Pakistan’s main threat is usually their slow bowlers, it is a misconception that pitches are given to exaggerated turn, especially in Sharjah.

The general traits of UAE Test pitches are slow, low bounce, hence the need for patience and stamina with both bat and ball.

“With the slow nature of the wickets, the patience of the Pakistan batsmen and bowlers, having grown up in those conditions, they have found a way,” Taylor said.

“The spinners generally take the wickets, but the seamers do a great job, too. They look after the ball, and when the reverse swing is there, they utilise that.”

Hosts with the most

The Pakistan Cricket Board used to send their own groundsmen to the UAE, as much as a month in advance of the series, to oversee the preparation of the pitches to the exact specification of the team.

Now, though, the resident curators – the Australian Tony Hemming in Dubai, Indian Mohan Singh in Abu Dhabi, and Pakistani Mohammed Jameel in Sharjah – have it down pat.

It is years since PCB ground staff last had to travel. “A lot of credit has to be given to our partners at the Emirates Cricket Board,” said Usman Wahla, the PCB’s general manager of international cricket operations.

“Our hosts have been very cooperative in getting all the venues here to give us the kind of conditions we need in order for our team to be successful. We have had that right from the start.”

It helps that Pakistan have had the same captain since 2010. The team’s strengths have gradually metamorphosed in that time. At the start, the main wicket threat was Saeed Ajmal’s off-spin. Now it is the leg-spin of Yasir.

Misbah-ul-Haq well knows what is required to get the best out of his strike options, and the captain makes his recommendations accordingly.

“It has worked out well, but at the same time we have had a sporting attitude to it,” Wahla said. “For example, in the last series against England, the two matches that had results happened in the last sessions on the fifth day, and the first was nearly a result, too.

“The pitches give a chance for good cricket. We have a strong Test side that likes to take up the challenge, and has proven they can perform in any conditions.”

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