When the team sheets were submitted at the toss of the series opener between Scotland and Pakistan at the Grange, four spinners under the age of 25 were in the starting XIs. By the end of the match, one pair played to their age and inexperience, while the other looked like grizzled veterans worthy of their country’s No. 1 ranking.
Reading the raw numbers on the scorecard made the difference more stark. Pakistan’s duo of Mohammad Nawaz and Shadab Khan combined for figures of 3 for 47 in eight overs. Scotland’s tag-team of Mark Watt and debutant Hamza Tahir were more than twice as expensive in the same number of overs, not to mention wicketless. It was a harsh lesson, but one that Scotland captain Kyle Coetzer hoped his young slow bowling group would be able to learn from, going forward after a 48-run defeat.
“The pace and the lengths which they bowled were of a higher quality than ours,” Coetzer told ESPNcricinfo afterwards. “They were top of the bails, pulled the length back and slid the ball in towards the batter – and only their variation was to change up and try to spin it, as opposed to ours. We were just slightly full today and we got ourselves into that one-step zone where they didn’t really have to come chasing it.
“We’ve come off the back of our one-day game where lengths are maybe slightly different too, but that’s no excuse. We’ve got to try to find our lengths and find them quicker. You play against an opposition like this, they’re going to hurt you if you don’t get it right. The quality of Sarfraz Ahmed and Shoaib Malik, they were so dangerous if you didn’t get it in the right place.”
The Pakistan captain entered the contest starved of form on their tour of Ireland and the UK, having scored just 88 runs in eight innings. He more than doubled that in the space of only 49 balls at the Grange. Even after 15 overs, he had played a smooth but relatively sedate knock by T20 standards, reaching 41 off 32 balls.
But Sarfraz and Malik meted out harsh punishment to the left-arm spinner Tahir in the 16th over, battering him for 20 runs to spark an 80-run surge over the final five overs. Sarfraz faced 17 balls out of the 30 that remained, but scored at a strike rate of nearly 300. The only two dot balls in the final quarter of the innings were by Shoaib: first in the 17th off Mark Watt and then when he drove to long-off to give Alasdair Evans his third wicket. Otherwise, Sarfraz was unstoppable, and finished with a spectacular flourish off Safyaan Sharif with four, four, six, four at the end of the innings to take Pakistan past 200.
“He used the pace when he first came in, tried to get to ball down to third man a few times and then he looked to hit the ball hard through the field. And he took on extra cover really well and hit a couple of gaps that are very hard to block,” Coetzer said of the knock by Sarfraz. “When we started to try to take the pace off the ball with Richie [Berrington] or bowl some slower balls, he was hitting us through the leg side but he was picking the gaps all the time – between the fielders or over them.
“A little bit like Jonny Bairstow the other day. Sometimes when they’re playing that well you’re almost hoping that they’re going to mis-hit one when they’re trying to hit one over the fielders. Let’s be honest, that’s the case a lot of the times. You want to get people hitting to where your fielders are, or over them, and if they don’t manage to clear them, then they’re out. But he was able to pick the gaps between them today. It was a fine knock and showed how you can actually pace an innings in T20 cricket. Because towards the end in the last over he took down Safyaan, who is a fine death bowler.”
Scotland maintained the scoring rate early in the chase and were actually in a better position than Pakistan had been at the end of the Powerplay, but the wheels came off with the introduction of Shadab in the eighth over. The legspinner struck off his very first ball, piercing Berrington’s forward prod with a googly before winning the key showdown with Calum MacLeod in the 12th over to trap him leg before. By the end of his spell, Scotland needed 108 off 36 balls, and only a brief flurry by Michael Leask made the final margin look closer than the truth.
Coming less than 48 hours after the euphoric high of Sunday’s win over England, Coetzer said the thing that pleased him most about the loss was how disappointed his team-mates were in the dressing room afterwards. In a 13-month span when they have beaten Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Afghanistan and England, the expectations have shifted dramatically. No longer are they just happy to share the same field as the top sides in the world. They expect to stand toe-to-toe with them too, and they’ve got one more chance to show it with a quick turnaround for a rematch on Wednesday.
“I think they believe we’ve let ourselves down today,” Coetzer said. “The standards bar has been raised continuously over the last year or so. Yes, we’re playing the No. 1 team in T20 cricket, but we still believe that we’re capable of more and can challenge them more.”