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Shakeel, Salman and Pakistan turn on the gas to play Test cricket at turbo speed

Saud Shakeel has had an excellent start to his Test career, but in a different way from how Harry Brook has had an excellent start to his Test career.

After 10 innings, Shakeel averages 72.50. After 17 knocks, Brook is at 64.25.

Few who have watched them bat before Monday, would have made the comparison, though. And here’s why. If you halve Brook’s Test-match strike rate of 94.31, you’ve still got to go down a few points to meet Shakeel’s, which is at 41.66.

Shakeel had faced 1392 deliveries at this level and hit a single six. Brook’s faced 1090 and hit 20.

And yet, suddenly, after a six-month Test-match hiatus, Pakistan are racing at a run rate of 4.91 after 45 overs in their first innings, Shakeel their top-scorer so far, with 69 not out off 88 deliveries. Agha Salman, whose Test strike rate had been 56.65 before this game, was Shakeel’s chief partner in Galle, making 61 off 84 by stumps.

The pair came together with Pakistan in deep trouble at 101 for 5, after Sri Lanka made 312. They then put on 120 off 136 deliveries, and remained unbeaten at the crease. They swept hard, frequently came out of their crease, and rarely allowed bowlers to build up dot balls.

Shan Masood, who’d earlier struck 39 off 30, revealed that this was the result of a team-wide change in direction.

“The last Test cycle gave us a big reflection, and this management was very firm that one of the things that was lacking with us not winning Test matches or not finishing them off, was that we weren’t scoring at such a high rate as our opposition. That has been a concentrated effort.

“There were guys who were given a grant to go and play cricket in England, but the rest of the guys put in a lot of hard work during two skill camps that were based in Lahore and Karachi before we flew out to Sri Lanka. The emphasis was on scoring runs, just to put the opposition under pressure.

“In the camps, everything was left to individual preferences, but they were provided platforms to experiment – to play all kinds of shots, see what suited them, what kinds of oppositions they were coming up against. If you look at the players in our set-up – particularly Saud and Agha – you can see subtle changes that have allowed them to score quickly.”

The new aggression is understood to be driven at least partly by Pakistan’s new team director Mickey Arthur, though also supported by others in the coaching and support staff. In this particular match, it may also have to do with the conditions and current opposition.

Arthur, who coached Sri Lanka between 2019 and 2021, not only has close knowledge of the track in Galle, but was also head coach when the likes of Prabath Jayasuriya and Ramesh Mendis made their Test debuts.

“Coming into these conditions in Sri Lanka, one thing Sri Lanka does is hold the opposition to miserly run rates, and they get the wickets in between as well,” Masood said. “Yes, we lost wickets, but that way of playing allowed us to stay in the game. Once we got that one healthy partnership, the two teams are in an even position now.”

The theory that in Galle, you get your runs before the inevitable good ball gets you out, is not new. Many batters have tried this strategy, including Sri Lanka’s own, with varying degrees of success. But it is the first time that Pakistan – one of the most frequent tourists to Sri Lanka in the 21st century – have made aggressive batting a team focus.

“Normally you see Test matches move from day three, but from what I’ve seen at Galle, Test matches finish in four days,” Masood said. “There are some funny things that happen here because the ball keeps doing something. The breeze alows the fast bowlers to stay in, there’s some reverse swing, there’s some nice carry, the spinners are always the main frontrunners. While you’re there, make the most of it. You want to limit that fourth innings chase to as little as possible.”

Andrew Fidel Fernando is ESPNcricinfo’s Sri Lanka correspondent. @afidelf

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