Will the real Pakistan middle-order please stand up?

Sarfraz is, paradoxically, the one you could at once take the greatest and the least issue with. His plight is the greatest because he is in the most wretched rut of his career – one Test match accounts for over 38% of his runs since MisYou departed. As captain of a side that has seen its Test performances and rankings drop like a stone in that period, the pressure on him has been intense and the scrutiny unrelenting. That he edged to the slips off the second ball was among the lesser surprising spectacles Test cricket will throw up, but Pakistan still had to watch their captain depart for a pair for just the fourth time in their history (and one of them was Waqar Younis). But at the same time, he has looked so helpless at the crease – for all six balls across two innings he has been out there – it is perhaps easier to feel sorry for him than anything else.

You could damn them by statistics; you won’t exactly be short of material. For one, the trio has managed 1838 runs in the time since MisYou at 31.15. The rest of the top seven (nightwatchmen excluded) have, in that same period, scored 2607 runs at 36.2. The idea that this middle order has been, or will become, the rock of the batting line-up is beginning to wear thin.

But it is what you don’t get from scorecards that is most jarring. Sarfraz was, in the years before he became captain, a free-flowing strokemaker who could manipulate any cricket ball to a part of the ground where a gap might exist. Now, he barely seems to know how to keep the ball far enough away from the edge of his bat, or the middle of the stumps. With his captaincy at the same time not exactly earning him accolade after accolade, the gaze on him is so intense you would be permitted to feel a bit sorry for him.

Azhar and Asad are simply batsmen who could have done so much more with the ability at their disposal, the princes in waiting of the batting line-up, readying themselves for a smooth transition to a leadership role after the abdication of MisYou. That it hasn’t panned out that way casts an unfavourable light, undeniably, on them, but also on the support staff around them whose job it is to help them take the next step. It is a job in which they have, so far, decidedly failed to live up to expectations.

They have got themselves out at the wrong times, often in ways unbecoming of batsmen of their class, and cost their side heavily as a result. Azhar’s drop in form is more marked, but it has perhaps been Shafiq more guilty of that description. Today, however, both of them wilted under a blazing evening sun at Centurion, along with Sarfraz, rehoused in the dugout when batsmen with realised potentials might have been out there winning a rare Test match against South Africa away. Even Shan Masood, one of just two who emerged from the Pakistan camp with any credit, couldn’t stop himself when asked how he felt watching the collapse from the other end.

“There was a bit of frustration. You wish that one of your partners and they were all good enough to get stuck in and get runs on this wicket.”

That castigation by a junior who hasn’t played in over a year is about as stinging a rebuke as anyone can deliver. For the spine of the Pakistan batting lineup, the time to stand up straight is long overdue.