The quiet signs of change in Pakistan's bowling strategy

Sarfraz Ahmed and Yasir Shah celebrate a wicket AFP

How open are we really to change? The entire human endeavour seems accented to carefully curating each day so that it mirrors yesterday and tomorrow. Sleep at the same time, wake up at the same time, go to more or less the same places, eat more or less the same food, listen to more or less the same music, be more or less with the same people. Routine is the real opium of the masses, that which keeps humans from destroying each other and the planet (and one day, we must continue to believe, this great theorem will be proven true).

On Thursday, Pakistan will walk into the Sheikh Zayed stadium and it will feel much as it has the last nine times they have walked into this venue for a Test. It is now home, now fortress. The stands will be empty and the immediate surrounds barren, and that sense of solitude, of diligently beavering towards a goal away from the eyes of the world - a sense that has helped them no end, by the way - will remain. Even the last few days of practice have progressed, more or less, as they always did, as if it's no big deal that they are elite athletes preparing for elite battle - no team's humanness, that they are not all that different to you and I, is as visible as Pakistan's.

Except, way out there somewhere, there's this low rumble gathering, maybe ominous, maybe not. It's the sound of change. The two men, in whose opposing personalities a pure essence of Pakistan was accidentally distilled - the unmoved ice of Misbah-ul-Haq meeting the moving lava of Younis Khan - are no longer here. Expect that rumble to grow louder. Eventually for sure, not right now necessarily.

For now, one might even be moved to argue, on the evidence of the last three days of training, that they just don't make Pakistani transitions like they used to. Time was when you could trust a transition for a real hoot. Legends booted out in disgrace, captains picked on the roll of a dice, newcomers turning into has-beens like butterflies reversing into caterpillars, hellish results, all underpinned by the gut-kicking punchline - this isn't a period fool, it's a state of being. Those were the days.

Right now? Pfft. No veins are known to have burst over the ascension of Sarfraz Ahmed to the captaincy. No team-mates are dropping truth bombs about their own leadership credentials. His unofficial deputy Asad Shafiq is an old mate, sans captaincy ambitions. If one looks hard enough, one might even argue that it was the slickest, best-laid succession plan the Pakistan Cricket Board has ever assembled - Sarfraz has led pretty much every side he's played for, at every level. And over the last two years, without rancor or opposition and in order, he's led his Pakistan Super League side, become T20 captain, taken over the ODI side, and now the Test team. He comes with credit in the bank already, with the Champions Trophy.

The oldies have left the team on their own terms. Blessing of all blessings, they're intent on not coming back either. Sort-of-seniors, like Mohammad Hafeez, have been quietly nudged aside. Forget the coach, not even a member of his staff has gone.

The only safe space for the anguish and rage, confusions and contradictions of a transition is the middle order. There we must stand united - #JusticeforFawadAlam. Foam at the mouth, find forums to vent your outrage, heckle the PCB: Fawad Alam, averager of 60 in first-class cricket over the last three years vs Haris Sohail, of no known average BECAUSE HE HASN'T PLAYED A SINGLE FIRST-CLASS GAME IN THREE YEARS. No social media platform should be sturdy enough to manage the weight of this outrage. Still, it's Fawad Alam, not the rise of the far-right across the world, so calamity is relative.

There are other reasons the batting order has attracted attention in the build-up, all of which are valid and given the direct impact Younis and Misbah made there. But it is doubtful whether Pakistan will find long-term answers in a two-Test series at home against an opponent in some disarray. And they don't play another Test till next May, so don't expect definitive answers there.

Instead, where real change can be sensed is in the bowling, not so much in the personnel as the deployment of it. For Misbah, two spinners and two fast bowlers in the UAE was an article of faith, inscribed in stone. If it could ever be considered decent, he'd play eleven spinners. On only six occasions in 24 Tests in the UAE did he play three fast bowlers and in all, he had, in Mohammad Hafeez, an allrounder on paper but a near-enough specialist offspinner in actuality. In 2015, when he was forced to play three fast bowlers against England because of an injury to Yasir Shah, he was so livid and despondent that it filtered into Pakistan contriving to almost lose the Test

Even now, there are days when it feels counterintuitive that such a successful era of Pakistan cricket could have leaned so heavily on spin. You could argue, and be thought to remain of sane mind, that Misbah never quite got his head around pacers as well as tradition and history demands a Pakistani captain ought to. They weren't his thing.

These are very early days but chatter from the team's leadership suggests that the three-pacemen-and-one-spinner combination they are likely to play in Abu Dhabi could be a shift in policy rather than a one-off. Sarfraz is nothing if not a pragmatist though and so, for now, the decision could be based as much on not having a readymade second spinner to utilise as Misbah did. Mohammad Asghar has excited a lot of people, but he's not Abdur Rehman or Zulfiqar Babar and he won't be for some time.

But it would be nice - and the clearest illustration of change - to imagine that Sarfraz looks at Mohammad Amir and sees the high-quality spearhead, the match-winner Pakistanis wish him to be; that he sees Mohammad Abbas and sees a willing and more than able straight-man foil to Amir's gifts; that he doesn't box Hasan Ali as a white-ball specialist but encourages and enables his growth across formats; that he continues to trust in Wahab Riaz as an enforcer for when the occasion demands.

Those might be the kind of changes Pakistanis could get used to.