Azhar emerges from wilderness to show his class
➤ Captain’s knock may be in vain, but his 17th Test century underlines the ability the world has had little chance to admire
Although he scored his 17th Test century behind closed doors at the Ageas Bowl, it was nevertheless one of the largest crowds Azhar Ali had ever batted in front of in Test cricket.
Not only were the Pakistan Test players present, but the T20 squad were also there to applaud when Azhar drove Dom Bess through extra cover, plus all the cameramen and groundstaff, and a sweet-faced dog to boot.
This was a sizeable crowd, compared to what Azhar and his compatriots have been used to, because Pakistan have been condemned to a 10-year sentence of playing abroad after the Sri Lanka bus was shot to smithereens in Lahore in 2009.
Azhar has played far more in the United Arab Emirates than anywhere else, and there can be no more soul-destroying place to play 27 Tests. A one-day international or T20 will draw a crowd, especially in Sharjah, about the only place where
Pakistani labourers can afford to live. A Test in Dubai or Abu Dhabi attracts a sprinkling of diplomats and businessmen in the VIP lounges, and that old fellow with a beard and a flag who the Pakistan board fly in.
Accustomed to less than inspiring environments, Pakistan’s captain taught England a few truths about bowling when the pitch is flat and the ball is soft, in other words what Test cricket is like abroad. But primarily Azhar gave a model lesson in how to do the hardest thing in batting, to stem and then turn the tide of a Test match.
Azhar was surveying the wreckage of 30 for four before the end of James Anderson’s opening spell. At the rate Anderson was going it looked like he would be clocking up his 600th wicket before lunch, and Pakistan would be following on almost 500 behind.
Social media in Pakistan was on the verge of melting down and the brickbats were ready to take flight when Azhar and his team-mates flew home. Pakistan, after all, have won or drawn their four previous Test series against England.
But Azhar put the anchor down and, ball by ball, stirred Pakistan’s hopes of a draw with the aid of some rain on the last two days. He batted at the same tempo as Pakistan’s batting coach Younis Khan, which Joe Root would do well to emulate to solve his conversion problem: infinite defensive pains when scoring your first fifty, then opening up and accelerating to the second.
First, however, Azhar’s tinkering with his technique: nothing radical, just opening up his front foot so he did not play round his front pad and fall across the crease. Azhar had been batting like the West Indies right-handers earlier this summer, stuck on the crease and susceptible to the nip-backer like Kraigg Brathwaite or Roston Chase. The West Indian batsmen did not have the benefit of a batting coach like Younis, so they kept making the same mistakes throughout the series.
It would be difficult not to listen to Younis, who could be acclaimed Pakistan’s finest batsman as he made enormous scores in all conditions. He also has a certain force of personality. When one of Pakistan’s batting coaches sat down with him at breakfast and tried to talk about his latest innings, Younis, then a player, pointed his knife and said: “Do not tell me how to bat.”
Azhar, altogether calmer and more emollient, soaked up Jofra Archer’s bouncers, of which Root ordered too many, as well as too many overs from his fastest bowler.
Anderson and Stuart Broad conserved their energies between the first and second new balls. Bess bowled one ball an over too short and wide, meat and drink for Azhar, who was able to score almost all his runs square of the wicket to either side. While Pakistan may need two captain’s innings to save this match, one made a splendid start.
Captain’s innings: Azhar Ali leads by example in amassing an unbeaten 141 for Pakistan