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

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Cricket - By Scyld Berry chief cricket writer

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

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