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Pakistan's Azhar Ali buys himself time with show of boldness and assurance | Pakistan cricket team


It was a fine gesture when Pakistan’s fielders, to a man, sought out Zak Crawley for fist-bumps at the end of his epic 267 on Saturday, not least since in the back of their minds they would have known that their hopes of levelling the series had gone.

There was, however, an imperative to keep England to only a 1-0 win and share the final 40 World Test Championship points on offer. On a pitch offering runs, and with a slightly dodgy forecast for days four and five, there was an opportunity to do so, too.

It needed batsmen to stand up but when Jimmy Anderson vapourised three with the new ball that evening, including the main man Babar Azam, they did not appear to be forthcoming. Enter Azhar Ali, a captain under pressure, to ensure Joe Root’s side would not simply cruise to the spoils, nor Anderson to 600 wickets.

Azhar is the second soft-spoken captain to tour England this summer but, like Jason Holder before him, this does not mean there isn’t steel beneath. And over the course of the third day in Southampton he repelled Root’s attack for an unbeaten 141 that, judging by the reaction of the head coach Misbah-ul-Haq upon reaching the century, perhaps buys Azhar more time.

This may dismay those back home calling for change but, as Wasim Akram said on commentary, there is a lack of patience at play here. After all, the 35-year-old was only appointed captain last year, when Pakistan hit the reset button and gave control to Misbah. Azhar started out with a brutally tough tour of Australia, before a draw and two wins at home were followed by this extraordinary eight-week assignment.

As well as some shortcomings during England’s memorable run chase at Old Trafford, a lack of runs have not helped. Azhar tasted his first century on home soil against Sri Lanka last December – a quirk of having played the bulk of his 10-year international career in the United Arab Emirates – but had been averaging just 27 as captain.

England had identified a flaw too, with six of his last seven dismissals in these parts either bowled or lbw. Yet despite no tour games to work on his technique, Azhar was bold enough to open up his stance by a couple of inches between Tests in the hope of allowing his bat to come down a fraction straighter.

The tweak worked and with it Azhar was able to defend with greaterassurance while still picking off the loose ball. He saw three reviews burned trying to get him out early, he rode out some sharp bursts from Jofra Archer and, as the ball got softer and conditions eased, combined for a gutsy stand of 138 with the impressive Mohammad Rizwan.

Azhar eventually ran out of partners but was ready to open in the follow-on innings before bad light intervened. Like the video he dutifully recorded for Oldham council last week – one that informed supporters in the area about the local lockdown – his day was a calm, precise message that spoke of a need for patience during challenging times.

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