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DUBLIN: A relieved Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed praised the character of young batsmen Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam after they ensured his decision to enforce the follow-on in Ireland’s inaugural Test did not backfire.

Only three times in the 141-year history of Test cricket have a side won after following-on but when Pakistan were 14 for three, chasing a modest 160 to win on Tuesday’s final day of this stand-alone match, it seemed Ireland might mark their entry into the format with a stunning success.

But 22-year-old left-handed opener Imam, himself making a Test debut, responded to the pressure of the situation with a composed 74 not out — his third fifty of the tour following half-centuries in warm-up matches against Kent and Northamptonshire.

Together with the 23-year-old Babar, who made 59 after being dropped on nine shortly after lunch, he shared a stand of 126 that took Pakistan to the brink of an eventual five-wicket win over a competitive Ireland side.

The way Imam in particular coped under grey skies against some lively pace bowling was an especially heartening sign for Pakistan ahead of their upcoming two-Test series in England, where conditions are likely to be similar to those they encountered at Dublin’s Malahide.

It also meant Pakistan had not failed in a run chase again.

Their previous Test, against Sri Lanka in the UAE in October, saw them beaten after a target of 136 proved beyond them as left-arm spinner Rangana Herath took six wickets for 43 runs.

“Definitely we were worried when we were down 14 for three,” Sarfraz told reporters. “But it’s really good that these two young players in our team, Imam-ul-Haq and Babar Azam, the way they played, they showed their character, they showed their confidence.

“I think the way they played gives great confidence to the team and will help them in the next matches as well,” the wicket-keeper added.

Pakistan were reeling after losing three wickets inside five overs and their skipper feared another morale-sapping loss was at hand.

“You know previously it’s not happened like this,” admitted Sarfraz. “In the last Test match when we were chasing 136 and we were all out for about 120.

“Yeah we were thinking when we called for the follow-on if we were batting in the fourth innings it would be very difficult,” he added.

Pakistan, understandably enough, have been struggling to replace the likes of retired batting stalwarts Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan.

But Imam, whose selection for the tour led to allegations of nepotism given he is the nephew of chief selector and former Test batsman Inzamam-ul-Haq, didn’t just hold his nerve but counter-attacked with a maturity belying his lack of experience.

And with Faheem Ashraf, Pakistan’s other debutant, making 83 in the first innings to take the tourists to beyond 300, Sarfraz was in buoyant mood.

“We are very confident. We are a very young side, we had two debutant players, but we were very confident whatever the target will come, we will chase it down.

“At 14 for three there was a little bit of concern but the way Imam and Babar Azam were as a collective, it was very important the way these two young players are batting.

“I think it’s very good for Pakistan as a team to chase this on the fifth day.”

Ireland captain William Porterfield, meanwhile, was in no doubt his side deserved their elevation to Test cricket after a thrilling debut.

Hopes of a miracle at Malahide weren’t just the stuff of fantasy when Pakistan lost those three wickets upfront.

But Imam and Babar then combined to dash dreams that Ireland, the 11th nation to play men’s Test cricket, would record a remarkable win.

But it was a testament to Ireland’s skill and resolve that after they had been made to follow-on, the game remained in the balance on the final day.

That they were in a position to do that owed much to Kevin O’Brien’s impressive 118 — just the fourth instance of a man scoring a century in his country’s first Test match — that was the cornerstone of Ireland’s second innings 339.

Ireland made their reputation on the global stage with World Cup wins over Pakistan, England and West Indies, Porterfield was proud of his side’s entry into the Test arena.

“The biggest thing was how we fought back in the second innings with the bat — that showed the character we have,” he said. “It’s something that’s been talked about during big occasions, World Cups.

“That’s always been known to be there but Test cricket is Test cricket for a reason, it’s there in the name, you did get tested and we were after the first innings.

“To get up to close to 350 showed what we’ve got in the changing room and the passion that we have for playing our cricket.”

The crowd briefly included 74-year-old Rolling Stones front man and cricket fan, Mick Jagger, but Porterfield hoped that the next generation of potential Irish cricketers would be more inspired by O’Brien’s hundred.

“Hopefully in the next week or two there’s going to be hundreds of little kids aspiring to be Kevin O’Brien in backstreet cricket,” the Irish captain said. “This Test match will have gone a long way to providing the next generation of cricketers, I’m sure.”

Published in Dawn, May 17th, 2018