Skipper Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq are the two most experienced pros in the current Pakistan squad touring England. Therefore, both must fire if the tourists are to defy Joe Root and his men in their backyard in the three-Test battle starting at Old Trafford today.
The fully-equipped host team is brimming with confidence after their come-from-behind series triumph at home against the West Indies recently.
So Azhar and company must be ready for an uphill task ahead, right from the word go.
Legendary all-rounder Wasim Akram has precisely pointed out that Pakistan’s batsmen need to give cushion to their bowlers with good scores, at least in excess of 350, if not more. Scoring under English conditions is way too different from smashing the ball around on docile pitches of the UAE or Pakistan.
Now Azhar carries a huge responsibility here. Several marked factors will put the right-hander under the spotlight whenever Pakistan come out to bat in the Tests in England.
With 78 Tests under his belt, the 35-year-old is the most capped player of the 20-man touring party. He holds good experience of playing five-day cricket in England, having toured that country thrice — in 2010, 2016 and 2018. Then there is legendary Younis Khan as the team’s batting coach, from whom Azhar can immensely benefit.
And last but not the least important factor is that the seasoned batsman is captaining the side and therefore must lead from the front. If he fares well, it will definitely lift the entire dressing room.
However, the flipside of Azhar’s faring as a Test batsman is significantly dismal. Firstly, he exhibits an excessively defensive batting technique that indirectly allows the opposition to gradually take charge. This is perhaps our captain’s weakest area.
At his age, this may well be Azhar’s last England tour. So this is a crucial chance for him to change himself and set a legacy for upcoming youngsters to emulate.
Azhar’s long struggle against high-quality and short-pitched bowling is widely known and is regularly exploited. Even despite having scored a Test triple century against West Indies in 2016, he is still not bracketed among great batsmen — perhaps because the venue of the marathon knock was Dubai, not Manchester.
His Test record in England (10 Tests, 514 runs, average 28.55) is not too encouraging either.
Asad’s case is as crucial as that of Azhar. Being the second senior most player of the squad, he will need to give extra duty if Pakistan are to challenge a very strong England outfit.
If a technically sound batsman like Asad averages 39.25 after 74 Tests, in which the player completed 12 hundreds, then there must be some vital element which is missing. Like Azhar, it will surely be a bit difficult for Asad, 34, to go back to the drawing board, find out the fault and rectify it. But that is what professional sportspersons are expected to do. If Misbah-ul-Haq, the current team’s head coach, can revive his Test career at 33, one feels Asad — who has been a regular member of the Test squad for years — can surely enhance his five-day game skills.
In his last 10 Test innings since January 2019, Asad has notched up six half-centuries, explicitly indicating the right-hander’s shortcoming in playing longer innings, something which he has failed to manage throughout his career. Like Azhar, Asad at times goes too defensive and in the process loses his wicket. After reaching 50 one must have the confidence to speed up a bit to give a message of ‘long-term business’ to the opposition and put them on the backfoot. Needless to say, Asad somehow must adopt this strategy in England.
Both Azhar and Asad should remember that they have the trump card of Babar Azam who will be batting alongside them in the upper order. Playing strong, natural and fearless cricket by the seasoned duo will relax Babar or else the 25-year-old prodigy and other batsmen will likely underachieve.
Moreover, expecting too much from Babar will be a huge blunder by the captain and the team management. Rather Azhar and Asad being the seniors should take up the prime responsibility.
Mohammad Amir is no more on Test duty for Pakistan plus the young pace battery comprising Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah, Imran Khan, Sohail Khan and Usman Shinwari, of course, lacks experience. Even Wahab Riaz, the most experienced pacer in the squad, has only 27 Tests to his name.
Therefore, Pakistan’s experienced campaigners including former captain Sarfaraz Ahmed, if selected, will need to step up their game to resist a thoroughly professional side like England on their home turf.
Published in Dawn, August 5th, 2020