MANCHESTER: Pakistan’s Babar Azam underlined his status as one of the world’s leading batsmen with a fine unbeaten fifty before rain stopped play on the opening day of the first Test against England at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
Pakistan were 121-2, with Babar 52 not out, when umpires Richard Kettleborough and Richard Illingworth ordered an early tea in an overcast Manchester.
Together with left-handed opener Shan Masood (45 not out), he had put on an unbroken 78 for the third wicket before the weather intervened.
Pakistan were 43-2 when Babar came in to bat after captain Azhar Ali, who had won the toss, fell lbw for a duck to Chris Woakes.
Azhar, asked on Tuesday if Babar could join Australia’s Steve Smith and India’s Virat Kohli in the top bracket of Test batsmen, said: “I think he is right up there already. People are thinking and talking about it. He is just hungry for runs and I think if he keeps doing that he will be up there for quite a long time.”
It was easy to see what Azhar meant, even when Babar started cautiously in tough conditions. But after the interval the 25-year-old, who had scored four hundreds in his five previous Tests, unfurled an array of stylish attacking shots.
He struck express fast bowler Jofra Archer down the ground for four before driving off-spinner Dom Bess for another boundary to bring up Pakistan’s hundred.
Bess, however, should have removed Shan for 45 when he took the left-hander’s outside edge but wicket-keeper Jos Buttler dropped the chance, Babar drew level on 45 not out with Shan, who was on 22 when the right-hander came into bat.
Babar then went past his team-mate to complete an impressive 70-ball fifty, including nine boundaries.
England have named an unchanged side from the one that defeated West Indies by 269 runs last week, though key all-rounder Ben Stokes is unlikely to be used much with the ball due to a quad injury.
Pakistan have gone with three seam bowlers, including young firebrands Shaheen Shah Afridi, 20, and the 17-year-old sensation Naseem Shah, who are likely to play a key role in the series with their pace and movement.
They have also selected the leg-spin duo of Shadab Khan and Yasir Shah, and with the wicket already showing some sign of wear, they could be crucial in the fourth innings if Pakistan can get enough runs.
With Yasir and Shadab in the playing XI, there was a logic in Azhar’s decision to bat first after he won the toss, with his slow bowlers likely to be more effective on a wearing pitch.
Nevertheless, the overcast skies and piercing floodlights made life tough for the opening batsmen, with conditions favouring England’s four-man pace attack, who had been involved in last month’s 2-1 series win over the West Indies, completed at Old Trafford.
In contrast, Pakistan’s preparations for the three-match series amounted to just two intra-squad warm-up games.
Before play began there was a minute’s silence for victims of the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) in both Pakistan and Britain.
Shan and fellow opener Abid Ali did well to survive the first hour against an attack featuring James Anderson and Stuart Broad — who have more than 1,000 Test wickets between them — Archer and the in-form Woakes.
After an hour of sound Pakistan resistance, Archer struck.
Having tested out Abid with several short-pitched deliveries the paceman, with no obvious change in action, bowled him with a full-length delivery for 16 before Azhar was lbw to a Woakes nip-backer for a six-ball nought.
England have not won a Test series against Pakistan since 2010 and they came into this match having lost the series opener in each of their past five campaigns against all opponents.
As was the case during the West Indies series, the match is taking place behind closed doors on health grounds, with Pakistan denied the vibrant and vocal support they usually enjoy in England.
PAKISTAN (1st Innings):
Shan Masood not out 45
Abid Ali b Archer 16
Azhar Ali lbw b Woakes 0
Babar Azam not out 52
EXTRAS (B-1, LB-6, NB-1) 8
TOTAL (for two wkts, 41.1 overs) 121
FALL OF WKTS: 1-36, 2-43.
TO BAT: Asad Shafiq, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah.
BOWLING (to-date): Anderson 8-2-32-0 (1nb); Broad 11-4-24-0; Woakes 8-2-14-1; Archer 9.1-3-22-1; Bess 5-1-22-0.
ENGLAND: R.J. Burns, D.P. Sibley, J.E. Root, B.A. Stokes, O.J. Pope, J.C. Buttler, C.R. Woakes, D.M. Bess, J.C. Archer, S.C.J. Broad, J.M. Anderson.
UMPIRES: R.A. Kettleborough (England) and R.K. Illingworth (England).
TV UMPIRE: M.A. Gough (England).
MATCH REFEREE: B.C. Broad (England).
Published in Dawn, August 6th, 2020