The hundreds from Azhar Ali (134) and Asad Shafiq (104) against New Zealand in the deciding Test match at Abu Dhabi have ended a frustratingly long century-less streak from two of Pakistan’s most prolific run-getters. The knocks have not only boosted the fortunes of the side in this encounter but also augurs well ahead of their tour of South Africa.
In 2010 Pakistan cricket was hit by chaos and confusion, engulfed in a match-fixing controversy and a standoff over captaincy during the tour of England. Amidst the raging storm, Misbah ul Haq, a Test discard, who was contemplating retirement from international cricket, answered to the SOS to take over the reins and emerged as the messiah who helped the sport in the country reclaim its lost glory.
Under Misbah’s leadership, Pakistan went on to attain the number one world ranking in Tests. The desert fortress of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, Pakistan’s home venues in their adopted country, became virtually impregnable as Misbah’s men vanquished the top sides like England and Australia. Two of Misbah’s trusted lieutenants in this road to redemption were Azhar and Shafiq, both of whom made their Test debuts during that period of disquiet in the Pakistan cricket. For the next seven years, the duo went on to stamp their class with big scores and remarkable consistency. So when Misbah and Younis Khan decided to call time to their Test careers in 2017, Azhar and Shafiq were considered the worthy heirs to carry forward the batting legacy of these two towering figures.
The two were temperamentally similar, preferring solidity over flamboyance. Their strike rates were not something that would elicit a buzz in turnstiles or shoot the television ratings. But both soldiered on to get the job done to ensure Pakistan remain one of the most competitive Test teams.
Azhar hit an unbeaten double century in Melbourne and also boasts of a triple ton against the West Indies. One of his stand out performances came in Sharjah during 2014, when he batted out of his comfort zone to score 103 from only 137 balls to help Pakistan chase down an imposing 302 runs in just 57 overs against Sri Lanka.
Shafiq has scored centuries in Australia, England and South Africa against some of the most feared bowling attacks. But most of these knocks have often gone unnoticed as they came in losing causes or were overshadowed by bigger scores. In Brisbane in 2016, he single-handedly took Pakistan close to an improbable victory while chasing a mammoth 490. His masterly 137 could not take his side home and Pakistan fell short by just 40 runs. Even last year against Sri Lanka in Dubai, he waged a lone crusade against the guile of Sri Lanka’s spinners while chasing 317. His hundred once again went in vain as Pakistan lost by 68 runs.
Till the Test match against the West Indies in Dominica last year after which Misbah and Younis retired, Azhar had played 60 Test matches averaging an impressive 46 with 14 Test tons. Shafiq, slightly disadvantaged by batting at number six for most of his career which needed protecting the tailenders, averaged almost 40 in his 56 Tests with 10 hundreds. In fact, Shafiq holds the record for most hundreds (9) scored by a batsman while batting at number six.
Unfortunately, these rousing records took a beating after the exits of Misbah and Younis. Between this Test match in Abu Dhabi and the Dominica Test match, Azhar Ali encountered a lean patch averaging just a shade above 29. Even Shafiq in 2018 had no centuries to brag about in his 12 innings till he broke the jinx in Abu Dhabi. More than the numbers, it was the failure of these two to help their side cross the line in tight matches which was frustrating. Azhar, who had been battling a knee injury, looked woefully out of touch coming into the Test series against Australia. Even Shafiq, despite a string of 40s and half-century in the matchups against the Australians and the Kiwis, did not look menacing and was susceptible to lapse of concentration after good starts.
In the Abu Dhabi cliffhanger during the first Test, Azhar was painted as the villain, for not able to farm the strike effectively with the tailenders. He exposed the likes of Yasir Shah and Hasan Ali and his inability to go for a big hit cost Pakistan the match with New Zealand edging them out by four runs. After scoring a fighting fifty, he was the last man out trapped leg before to left-arm spinner Ajaz Patel ensuring a heartbreak for the Pakistani fans. In the same innings, Shafiq and Azhar looked all set to guide their team to a victory with a solid 82-run stand. With just 46 runs needed and seven wickets in hand, Shafiq edged a wide delivery from Neil Wagner to the keeper to spark off a dramatic batting collapse.
In the third and the final Test at the same venue, the two-Test specialists had to redeem themselves. The pressure was on them as Pakistan had lost early wickets. But both of them finally regained their vintage magic to put a 201-run partnership. Pakistan will be hoping that these hundreds from the duo with over 9000 Test runs between them, will help them gain the confidence ahead of some sterner contests to come.