The week that went by saw England clinch the three-Test series against Pakistan by winning the second match at Multan by a margin of 26 runs. With this, the outcome of the ongoing third Test at Karachi ceased to have any real significance. England have rested their main weapons so as to have them in top physical shape for the tours of South Africa and New Zealand that follow in the next two months, while Azhar Ali, one of the mainstays of Pakistan batting in recent years, announced his retirement from international cricket.
As the results indicate, the second Test was a closely-fought tie, with very little separating the winner from the vanquished. Stung by the reverse in the first Test at Rawalpindi, which was played on a flat track, Pakistan prepared a turning wicket at Multan, hoping that this would help to turn the tables in their favour. They also blooded in Abrar Ahmed, a leg-spinner, who went by the nick name of “Harry Potter” on account of the glasses he uses, which bears a close resemblance to the one worn by the legendary character in the fiction penned by J K Rowling. Abrar had a dream debut, picking up seven wickets in the first innings as England, after a good start, stumbled and got dismissed for 281.
The stage was set for Pakistan to post a big score which would effectively deny England an opportunity to win the game. However, the England bowlers had other ideas and they pinned down the Pakistani batsmen with some disciplined bowling combined with a couple of hostile spells. Except for the phase when skipper Babar Azam and Saud Shakeel were at the crease, putting together a 91-run stand for the third wicket, the home team could not come to terms with the visitors’ attack. From a relatively comfortable position of 158/3, Pakistan collapsed, losing the last seven wickets in 17 overs while adding only 44 runs. They managed to cross 200 only due to some audacious use of the long handle by Faheem Ashraf and Abrar Ahmed, who added 23 runs for the last wicket.
Having failed to seize the initiative with the bat, Pakistan once again turned to their bowlers to bail them out. Abrar was the star of the show on this occasion as well, but this time he found an able colleague in Zahid Mahmood. They had England in a spot of bother at 155/5, but skipper Ben Stokes gave admirable support to Harry Brook, who held the England together with an excellent century. They took the total to 256 before the spin duo struck again to dismiss the last five England batsmen quickly to close their innings at 275.
The target of 355 was a stiff one, but the Pakistani batsmen showed greater gumption and character in the second knock. After a good start, they lost three quick wickets before Shakeel and Imam-ul-Haq brought them back to the game with a 118-run partnership. Just when it appeared that the two would stay at the crease till the close of play on Day 3, Imam was dismissed for 60 to keep the honours even when stumps were drawn.
The fourth day began with Pakistan needing 155 runs for a win and six wickets in hand. After Faheem Ashraf, the nightwatchman was dismissed, Shakeel and Mohammed Nawaz took the total to 246 when drinks was taken. Both batsmen played sensible cricket, taking care to eschew risks, while making most of the scoring opportunities that came their way.
As the Pakistani total inched forward towards 300, skipper Stokes, in a proverbial last throw of the dice, brought pace bowler Mark Wood into the attack, about 20 minutes before the scheduled time for the lunch break. Wood made his intentions clear by moving fielders to catching positions on the leg side and bowled a series of short balls at tremendous pace aimed at the batsmen. Shakeel and Nawaz both fell in an identical manner, caught behind the wicket while trying to score off short-pitched deliveries. The dismissal of Shakeel was not without doubt as to whether the catch was taken cleanly, with the Pakistan side believing that the ball had touched the turf before it was held. However, the television replays did not offer anything to change the initial ‘soft decision' of 'out' handed out by the on field umpire and Shakeel had to return to the pavilion, with his individual score at 94 .
The twin dismissals swung the pendulum England’s way and lunch was taken with the score at 291/7.
Pakistan could not recover from the loss of Nawaz and Shakeel in quick succession and despite some pyrotechnics from the bat of Abrar, they folded up for 328, leaving England victors. Though the breakthroughs fashioned by Wood had brought the win, player-of-the-match award went to Harry Brooks for his century in the second innings, which helped England post a stiff target. It was heartbreak for Pakistan, who appeared to have the game in their bag when Shakeel and Nawaz were at the crease and only 65 runs were required for a win. In the end, England’s tenacity and the brilliant decision of Stokes to bring Wood into the attack in the period immediately prior to the lunch break swung the game their way.
Though they came second best, Pakistan could take heart from a couple of positive developments. The first was the emergence of Abrar who bowled without nerves on his debut. He showed that he was willing to flight the ball and attack the batsmen, even while taking the occasional stick. It is too early to say whether he will emerge as a worthy successor to Abdul Qadir, but the early signs are encouraging. However, he should spend long hours at the nets to polish his art further and stay ahead of the batsmen, who will use video clippings to study his bowling and come armed with methods to tackle him. One hopes that he has heard the stories of two leg-spinners from India Narendra Hirwani, who took 16 wickets on his debut, and Laxman Sivaramakrishnan, who bagged 12 scalps in his second game, but faded away quickly after the grand entry.
The other good tiding for Pakistan was the maturity displayed by Shakeel with the bat and the composure he displayed while guiding his side towards a difficult target. As one observer put it, he batted with an assurance that masked the fact that this was only his second Test. Shakeel has a bright future ahead and one wonders why he did not find favour with the Pakistani selectors till now. With his compact defence, effortless strokeplay and excellent temperament, he looks a long term prospect.
Azhar Ali, who announced he will retire from international cricket after the Karachi Test, is one of the most prolific batsmen during the second decade of this century. His tally of 7,097 runs from 96 Tests, with one triple century (302 not out against West Indies in the UAE) and two double hundreds, besides 16 other three figure knocks and 35 fifties stand as testimony to his fluent run-scoring at the highest level.
He also led the national side in Test matches as well as limited overs games. However, he remains almost unknown among the followers of the game in India on account of the stoppage of cricket series with Pakistan and the ban on players from that country in the Indian Premier League. It pains one to note that Azhar Ali missed playing before the largest audiences in the world as well as getting the financial benefits that his talent warranted.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)