Osman Samiuddin in Abu Dhabi
It’s impossible to avoid beginning at the end, the end in this case that of the first Test of this series. Two thoughts lingered after that.
The first, that a previously unthinkable question had become thinkable. Could Asad Shafiq be dropped? At that point, he was Pakistan’s top-scorer in Tests this year (he’s second now). But his dismissal that day, in the last over before lunch, was when the panic crept back into Pakistan’s doomed chase.
It was such a Shafiq innings too. So easy on the eye so as to go almost unnoticed and ultimately of little value. The demise was very Shafiq, an indeterminate, lazy poke at a plan that was so clear it hadn’t just been telegraphed, it was the headline in the morning papers.
That was his 59th consecutive Test, a record for Pakistan, and since he was dropped for a Test in September 2011, he had never been under threat of the axe. Usually, and especially in Pakistan, that kind of stability is a good thing, but here?
He’d been averaging 39.33 since the MisYou farewells, which wasn’t disastrous, but neither was it the elevated level Pakistan needed him at. Individuals rarely win Tests but could you see him seeing Pakistan through any chase at all then? Like last year against Sri Lanka, this was the ideal opportunity for it and yet here we were. And to be honest, even that record number of hundreds at No. 6 was beginning to feel like a damning indictment of his inability to be anything other than a number six.
He was floating and now sink or swim seemed the only choices.
The other thought was about the limitations of being Azhar Ali. When Azhar is out of form, holding the bat the right way round is a minor victory and this year he had mostly looked out of form (he was averaging less than 22 at that point).
The thing about Azhar, though, is that grinding a way through a bad session, or against a great spell, or through a low career trough, is pretty much his default. There was that pristine stretch from 2015 to 2017, of course, but it was the exception.
Unlike Shafiq, though, he fought his way right through to the bitter end in Abu Dhabi (as he has done through his career) and it was kind of admirable. But the admiration was tinged with a little sadness because the basic limitations of his game were painfully exposed in that last stretch of batting. He never looked like he would be the guy to drag that game home.
He didn’t have the game to attempt one big hit when one big hit was what was needed; he didn’t have the range of strokes to try and find twos in a well-guarded but large outfield; his wonky knees had turned him from an eager and committed runner into a struggling one; most painful were the three failed attempts at improvisation, a reverse sweep, an upper-cut and a scoop, all of which fetched a total of two singles.
And yet, despite all this, it’s worth repeating that he was last man out, trying in whatever way he could, to make up for the direness that surrounded him. And that with these limitations, he had built a pretty substantial and successful career. A miracle? Maybe.
The eternal struggle of one, the unending reverie of the other; this, it would seem, is what Pakistan must resign themselves to.
With Azhar one shot can often tell you what kind of form he is in. His first scoring shot here was a tiny hint that batting might not be so painful: timed nicely off his pads through square leg off Tim Southee for three. On other days he would push such a ball straight to the midwicket fielder, or not connect at all.
Much later came a bigger sign, when he straight-drove Colin de Grandhomme straight of mid-on. When Azhar is driving straight is when Azhar is most batsmanly. And this morning when he then drove Trent Boult even straighter, just past Shafiq in fact, you knew he was on.
Shafiq, of course, never looks out of form. Shafiq, of course, is never actually out of form. He just gets out. At the worst possible moments. For scores lower than he should be making. Shafiq makes 15 or 137, it is a good-lookin’, easy-feelin’, high-rollin’ 15 or 137.
There is no one shot that signals to you that he’s on. Every shot does. A dandy skip and pick-up off a spinner, sometimes straight, sometimes – dexterously – against the spin through midwicket; the short batsman’s cut, more authoritative always than the taller man’s; a more delicate and later cut, leaning back; the drives on bended knee – this could go on, but yes, 15 or 137, you can cut a highlights reel out of it. Even the way he defended his second ball yesterday from Boult, up in to his armpit, killing it almost at his toes – imagine Azhar playing it, flailing, ducking, a mess at the crease.
Form being temporary is usually used in the context of careers. In Azhar’s case it applies to innings. As in, he can drop in and out of form within 10 balls, looking on ball 70 like a proper one-down and on ball 80 like a legspinner who’s lucky to be batting 11.
“And admit it – at some stage during their 201-run stand you thought to yourself, this – THIS – is the moment that marks the handing over from those guys to these guys, the one moment Pakistan has so long cried out for.”
This morning, he pinged three early boundaries racing to his hundred. Once he got there, he didn’t just take fresh guard as the commandment for batting big dictates, he looked like he was walking out to a new innings, Pakistan one down for nothing all over again. On 103 for instance, he was beaten by Colin de Grandhomme like he was on 0 and de Grandhomme was James Anderson and this was Lord’s, not offering a shot as much as a meek apology that look, batting’s not really my thing. Test cricket is played over five days but that in one single ball resides the entire life of a batsman rings truest when Azhar is at the crease.
Shafiq plays the ball naturally later than Azhar, but sometimes when Azhar is in this mode, he only just gets his bat down in time for a defensive shot, feet all over the place, hands and elbows wonky, squared up and falling over at the same time. It’s not pretty.
Shafiq, meanwhile, is – and was here – as Shafiq does, which is to say that he is still the Shafiq in his 61st Test as he was in his first. When the second new ball arrived today, so did the one vulnerability that has always hounded him, the ball that comes into him at pace, the one that he brings that infernal angled bat down to, stuck in half-step, and either gets bowled or trapped leg-before.
We live in a time where the most elite athletes are working harder than ever before to iron out the tiniest glitches in their game, a time in which athletes have greater support than ever before in that pursuit. Everywhere you look there’s a story about how this batsman or that bowler sat down, resolved to improve himself, sought out the right help, and now stands transformed. No player is ever without flaw. Different ones crop at up different times, but like whack-a-mole, a player tries to kill each one when it rears up. It’s called self-improvement.
Not so with Shafiq, for whom this one has lingered. Nearly eight years ago, in only his second Test innings, he fell to Tim Southee when beautifully set on 83, leg-before to one angling in that he was trying to work away. That sentence can reliably be cut and pasted, adjusted for minor details but used endlessly: leg-before or bowled to pace account for close to a quarter of his Test dismissals.
It goes to the discredit of the coaching staff certainly, but largely, you have to conclude, it’s on Shafiq.
Today should’ve been a good day for them. A first century partnership between them since the 2016 Boxing Day Test at the MCG, when both looked so beautifully primed to take over from Misbah and Younis. This was the first hundred for Azhar since May 2017 and the first for Shafiq since October last year. And admit it – at some stage during their 201-run stand you thought to yourself, this – THIS – is the moment that marks the handing over from those guys to these guys, the one moment Pakistan has so long cried out for.
Pakistan were struggling. They needed their seniors to take charge and these two did. They were doing it when it was most needed, with a series on the line. They were doing it when the barbs – particularly at Shafiq – had been at their sharpest and had hurt them. They were doing it not long after being involved in one of the all-time great comic run-outs. Yes, this should’ve been a good redemptive day for them.
And yet, here we are, the game not done.
Indeed, it was all kinds of fitting that they nearly killed the Test but didn’t. It was entirely fitting that the dismissal of one sparked a collapse as inexplicably as the dismissal of the other was a part of it. It was fitting that, having entered a phase of some comfort, Azhar suddenly found that one ball that he bats in permanent fear of. And that Shafiq, having reached his hundred, celebrated it – with a little touch of vindication, was it? – walloped a commanding boundary next ball, as if to tell us the Boss is now in the house, and then fell next ball to a nothing delivery when no danger was present. Out for 104, a 12th Test hundred but a small one when a bigger one was the need; it may seem a contrived stat, but that his highest score of 137 is the lowest among all Test batsmen with at least 10 hundreds is an apt one.
It may yet turn out okay. Pakistan might still win this and the pair’s numbers will stand enhanced. But between them it wasn’t quite enough was it? Which some might say could make for a fitting epitaph.