Azhar and Shafiq fight but England hold edge

Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq came together at 54 for 4 with Pakistan still 16 runs in arrears and England’s bowlers coming to terms with the rigours of playing Test cricket in Asia. It is a rare sight to see England with two spinners bowling to an attacking ring. With Pakistan faltering, they were even beginning to think they might like it.

This time Azhar and Shafiq did not have Misbah-ul-Haq at the non-striker’s end learnedly chiding them to be patient but they were patient all the same. They ground out 71 at barely two an over and when the third day closed they had drawn the fire from England’s attack. Shafiq treated Pakistan’s supporters to two successive boundaries off Monty Panesar, Azhar offered a couple of serene drives and a skip down the pitch to loft Graeme Swann over long-on but it was stern-minded stuff.

Their response was essential. Much was made of England’s flimsy top-order batting during their 10-wicket defeat in Dubai; Pakistan’s looked just as brittle. Panesar and Swann have not been as magical as Saeed Ajmal, nor have they turned the ball as sharply as Abdur Rehman, but in their first Test together for two-and-a-half years they laid down a challenge.

Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar fell to nothing more substantial than artfully-pitched straight balls; a substantial sandstorm could blow through the gap between Taufeeq’s bat and pad. Younis Khan got a beauty from Panesar which turned to uproot his off stump. Then the old fox, Misbah, fell: a third wicket for Panesar. Misbah looked for a reprieve on DRS but the dispassionate conclusion had to be that the third umpire, Billy Bowden, was right to conclude that the ball had hit pad before bat. 

The growing quality of pitches in the UAE has contributed to two engrossing Tests. It was widely anticipated that this could be a tedious series on unresponsive pitches. Instead, there has been enough life for bowlers to relish an even contest. For those watching from England, whichever side they have been rooting for, it has been well worth an early alarm call. 

That England were able to put the squeeze on Pakistan owed everything to Stuart Broad, whose enterprising, unbeaten, 58 from 62 balls gave them a 70-run first-innings lead. England made 116 runs in the morning session at a rate of nearly 4.5 runs an over as Broad poured his frustration with England’s careworn batting in the series into every shot. He had made some mildly provocative remarks about his England batting colleagues after Pakistan had been bowled out for 257, remarking on Twitter that it would make no difference if the batsmen did not frame themselves. 

When Ajmal had broken England’s dominance with three quick wickets on the second evening, frustration had been etched into Broad’s face as he watched from the boundary edge. At such times there is something endearing about his unabashed desire to win a cricket match.

He batted like a man on a mission. If it was up there he would hit it, old ball and new. He needed good fortune on 33 when he survived the narrowest of run out decisions by the third umpire Bowden. Azhar pounced on the ball from cover and threw down the stumps as Broad chanced a single off Junaid Khan. As he dived for the crease it was debatable whether his bat was grounded. But he brought up England’s 300 by slog-sweeping Abdur Rehman’s left-arm spin for six into the Knocking Area – a sanctuary perhaps for the England batsmen he had previously chided.

The old ball was 84.5 overs old at start of play but Misbah entrusted the task of dismantling England’s lower order to his spinners. Matt Prior was intent on playing them off the back foot whenever possible but Ajmal had his measure. He was badly dropped at deep square-leg by Junaid and then spared from an lbw decision by the tiniest inside edge. By the time Ajmal had him lbw on the back foot, a decision upheld after an England review, it was apparent he needed to be put out of his misery.

Ian Bell was also dropped, a rasping return catch to Rehman which flew through his hands for four, and was also beaten several times by Rehman’s sharp turn. His tremors against Ajmal’s doosra were less apparent but he fell to Gul and the second new ball, England failing with DRS for the second time.

Pakistan finally parcelled up England’s innings one over into the afternoon as Hafeez, an increasingly redoubtable all-round cricketer, took two wickets in three balls. Panesar, whose last Test innings had been a heroic rearguard action against Australia in Cardiff, this time managed a more prosaic second-ball duck. Panesar, lbw, signalled that he had hit it, but England had omitted to save a review for him.

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