“On a track which was giving the batsmen all kind of trouble, Azhar Ali’s mindset was probably what made the entire difference”
After bowling New Zealand out for 274 runs in the first innings of the series-deciding final Test at Abu Dhabi, the stage was set for Pakistan to post a big total and take a handsome lead. The pitch wasn’t the most helpful for batting as the Pakistani spinners showed with the amount of turn, grip and variable bounce they were getting off the pitch.
But the Pakistani batsmen were more than accustomed to playing on these kinds of pitches in their adopted home. Moreover, the Kiwi spinners weren’t as skilful and experienced as their Pakistani counterparts to make life difficult for batsmen. So, it could be said that Pakistan had the edge in this match.
However, it took the visitors only 10 deliveries to make the first breakthrough into the Pakistani innings. Mohammad Hafeez was dismissed caught by Tim Southee off Trent Boult’s bowling for a four-ball duck.
That was when Azhar Ali walked out with an oozing sense of calm and composure that could bring peace even in a state of pandemonium. The remaining couple of deliveries in that over by Boult was safely handled by Ali. The storm had no effect on Ali who dealt with the deliveries standing at the crease determined like a rock.
A couple of overs went by. Ali, along with Imam ul Haque, tried to steady the ship. But the thunderbolt struck again. This time it was Haque who got dismissed almost in a similar fashion as that of Hafeez. Chaos ruled once again; Pakistan were 17 for 2 just 32 deliveries into the innings.
Ali was still out there. He was familiar with these situations but he wasn’t having the best of times this year. He was averaging just 26.31 in Tests this year before this innings. His scores in the first nine innings this year read 4, 2, 50, 4, 2, 11, 18, 4 and 15 but his scores in the last four innings—64, 22, 65 and 81—suggested that he was getting back into form.
However, a big innings was still missing. If he was looking to convert his starts into a big one soon, now was the apt and necessary time to do so. And he did so with perfection and reminded everyone of the class he belongs to.
Haris Sohail’s able presence at the other end helped Ali to steady the ship first. They stitched a partnership of 68 runs and Pakistan finally seemed to be breathing a little easy at 85 for 2. But the Kiwis struck again. This time it was Southee who had Sohail caught behind for 34.
Pakistan found themselves in a tricky position once again but Ali didn’t budge. He was still standing there and he knew that he had in him what it takes to dig a team out of trouble. All he needed was an able partner at the other end and he found that in Asad Shafiq.
What followed afterwards was a 201-run marathon partnership which was built brick by brick and thus broke the confidence of the Kiwi bowlers layer by layer. Shafiq seemed a bit tentative at the beginning but Ali’s assured presence at the other end calmed him down.
On a track which was giving the batsmen all kind of trouble, Ali’s mindset was probably what made the entire difference. He took the challenge head-on. He watched the ball like a hawk, stayed low at the crease and adjusted his bat lift and movement to adapt to the way the pitch was behaving. The end result was there to be seen at the end.
The entire innings was flawless but the shot which helped him in reaching the three-figure mark, after a gap of more than a year, was an outside edge that fetched him a boundary. However, that luck was probably a reward of the immense concentration he had shown all throughout his innings.
He didn’t stop there and seemed determined to carry on. He had started taking on the spinners now. He swept them hard and was even succeeding in scoring boundaries. But it was a miscued sweep shot ultimately off William Somerville’s bowling that resulted in his dismissal. That shot looked quite ugly for a batsman who had put in hours of concentration into his innings. But that was how it ended and it couldn’t be undone.
However, he had already helped Pakistan gain a lead of 12 runs by then with 6 wickets in hand. He had done his job and the dismissal didn’t make his innings any less significant. The other batsmen couldn’t continue for long though, as they were bowled out for 348 runs. But Ali had finally got the monkey off his back and even had helped Pakistan to a position which wouldn’t have been possible otherwise.