The pre-series arc-lights were trained on Babar Azam, and they refused to leave him on the first day of the opening Test at the Old Trafford. The graceful batsman scored a masterful unbeaten half-century, in the process taking the tourists to 139/2, before bad light deprived him the full day’s dazzle.
Until then, it was high-definition batting.
There were several moments worthy of detailing. But this one stands out. Just before the rain interruption, Azam lost Jofra Archer’s bouncer in the fading light. He was already committed to the front foot, as he’s prone to, and the ball was screaming into his ribs at high pace. But Azam held his wits, he pirouetted sideways, got just outside the line of the rising ball and glided (rather than pulled) it past fine-leg for a brace with a twirl of the wrists. And he made all these complicated movements look graceful. He has that extra-second edge to get out of trouble, to rectify those rare blemishes of judgment in an instant.
Time he also had to showcase an array of delightful stokes, blending style and grace. If a back-foot punch off James Anderson was not dreamy enough, he majestically clumped Archer beyond backward point, straight-drove him and Stuart Broad before subjecting Dom Bess to the sort of contempt subcontinental batsmen reserve for off-spinners. He gave Pakistan the impetus, before kicking on to completing his half-century in 70 deliveries.
The moment Pakistan made a bold move to bat first, the buzz was around Azam. Striding out in an angsty moment for Pakistan, at the fall of their skipper Azhar Ali for a duck, there were lot of stakes riding on Azam.
He began nervously, he just about staved off a couple of vicious in-duckers from blasting his pads. He miscued two other on-drives, he was beaten and squared-up, his hands were rigid and feet frozen. And then just like that he disentangled himself and stamped his quality on the England bowlers.
If Azam marvelled with dazzling strokes, Shan Masood impressed with meticulous craftsmanship. The forlorn figure he cut during Pakistan’s previous tour to England seemed a fading memory, as he subdued his tormentor James Anderson with resounding assurance. The England talisman had nabbed him six times in as many duels, but this time around the opener repelled him with single-minded application and a tweaked technique.
Discernible were changes in his technique. He has opened up his stance, which has expanded his off-side game and made his bat-flow smoother and straighter. He is stiller at the crease, so that he is not caught on the move and enables him to play the ball as late as possible. Equally endearing were his mental gifts, the poise, judgement and discipline required to withstand the unforgiving England climes and their punishing bowlers.
The discretion outside off-stump was impeccable, as was the precision of his foot-movement. Later, as the shine wore off, he pulled out a clutch of pleasing strokes. Like a dab off Stuart Broad, wherein he just stood tall, rode the bounce and sent it past the backward point. Like a shuffle-flick of Archer. He was a beneficiary of Jos Buttler’s fallible glove-work too, as the England keeper spilled a catch and a stumping off the unfortunate Dom Bess.
Thus ended a day wherein Pakistan reinforced that they have come adequately prepared and that they would not be cowed down by England’s battery of bowlers. And for once, England’s four-pronged pace attack failed to take charge of the game. Babar though took control.
Brief Scores: Pakistan: 139/2 (Babar Azam 69 not out, Shan Masood 46 not out, Jofra Archer 1/23; Chris Woakes 1/14) vs England on Day 1.
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