On a largely gloomy day, Shan Masood and Pakistan fast bowlers lit up Old Trafford. The opener Masood’s 319-ball 156 drained England bowlers and laid the foundation of a competitive total before his pace colleagues dealt early blows to leave England tottering at 92 for 4 at stumps. If the indication is anything to go by, Pakistan’s first innings total of 326 already looks daunting, particularly after Joe Root fell to the leg spinner Yasir Shah, underlining the formidable attack that has everything from swing and seam to spin.
Thrilling as the pacers were towards the end of the second evening, it was the slow riffs of Masood that made the day Pakistan’s. Barring the backend of his 470-minute marathon, when he threw caution to the wind, he was a model of restraint, eschewing risks and indulgences, embodying the dying art of slow, patient batting. Every blocked-delivery and accumulated-run sucked the steam out of England’s bowlers.
His innings was a triumph of character, resilience and technique and, above all, a reminder in the era of dizzying run rates that the art of dead-batting is alive.
That no overseas opener since Australia’s Chris Rogers has faced as many deliveries or scored more runs in the last five years, reinforces the value of Masood’s art. And to think that just couple of years ago, he had a problem with the deliveries in the outside-off corridor.
It’s a testament to how he has systematically overhauled his technique that he looked secure and almost a natural in dealing with that line now.
Leading a fightback
After losing Babar Azam and Asad Shafiq within seven overs of the second day and Mohammad Rizwan soon after, Masood could not afford even a fleeting blink in concentration. Pakistan would have undone all the good work they had done on the first day, as James Anderson and Stuart Broad switched ends and switched on menace.
And so, he wrapped a web of caution around him, blocking and blocking until he could block no more.
He saw out three successive maidens in a period wherein Pakistan eked out only two runs in eight overs.
His discipline was unshakeable. Many a time, after expending all his routine tricks, Broad would slip in a tempter, full and wide, but he didn’t flinch. They tried to wind him up with bouncers. He didn’t budge. They stared and sniggered at him, but he remained undaunted.
So resolute was he that he entirely shelved one of his favourite strokes—the back-foot punch, which was also his undoing in the previous tour.
In this innings, instead of punching, he would merely steer it behind point, his hands close to his body and firmly over the ball so that it rolls along the ground.
He didn’t rethink his approach even after he completed his fifth Test hundred, arguably his most precious one. It was not until Pakistan began to lose wickets in clutches that he began to accelerate. His 105-run partnership with Shadab Khan was as chaotic as it was thrilling. It was equally vital in reversing the momentum, as they took full toll on the slack England bowling.
It could be the defining moment of his late-blossoming career, which has been a start-stop ride. Masood was part of the 2008 U-19 World Cup and was rated among the finest fledging batsmen in the country, before he packed his bags to a boarding school in England to complete his A level. A year later, he returned home with creditable academic scores, truckloads of runs in school circuit, and an improved technique, honed by former England opener Graeme Fowler, but realised that he was a forgotten man.
Some of his U-19 teammates were already playing Test cricket, like Umar Akmal, Ahmad Shehzad and Mohammad Amir.
Fruit of labour
It took him four more years and thousands of sweat-soaked runs before he could re-establish himself in the country’s cricket consciousness. He checked in with a resolute 75 against South Africa in Abu Dhabi in 2013, but could neither get a sustained run in the side nor a string of big scores in his portfolio. His career ebbed and flowed, before a freak injury to Haris Sohail in the morning of a Test match in Centurion in 2018 gave him a rare break.
It was probably the last opportunity to prolong his Test career and he made the most of it. He emerged as Pakistan’s highest run-getter in the series and steadily improved on the unprecedented success. Steady efforts in Australia (he soaked the second-highest number of deliveries, after Yasir Shah) and hundreds against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh cemented his spot.
And now, after ticking the most important box in an opener’s CV, a hundred against Anderson and Broad in England, he can say with a fair bit of assurance that he belongs to this stage.
Brief Scores: Pakistan 326 in 109.3 ovs (Shan Masood 156, Babar Azam 69, Shadab Khan 45; Stuart Broad 3/54, Jorfra Archer 3/59) vs England 92 for 4 in 28 ovs (Ollie Pope 46 batting Jos Buttler 15 batting; Mohammad Abbas 2/24).
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