November 25, 2010

Azhar shines in new middle order

The value of the ICC's Test rankings might be debatable but a quick glance makes one immediate impression: the world of Test cricket is two divisions in one

The value of the ICC's Test rankings might be debatable but a quick glance makes one immediate impression: the world of Test cricket is two divisions in one. Pakistan are in the second tier, an unhealthy distance adrift of Australia who prop up the top teams. That Pakistan haven't hit the bottom of the pile, however, is a wonder in itself. Even in the severest adversity, mostly self-afflicted, Pakistan have been able to pull off a surprise win or commendable draw.

The South Africa series is a case in point. Despite the loss of leading players, the one-day series was a thriller right up to the moment that Zulqarnain Haider fled to England. The deciding match was a disappointment but Pakistan's nerves were clearly frazzled by the sudden controversy. In that context, and compounded by injuries to Wahab Riaz and Mohammad Yousuf, Pakistan looked set for an absolute battering in the Test series.

Typically, expectation and reality were distant cousins. Much to everybody's surprise Pakistan batted with grit, sound technique, and occasional aggression. It was a method that hadn't been exhibited by Pakistan for quite some time. What prompted it is unclear? But a drawn series in Dubai and Abu Dhabi was a minor triumph for Pakistan cricket, although both teams were more defensive in the Test series than they needed to be.

The shining star for Pakistan was Azhar Ali, who added to the concentration and technique that he had demonstrated in England this summer with some positive strokeplay. Whereas Azhar had looked somewhat limited in England, he flourished in the United Arab Emirates. A player of solid temperament and technique has been a rare commodity in Pakistan cricket, and Azhar needs to build on this encouraging start to his Test career.

Further encouragement came in the shape of Asad Shafiq's debut half-century. Asad is composed and well organised at the crease, another throwback to the art of proper batsmanship. While Umar Akmal might be more talented than both Azhar and Asad, Pakistan's wastrel has something to learn from his junior colleagues in the way that they applied themselves. If he can do that, Younis Khan and Misbah-ul Haq--who both confirmed that they still have miles in the tank--will have the opportunity to oversee the development of a new middle-order for Pakistan.

Clearly the batsmen had it easy here but pressure can undo a batsman on the easiest of tracks--and Pakistan's batsmen were invariably under pressure. A sterner test will follow in New Zealand but it is a pleasant surprise to be discussing some postives from Pakistan's batting performances.

But just as we see some green shots among the batsmen, Pakistan's bowling is in dire trouble especially in Test cricket. New Zealand will be a fairer examination of the bowlers too but without Mohammed Aamer and Mohammed Asif Pakistan's bowling carries little guile or penetration.

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Kamran Abbasi is an editor, writer and broadcaster. He tweets here