Pakistan v England, 2nd Test, Abud Dhabi, 3rd day January 27, 2012

Azhar and Shafiq bloom in the desert

The fifth-wicket stand between Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq has not only revived Pakistan's chances in the second Test, but provided a glimpse of the future

Whatever happens over the final chapters of this wonderfully absorbing Test, Pakistan can surely take comfort in the emergence of two fine young batsmen.

It was not just that Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq played some attractive strokes - dozens of talented players can do that - it was that they demonstrated composure, discipline and the precious ability to withstand pressure. With just a little luck, the pair should serve their country well for much of the next decade.

When they came together, Pakistan were still 16 behind and all four of their senior batsmen had gone. England sensed blood and the possibility of a three-day finish.

Instead the pendulum has swung once again. It is too early to suggest Pakistan have seized the initiative - their lead is only 55, after all - but, thanks to a fifth-wicket partnership of 71, the hosts remain in contention. Chasing anything over 150 will not be easy for England.

Azhar and Shafiq have actually been around a little while. Between them, they have 32 Test caps and some track record. Azhar, for example, played a key role in Pakistan's win over England at The Oval in 2010 and has enjoyed decent innings against South Africa and Sri Lanka. Shafiq played very well here in the first innings.

But, in these circumstances, against this attack and on this pitch, this was, arguably, the most impressive contribution of their careers to date. They showed all the attributes of fine Test players, leaving well, defending solidly and still putting away the bad ball with some panache. They have some work to do before Pakistan will be in a match-winning position, but they have given their side hope.

Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the careers of these two young men is that neither of them has had the opportunity to play a Test in their own country. Instead they are having to forge careers in foreign lands, in alien conditions and without the support network players could expect at home. It is a substantial, if unquantifiable, disadvantage.

It was also only the third time they had batted together in Test cricket and their previous two partnerships had were worth only four runs in total. So far this series, Pakistan have looked heavily reliant on their sold opening partnership and the stubborn defiance of their captain. Now we know there is more to this team.

"Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the careers of these two young men is that neither of them has had the opportunity to play a Test in their own country. Instead they are having to forge careers in foreign lands and alien conditions"

Neither is the finished article. Shafiq's first innings dismissal, a wild sweep that undid much of his earlier good work, might yet prove to be a crucial, self-inflicted blow. But, if they can stretch their partnership until lunch on day four, they will have taken huge strides towards winning their side the match. You cannot ask for too much more than that.

Their contribution was just another enthralling episode in this Test. While run-scoring has been relatively slow - by modern standards, anyway - the game has twisted and turned as beguilingly as the finest thriller. All the fears that pitches in the UAE would produce stultifying cricket have been allayed. The pitches have been fair; the cricket highly enjoyable.

It would, then, be a shame if the result of this game is interpreted as all-important. History, so often, is black and white. All the shades of grey that constitute the full person, place or situation are overlooked.

Consider this: if England go on to win, Pakistan's fightback will be forgotten and England's continuing frailties against spin might be overlooked. People will forget to ask what would might have happened if Chris Tremlett - or Tim Bresnan, for that matter - had been fit. And people will forget what might have happened if Pakistan had called for a review of the Jonathan Trott lbw decision when he had scored just 22. All those edges that dropped just out of reach of Pakistan fielders will be forgotten and it will be as if Kevin Pietersen's failed run-out and self-destructive batting did not happen. England, we will be told, have mastered Asia. It will be nonsense.

But if Pakistan win, England will be condemned. All their progress since Dubai - and they have looked a much better team here - will be forgotten and their reputation as home-track bullies will be sustained. That, too, would be nonsense.

The answer, as ever, falls in between. England and Pakistan are fine, if flawed, teams with many admirable strengths and a few potential weaknesses. It is no disgrace to lose for either of them.

Whatever the result here, it would be a shame if all that was forgotten.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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