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Azhar Ali's 442-ball innings was an obvious example of perseverance, but England's bowlers stuck to their task too. To win, though, their batsmen will have to produce perhaps the largest quantities of patience yet
George Dobell in Dubai
February 5, 2012
Perseverance is something of an unsung quality these days. In an era of Twenty20 cricket, instant celebrity and pop culture, the virtues of patience, concentration and determination can seem old fashioned, prosaic and almost irrelevant.
But, in Test cricket at least, the old values still count for something. While the pace of the game has increased over the last couple of decades - in terms of run-rates if not over-rates - there is no substitute for the basic skills of cricket: bowling straight, playing straight and perseverance.
England and Pakistan showed that on Sunday. On a pitch that remains slow and offers only occasional help to the bowlers, this tour at last developed into what most anticipated it would be all along: this was hard, attritional cricket with every run and every wicket needing to be earned through sheer hard work.
The most obvious demonstration of perseverance came from Azhar Ali, the 26-year-old batsman from Lahore. He laboured for nearly nine hours over his highest first-class score, facing 442 balls - more than any England batsman has faced in the entire series - and striking only ten of them to the boundary and one of them over it.
It was an immensely valuable contribution to the Pakistan cause. While Younis Khan, timing the ball with a grace given to very few, has risen above this sluggish surface, every other batsman - with the brief exception of Kevin Pietersen in England's first innings - has had to slave over every run. Azhar showed that by utilising a decent technique, patience and discipline, runs could be scored in great quantity.
The value of Azhar and Younis' partnership is best illustrated by what happened after it. Pakistan lost their last seven wickets for just 34 runs and England, who were at one stage facing the prospect of a target somewhere in excess of 500, a daunting and hopeless challenge, were suddenly given just a glimmer of hope.
It is not just in this innings that Azhar has had to work hard. He spent three seasons playing for the club Huntly in the Perthshire Premier League in Scotland, building a technique to cope with the moving ball, and has endured a tough baptism to Test cricket. While he was one of the few Pakistan batsmen to enjoy any success on the tour to England in 2010, he has struggled to cement his position in the side and has contributed relatively few match-defining innings. His response has been simply to work hard, keep improving and retain faith in his ability. He said that his innings in the last Test in Abu Dhabi, a knock of 68 that was constructed with his side in some trouble, had given him new confidence. Without that innings, we might not have seen this one.
The selectors have persevered with Azhar too. His conversion rate before this Test - just one century and 13 half-centuries - was causing some frustration and there were calls from some quarters to recall the flasher talent that is Umar Akmal.
But Azhar is seen as part of Pakistan's future. He has developed through the system, representing his county from under-15 to under-19 level and has long been identified as one to keep an eye on. An opener in domestic cricket, he has the ability to face the new ball - he effectively has many times this series - and is also talked about as a future captain. Now he has repaid the selectors loyalty and there seems no reason to doubt that he will go on to play a large role in Pakistan's future.
It was perseverance, too, that England demonstrated in the field. Both their seamers, the now remarkably reliable pairing of James Anderson and Stuart Broad, barely conceded two runs an over as they plugged away on an unresponsive pitch. The spinners, meanwhile, delivered little short of 100 overs between them, rarely threatening but never allowing Pakistan to completely escape from their control either. At times the game drifted towards a stalemate, but it was intelligent cricket from an England team that played its modest hand well.
Eventually, once the partnership of Younis and Azhar was broken, the pendulum began to swing back England's way and the wickets began to fall.
While Pakistan remained in the better position at the close, England could argue that they had enjoyed the slightly better day. They do, after all, retain just an outside chance of salvaging a face-saving victory when the day began with the prospect of Pakistan batting them out of the match entirely.
It was a point made by Graeme Swann afterwards. "You can easily get really down on yourselves or start feeling sorry for yourself," he said. "But we didn't do that and we made sure we kept fighting because, let's face it, chasing 500 is nigh-on impossible, but 320 is gettable.
"We have to salvage something from this series. It looked for a long time as if we wouldn't have the chance to do that. But it was a great end to the day. We got just rewards for our perseverance with the ball, pulled it back, and now we're in with a fighting chance. Without the perseverance we all showed out there, Pakistan would have got an unassailable lead. But I don't believe they have.
"Yes, on current form, it's an absolute mountain to climb. But I think we're due a decent score in this series. I'm forever the optimist and I'd like to think a couple of them are going to go out and wow everyone tomorrow.
"Our batsmen have certainly got a point to prove. If this game goes the full five days, I'll eat this hat. I'd be very surprised if there wasn't a result by the end of tomorrow, or early on the fifth day, and I look forward to toasting Straussy [Andrew Strauss] and Cooky's [Alastair Cook] magnificent 330-run partnership!"
It will not be easy for England: only once, in 1928, have they successfully chased more to win a Test and on that occasion they had greats such as Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe to lead the way. Only three times have they successfully chased more than 300 to win a Test and England's highest successful fourth innings chase against Pakistan is just 219, which they made for the loss of seven wickets at Headingley in 1982. Their highest fourth innings total against Pakistan is 261, made at Old Trafford in 2001, and they still lost that game by 108 runs.
So it is perseverance, too, that England will require if they are to succeed in their mammoth run chase. Given their batting form so far on this tour, few would have much confidence in them. But Azhar has shown what is possible. England certainly have plenty of time.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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