Veteran Zulfiqar refuses to fade away
In June of this year, when Pakistan were on their tour of Sri Lanka, Zulfiqar Babar began to ponder his age and remaining years in cricket. Babar will turn 37 next month and in Pakistan opportunities start drying up at that age. However, after a difficult first Test against England, his contributions to victory in Dubai almost overshadowed Yasir Shah - who took eight wickets in the match - and helped defuse the rumbling about his prospects.
Yasir might be the key bowler for Pakistan but, in England's second innings, Misbah-ul-Haq had more confidence in Zulfiqar throughout. He bowled 47 overs at a cost of 53 runs to keep the England batsmen at bay, while also snapping up two of the most important wickets of the day in Joe Root and Mark Wood. He also suffered three drops off his bowling, although they were sharp chances; over the two Test matches, he has had five catches put down.
In Abu Dhabi, he bowled 72 luckless overs in the first innings and, in the absence of the injured Yasir, shouldered the burden. He created opportunities on an unresponsive track but saw Ian Bell and Alastair Cook dropped by Shan Masood and Fawad Alam respectively. This year, he averages 66.14 in the first innings but is a different bowler in the second inning, averaging 21.12 last year, and 34.75 so far in 2015.
But statistics are not the only way to judge a player and Zulfiqar's role is not always to take wickets but to contain while Yasir attacks. He took the limelight again in Dubai but Misbah also had praise for Zulfiqar. "I think Babar started well and he was bowling well and his balls were landing in the right spot," Misbah said. "He was the one creating more problems for their batsmen, especially right handers so that is why I bowled him more."
Pakistan's next Test series is set to be after an extensive gap of eight months. Things can change a lot in Pakistan over such a length period and players like Zulfiqar, another gareeb ka bacha [son of a poor man], are always in a vulnerable position. Despite being one of Pakistan's best spinners, he received the lowest type of annual contract and was still a happy man. But performances can be forgotten, players fade with time and can easily fell prey to inconsistent selection.
Zulfiqar was already racing against time when he made his Test debut at the age of 34 but he was Pakistan's best bowler in UAE last year, taking 27 wickets against Australia and New Zealand. It appeared that his peak had come in 2009-10, when he had his most productive season and picked up 96 wickets in domestic cricket. He was potentially the most complete spinner in Pakistan but missed out to another slow left-armer in Abdur Rehman.
He almost made it into Pakistan's squad to tour England in 2010 but eventually missed out. He seemingly lacked the required support and connections among the selectors. Zulfiqar hails from Okara, a small agriculture town 85 miles away from Lahore, and still lives a much simpler life in his home town, away from glamour of the bigger cities.
It is not hard to imagine that he could have been picked for Pakistan much earlier, during his peak years. The present Test squad is much more settled, however, and Zulfiqar has been able to thrive. With Saeed Ajmal gone, Zulfiqar has been a complete replacement. He showed his ability against Australia last year, becoming the top wicket-taker on either side with 14 scalps at 26.35; his slider, in particular, was very effective. Where once Pakistan relied on Ajmal and Rehman, now they turn to Zulfiqar and Yasir and their partnership has again proved effective against England.
Zulfiqar may be nearly 37 but he has Test match experience and plenty of knowhow. There are prospects like Zafar Gohar and Mohammad Asghar coming through the ranks but are they good enough to replace him? The short answer is 'no'. Misbah can rely on old Zulfiqar, the man who fittingly took the final catch in Dubai.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. @kalson