<
>

Babar Azam leads the resistance

Babar Azam made his second Test fifty Getty Images

Every resistance needs a leader. Every leader needs his lieutenants. Babar Azam may not care for Fidel Castro - who died on Friday - but, nevertheless, stood tall in his combat fatigues on Sunday, railing against the tyranny of nicks that had taken grip of his team, leading the battle against intimidating short balls and oppressive away-seamers. He was joined through the morning by Sarfraz Ahmed and Sohail Khan - both heavily flawed in their own ways, but useful enough to the cause. Together they rescued Pakistan from the prospect of a triple-figure deficit. They gave their side a fighting chance, though much work remains to be done.

If Azam was the dignified commander of the forces, puffing a cigar as he drove Neil Wagner regally down the ground in the 38th over, Sarfraz was the guerilla captain from the back hills, specialising in high-risk skirmishes and hit-and-run. Sarfraz took aim at Tim Southee in the fourth over of the day, cracking him behind point, before shovelling him violently over the leg side for another four next ball. When he tried the pull again he was almost caught, but this could not move him to caution - 12 runs would come off the next Southee over. When Azam faced the over in between, you could almost imagine Sarfraz laying in ambush, impatiently chewing betel, rain beating down on his hat, watching for Southee's wagon to round the mountain bend.

There was little doubt as to who was the boss in this partnership. In the 34th over, Sarfraz took off from the non-striker's end in search of a single, but was left to slide ungracefully on his backside after Azam barked at him to return. When Sarfraz got himself out chasing a full, wide ball, he did well to avoid his partner's gaze - the searing glare replete with stamped feet and a "look what I have to deal with" shake of the head.

Although probably the most erudite bowler in this Pakistan outfit, with the bat Sohail brought to mind an entirely different kind of resistance fighter - he was Chewbacca, where Sarfraz had been Che Guevara. With neem-branch forearms and shoulders as wide as the horizon, his consecutive top-edges off Neil Wagner sailed all the way to the southwest hill.

Meanwhile Azam continued in his own noble way. His imperious on-drives drew admiration; his robust back-foot punches built hope. When a single to deep square leg took him to his 62nd run, Azam became owner of the highest score in this bowling-dominated series. Though the occasional good ball would beat his outside edge, at no stage did he lose his stately mien - the pull shots were always controlled, the cuts uniformly disdainful.

"Azam looked pretty good in Hamilton, and his one-day form suggests he's had a great start to his young career," opposition spearhead Tim Southee said after play. "It's very promising for Pakistan to have a young batsman like that coming through. He's got world-class batsmen like Younis Khan and Misbah-Ul-Haq to learn from. For a guy to come here in his first Test tour to New Zealand and play the way he has - it shows he can play in conditions that are foreign to them. He's got a simple technique and method to his game."

If Azam seems a natural focal point for the resistance, it is because he has long been anointed. A Pakistan under-19 captain and a rapid collector of ODI tons, he has been bestowed the No. 3 position at age 22. He has also already been compared to India's leading batsman, whose name goes unmentioned here, for fear of causing a comments war.

And maybe more impressively, Azam's reputation has come despite being cousin to Pakistan's sultans of the soft-dismissal, Kamran and Umar Akmal - two misspent-talent cautionary tales. It's not even like Azam can deny the connection: unmistakeably are the shared genes writ across his face in a long and glorious monobrow.

The Pakistan tail could not survive long enough to give Azam a shot at a maiden Test hundred, but coaches suggest a long career awaits him, and more chances will inevitably come. Unlike Castro, Azam got to 90 and remained not out.