Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq dip when Pakistan need them most

Azhar Ali's middle stump goes flying Getty Images

Pakistan were minus 16 for four when they joined each other in the middle. It was the first over after tea on the third day and Abu Dhabi was muggy, with heavy cloud overhead. Misbah-ul-Haq had just been dismissed and though his hero years were actually just beginning, Pakistan were twitching around looking for any new heroes.

It was only the third time they had batted together and in the two innings before then had put on a total of four runs together. One was in his 20th Test, the other in his 12th. One was the guy who had sweated himself into a batsman; the other, the guy who came into this world wearing a box instead of an umbilical cord.

In opposition was the world's No. 1 Test team, in a brief moment in time when it meant something. England were good and their attack, for that series, was perfect - two good pacemen on the way to becoming a great pair, plus Monty Panesar and Graeme Swann. Three-quarters of this attack would win England a series in India later in the year.

It was a proper tiptoe through fire, a life lesson masquerading as a batting partnership. Panesar was in a late-career peak, out-bowling Swann, who wasn't bowling badly to begin with. There were close calls and lovely shots, taut defence and the drama of an occasional review, and a missed run-out chance less than halfway into the stand (thanks KP).

They never looked in absolute control of their fate, but it was never out of their hands either. That's what made the stand, the idea that it could end at any moment, but also that it if it didn't it could be game-changing. Tightrope stuff, life one side, death the other - Pakistan wouldn't have it any other way.

It took its time. "In such a situation you have to back your strengths," one of them would say years later. "If you are the sort of player who counterattacks then you do that. Others look to tire out the bowlers. Our strength at the time was to bat like this. [He] is a strokemaker, but that wasn't the sort of wicket where you could play freely, so we thought the correct approach was to absorb pressure."

A reader on ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball commentary said they wished Pakistan had an opener like Virender Sehwag because the lead would have been long gone however long he batted. It was an early example of the refrain that would hound the team right until they became number one, and even that was not enough for many to drop it.

They took Pakistan from minus 16 to plus 72, which is no daddy partnership. But in actual terms Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq took them across the border from Nobody's Pakistan to Misbah's Pakistan.


When he was walking back at Headingley today, having played a shot that made sense like life makes sense (it doesn't really), Azhar air-played the shot he should've played. Straighter, not trying to clip the straight ball somewhere between mid-on and midwicket - straight, like he was driving in Australia at the end of 2016.

When Shafiq walked back after being dismissed, strangled down the legside, nobody really noticed what he was doing. It's never important with Shafiq because he's not one of life's great emoters. This wasn't a poor shot per se, but a poor dismissal, an intensely irritating one in the way a nagging fly on a sweaty day is irritating. There's no need for it and you'd rather wish it dead.

The dismissals were part of a tapestry of horror dismissals, as if the discipline they had shown at Lord's had not only become a distant memory, but a trick of it: did it really exist?

You can't put the rest of the dismissals at the feet of Azhar and Shafiq. Batsmen, over everyone else, take responsibility for their own downfalls. Misbah and Younis Khan were hardly averse, over long careers, to poor or ill-timed dismissals. And they were themselves part of plenty of batting blowouts together.

But when they were at the crease together, Pakistan somehow felt more tied together, even if on the bad batting days of their era it could turn out to be a fleeting illusion. Heck, together they presented such a well-defined identity at the crease, if we'd given them enough time they might have carved out an entirely separate country (and yes, Younis would've seceded eventually). As circumstance would have it, in the process they mentored others, lead among them Azhar and Shafiq.

Both were leaders just that Younis, it turned out, was leader best not as captain. He wasn't a straightforward man, but such was the force of his commitment to success, others had no choice but to be taken along. Misbah was a leader through and through, just not the kind anyone in Pakistan had been used to. Once they figured it out, he grew in aura, in stature, in performance, in result, and, most importantly, in impact.

This, as much as runs, is what Azhar and Shafiq need to bring to this batting order, the unmistakable sense that they are in charge and that they will be there when it matters and when it doesn't.

It won't be easy. Azhar already bears the wounds of captaincy. Ridiculously, 65 Tests into his career, there's still doubt over whether he is - and Pakistan are - best served by opening or coming one-down. It doesn't make too much of a difference with Pakistan's openers, you might snigger, but to him it can't not.

If Shafiq knows where the limelight is, it is only because he seems to know exactly how not to be in it. Whether that is behind the big guns at No. 6, or in crafting pleasant hundreds in non-winning games that nobody tallies, his career has played out a little on the periphery. It's not a poor career by any means, but the vitality, the urgency, is absent.

Together, but not necessarily as a pair yet, they have dipped at just the time Pakistan needs them to stand up most. They were both important at Lord's, but Shafiq is averaging 37.44 in nine innings post-MisYou and Azhar just 23.40 in 10. And they've only batted together three times in five Tests. These aren't big samples, which is part of the problem.

Pakistan's Test itinerary tends to have long empty periods followed by sudden bursts of activity and for two players who are more or less Test specialists, that hurts. Having not played an international game since October last year before they arrived in Ireland, Azhar and Shafiq will likely not play an international game till October again, which is when Pakistan's next Test is scheduled. How to become the leaders of a batting order brimming with potential when you're not actually there? Even MisYou couldn't pull that trick.


The mind goes back to another partnership, the one Misbah thought most important to his career. He had batted together with Younis before, but only seven times in eight years, so when they joined each other in the middle in Dubai, with a Test to save, they were strangers.

They batted out the day, in the process of a 186-run stand getting to know each other's ways and moves, and understanding perhaps some of the chemistry between them. It was also the day they established themselves unequivocally as leaders of the side.

Azhar and Shafiq are at an advantage. They know each other well already. They average nearly 54 in partnership over 21 innings. They've already been through one bond-forging partnership, the one that took Pakistan into a new era. That one's done now and a new one emerging. It will need Azhar and Shafiq taking them through again.