Misbah-ul-Haq 'hopeful' Babar Azam will be fit for Christchurch Test

"He started gripping the bat today and practicing with a tennis ball"

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
Babar Azam is all smiles during training, New Zealand vs Pakistan, Auckland, December 17, 2020

Babar Azam is all smiles during training  •  AFP via Getty Images

Pakistan's head coach Misbah-ul-Haq is optimistic that the injured Babar Azam will be available for the team's second Test against New Zealand in Christchurch, although a final call is likely to be taken only after a medical assessment in Mount Maunganui in three days.
Pakistan have already lost the T20I series in New Zealand without Azam, though they managed a consolation victory in Napier thanks to Mohammad Rizwan's 89. Without Azam, Pakistan experimented heavily with their line-up, even throwing in the inexperienced Abdullah Shafique, who failed to make an impact, being dismissed for two successive ducks.
"We are hopeful that Babar will be fit for second Test," Misbah said. "He started gripping the bat today and practicing with a tennis ball. You can't really predict much with injuries like that but I just hope he gets better in five or six days and he has about eight days or so to get ready, which would be a big boost for us."
Both Azam as well as opener Imam-ul-Haq were injured in nets after receiving a blow to their respective thumbs during a throwdown session in Queenstown last week. With the pair ruled out of the first Test, the uncapped 24-year-old Imran Butt was called up as a possible replacement in the 17-man squad. Butt was the leading run-scorer in the 2019-20 Quaid-e-Azam trophy, with 934 runs at an average of over 62. However, it is likely Pakistan will use the experience of Haris Sohail in the XI instead, with Abid Ali as the opener and Azhar Ali at No.3.
Over the last three years, Azam has become a pivotal figure for Pakistan across all formats, and his injury not only hurt the team's chances, but disrupted their entire strategy that currently revolves around him. Since his ODI debut against West Indies in 2016, Azam has missed just three out the 32 games Pakistan have played.
In his debut series, Azam got in the side to fill in for Younis Khan, who was temporarily out with dengue, but eventually had to make way for the senior batsman. Azam also went on to play five Tests in 2016. He would go on to play every single Test in 2017 and 2019, and was playing every Test this year as well until he broke his thumb. Azam averages 45.44 in Tests from 29 matches, with 2045 runs and five centuries.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent