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Match Analysis

Mature Imam-ul-Haq steps out of nepotism shadow and steps toward personal growth

The recalled opener seemed well prepared for Australia, showing patience and maturity

Imam-ul-Haq began scratchily, even nervously, but ended the day unbeaten on 132  •  AFP/Getty Images

Imam-ul-Haq began scratchily, even nervously, but ended the day unbeaten on 132  •  AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes, it can be tough being Imam-ul-Haq. He was the second Pakistan player to score a hundred on ODI debut in 2017; yet at the time, the dominant story revolved around the man who picked him - chief selector and Imam's uncle Inzamam-ul-Haq. He was the first to score four centuries in his first nine ODIs. On Test debut, he stabilised a tottering Pakistan side in a tricky fourth-innings chase against Ireland in Malahide, his unbeaten 74 steering Pakistan to victory.
Yet, to far too many, he was simply a parchi - a piece of paper - which is a callous one-word dismissal of all achievements by putting them down to nepotism. Often, it is a trenchant jibe deservedly deployed against the ingrained privilege which the elite in the subcontinent enjoy by birthright in just about every industry you cast your eyes toward.
No matter how desperately the nephew of Inzamam - to give him his official name - tried break out of being typecast, there was simply no other role Pakistan seemed to want him to play.
When Test cricket returned to Pakistan in 2019, it would be Abid Ali - and not Imam - who got the nod for the starting line-up. It was lost on no one that Inzamam was no longer chief selector. Misbah-ul-Haq, whose relationship with Inzamam is famously tetchy, was in charge. Abid would grasp that opportunity with both hands, winning Player-of-the-Match awards in each of his first two Tests.
Imam's Test career had stalled after that sparkling debut, and the wheels for his omission were set in motion.
Abid's form waxed and waned over the following two years, but his place in the side was never under threat. At the other end, Pakistan had a somewhat surreal dalliance with Imran Butt, an opening batter whose best trait was his penchant for taking stunning slip catches. Unfortunately, his tendency to offer slip catches was equally prolific, and so out he went soon enough.
Shan Masood, too, came and went as his form crescendoed before falling off, but Imam had quietly slipped off the radar.
Australia's return after an extended absence naturally grabbed all the headlines, but the occasion must have felt personally momentous to Imam. Frozen out since 2019 - coinciding exactly with Test cricket's return to Pakistan - Imam, like so many openers in the generation before, had been starved of the chance to play Test cricket at home.
He had played little first-class cricket in that time - Covid-19 had seen to that - but an average of 106.20 in the recently-concluded Quaid-e-Azam trophy meant he had rammed his way through doors so many in Pakistan had assumed automatically flew open for him.
On Friday, the first day of the Rawalpindi Test against Australia, Imam began scratchily, even nervously. It is antithetical to the brash, confident persona he exudes - sometimes a little inimically for his own good - off the field. But when you are facing Mitchell Starc and Josh Hazlewood after two years out - the two men who took turns dismissing him in his last Test in November 2019 - you would be forgiven some tentativeness.
An early, optimistic leg-before review by the visitors seemed to settle rather than unnerve him, and as it became apparent this wasn't a pitch that offered much to Australia's storied four-pronged pace attack - including the allrounder Cameron Green - Nathan Lyon was thrust in as early as the eighth over. It was just the sixth time in 105 Tests that was been called upon to bowl this early in the first innings.
Over the past few days, the nature of the pitch had been kept a bit of a state secret. In Pakistan cricket, that means everyone but the people who matter know about it. But this time, the strip was kept under wraps in both senses of the phrase. When it was peeled back this morning, it had been shaved clean of any grass; soon after, the hosts announced they were playing just two fast bowlers as they won the toss and batted.
Lyon had to work overtime, and Imam seemed well prepared for it. Off 45 length deliveries the offspinner sent down to him, Imam took 41 runs, including a couple of majestic sixes down the ground when the dancing feet were on full display. The tactic was as calculated as it was forensic, and Imam had the patience and maturity to shut shop whenever Lyon got the more natural fuller length right; after all, those 49 balls yielded just six.
"There is a pattern in which I tried to score runs, and there was a certain plan when playing against Lyon," Imam said at the post-day press conference. "I have played against him in Dubai as well, so I knew he's a world-class bowler. I knew that I would have to work on those good areas. The full length is not going to turn that much, that's why I was being respectful against it."
That maturity was a hallmark of the innings that saw Imam carry his bat into the second day, and might represent personal growth for a cricketer not naturally blessed with that trait in abundance. Remember, this is a man who celebrated a century in South Africa by mimicking a yapping mouth gesture to the fans and putting a finger to his lips, sarcastically saying he wanted to thank the media and fans who had criticised his selection.
He had previously told ESPNcricinfo that criticism over nepotism had "seriously pissed him off", and that he often appeared more comfortable playing the pantomime villain. In a country where fan support - and more importantly, media support - plays an outsized role in team and squad selection, it was ill-advised.
"I have seven centuries in ODI cricket but the feeling I got today was very different"
Imam on his maiden Test hundred
Yet, when facing this diverse Australian bowling attack, the ego was swiftly put to one side. Starc, Hazlewood and Pat Cummins routinely peppered him with short deliveries, but Imam was happier to duck rather than try and take unnecessary risks; the premium bowlers would eventually tire out and be forced out of the attack, and the runs would come.
He took just a single boundary off 61 short balls, targeting Starc when he went full instead, scoring 15 off 11 such deliveries.
"The wicket was not that even, and the ball was coming slow," he said. "I just wanted to be in my zone, and I was just trying to avoid the short ball. There was a bubble in my batting that I wanted to remain in. I was waiting for the bad balls."
It was one of those balls that brought up his first Test hundred, a silky extra-cover drive that raced away for four. Even the celebration was redolent of the discipline on exhibition all day. Gone were the irascible taunts or even the puffed-out chest. Instead, there was a self-containment to the joy, inwardly appearing to congratulate himself for triumphing over his baser, less patient self.
There was even no overt gratitude to the crowd, but though that was likely a function of extreme concentration rather than the harbouring of grievances.
"I have seven centuries in ODI cricket but the feeling I got today was very different," Imam added. "Firstly, it had been a while, and I wasn't getting a chance. This feeling of scoring a Test hundred against Australia carries a special feeling."
Two years ago, Abid had supplanted Imam as opener in the Pakistan side, keeping him out in the cold. Now, Abid's absence has given Imam the chance to return the favour. Unbeaten on 132 and gearing up for the second day with his side at 245 for 1, he might be on his way to doing just that.
Perhaps it isn't all that tough being Imam-ul-Haq after all.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000