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Azhar rues batters not converting half-centuries 'into 150s and 170s'

Pakistan's collapse, he suggested, came about because conditions were difficult for batters new to the crease

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
23-Mar-2022
Azhar Ali reaches a half-century on his home ground, Pakistan vs Australia, 3rd Test, 3rd day, Lahore, March 23, 2022

On an otherwise bleak day for Pakistan, Azhar Ali scored 78 and brought up the milestone of 7000 Test runs  •  AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan have a long history of collapses in Test cricket, and they added a new chapter on Wednesday, when they lost their last five wickets for just four runs - a new record - to hand Australia a 123-run first-innings lead. Azhar Ali has conceded that the lower-order implosion has "dented Pakistan's chances" in the Lahore Test, but has not lost hope that they can come back into the game.
Pakistan began the day at 90 for 1, and the overnight pair of Azhar and Abdullah Shafique batted through the first session and stretched their second-wicket stand to 150 to put Pakistan in a solid position at 170 for 1 in response to Australia's 391. Along the way, Azhar also brought up a major milestone, becoming only the fifth Pakistan batter to score 7000 Test runs.
There were no major partnerships thereafter, however, as Pakistan crumbled around Babar Azam's 67 to be bowled out for 268, with Mitchell Starc and Pat Cummins running amok in furious spells of pace and reverse-swing.
"The collapse we had after tea has dented our chances a little bit in the game but Test cricket is like that - it goes up and down," Azhar said in his press conference at the end of the day's play. "That's the beauty of Test cricket and hopefully we can turn things around tomorrow."
He was generous in his praise for Starc and Cummins. "We have to give credit to them. We always knew how good they are, especially Starc when it comes to reverse-swing. Cummins, he's an all-round very good bowler - he is the top bowler in the world right now, and he exploited the conditions really well.
"It was hard work for the fast bowlers but there was always a kind of low bounce and reverse-swing was going on since yesterday. They kept on bowling on the right areas and kept asking questions, even to the set batsmen as well, and late in the day there was some good results for them. It was lovely to see good, fast, reverse-swing bowling, and unfortunately we were on the receiving end."
Asked for a possible reason behind Pakistan's collapse after tea, Azhar suggested the pitch was not an easy one for new batters to settle down on. Knowing this, he said Pakistan's batters had been conscious of needing to bat long when set, but that didn't quite happen, with neither he, Shafique nor Babar going on to convert their half-centuries into a hundred.
"When you play on these pitches you have to bat long, because runs don't come very quickly. Our intent was to maximise the partnerships because it becomes a little difficult for the new batsman, because runs don't come quickly, you don't become set, and reverse-swing starts very early. So I think against a quality bowling side like Australia who have Cummins and Starc, they can cause problems in these conditions especially for new batsmen.
"Our 80s, we wanted to convert them into 150s and 170s because it was difficult for the new batsmen. Once our partnership [Azhar-Shafique] was broken, it wasn't easy for the new batsmen who came in. Unfortunately the collapse happened very early, and yes, we are in some trouble. But we will try to change [our situation] and in a similar way we have the opportunity to take quick wickets and change things around."
Pakistan's scoring rate - 2.29 over their innings - became a talking point too. Other than Babar, who scored his runs at a strike rate of 51.14, no batter even struck in the 40s. Azhar said these scoring rates were an outcome of the slowness of the pitch.
"The conditions basically dictate how you play cricket, Azhar said. "If you compare across all three Test matches, both teams have been batting similarly. Even when we used to play in the UAE, one question was always asked, why we score so slowly. When you get slow pitches it's not easy to score quickly. It's easier when the ball is new, but when the ball gets old and there are straight fields [more fielders in front of the wicket], and when there are low-bounce pitches, it's not easy to score quick runs."
Pakistan went into this match with five specialist bowlers, leaving out their allrounder Faheem Ashraf and playing only six specialist batters including the keeper Mohammad Rizwan. Asked if that had left them with a long tail that contributed to their collapse, Azhar backed the decision, saying it was a positive move made with taking 20 wickets at the forefront.
"You have to take a chance sometimes," Azhar said. "I think it was a positive move from the management, they wanted five bowlers because you win Test matches only by taking 20 wickets. Our top six were the ones scoring maximum runs and we wanted to take [extra] responsibility as a batting unit. Unfortunately this collapse happened, but it doesn't mean the team selection was wrong. Naseem Shah proved that decision to play him as a fifth bowler paid off; he took four wickets and bowled very well. So sometimes, while taking a positive decision, you have to sacrifice something else, and we stand behind the decision as a team and and optimistic that it will pay off."

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent