It's a curious thing, a third-wicket partnership for Pakistan, and it was no different on an otherwise sleepy Saturday morning in Pindi. The stadium hums with activity, the seats begin to fill up. Gazes move from smartphones to the action on the field, even if the thrum of excitement has little to do with any of the characters in the middle. The amplified interest isn't down to Azhar Ali
, brilliant as his career has been, or Imam-ul-Haq
, despite his third consecutive hundred at this ground. It certainly can't be explained by England's bowling attack, which had comprised Jack Leach
, Will Jacks
and Joe Root
for the entirety of the morning.
Instead, the crowd is transfixed by the prospect of a man who hasn't even left the pavilion. The cheers when Imam gets out might seem harsh on a player who's scored 121, but despite his famous love-hate relationship with Pakistan's fanbase, it isn't personal this time.
As Pakistan's No. 4 steps out of the shadows and into gentle early December sunshine, the chants of "Babar!" reveal what the people have come here for. The Test itself is positively meandering towards meaninglessness, but Babar Azam
's purposeful strides to the middle have whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
With seven Test hundreds in four different countries, few crowds could reasonably claim Babar wasn't worth the price of admission alone, but those who showed up here against Australia
in March may feel Babar owed them one. On a wicket as turgid as this one, he was the only member of Pakistan's top four to miss out on a big score in the match, run out going after an unnecessary single the only time he batted. He might have had two prior centuries here, but for now, Babar has scores to settle, and scores to make.
All of a sudden, there's a spring in England's step, perhaps as much down to the infectious enthusiasm of the crowd as the sudden fall of two wickets. Ollie Robinson
is warming up, ready to bowl his first spell of the day. Root is shining the ball on Leach's glistening scalp. Babar has just clipped him past mid-on for a boundary, and the crowd is baying for more. Azhar has just played out a maiden over against Jacks at the other end; some things don't change, after all.
When the Barmy Army basked in the entertainment of the first four sessions of this game, and England revelled into the brave new era Brendon McCullum was leading this Test side into, concerns about the pitch were pushed to the back of the mind. Not because they didn't know this was a "terrible wicket", as the characteristically forthright Nasser Hussain put it on commentary, but because if you don't enjoy 657 runs in 101 overs, why are you even here? In the same vein, every Pakistan fan clustered around this intimate little cricket ground is well aware they're watching a contest severely devalued by the strip laid out. But in the moment, watching Babar bat, they refuse to let their experience be sullied.
Babar survives the early salvos and makes inroads of his own. He's sped along to 28 off 36 by the time lunch is called, looking as supremely untroubled as you'd expect from a batter of his character on a pitch that lacks any.
England call upon James Anderson
. The Pakistan captain was eight years old when Anderson made his Test debut, 11 when he last played in Pakistan. Yet somehow, this grandfather clock of English cricket finds himself in a position where Babar could be his first Test wicket in the country. It is the marquee match-up this series, so try stopping Rawalpindi from enjoying it, duff pitch or not.
It's an absorbing cat-and-mouse battle - Anderson might be getting no assistance from the conditions, but Babar knows better than to get carried away. Sixteen of Anderson's 18 balls to him probe off or middle stump, and produce just three runs for the Pakistan captain. Off the two deliveries the old grandmaster strays down leg, Babar milks him for six runs, including a boundary through midwicket. England's relatively more benign spin bowling - at least in the middle session - is dispatched with more fluency, their collective 93 balls to Babar conceding 92 runs. It included a majestic drive down the ground to bring up his half-century, but he still has promises to keep.
It's a procession, a cakewalk, an inevitability, and yet when the strike turns over to Babar, Pindi is entranced once more. Babar is suddenly on 96, having just slapped one off Ben Stokes in front of square. Pakistan are closing in on 400, still dangerously far away from England's 657, but when Babar bats those hard numbers don't quite seem to matter as much.
It's short and wide, and Babar swings his arms, all nonchalance and elegance. The contact is true, and the ball pings of the bat, racing through a vacant cover region. Babar lets his arms swing by his side, allowing himself a moment of personal reflection before raising them to acknowledge the rapturous applause thundering around the stadium. As he prostrates, Rawalpindi's on its feet. The debt he accrued in March has been repaid.
He ensures Pakistan avoid the follow-on he finally succumbs, a loose shot off Jacks' first ball of the evening flying straight to point. Suddenly, Pindi falls silent, and as the next two wickets fall in quick succession, it becomes apparent how vulnerable Pakistan's position actually is
and the extent to which Babar's presence seemed to inoculate his side from the hazards. He may have appeased the fans for one more day, but he still has miles to go before he sleeps.