Pakistanis 321 for 9 (Azhar 73, Zaman 71, Salahuddin 69*) v Leicestershire. If Pakistan are to win a Test series in England for the first time in more than two decades, it seems likely Azhar Ali will need to lead the way with the bat. Without some of those familiar names of recent times – the likes of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, who both averaged in excess of 40 as Pakistan drew here in 2016 – it will surely be incumbent upon Azhar to try to replace their runs and provide a steadying influence to a somewhat inexperienced batting order. Now aged 33, and with three centuries and three half-centuries from his previous eight Tests, much is expected of him.
So it would have been encouraging to see him some form on the first day of this two-day, non-first-class match in Leicester. After a modest start to the tour – he has a top-score of 15 after five first-class innings – he looked supremely comfortable here in cruising to an untroubled 73. On a sluggish pitch where run-scoring opportunities were not especially plentiful, he saw off the new ball patiently and put away anything short or over-pitched without fuss. Bringing up his half-century from 83 balls with his 10th four – a gorgeous cover drive that would have made Younis proud – he posted 121 for the first wicket with Fakhar Zaman.
There is a caveat. Leicestershire are not the strongest of the first-class counties – they finished bottom of Division Two of the County Championship in 2017 without a single win – and this was, effectively, their 2nd XI. Only two of those involved here – Lewis Hill and Ateeq Javid – played in their last Championship match – a victory, to be fair – and only one other member of this side (Dieter Klein) has featured in the Championship this season. If England were presented with such opposition immediately ahead of a Test series overseas there would be moans and they would not be entirely unjustified.
That having been said, there are some decent players involved. Klein, a left-arm seamer who gains skiddy pace from a quick arm, produced the ball of the day to account for Sami Aslam – pitching on line, it held its own to beat the outside edge and take the off stump – and later ended Azhar’s innings. Attempting to cut, Azhar looked aghast when a thick under-edge brought the ball crashing into his own off-stump.
Zak Chappell would have strengthened the attack significantly, but sustained a shoulder injury just ahead of the game as he attempted to help his mother with some shopping bags. Which does rather beg the question: what had she bought and how strong is she? It is hoped he may be fit to return as early as mid-week.
Pakistan made a few changes, too. Identifying this game as a rare opportunity to allow some of their squad a game, they rested five likely members of their Test side, with Mohammad Amir reserved for brief bowls at intervals and before play on a pitch on the side of the square.
Usman Salahuddin took his chance to impress with a patient half-century but Saad Ali let his frustration get the better of him and was caught and bowled as he tried to make some progress against the spinners. Sarfraz Ahmed also fell in aggressive fashion: trying to repeat a slog-swept six from the previous ball, he gifted a catch to mid-on.
Zaman was almost as impressive as Azhar in that opening stand. Having played himself in with impressive patience – his first 75 deliveries realised a modest 34 runs – he then started to unfurl the attacking strokes that will be so familiar to those who saw him in England last year. Richard Jones, a seam bowler of some experience, was thrashed for six boundaries in an over and seven in 10 balls at one stage as Zaman, who struck six of them, made a late – and probably vain – bid for a Test place. He eventually fell to a catch to midwicket trying to thrash one into the Rutland countryside.
Impatience cost Faheem Ashraf, who was caught at cover, and Mohammad Abbas, caught at mid-on, and left Leicestershire’s spinners, Javid and Aadil Ali – men with six first-class wickets between them – boasting figures of 4 for 70 from 20.5 overs. It was a pleasing enough way to spend a lovely summer’s day, but you do wonder if it’s like preparing for an Artic hike by nipping for an ice-cream.
Day 2 Report
Leicestershire 226 for 6 (Javid 54 ) drew with Pakistanis 321 for 9 (Azhar 73, Zaman 71, Salahuddin 69*) by 95 runs. As Pakistan laboured to work their way through a second string Leicestershire line-up, it was hard to be hugely optimistic of their chances in the Test series against England.
After all, there attack here featured four of the front-line bowlers they are expected to field at Lord’s. Yet in this predictable two-day draw they were thwarted for much of the day by a man, Ateeq Javid, who has not scored a first-class 50 for more than four years. And that, in April 2014, was against Oxford MCCU.
The good news from Pakistan’s perspective is they are confident Mohammad Amir will be fit to play at Lord’s. After sustaining a knee injury in Ireland there had been some concern over his fitness. But he bowled at something approaching full pace on the side of the square during the lunch break and reported no significant issues afterwards.
His addition adds significantly to this attack but this was a reminder of the reliance this Pakistan side have upon his not especially broad shoulders.
Pakistan’s hope is that, as part of a five-man attack, the burden on Amir may be reduced. And it is true that in Faheem Ashraf, a seam-bowling all-rounder who gives the ball a good thrash, they have the sort of exciting all-round cricketer who provides some balance to the side.
Faheem was one of the more impressive of their bowlers in this game. Although he didn’t take a wicket, he generated decent pace and caught Javid a fearsome blow to the helmet with a skiddy bouncer. His control was impressive, too.
Of his colleagues, Mohammad Abbas was frugal (until Tom Taylor thrashed him for four boundaries in the last over of the game) though not especially threatening and Hassan Ali, so adept at gaining movement with a Kookaburra ball that confounds most bowlers, struggled to gain any movement from a Duke’s ball that delights most.
Rahat Ali was a little unfortunate. Probably the quickest of the attack, he saw a few edges fly through the slips – an issue that might become a factor of the next few weeks – and might have taken a couple of wickets in a probing opening spell that was resolutely seen off by the obdurate Harry Dearden.
Shadab Khan, meanwhile, claimed the wicket of Sam Evans with one that skidded on and Lewis Hill with one the batsman slogged to mid-off, but also delivered a couple of head-high full-tosses. The feedback from the Leicestershire batsmen – hardly the most experienced batsmen on the circuit – was that he was fairly easy to pick. Suffice to say if Pakistan ever need to call upon Fakhar Zaman’s bowling in a Test, they are in a bit of trouble.
He claimed a wicket here, though. Aadil Ali, coming down the pitch to a very wide delivery, was stumped by Adeel Shafique – a former MCC Young Cricketer who was drafted in as their keeper for most of the afternoon as Sarfraz took the opportunity to put his feet up.
Shafique, a former Nottinghamshire second XI player, is not affiliated with the Pakistan squad and was found at short notice by Leicestershire. It remains somewhat unclear who would stand-in for Sarfraz should he sustain an injury during a Test.
The man who enjoyed the day the most was probably Javid. Once thought of as a highly promising player at Warwickshire, he lost his way a little after struggling for opportunities behind the likes of Ian Bell and Jonathan Trott. After a patient start to this innings, he unveiled some pleasing strokes and, having secured a confidence boosting half-century, retired out.
Earlier Dearden, a batsman who appears to be geared up to negate good bowling but has no idea what to do against loose balls, carved a filthy wide delivery to point, while later Tom Wells nicked off as he drove at a wide one.
So it appears Pakistan will stick to the same XI at Lord’s that won them the Test in Dublin. They have not been especially impressive in their three warm-up matches against Division Two opposition but, as we have been reminded so often, it pays to never dismiss their chances. It’s not so long ago they went to No. 1 in the Test rankings and won the Champions Trophy against the odds in England.