Cricket: Azhar Ali sets England mammoth runs target

ENGLAND at last saw the back of Azhar Ali, but still need to pull off the second-highest run chase in their Test history to avoid a 3-0 whitewash by Pakistan.

Azhar’s painstaking career-best 157 spanned six sessions and almost nine hours, before the number three was ninth out in Pakistan’s 365 all out on the third evening at the Dubai International Cricket Stadium.

England were therefore left with more than six and a half sessions to make 324 on a wearing pitch which had already helped spinners Monty Panesar (five for 124) and Graeme Swann share eight wickets. They made an acceptable start, openers Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss reprising the roles of Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe the only other time England made so many to win – against Australia in Melbourne in 1929.

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Cook and Strauss achieved a notable first for this series at least, when they surpassed their previous highest opening partnership of 27 on this tour – reaching 36 for none at the close.

Azhar’s 442-ball vigil had been a triumph of unstinting concentration, shot selection and restraint, taking in a stand of 216 with Younis Khan (127), and containing just ten fours and a six. But Pakistan’s last seven wickets then fell for only 34 runs in 21 overs, to give world number ones England a glimmer of hope that their batsmen might yet redeem themselves here. Younis predicted yesterday that the tourists could still have a chance in this match, if their luck held. Equally, having watched Azhar’s tour de force, it seemed they might collectively do worse than take their cue from him.

Azhar was in no hurry on the way to his second Test hundred and beyond, having previously reached exactly three figures on this same ground against Sri Lanka last year. He reached the milestone from the 319th ball he faced, with one of the most memorable shots of his long innings – a cut off Panesar for his fifth four. He might have gone before his third-wicket partner Younis, for 84, but survived when Swann was just unable to hang on to a tough chance at second slip, very low to his left off the bowling of James Anderson.

Instead, England’s only morning joy came when Stuart Broad had Younis lbw after a five-hour stay which had helped to shut England out for 82 overs.

Younis was replaced by Misbah-ul-Haq, who was also content to make the most of ample time available. He and Azhar added 87, until Misbah fell lbw to Panesar in late afternoon to kick-start the rush of wickets.

There was no DRS left for Asad Shafiq, sweeping at Panesar to become the 40th lbw victim of this head-scratching series, and Adnan Akmal was soon bowled for a duck by one that turned to beat his defence and hit off-stump.

Swann then scored his first successes, after 32 overs in vain. Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal were both caught at slip shortly before tea, and then Azhar fell bat-pad to the off-spinner, and Panesar completed the innings with yet another lbw to account for Gul.

Tim Bresnan arrived in Dubai yesterday, having undergone fitness tests on the elbow injury which ruled him out of the Test series. England hope the seamer will be available for four one-day internationals and three Twenty20s against Pakistan, starting on 13 February.