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RAWALPINDI: Imam-ul-Haq hit his maiden century to put Pakistan in control on the first day of their opening Test of the three Test-match series against Australia here at the Pindi Stadium on Friday.
It might have been 1998 since Australia last played a Test in Pakistan, and almost three years since they plied their red-ball trade offshore, but it took barely an hour for the harsh realities of cricket away from home to become clear.
By claiming a solitary scalp while also keeping Pakistan’s run-rate below three per over as they ended day one of the series opener 1-245, Australia endured their first one-wicket full day to start a Test since India piled on 1-334 at the start of the Sydney Test in 1985-86.
Pakistan celebrated the world’s top-ranked Test team to their shores for the first time in almost quarter of a century by subjecting them to a sub continental batting clinic led by 26-year-old opener Imam-ul-Haq who could scarcely have conceived a bigger stage for his triumphal moment.
Imam’s maiden Test century arrived in the hour after today’s tea break from an even 200 balls faced, and the studious left-hander left the field alongside batting partner Azhar Ali (64no) to rapturous applause from a sizeable crowd and unvanquished on 132 having batted almost six and half hours.
In doing so, the bespectacled left-hander achieved what his (at this stage) more famous uncle Inzamam-ul-Haq could not manage in a couple of series by posting a Test hundred against Australia on home soil.
Imam melded tight defence with deft touch and a smattering of spanking shots through and over the infield – especially against Australia’s highly varied spin attack – and crowned his innings with a sublimely timed punch drive to the extra cover boundary off Mitchell Starc.
Upon reaching the coveted milestone in his 12th Test – his previous highest score of 76 had also come against Australia, at Dubai in 2018 – he punched the air as he leapt skywards, fell into the arms of his batting partner Azhar Ali and then knelt in reverence on the Rawalpindi pitch.
By stumps, Imam and Azhar had pushed their second-wicket partnership to 140 unconquered and given their team a dream start as Pakistan chase their eighth Test win from their past nine starts stretching back to January last year.
Australia finished a tough first day on the road in more than double that time frame knowing they did not do much wrong in conditions that surely favoured the batting, except lose the toss and perhaps not opt for a second specialist spinner instead of a third seamer.
Captain Pat Cummins showed a preparedness to try all options in search of a wicket – well, almost all options.
Of the eleven at his disposal, opening batters David Warner and Usman Khawaja were not required to bowl and nor was keeper Alex Carey but the other eight were given their chance with none but specialist spinner Nathan Lyon claiming success.
The last time Australia deployed that many bowlers in the first innings of an overseas match was the 2014 Test against Pakistan in Abu Dhabi, a match that produced a similar opening day which Pakistan finished 2-304 before rolling to a 356-run win.
Certainly Josh Hazlewood, the most economical of Australia’s bowlers today with 0-24 from 14 overs, will be better for the run having sent down just 12 overs – all of them in the T20 format – since suffering a side strain three months ago.
But with just eight overs of wear into the second new ball, the visitors know early wickets are vital tomorrow with Azhar – who boasts an unbeaten double-hundred against Australia at the MCG in 2016 – resuming and Pakistan’s skipper and best batter Babar Azam next man in.
The importance of that initial skirmish tomorrow is heightened given the reverse swing Australia had hoped their quicks would find with a number of used pitches on the centre wicket block acting as an abrasive surface on the ball failed to materialise on day one.
They had also foreshadowed Pakistan would play a “long game” and exhibit patience as they pushed the game inexorably into the fifth day, although it’There had been much intrigue as to how the pitch at Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium might play given it has hosted just five Tests since Australia last visited, and was under covers the day prior to the match due to rain that prevented either team undertaking a final pre-game training session.
But having studied statistics that suggested it historically favoured pace, Australia opted against a second spinner alongside Lyon and went instead with front line quicks Starc, Hazlewood and Cummins as well as all-rounder Cameron Green.
However, it became immediately obvious when play began under clear skies that the bare surface offered little to the seamers who were also unable to find swing with the new-ball, and Lyon was summoned to the crease after just seven overs.
The need for a back-up spin option became more obvious inside the opening hour when part-time off-spinner Travis Head – who has sent down just three overs in Test cricket over the past two years – was also called upon as Pakistan cruised towards a 50-run opening stand.
It was not that the seamers had bowled profligately or that Pakistan’s openers had taken the game to them from the outside.
Indeed, the initial spells from Starc and Hazlewood were tidy and the decision to employ spin appeared prudent with Lyon able to extract noticeable turn from the surface with the near-new ball.
Rather, it was the judiciousness shown by Imam and – until he needlessly perished – his opening partner Abdullah Shafique that underscored the value of Pakistan skipper Babar Azam landing on the desired side of the morning’s coin toss.
Cummins conceded he would have held no misgivings about batting first had the coin landed in his favour, but day one of his maiden captaincy venture overseas could scarcely have started panned out more differently from the way it began at home.
At the Gabba three months ago, Starc memorably landed a wicket with the opening delivery of the Vodafone Ashes thereby paving the way for Australia’s ruthless domination of a timid England.
Today, they spent three sessions and 90 overs with a solitary wicket to show for their toil, and even that was handed to them as a gift by 22-year-old Shafique whose inexperience – he is playing just his third Test, and sixth first-class game – was laid bare.
The right-hander had been the dominant partner after the opening pair’s cautious start against the new ball, and was double Imam’s score come drinks at the completion of the opening hour.
But his more experienced partner picked up the pace as he settled into his innings, reaching 50 shortly before lunch with a classy pull to the backward square boundary off Cummins.
Soon after, the duo’s century opening stand – the third Shafique has been involved since making his debut against Bangladesh last November – the young opener’s concentration appeared to waver as he closed in on his third Test half-century in just his fourth start.
With one over remaining before lunch, the opener who has admitted to idolising former Australia captain Ricky Ponting as a young boy with a particular predilection for Ponting’s pull shot, charged Lyon and tried to belt over long-on to move from 44 to 50 in a single blow.
However, he managed only a top edge that hung in the flawless Rawalpindi sky long enough for Cummins to make good ground from mid-off and hold on to the vital chance as he tumbled to the ground.
It was the sole genuine chance of the first two sessions, noting the casual flick Shafique played off his hip against Lyon went tantalisingly close to Head’s outstretched right hand at short backward-square but was hardly a realistic catching opportunity.
Shafique’s dismissal against the run of play enlivened the Australia bowlers, most notably Cummins who came out after lunch and produced a feisty spell to Azhar who seemed uncomfortable against the rising ball.
But while the tactic stalled Pakistan’s scoring and created some anxious moments for the veteran right-hander, it failed to achieve the second breakthrough Australia so sorely needed and – having sent down four overs for a cost of five runs – Cummins called a halt and deployed Green.
That proved a pressure release with the all-rounder’s three-over spell yielding 14 runs, by which time Azhar was into stride and Pakistan were eyeing a first innings total befitting the celebratory tone of the day.