Azhar backs faltering players, eyes series-levelling win

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LAHORE: Despite facing a storm of criticism over the team’s poor show and his own dismal batting form, Pakistan captain Azhar Ali sounded highly optimistic on Thursday, backed his misfiring players and hoped for a series-levelling victory against England in the third and final Test starting at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton on Friday.

“Our batsmen are defying the tough [playing] conditions very well and our inexperienced bowling attack has also proved capable of bringing the opposition under pressure. Therefore, [I think] we are playing good cricket and hopefully we will win the third Test to level the series,” said Azhar while addressing a presser via a video link.

Pakistan, from a winning position, lost the first Test at Old Trafford by three wickets while the drawn second Test in Southampton was marred by rain and bad light.

“It was not easy to come back after losing a Test from winning position but the way our team fought back in the second Test was remarkable. With a high spirit they performed well in the second Test, dominating most part of the game,” claimed the 35-year-old Azhar who will feature in the 81st Test of his career today.

“The players were hurt after losing the first Test but they accepted the challenge [in the second Test] and our bowlers also did well. We will try to execute the same performance to get favourable results in the third Test,” the captain added.

Interestingly, on what basis Azhar has claimed that his team dominated most of the weather—interrupted second Test — in which only 134.3 overs could be delivered — remains a mystery. In a usual batting collapse, Pakistan after electing to bat first slumped to 176 for eight before Mohammad Rizwan’s rearguard action pushed them to 236. England then declared their first innings at 110-4 on the final day as the match ended in a predictable draw.

Responding to a question on the Pakistan batsmen’s inconsistent show in the ongoing series, Azhar said batting in English conditions had always been tough but still the “Pakistan batsmen managed good totals in both the Tests”.

“Yes our batsmen are not consistent in their performance but our strategy is to get a good total as a team. A couple of good knocks in each Test have helped us to earn decent totals which could put pressure on the opposition,” the captain said.

Azhar argued, “Consistency in batting was not witnessed in the last series held between England and the West Indies [simply] because batting with consistency in English conditions is not easy.”

The captain, along with several of his batting colleagues including veteran Asad Shafiq, has miserably failed with the bat scoring a solitary century in his last 17 Test innings in which he collected 347 runs at a pathetic average of 20.41. His scanty scores of 0, 18 and 20 in the ongoing series were extremely disappointing. However, the highly optimistic skipper insists he will make amends in the third Test.

“Shan Masood hit a century in the first Test while Mohammad Rizwan made a fine half-century under pressure in the second Test; Babar Azam is also in good form. Yes, as the team’s senior batsmen, I and Asad still have to contribute which we will do in the next Test,” he said.

“In the last [Test] innings I was feeling a lot of confidence and playing well but sometimes a good ball can end your innings and I am also trying to remove my batting flaws to bring improvement.”

Commenting on Pakistan’s bowling, the captain reckoned it had improved and would improve further with good shows from young pacers.

“Though our bowling department is also young but Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi are showing they have the potential to do well. We know last year the Pakistan team was struggling in fast bowling department against Australia. But now these two youngsters have shown their potential and with more experience they will make our pace attack stronger, ” he said.

Azhar gave no hint of any change in the playing XI, saying still the covers had to be removed so he could not say what kind of pitch it would be. “Therefore, there is no question to make a mind about the final XI.”

Azhar avoided giving a direct response to a questioner who said that former Pakistan captain Wasim Akram, despite having a consultancy role in making Azhar the captain, was now criticising his captaincy, “Appointing anyone as captain is a job of the Pakistan Cricket Board while I am keeping my focus on cricket, and not on criticism,” the skipper maintained.

He said the team management had made a strategy to stop England’s lower order batsmen from making any considerable contribution in order to restrict the opposition to a low total.

Azhar said personally he was enjoying cricket despite the Covid-19 situation which prevented fans from coming to watch the game at the venues.

“I am enjoying cricket in this situation which we have been in during the past two months, as it helps us a lot to keep our focus on cricket. We are lucky that despite these circumstances (Covid-19) we are playing cricket,” he said.

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