Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Imam-ul-Haq, Babar Azam score centuries to lift Pakistan to 364 in fifth ODI against Zimbabwe

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It was a somewhat humdrum innings, or, at least, as humdrum as an innings that ends up totaling 364 can be. Pakistan never quite picked up the pace until the absolute end, partially because they didn’t feel the need to, as they thumped a Zimbabwe attack that must be sick of the sight of Fakhar Zaman and Imam-ul-Haq occupying the Bulawayo crease by now.

After Pakistan won the toss and opted to bat first (if you followed the previous game, why wouldn’t they?) the left-hand opening pair continued the ritual of grinding Zimbabwe into submission, racking up the fourth century partnership in five innings. The tone of the game was set once more, and Pakistan were on their way to a colossal total.

Imam played the starring role today, waltzing to his third century of this series, and his fourth in just nine ODIs in a fledgling but hugely promising career. He was the man chiefly in charge during the first half of the innings as Fakhar took the back seat and watched the 21-year-old make the most of a flat pitch and flatter bowlers. One can only play who they’re up against, though, and Imam has done that most crucial thing every young batsman is taught: when in form, cash in.

From Zimbabwe’s perspective, it was an improved bowling performance from Hamilton Masakadza’s men, particularly so since ace fast bowler Blessing Muzarabani missed out through injury. While the openers’ wickets were never threatened in the first hour, Chris Mpofu and Tendai Chatara didn’t let them cut loose in the way they had in earlier games. Indeed, Fakhar by his own standards was much subdued throughout and beyond the fielding restrictions, taking 62 balls to reach his half century.

Liam Roche, back in the side after sitting the previous two games out, came into the attack in the 11th over and immediately made an impact, bowling the first maiden over for Zimbabwe all series. He was unlucky not to have a wicket. Varying the flight and pace of the ball cleverly, he coaxed a false shot from Fakhar, who was rescued from an lbw only by dint of the ball pitching just outside leg stump. The very next delivery, he drew the batsman’s edge, but keeper Ryan Murray couldn’t hold on to the chance.

Roche was the man who finally did make the breakthrough, dismissing Fakhar for the second time this series. It was a flat, quicker delivery too close to cut, but Fakhar, in the form he is in, decided to attempt one anyway. A faint top edge carried though to the keeper at exactly the halfway mark of the innings, and Fakhar, who looked for all his life to be coasting towards his third hundred in four games, had to depart 15 runs shy.

The good news for Pakistan was it gave Babar Azam a decent chunk of time out in the middle to try and rediscover his rhythm following his comeback from injury. Fakhar said after the last game that he would continue to try and deny his teammates more time out in the middle, and because he and Imam have done that so successfully, Babar has never really been able to get the match practice Mickey Arthur would have been hoping for in Pakistan’s last international series before the Asia Cup.

So it would have been a relief to see the 23-year-old looking perfectly comfortable at the crease in all aspects of his batting. He was solid early on, efficient at rotating the strike in the middle overs, and as aggressive at the end as a classical batsman like him can be. Even when he was smashing boundaries and sixes in the last three overs, there was a certain sophistication about it, and by the end Sarfraz Ahmed was taking a back seat while Babar played the role of finisher, ending up with 106 off 76, having been 53 off 57 at one stage. It appears there’s nothing he can’t do.

Zimbabwe did manage to take more wickets than they had in the last three games put together. Mpofu, playing his first ODI for over a year, was arguably the pick of the lot, getting his reward in the ninth over. He set Asif Ali up with a couple of wide yorkers, frustrating him by taking the ball out of his hitting arc and forcing him to go for a heave that wasn’t really on. All he did was top-edge to third man, removing a key threat for Zimbabwe before he could really begin to wreak havoc. In a side so woefully inexperienced, it showed the sort of difference a wise head on older shoulders could make.

All that good work was undone in the final three overs as the hosts experienced the full force of Babar hitting top gear. Those 18 balls produced 44 runs, with Zimbabwe reduced to fleeting moments of success. There was a certain poetry to the target of 365 they’ve been set in a year that continues to go horribly wrong for them.

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