Babar Azam stars as Pakistan make solid start in England opener
Pakistan's Babar Azam reaches 50 runs during the first day of the first Test between England and Pakistan at Old Trafford in Manchester. AFP
Pakistan's Babar Azam underlined his status as one of the world's leading batsmen with a fine unbeaten fifty against England on an interrupted opening day of the first Test at Old Trafford on Wednesday.
When bad light forced an early close, Pakistan were 139-2, with Babar 69 not out and Shan Masood unbeaten on 46. But left-handed opener Masood was twice missed on 45 by England wicketkeeper Jos Buttler either side of a lengthy rain break, with off-spinner Dom Bess the unlucky bowler on both occasions.
The prolific Babar has now reached a half-century in five successive Test innings, with his previous five matches yielding four hundreds.
Former England captain Nasser Hussain, commentating for Sky Sports, said Babar could be considered alongside players such as India captain Virat Kohli. "If this lad was Virat Kohli, everyone would be talking about it but because it is Babar Azam, no one is talking about it," said Hussain. "He's young, he's elegant, he's got all the swagger," he added.
"They keep going on about the 'Fab Four (Kohli, Australia's Steve Smith, New Zealand's Kane Wiliamson and England captain Joe Root) -- it's the 'Fab Five' and Babar Azam is in that."
When play resumed in the early evening after a long rain delay, Root was soon bowling his occasional off-breaks in tandem with Bess to try and keep the match going under grey skies after Jofra Archer had pitched short to Babar.
But even with two spinners bowling and the floodlights on, the umpires still called a halt at 6:12 pm (1712 GMT). Pakistan were 43-2 when Babar came in to bat after captain Azhar Ali, who had won the toss, fell lbw for a duck to Chris Woakes.
Babar started cautiously but after the lunch interval he unfurled an array of stylish attacking shots. He struck express paceman Archer down the ground for four before driving Bess for another boundary to bring up Pakistan's hundred.
Bess, however, should have removed Masood for 45 when he took the left-hander's outside edge but Buttler dropped the chance. Then, following the rain delay, Buttler missed a chance to stump Masood after the batsman charged down the pitch.
The mistakes will revive discussion about the wicketkeeper's place in the side with Ben Foakes, arguably a superior gloveman, waiting in the wings.
Babar drew level on 45 not out with Masood, who was on 22 when the right-hander came into bat, going on to complete an impressive 70-ball fifty, including nine boundaries. The conditions favoured England's four-man pace attack, who had been involved in last month's 2-1 series win over the West Indies, completed at Old Trafford.
In contrast, Pakistan's preparations for the three-match series amounted to just two intra-squad warm-up games. Masood and fellow opener Abid Ali did well to survive the first hour before Archer struck.
Having tested Abid with several short-pitched deliveries, the paceman bowled him with a full-length ball for 16 before Azhar was lbw to a Woakes nip-backer for a six-ball duck.
England have not won a Test series against Pakistan since 2010 and they came into this match having lost the series opener in each of their past five campaigns against all opponents.
As was the case during the West Indies series, the three-match campaign is taking place behind closed doors on health grounds, with Pakistan denied the vibrant and vocal support they usually enjoy in England.
Pakistan 1st Innings
Shan Masood not out 46
Abid Ali b Archer 16
Azhar Ali lbw b Woakes 0
Babar Azam not out 69
Extras (b1, lb6, nb1) 8
Total (2 wkts, 49 overs, 206 mins) 139
To bat: Asad Shafiq, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Rizwan, Yasir Shah, Shaheen Afridi, Mohammad Abbas, Naseem Shah
Fall of wickets: 1-36 (Abid), 2-43 (Azhar)
Bowling: Anderson 8-2-32-0 (1nb); Broad 11-4-24-0; Woakes 8-2-14-1; Archer 10-3-23-1; Bess 9-1-30-0; Root 3-0-9-0;
England: Rory Burns, Dom Sibley, Joe Root (capt), Ben Stokes, Ollie Pope, Jos Buttler (wkt), Chris Woakes, Dom Bess, Jofra Archer, Stuart Broad, James Anderson
Umpires: Richard Kettleborough (ENG), Richard Illingworth (ENG)
TV umpire: Michael Gough (ENG)
Match referee: Chris Broad (ENG)