<
>

Pakistan captain Azhar Ali: 'We had the game in the palm of our hands'

play
Is this the end for Azhar Ali as captain? (1:27)

Osman Samiuddin feels questions will be asked of captain Azhar Ali after Pakistan lost the first Test against England (1:27)

Test cricket is a peculiar game, but Pakistan cricket is odder still. In front of an eerily empty Old Trafford, Chris Woakes squeezed - edged, let's be honest - Shaheen Afridi through third slip where, for some reason, a catcher wasn't present. The ball rolled away for four, and England celebrated a famous win against a Pakistan side that had this match sewn up so often it was impossible to follow where it all came loose.

Four days ago, there may even have been a sense of faint pride about the side taking England to the brink. Pakistan, after all, came into the series firm underdogs, having not won an away Test match since the last time they visited England two years ago. They were going through a transition of sorts, having axed the captain last year, and trying to blood a raw, albeit deliciously exciting, pace attack that has its best years ahead of it. They had played no cricket at all in months, while England were still cooling down after a high-intensity three-match series against West Indies, having just finished playing two successive Tests at Old Trafford, the venue of the first match against Pakistan.

Once the dust has settled, the more measured voices in the camp, like head coach Misbah-ul-Haq, may try and remind them about all that in a bid to avoid spirits taking a hit before the second Test begins in just four days. Maintaining that sense of perspective will be particularly difficult, however, as Pakistan remember the number of times they could have killed England off before the match got to its climax. Barely 24 hours earlier, they found themselves batting again on a 107-run lead, and anything like the grit the visitors had shown in the first innings would have ensured they would not walk away from Manchester trailing the three-match series.

Earlier on day four, Azhar Ali's men found themselves in a what seemed an equally unassailable position, having dismissed half of England's side with 160 runs still left to get. Jos Buttler, having endured a difficult Test match, found himself batting alongside Woakes, who averaged 5.22 with the bat over his past seven Tests. That his side threw away such sizeable advantages particularly stung captain Azhar, who bemoaned Pakistan's inability to kill off the game when they had the chance.

"I wouldn't say we lost the match in [our] second innings, but we missed a chance to knock England out of the game there," he said. "That is a missed opportunity. But only once has such a huge total ever been chased at Old Trafford. We were on top and with the tail coming in, we were sure we'd wrap it up if one more wicket fell. But they attacked from the off and snatched the game away from us. We do regret losing an opportunity to build partnerships in that second innings, which meant we couldn't set them a chase of 300-plus, and that was a factor in us losing.

"I've been playing Test cricket for a long time and I know that Test cricket is hard. It's never over until it's over. This has been shown again today. The good thing is everyone stuck to their task and unfortunately we were outdone by a brilliant partnership. Yes, in hindsight a lot of things can be done, but when they came and attacked the spinners, playing sweep shots and reverse sweeps. It all worked for him. Unfortunately, nothing worked for us and when you play innings like that, you have to be a little lucky and fortune favoured them. Sometimes you just have to give credit to the opposition."

There will be sections in Pakistan, however, unlikely to be appeased by the generous praise for Buttler and Woakes, instead honing in on some of the decisions Azhar took when the game got twitchy. Michael Atherton, on Sky's commentary, pointed out earlier in the day that Azhar had never captained the side in a Test match that went down to the wire, and wondered if that lack of experience may hurt Pakistan should the visitors find themselves under pressure. The call to delay handing Yasir Shah the ball for 40 minutes after tea was both unexpected and unsuccessful, as were some of the fielding positions, not least the absence of the third slip through which Woakes edged England to victory.

His loss of personal form over the past couple of years with the bat is a compounding factor. Azhar has managed 139 runs in his past 12 away Test innings, never crossing 40 during this time. It's a run that has seen him score three ducks, including one in the first innings here, and fail to cross single digits eight times. He may have lacked a certain astuteness in the field here, but the fact he was only handed the captaincy because Pakistan felt Sarfaraz Ahmed's worrying drop in batting form made his position untenable is one he will be keenly aware of.

"After playing international cricket for ten years, I understand when I need to take certain decisions. When I bat, I'm not thinking about the captaincy, whether or not I'm out of form. And when I'm captain, I don't think about my batting at all, whether I scored a 100 or 0. That's the job of the captain. There's a lot of disappointment that we had this game in the palm of our hands, and we led at most points in the game, but that can happen sometimes. We've had a great record in England, it's a better record than any other Asian side has here. We should have won this game too, so I don't think we struggle in England as such, and I'm confident we can challenge in the remaining two games.

"We just have to credit Woakes and Buttler. They took the game on after the fifth wicket from the first ball. They started playing shots and this is one of the best partnerships in the recent past. We were in control of the game; we were one punch away from finishing the game off, but they came and dominated us during that period. At times we were kind of unlucky but for the most part, they were brilliant. They knew it wouldn't be possible to win if they kept batting the normal way. Maybe when the ball got a little softer, it wasn't doing as much as it did when it was new, especially for the quicks. Buttler, when he's against spin, can play 360 degrees so it's hard to set an attacking field on him. He put pressure on us, it worked for him, and he outplayed us in that period."

Pakistan have little time to lick their wounds, and must set their sights to Southampton, where the remaining two Test matches will be played. However, with away Test losses mounting up, the trip south may be an uneasy one for Azhar.