England v Pakistan: Last-ball exit of centurion Azhar Ali fails to mask poor day’s work from hosts

Englands captain Alastair Cook takes a catch on the final ball of the day to help dismiss Pakistans Azhar Ali (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire).
Englands captain Alastair Cook takes a catch on the final ball of the day to help dismiss Pakistans Azhar Ali (Picture: Nick Potts/PA Wire).
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Flat England are facing the prospect of a damaging first-innings deficit after Azhar Ali and Sami Aslam shut them out on day two of the third Investec Test at Edgbaston.

Pakistan’s second-wicket pair were immovable for 62 overs, after opener Mohammad Hafeez gifted England an immediate breakthrough.

Azhar (139) fell to the very last ball before stumps, but had a 10th Test hundred under his belt by then out of 257-3 in reply to 297.

Aslam (82) was on course, at 20 in his third match at this level, to become the youngest opener to make a Test century in England until his partner called him for a faulty single to cover and he was run out by James Vince’s direct hit.

Azhar responded as Pakistan must have hoped, and England feared, by digging in again alongside Younus Khan to put on another 76 until he fenced a slip catch to Alastair Cook off Chris Woakes to marginally raise the hosts’ spirits at last.

Azhar and Aslam’s stand, Pakistan’s second highest for the second wicket in this country, was a triumph of patience and sound shot selection. It owed much too, though – especially before lunch – to the breathing space they were allowed by a collectively off-colour home attack.

For good measure, England dropped Azhar twice too – on 38 and 69 – a contrast to Pakistan’s flawless effort in the field the previous day.

Hafeez’s dismissal was the result of a moment that fell short of Test match standards in all aspects, apart from Gary Ballance’s competent catching at point.

James Anderson’s untypically poor, short and very wide delivery did him little credit in the first over of another intermittently cloudy day – but brought an even worse shot from Hafeez, who guided a cut straight into the fielder’s hands.

That was as good as it got for England.

Their seamers improved after lunch. But Anderson’s mood, already grumpy after an exchange with umpire Joel Wilson over running on the pitch, did not improve when Joe Root dropped a sharp chance away to his left at second slip, Azhar’s first reprieve.

England’s all-time leading wicket-taker kept his discipline with the ball, if not entirely in his deportment between deliveries, and runs did not come easily – only 23, in fact, from 13 overs in the first hour of the afternoon. But home fortunes were summed up when a throw from the deep was accurate enough to clip the stumps, wrong-foot both Jonny Bairstow and the backing-up fielders and deflect for four overthrows to bring up the Pakistan hundred.

Azhar and Aslam were content to continue the slow grind, and were repaid with 50s which respectively contained six and five fours from 129 and 135 balls.

Moeen Ali missed England’s second chance, Azhar again surviving but this time when a tough caught-and-bowled went down.

By the time Aslam paid for Azhar’s misjudgment, and Vince’s accuracy, a run-out had perhaps become England’s best bet. So it proved, but Azhar embraced his responsibility to go beyond three figures for the first time outside Asia.

Anderson’s tetchiness, and England’s concern, was doubtless amplified after Wilson’s colleague Bruce Oxenford warned him twice in one over for running on the pitch – leaving Anderson one more admonishment away from exclusion from the attack for the rest of an innings with plenty more legs.

By the close, there seemed sure to be even less for any of the Englishmen to smile about until Azhar finally made a telling mistake.