Babar Azam stole the show, but Abdullah Shafique was exceptional too, writes Taha Hashim from Karachi.
Abdullah Shafique has stayed patient. After 115 balls, the opener has 34 runs. While Babar Azam has moved briskly to 35 off 61 balls, Pakistan are still just 78-2 in the 42nd over of the fourth innings. With more than four sessions left to play, the hosts are fighting at Karachi to save this match against Australia, the No.1-ranked Test side in the world.
And then, out of nowhere, Shafique opts for eruption. He advances down the pitch to Nathan Lyon’s flighted off-break and gives it everything to send the ball over long-on for six. The sound off the bat is electrifying. It’s the same shot he played early on at Rawalpindi to bring that Test match to life, and it’s also the one he got wrong that same day to get out.
Here in Karachi, though, the execution is perfect, the power of the ping more than enough to remind us of Shafique’s white-ball persona. When he made his Pakistan debut in November 2020 as a 20-year-old, it wasn’t in Test cricket. After a match-winning T20 hundred in domestic cricket, the call had come to bat in the top order of his country’s T20I side. An unbeaten 41 on debut against Zimbabwe kicked things off, and while two ducks against New Zealand followed, his international career was up and running.
Shafique moves to 40, but the blast off Lyon’s bowling isn’t a sign of acceleration; instead, it remains an anomaly. While Babar caresses his way to a magnificent century, 12 fours in the bag, Shafique finishes the day unbeaten on 71 off 226 balls, with four fours to his name and that one six. It’s a day of searching for the single, of staying put while his captain leads, of making sure Australia have to come back for a final day in the dirt.
He belongs against the red ball. The first signs were there on a Test debut against Bangladesh last year that returned a pair of half-centuries, and the message grew louder at Rawalpindi, where he celebrated his maiden Test ton. But a placid pitch, one which produced 14 wickets across five days, meant that century had a caveat to it.
This effort, which could turn into another century tomorrow, told us more. On a worn pitch, the spinners were always going to keep on coming. While day three brought an exhibition of reverse swing from Australia’s quicks, day four brought a focus upon inconsistent bounce: Shafique watched on as Azhar Ali ducked into a Cameron Green bouncer that stuck in the pitch and had the batter adjudged LBW. Judging length was going to be a significant challenge, but Shafique provided a bit of muscle here, too: on 24, a Cummins short ball was swatted from the waist to the midwicket boundary for four. He was able to match the unpredictability on offer.
There was luck, as there should be once in a while. Cummins took the edge of the bat on 20, and Steve Smith really should have held on at first slip. But Shafique battled on, making a mockery of the fact that this is just his seventh first-class match. Yep, that’s right. I’m not messing with you. Check it out if you want to. Four of those are Test matches, and he’s averaging more than 80. We’re talking about a prodigious talent here. “The fundamentals of his game are flawless,” Misbah-ul-Haq told ESPNcricinfo last year. That’s some endorsement.
This kind of storyline is one this proud cricketing nation loves to put together. Usually, it’s the fast-bowling wunderkind who turns up to the ground, puts on the cap and becomes a world-beater overnight. Forget the pathway; let’s get them in quick and let them take over. Of course, romance doesn’t always equate to success. When Pakistan toured Australia in 2019, three teenage quicks made the cut for a two-match Test series; Musa Khan and Naseem Shah were picked to accompany Shaheen Afridi. Pakistan were thumped in both Tests, and the young guns didn’t have much to shout about.
This time, though, the new kid on the block is giving Australia trouble with the bat. Only Imam-ul-Haq has faced more balls than Shafique this series, and his second century in two matches is in reach. More importantly, he has the chance to save this game alongside his masterful skipper. It’s been a truly remarkable start to a Test career that promises to be a long one.