Stumps Pakistan 268 for 4 (Azhar 126, Abid 118*, Muzarabani 3-41) vs Zimbabwe
Centuries from Abid Ali and Azhar Ali put Pakistan in firm command of the second Test at stumps in Harare. The pair combined for a 236-run second wicket partnership - a record at this venue - which spanned nearly the entirety of the day.
Zimbabwe found themselves toiling on a slow pitch, with the ball offering little encouragement for most of the day as the two batters played out near chanceless innings. The arrival of the new ball ensured the hosts would have something to take back with them overnight, with three quickfire strikes from Blessing Muzarabani sending Azhar, Babar Azam and Fawad Alam back before stumps were called. Even so, Pakistan had moved on to 268 for 4 by that time, finishing the day well in control.
The visitors opted to bat after winning the toss, with the most striking bit of news the decision to hand a debut to 36-year old Tabish Khan. The reasons for excluding Faheem Ashraf, entering perhaps the most promising phase of a young Test career, weren't quite satisfactorily explained, and the omission meant Pakistan's tail was somewhat extended.
Pakistan might have been keen to ensure they don't need extra runs from the lower order, and while Azhar and Abid have effectively guaranteed them that, it was Muzarabani and Richard Ngarava who enjoyed the better of the first hour. As they did in the first Test, the pair gave little away by way of scoring opportunities, bogging the two openers down. Imran Butt looked a little indecisive against deliveries around his off stump, with both bowlers working him over as the dot balls began to mount. It was the change of pace that worked though, with Ngarava banging one in short that hustled Butt as he tried to pull over midwicket. No timing on that shot meant he would never clear the man, and Zimbabwe had an early breakthrough.
It wasn't until the over before drinks in a first hour that Zimbabwe dominated that the shackles began to be broken. Azhar got Donald Tiripano off for a boundary on either side of the wicket to tick the scoreboard over, and from thereon, a touch of sloppiness seeped its way into Zimbabwe's game. Abid was significantly more circumspect as the former Pakistan captain Azhar taking charge of the scoring, but a loose over from Tendai Chisoro allowed the opener to get a couple of fours away too, and get himself settled.
Pakistan resumed after lunch at a much higher tempo than was the case in the morning, with the hour following the break especially productive. Tiripano, among the brighter lights for Zimbabwe in the first Test, was especially lackadaisical, his lines and lengths wavering constantly as the batters picked up a boundary just about every over. Azhar was especially proficient at creating gaps backward of square and through the midwicket area, while Abid expertly leant on and timed through the covers the full deliveries.
With the ball doing little - and little on offer from the surface - Zimbabwe will be disappointed at not having maintained their disciplines and waited for the batters to make mistakes. The frustration began to show as the session wore on, and that bred even more waywardness on the part of the bowlers.
Zimbabwe managed to convince the umpires to get the ball changed after 53 overs, but that did not herald a change of fortune. If anything, things went from bad to worse as a long-hop from Chisoro was walloped by Abid into short leg, where Roy Kaia was stationed. It caught the side of the left knee, and Kaia was in agony for several minutes before being stretchered off, adding another potential injury to Zimbabwe's long casualty list.
But none of that fazed the two batters, who continued hour upon hour and session upon session, wholly focused on spending time at the crease and accumulating runs wherever possible. The run rate played cat and mouse with the three runs per over mark for much of the last two sessions, and while that made for slightly tedious viewing at times, the levels of concentration it might have taken to look as assured as the pair did should not go unremarked. Abid needed runs desperately this series to save his spot in the side, while Azhar, whom Pakistan had sacked as captain, continued to remind the selectors his place in the side remains set in stone.
But with both having cruised to their centuries and looking to set themselves up for the following day, Zimbabwe struck back with some class of their own. A triple-strike from Muzarabani restored some respectability to the scorecard from the bowlers' point of view, beginning when Azhar looked to drive him on the up, only finding a thick edge that flew to gully.
It was followed up by the big price of Azam's wicket, in similar fashion to the way Azhar fell. Muzarabani's knack of troubling the Pakistan captain continues to pay dividends; this is the sixth time since his return to the national side last year that the Zimbabwean has got rid of Azam. There was also time to see the back of Alam, whom Muzarabani worked over thoroughly in a brief innings. He was peppered with the short ball before finally dragging one on to the stumps, with Pakistan scurrying to send in nightwatchman Sajid Khan to see the day out.
Zimbabwe finished the day as they began it - on top - but being as exceptionally ineffective as they were in the middle came with its costs. They will need to pick up where they left off tomorrow morning, and stick at it until the final wicket is taken if the damage wrought by the Azhar and Abid Ali is to be reversed.