WIvPAK, 3rd ODI…..Azam’s third ton in a row leads Pakistan to 3-0

Azhar Ali looks up to the heavens after getting to a century ©Getty Images

 Azhar Ali looks up to the heavens after getting to a century   ©Getty Images

Babar Azam became the third Pakistan player and eighth overall to score three consecutive ODI centuries as he top-scored with a 106-ball 117 in Pakistan’s commanding 136-run victory over West Indies in Abu Dhabi. The win completed Pakistan’s 3-0 sweep of the ODI series and enabled them to displace West Indies at No. 8 in the ODI rankings.

Azam put on a run-a-ball 147 for the second wicket with captain Azhar Ali, who scored a century of his own to become the only Pakistan player to score three hundreds as ODI captain. The top-order hundreds formed the backbone of Pakistan’s total of 308 for 6, a score that looked beyond West Indies almost from the start of their scratchy, plodding reply.

The margin of victory could have been even bigger had Pakistan’s middle- and lower-order batsmen fully capitalised on the strong launchpad provided by Azam and Azhar. Pakistan had moved to 232 for 2 by the time their partnership had been broken in the 39th over; they added just 76 runs thereafter, as successive batsmen struggled to find their timing on a slowing wicket and against an older ball. The last ten overs of Pakistan’s innings yielded only two boundaries, one of which was possible only thanks to a lazy misfield by Evin Lewis at deep backward square.

But if the end of Pakistan’s innings appeared anti-climactic, it was still lively compared to the dreary run-chase that followed. Showing an inability to rotate the strike, against pace and spin alike, West Indies’ batsmen got stuck and never approached the run rate required to mount a genuine challenge. By the end of the 30th over, West Indies had soaked up 112 dot balls – as many as Pakistan had faced in their entire innings – and were wallowing in the gloom of impending defeat with the score 119 for 5. Their limp effort continued thereafter as the match drifted towards its inevitable conclusion.

On a flat pitch that became slower and more sluggish over time, the best time for batting was at the very start. Having won the toss, Pakistan batted first – for the third time in a row – and made the most of the good conditions early on, racing along to 36 off the first four overs. Opening bowlers Azarri Joseph and Shannon Gabriel clocked up speeds in excess of 140 kph – Gabriel hit the late 140s several times – but could not quite find the control to match. Sharjeel Khan was characteristically strong square of the wicket, while Azhar showed nice touch, flicking through midwicket, driving down the ground and playing a commanding cut past backward square.

The introduction of Kraigg Brathwaite and Jason Holder slowed the tempo of Pakistan’s innings somewhat, before Sunil Narine and Sulieman Benn helped West Indies regain a greater measure of control, stifling the batsmen with their lack of pace and disciplined lines. Benn was rewarded in his second over when Sharjeel lost patience and hit a well-flighted delivery straight to Joseph at long-on.

With the spinners continuing to exert the squeeze, Azhar and Azam meandered along, bringing up the team’s 100 in the 20th over. But as the partnership got going, the runs began to flow again. Once Azam was set, he found the gaps with increasing ease. Azhar used the sweep and slog-sweep with great effectiveness against Benn. Pakistan’s second 100 runs came off just 83 balls.

It was Holder who ended their partnership when Azhar, batting on 101, played a tired heave across the line of a slower ball that clipped the top of off stump. Shoaib Malik was dismissed by Narine next over as West Indies began to pull things back for the second time in the innings, just when Pakistan would have wanted to push on. Azam picked up ones and twos as he approached his century, but, with only three wickets down, Pakistan would have wanted rather more than that.

Azam departed off the last ball of the 46th over, looking to paddle-sweep a yorker-length ball from Kieron Pollard, only to find his leg stump disturbed. Pakistan were 280 for 4 with four overs remaining. They added another 28, but the late charge towards which they had been building never actually materialised.

It didn’t need to. West Indies’ openers, Lewis and Kraigg Brathwaite, started steadily, putting on 45 off 56 balls before Lewis, on ODI debut, was bowled around his legs by Sohail Khan. That partnership turned out to be the biggest of West Indies’ innings, as wickets fell regularly thereafter. A 42-run sixth-wicket partnership between Holder and Denesh Ramdin was the only other stand of substance, but it came after the match was all but lost. Once Imad Wasim broke that stand, the end came quickly, with the last five wickets falling for the addition of just 13 runs.

(Taken from ESPN Sports Media Ltd.)