The long-awaited Test comeback after a wait of 11 years might turn out to be a very short lived one for Fawad Alam as Pakistan prepare to take on England in the third and final Test in Southampton on Friday.

His dismissal for a duck after an uncomfortable stay at the crease in the second Test means it is highly likely that the visitors will field Shadab Khan as an all-rounder in a must-win clash. It will be a harsh setback for the left-hander who has grafted with fruitless endeavour domestically in the past decade, but such is life at times at the highest level.

While the axe is likely to fall on Fawad on Friday, there are two senior Pakistan batsmen who could easily have been facing a similar fate if not for the value of their ‘experience’. Between them, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq have 156 Test appearances and 276 innings. Both made their Test debut in 2010 and were vital cogs in the Pakistan side which attained the No1 Test ranking in 2016.

When Pakistan’s two crucial pillars – Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan – retired in 2017, Azhar and Asad were meant to be the batsmen to shepherd the dawn of the new era. Unfortunately for Pakistan, the two seniors have gone completely off the boil since, with their returns with the bat diminishing greatly over the past few years.

Since the start of 2018, Azhar Ali has managed a paltry 828 runs from 32 innings at a measly average of 25.87. In the same period, Asad has done marginally better by aggregating 1020 runs in 29 innings at an average of 35.17. These 61 innings between the pair have yielded just three tons, two of which have come off the bat of Azhar.

Before the onset of this lean period, the duo had as many as 25 Test tons between them in seven years. It is no wonder that this worrying decline in the last three years or so has mirrored Pakistan’s Test fortunes, especially overseas. Even more worrying is the fact that the two batsmen have barely seen their spot in the XI threatened.

With a lack of Test quality batsmen coming through at domestic level, both Azhar and Asad have been able to survive the chop solely on the basis of their past glories. Azhar’s poor run has even been awarded with an elevation to Test captaincy.

But former reputations can only carry the two players so far, and sooner or later the chickens will come home to roost. For Azhar in the third Test, it might well be a case of ‘step up or step down’ as Babar Azam lies in wait to take the captaincy at some point in the future.

Although the screws are tightening around Azhar and Asad, they have received some words of comfort from former Pakistan skipper Rashid Latif. The former wicketkeeper batsman believes Azhar Ali’s demotion from opener to No3 has played a part in his dwindling fortunes. Similarly, Rashid feels that Asad’s move from No6 to No5 has been to the batsman’s detriment.

“Since those two [Misbah and Younis] retired, we have played around 20 test matches,” Rashid told Sport360’s Amer Malik in an interview.

“Azhar’s performance has been woeful, Shafiq at best reasonable. They are both names in cricket, yet their performances have not lived up to their reputations. They haven’t been able to cope with the load given to them. Azhar used to play as an opener and Shafiq at 6.

“In Azhar’s last Test with Misbah and Younis, against the West Indies, he scored 135 as an opener. Shafiq has moved up to 5.

“The instability has affected both of their respective forms. We have also gone into quite a few series since with only five specialist batsmen – when in reality we should have opted for six. We should have had two middle-order batsmen when in fact we’ve only been utilising the one.

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“They’ve both been messed around in the batting order which in turn has affected their form. Due to this, their confidence has been shattered, something they will overcome.”

While Rashid has sympathised with the pair’s travails, a big performance if desperately needed from them in Southampton. The two right-handers have simply not turned up so far in England on the tour and have been thoroughly outperformed by Babar, Mohammad Rizwan and Abid Ali.

In the six innings between them in the ongoing series, the pair have contributed an abysmal aggregate of only 79 runs. On one hand, Fawad Alam’s luck is about to run out after solitary ill-fated innings. On the other hand, Azhar and Asad have survived too long without pulling their weight.

Something has to give sooner or later for the duo though, and the deciding Test against England could be the reckoning of one of them, if not both.

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