Recalled opener Imam-ul-Haq justified his selection in style with a brilliant maiden Test century to lead a disciplined Pakistan into early control of the series opener, as Australia’s pace-heavy attack toiled in batting-friendly conditions in Rawalpindi.
Getting the nod over Shan Masood in a seemingly borderline call, Imam made a statement and signified a calculated Pakistan batting effort after the hosts won a crucial toss and elected to bat on a flat pitch. An indefatigable Imam, nephew of Pakistan great Inzamam-ul-Haq, batted through the opening day and finished with 132 off 271 balls while veteran Azhar Ali was unbeaten on 64 from 165 balls.
Imam started cautiously with just seven runs off his first 41 balls but crucially blunted a full-strength Australian attack featuring star quick Josh Hazlewood in place of cult favourite Scott Boland, who could consider himself unlucky after snaring 18 wickets at just 9.55 in his first three Tests.
Imam showcased a stout defence but he mixed stonewalling with spurts of counterattacking, highlighted by terrific use of the feet to superbly hit spinner Nathan Lyon down the ground on several occasions.
The left-handed Imam shared in a century opening stand with Abdullah Shafique, who lost his composure on the stroke of lunch and holed out tamely off Lyon on 44. It was the first opening century stand against Australia since Imam and Mohammed Hafeez combined for 205 in Dubai in 2018.
But Imam then found support over the next two sessions through Azhar as Pakistan aimed to wear down Australia, who have had no warm-up matches on their first Test tour since the Ashes in 2019.
Eight bowlers rolled their arm over for Australia but no one could pierce the defences of Imam, who entered the final session on 92. He started slowly after tea and became mired in the 90s as Australia sensed an opening. He didn’t necessarily look nervous, however, as a composed Imam resisted tempting wider deliveries from quick Mitchell Starc until flashing and missing at a loose ball on 97.
But on the very next delivery, he punched through the off-side for a boundary to trigger memorable celebrations, as he jumped for joy and punched the air amid jubilation in the terraces. Enduring a barren run over 11 previous Tests stretching four years, Imam notched his ton off 200 balls and showed no let up after that as Pakistan eyed a huge first innings score.
In their first Test in Pakistan in almost 24 years, Australia tried hard but appeared in need of a second specialist spinner having stuck with their usual balance of three quicks alongside allrounder Cameron Green and sole spinner Lyon.
Pat Cummins, in his toughest day as Test captain after a near flawless Ashes, rotated his quicks in short bursts and tried different tactics to no avail. The pacemen started day one bowling a disciplined line and length before reverting later in the morning session to a short ball barrage, which continued after lunch.
Surprisingly not used in the first session, Green was finally called upon in the 45th over but could not continue his knack of being a partnership breaker as he demonstrated in the Ashes.
With the ball showing signs of reverse swing before tea, Starc tried to conjure his famed full-length firecrackers only for Imam to pounce on overpitched deliveries. He had another late crack with the second new ball, but Australia’s star-studded quicks finished wicketless.
Lyon did the heavy lifting to finish with 1 for 87 from 31 overs but he couldn’t produce the same rampant spin as the day wore on. Having not been needed to bowl on the grassy Bellerive Oval in the Ashes finale, Lyon came on in the eighth over and immediately caused trouble to Imam with sharp turn and wicked bounce.
Without overlooked legspinner Mitchell Swepson or left-arm orthodox Ashton Agar, Cummins resorted to part-time offspinner Travis Head, who came into the attack in the 17th over but was ineffective in his three-over spell.
Late in the day, as the second new ball approached, Cummins utilised legspinners Marnus Labuschagne and Steven Smith but the set batters played sensibly to leave Australia’s skipper out of options and with plenty to ponder overnight as the brains trust may rue not selecting either Swepson or Agar.
After rain dented their final chance to acclimatise on Thursday, Australia were thankful they at least toiled in mild conditions around 20 degrees in a far cry from oppressive conditions that often confronts them in Asia.
Friday prayers led to a sparse crowd at the start of the historic contest before spectators filled the terraces to near capacity later in the day and a dominant Pakistan gave them plenty to cheer about.