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Azhar Ali plays captains innings to claim first series win at home in six years

LAHORE - May 29, 2015: Azhar Ali played a captain’s innings as Pakistan battled hard in pursuit of victory in the second match of the revival three-match ODI series against Zimbabwe here at the Gaddafi Stadium on Friday.

Century-maker Pakistan captain anchored team green to six wickets triumph to clinch the three-match rubber which at one point looked impregnable. Azhar smashed almost run-a-ball 102, his second century of career to put Pakistan on the track and later Haris Sohail (52, 49-ball 6x4, his seventh half century) and Shoaib Malik (36, 20balls, 4x4, 1x6) completed the target with their fifth wicket unbeaten 60 runs stand.

Fallen at 68 for two in the 15 over, Azhar grew the score to 209 for four in reply to the Zimbabwean 268 for eight.

With a changed batting order, Azhar and Sarfraz Ahmed (22) took the total to 46, when the Pakistan wicket-keeper while missing a sweep was trapped plumb before wicket by Chamu Chibhabha in his first over. Then at 68 Graeme Cremer made Mohamamd Hafeez (15) hit high towards long-off boundary where Charles Coventry did excellent work.

Azhar along with Asad Shafiq opted for a fighting 85 runs partnership for the fourth wicket in 17.1 overs. But Cremer brought Zimbabwe back in the game exploiting Asad at 39 and Sikandar Raza did the rest at midwicket. As Azhar reached his fifty in almost as many balls, Pakistan also completed its 100 in 20.4 overs and 150 in the 31st over but there they still required 119 runs in 108 balls.

Zimbabwe batsman Sikandar Raza with his rapid-fire century and opener Chamu Chibhabha, who missed his hundred by just one run, kept their team score aloft.

Asked to bat in high temperature and jam-packed stadium, Pakistan expected to contain Zimbabwe to a low score. But Raza and Chibhabha, having lost two of their key players to suspension and injury, brought variation in their approach, hitting boundaries on loose balls and getting singles and doubles on good deliveries when required kept the score ticking, to get Zimbabwe 268 runs for the loss of eight wickets. Cremer took two wickets while T Muparwa and Chibhabha shared one wicket each. The third and final match of the series will be played on Sunday(May 31).

Chibhabha kept his cool throughout his stay at the crease but was unlucky to miss his century by one run while Raza took 84 balls to reach his second century of his career. Sikandar chip-chopped Pakistan with eight sixes and three fours in his 109 minutes stay at the crease. He saw Richmond Mutumbami (7), Charles Coventry (2) and Gareame Cremer (2) leave him at one end to continue his thumping act. The three were sent back by Anwar Ali and Wahab Raiz. Raza and Tinashe Panyangara (4) remained not out to give Zimbabwe bowlers something to fight for.

In the 35th over when Zimbabwe was at 156, Shoaib Malik nipped the ball to his leg side and Chibhabha tried to sweep it away but he does not get to it fully. His reaction showed that as he did not touch the ball but Sarfraz Ahmed hung onto a sharp catch, moving to his left. And Chibhabha has to wait for his maiden century but he scored his 11th half century. He maintained caution with aggression in his innings and reached his 99 at about run-a-ball.

Pakistan after having faced tough time from Chibhabha, also had to face a quick fifth wicket partnership of 53 runs between Richmond Mutumbami (7) and Sikandar Raza, who raced to his half century in 53 balls held the reign to plunder 100 runs.

Having faced guarded stride from Zimbabwe, Pakistan got its first wickets in the 19th over when Mohammad Hafeez bowled Vusimuzi Sibanda. Though Sibanda was playing slow but was providing a good partnership to Chibhabha. But the ball nipped down the track and Sibanda was beaten fair and square, bowled at 13. The two took the score to 83 before separating.

Even after Sibanda, Chibhabha kept the run rate flowing but he had to see the backs of Hamilton Masakada (8) and Sean William (5). After three quick wickets Pakistan looked to restrict Zimbabwe to a reachable score and chase it down in order to seal the series wary of the fact that defeat in any of the matches here can result in their exclusion from the 2016 ICC Champions Trophy.

Earlier, Pakistan captain won the toss and asked Zimbabwe to bat. So far in the series Pakistan has been dominant and yet to lose a match. Zimbabwe will have to step up in the bowling department to pose a challenge.

Pakistan kept the winning eleven that won the first match by 41 runs on Tuesday.

Zimbabwe were forced to make four changes with their regular captain Elton Chigumbura (suspended for slow over rate for two matches), batsman Craig Ervine (hamstring injury), spinner Prosper Utsey (unwell) and paceman Chris Mpofu (dropped) were out.

They were replaced by Chamu Chibhabha, Charles Coventry, Graeme Cremer and Tawanda Mupariwa. The third and final match will also be played in Lahore on Sunday.

Zimbabwe's tour has revived international cricket in Pakistan after a six-year gap. International cricket was suspended in Pakistan since terrorists attacks on the Sri Lankan team bus in Lahore in March 2009.