Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq flounder on another day of what-ifs

Azhar Ali walks back after being dismissed Getty Images

They had 9,912 Test runs between them at the start of Pakistan's innings. 53 half-centuries, 27 hundreds. Following a post-tea surge that had seen South Africa collapse from 229 for 3 to 262 all out, Pakistan had the opportunity, on a flatter pitch than the previous two, to, heaven forbid, even push ahead into a lead. I know, I know, steady on.

That, really, is all Pakistan needed to do with the bat, and for the umpteenth time since Misbah and Younis retired, they looked to the two steadiest presences in the batting line-up to take charge.

Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq played four balls between them before trudging back without having added to their run tallies, never mind half-centuries. Pakistan, for their part, did their thing around those two struggling stalwarts, losing wickets regularly either side of a dazzling partnership of 78, off 61 balls, between Sarfraz Ahmed and Babar Azam. When all was said and done, they posted a score in the same region they appear to have crystallised at: their 185 was the fourth time in five innings Pakistan had folded between 177 and 190.in this series.

They will end the second day with a plethora of problems, an abundance of frustrations, and the thing that keeps this cycle going: a shot of wistful hope. For the heady 43 minutes when Sarfraz, tormented by a lean run that began almost exactly when he became captain, shook off the burden that has so worn him down. You could sense the exhilarating freedom wash over you as a man drained by the intensity of his own passion, and shrunken by the weight of a nation beginning to fall out of love with him, cut adrift all the additional baggage, playing like a teenager in his own backyard.

Never mind the backyard happened to be the Bullring. He hit four fours off the first eight balls he faced, all from Vernon Philander, three glorious cover drives, off front foot and back, sandwiching a fortuitous nick through the slips. Accompanying him was the man people in Pakistan have gone from, in three months, proclaiming as not ready for Test cricket to being the best Test batsman in the country, adding a memorable chapter to the Babar oeuvre of Dale Steyn domination. Picking up where he left off in Centurion and in Cape Town, he dispatched perhaps the best fast bowler ever for five fours in seven balls to add to the 16 he had hit thus far this series.

But the joy of Pakistan's batsmen dominating South Africa's quicks was always going to be ephemeral. The partnership ended almost as soon as Pakistan had trimmed their deficit to under 100, and the breakthrough triggered such a violently despairing collapse that you wondered if the high that had preceded it was illusory. Two balls after reaching a 38-ball fifty, the third-quickest by a Pakistan captain, Sarfraz poked at one outside off stump to Kagiso Rabada, and Hashim Amla at slip did the rest.

It seemed to wake Pakistan up to what had been happening. Were they really batting well in South Africa? As if suddenly self-conscious about their bravado over the past 10 overs, Pakistan added only 18 runs after the fall of the fifth wicket. Babar, on 49 when Sarfraz was dismissed, didn't even manage the half-century. The bane of Pakistan's existence this series, Duanne Olivier, banged one in too fast for Babar to get on top of, and he holed out to fine leg.

There was time enough for Olivier to complete another five-fer, his third in five innings this series. Pakistan, ending 77 adrift of South Africa's first-innings score, had squandered a glittering opportunity to make Dean Elgar's men pay for a below-par total.

Beyond the familiarity of what transpired, there is little to distinguish this particular batting disappointment from any other this series, or indeed from the past two years or so. Azhar and Shafiq may never step into MisYou's shoes, which is fine, by the way. Those two were among the finest players of their generation, and holding them up as a yardstick for future Pakistan batsmen will always be a joyless, thankless task.

But both scoring ducks today was a microcosm of what Pakistan have had to cope with since May 2018. As if losing their two best batsmen wasn't enough, they limp on with the two next-best batsmen rendered pale shadows of their former selves. Azhar averaged 46.86 until MisYou retired; since then he has averaged 28.58.

Shafiq's numbers don't quite show the same steep decline, but his tendency to go missing when his side really needs runs has become an unshakeable habit. This match and Cape Town provide the perfect illustration; in Cape Town Pakistan were in an almost hopeless situation. Shafiq came out and scored an eye-catching 88, but wasn't able to produce the colossal individual score Pakistan needed to make the Test competitive. Pakistan lost comfortably.

Today with his side three down for 53, Pakistan were crying out for a big performance from one of their top batsmen. Third delivery in, Shafiq ducked into a Duanne Olivier ball that, even for a short man like him, would have barely reached chest height. It thumped into his gloves, lobbed up, and that was that. That just four of his 12 Test centuries have come in winning causes for Pakistan, as opposed to 6 in defeat, is perhaps as illustrative of the point.

Sarfraz and Babar evoke their own particular frustrations. For two batsmen who looked so comfortable out in the middle, being dismissed within four balls of each other nearly rendered the whole stand pointless. Apportioning blame to one or another aspect of Pakistan's batting frailties is neither novel nor insightful. These are issues the team must look to address in the nine months between now and when they next play a Test match in September. Having come out of the transition in 2017 heavily bruised and battered, they may need to gear up for another one very shortly.