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Asad Shafiq and Fawad Alam: A tale of intertwined destinies

Asad Shafiq averages 37.43 in Test cricket since the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan Getty Images

Azhar Ali's designation as captain - rather than his batting form - means he will be the first name on a Pakistan team-sheet. But in reality, the first name on any Pakistan team-sheet is that of Asad Shafiq.

He will be on that sheet for Southampton, his 71st Test in a row, just as we all live and we all die (but we don't all pay taxes). It is easily a Pakistan record - before him Javed Miandad, with 53 Tests in a row - and it is also among the longest active streaks. Only Nathan Lyon, with 74 Tests, is ahead of him among current players.

No questions asked, he will be there, gliding along far more comfortably than a specialist batsman averaging 38.89 after 75 Tests should. It wasn't entirely his fault that he was run out at Old Trafford in the second innings, for 29, but it did come just when it appeared as if he might be getting a hold of this game. And that he didn't has kind of become the point of him.

He averages 37.43 since MisYou's exits which perfectly represents that feeling that he's going somewhere but not getting anywhere. It's not bad. It's not good. If you didn't know better, you'd argue it's an average designed specifically to escape scrutiny, sandwiched between the giddy rise of Babar Azam and the dizzy fall of Azhar. He's never looked as poor as the latter, or as secure as the former.

He has two hundreds and nine fifties in that time, which could have been more of one but at least he has a few of the latter, right? Especially as he's got them in England, South Africa and Australia. But ultimately, all his scores - whatever they may actually be - in value have been like the second innings at Old Trafford.

One hundred in a losing chase; in the other he was dismissed four balls after getting there, the second wicket in a collapse of seven for 62 which, ultimately cost Pakistan the game; there's a 45 in which he fell last ball before lunch, which meant Pakistan hurtled from 130 for 3 and fell short in a chase of 176, losing by four runs; and there's four 40s by the way, a spate of daddy non-fifties.

As for those fifties in South Africa and Australia: one in a chase that was never going to happen; two in Australia where the Tests were as good as lost before he came in; a pristine 88 in Cape Town when he got out with Pakistan still 59 runs short of making South Africa chase, with seven wickets in hand; no runs are easy or pointless in Test cricket, but boy does Shafiq test that truism.

There was a period when questions used to be asked about how he - and Azhar, always Azhar with whom his fate is intertwined - had not stepped up after Misbah and Younis left. Yes, yes, it is disappointing, used to come an answer. He needs to step up, but he's a senior player, we need to back him. He'll come good.

But people have stopped asking, maybe stopped noticing that as Pakistan have now lost seven Tests in a row abroad over two years, he's averaged 28.28 in them. It's just assumed he will be there, that he will always be there, being beatifically unfulfilling like it's a cause.

As much as this is about Shafiq, it can't help but also be a little bit about Fawad Alam. In theory Alam might be a name on the team-sheet on Thursday. There's speculation about it. Nobody will be surprised if he's not, though, and nobody needs a reason anymore to not select him. There's actually a good chance that, at nearly 35, his best days are gone.

Now it's not like it's Shafiq's spot Alam has been fighting to get in on all these years, or that he's competing for on this tour specifically. But you do wonder, in moments such Old Trafford and the last two years of Shafiq, about the stark contrast in how their careers have played out.

They were born months apart and come from the same city but we're talking different universes here. Shafiq made his Test debut exactly a year after Alam played his last Test, and he has coasted along since, through the ebullient promise of the first half with equal grace as through the swamp-water stagnation of the second.

All the while Alam has been stewing away in the backwaters of the domestic scene, scoring mountains of runs: 7651 of them since Shafiq's Test debut alone, at 56.25. He's scored them when domestic pitches have been diabolically poor and when they've been featherbeds, against balls that do too much and balls that do too little, for departments, for regions, in whatever format domestic cricket has assumed that season, with moustache and without.

Maybe, in his stance becoming crabbier and crabbier, his runs uglier and uglier, he's making some small protest about the undue weight given to pretty players such as Shafiq who always look so good but end up so often meaning so little.

What must he think of the way Shafiq's career has played out, with no consequences whether he scores 37 one day or zero the next? Does he derive some perverse solace from it, knowing there is no real consequence to each and every run he scores either? Does he console himself in the knowledge that he has a better Test average?

Or does he smile ruefully, put Shafiq's 75 Tests against his own three, and muse about how unfulfillment has one meaning but can feel so, so different to two people?