Leicestershire 375 (Evans 138, Hill 70, Azad 55) and 295 for 3 (Azad 144*, Hill 69*) drew with Surrey 672 for 8 declared (Pope 245, Smith 123, Clark 61*)
An unbeaten rearguard hundred from Hassan Azad ensured Leicestershire could head back up the M1 with a draw after four days of hard graft at The Oval, as Surrey toiled with little success on a flat last-day pitch that offered very little for spinners and even less for seamers throughout.
There were moments on the final day that hinted at a tight finish as the sun went down, not least when Jordan Clark removed Sam Evans and Harry Dearden with successive deliveries before lunch following a hostile short-ball barrage in the first hour. But just as Surrey had made the breakthrough and got the ball reversing, umpires Graham Lloyd and Paul Pollard decided that they had spotted something they didn’t like and decided to replace it; Rory Burns’ frustration was evident.
Vikram Solanki, Surrey’s head coach, said at the close that they were waiting to find out from Steve Davis, the match referee, whether or not a charge of attempting to change the condition of the ball would be levelled – though no penalty runs were awarded. “The discussions with the umpires and the match referee is ongoing,” Solanki said. “There’s no getting away from the fact we were frustrated, given that we were able to get a breakthrough and Jordan seemed to be finding some sort of rhythm. Frustrating would describe it well.”
Surrey suggested that any change to the ball’s state might have come about when Azad had hit Matt Dunn for four through the covers, with the ball clattering into the advertising hoardings. “We did speak about the possibility of getting the ball to reverse by trying to bowl some cross-seamers on an abrasive surface, trying now and again to try and bounce the ball in from the boundary if we got the opportunity to do so – all within what is permitted within the game,” Solanki said. “Perhaps it did just start to go [but] the boys were fairly adamant that nothing untoward had gone on.”
All told, only one wicket fell in the final two sessions before fists were bumped at 5.15pm, with Surrey’s quicks rendered ineffective by a placid surface. Burns regularly posted funky fields featuring four fielders at short midwicket, multiple short covers, or several square-leg catchers, and even gave himself a four-over trundle with the old ball, but Azad was an immovable presence.
Azad had battled hard on Saturday night to reach stumps unbeaten on 13, and was tested by Surrey’s seamers early on – including a painful blow amidships off Dunn, which left him prone on the floor in agony. He stuck resolutely to his strong areas, scoring heavily by clipping off the hip, steering through third man and driving compactly through the covers. He was most proactive against Amar Virdi, using his feet well and nudging him through midwicket, but was composed and determined throughout the day.
Azad’s most obvious quality is an ability to remain unflustered. He dictates the tempo of the game by wandering towards the leg side between balls, checking the field, and eventually retaking his guard when he feels the time is right. “Fine leg is still there, mate,” Burns chirped as he looked round once more in the afternoon session, but Azad carried on unfazed.
While runs have been easy to come by this week, this was a welcome return to form for him after a lean Bob Willis Trophy last summer, in which he made 144 runs in eight innings. His return of 199 runs for once out in the match means that his first-class average for Leicestershire is up to 50.47, and it is not beyond the realms of possibility that his name will come up in England selection meetings if he continues that record.
A late developer who was released by Nottinghamshire as a 20-year-old, Azad had to bide his time for a professional opportunity, which eventually came about in 2019 after four years studying for a chemical engineering degree at Loughborough University. He was one-third of the MCCU side’s top three alongside Evans and James Bracey while studying – all three made Championship hundreds this week.
While Azad was more confident on the back foot, Evans had looked uncomfortable against the short ball during his first-innings hundred, and was pinged on the helmet by Kemar Roach in the sixth over of the day, ducking into a length ball. After a miscued pull shot drew a sarcastic cheer from the Surrey fielders – it was his first real sign of aggression in the match – he was caught at short leg fending off a bouncer from Clark, giving Surrey their first hint of an opening.
Dearden’s dismissal, given lbw from round the wicket by a nip-backer, looked like a harsh decision, with the ball appearing to hit him outside the line of off stump, but it left Azad with a job on his hands in partnership with Colin Ackermann. They steadied the ship, adding 61 in 25.1 overs before Ackermann feathered a catch to Ben Foakes down the leg side, but Lewis Hill’s resolute 69 not out ensured that there were no late wobbles. “Old Leicester teams would have crumbled against a quality side,” Paul Nixon said, but his one stood firm.
The ECB’s pitch regulations mean that this surface is highly unlikely to earn Surrey a ‘below average’ rating despite the lack of deterioration across the four days, but they would surely have preferred one which offered more. “A lot is made of pitches if you don’t get the result you would have liked,” Solanki said, but when fans return they will hope to witness a better balance between bat and ball.
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98