Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Rock Known as Azhar Ali

Pakistan has been the most successful test team over the past 18 months - they have won more matches than any other team, they have not lost any of their last 7 test series, and they command the best win:loss ratio among all test teams during this period.

I believe that Azhar Ali has played an extremely important role in this success story.

Misbah's leadership, Saeed Ajmal, Waqar Younis, Mohsin Khan, and several other factors have been mentioned as factors behind Pakistan's recent success. True that it has been a team effort, but given Azhar's performance during this period, it is time for the world to take notice of a batsman who has the potential to become one of the best over the next decade.

Two years ago in a test match against Australia at Lord's, a 25 year old batsman from Lahore made his debut for Pakistan.

A debut against Australia (even though they were not the top test team in 2010) is never easy. It gets even more difficult when it is in foreign conditions. It makes it tougher when the debutant is asked to take responsibility at the crucial number 3 position. And to top it all, it was a debut at the home of cricket - Lord's.

I don't think we can even begin to imagine what would have gone through the mind of Azhar Ali when he walked out to face his first delivery in a test match. Pressure, nerves, jitters were all bound to be there.

What we all witnessed was a composed batsman, who in only his second test innings was involved in a century partnership for the second wicket. Azhar's debut test yielded 16 and 42, with the latter being a part of a 102 run stand with Salman Butt.

Back then, not many would have thought that Pakistan had unearthed a batsman who will be Pakistan's best for the next two years.

Pakistan has played 23 tests (including the current second test against Sri Lanka) since that Lord's test against Australia and Azhar Ali has featured in all 23 of those tests. He is the only player who has played all 23 tests for Pakistan in this period, and naturally he is also the leading run scorer in those 23 tests.

Consistency in selection has been the key driver of Pakistan's success in test matches under Misbah. The selectors and team management have stuck to a combination for a prolonged period and it has worked wonders. 

Mohammad Hafeez and Taufeeq Umar recently became the first opening pair for Pakistan to play in 15 consecutive test matches. What makes this even better is that in the 16 test matches that Misbah has captained Pakistan, the team has had the same top order - Hafeez, Taufeeq, and Azhar - who are also the only three players who have featured in all the 16 tests with Misbah in charge.

No prizes for guessing the batsman who has been the leading run scorer for Pakistan in the 16 tests captained by Misbah.

Remember that Azhar Ali made his debut in a test captained by Shahid Afridi and played another 5 under Salman Butt before he played one under Misbah. It is never easy for a new player to settle into a team with so much inconsistency, however, Azhar Ali has managed to not only survive but prosper at a time when Pakistan cricket was coming out of its worst phase ever.

Azhar Ali was not an instant hit with the fans and there has been a lot of criticism surrounding him. He bats too slow, he is too boring to watch, he doesn't convert his starts were (and are) some of the common phrases used when a discussion involving Azhar Ali takes place.

His strike rate in tests is 39.5, which has got to be one of the lowest, if not the lowest, for any test batsman with over 1,500 runs. He had 10 half centuries to his credit, including two scores in the 90s and two in the 70s, before he scored his first test century. Considering this, the critics have not been unfair. He is too slow.

However, at the end of the day, it worked (and works) for Pakistan. Azhar's resistance at the crease, time spent at the wicket, patience, and perseverance translated into partnerships for Pakistan and always ensured that one end remained safe.

You could call it Misbah's "tuk tuk" approach, but fact of the matter is that it is Azhar Ali who has truly mastered this approach, which has resulted in him being involved in as many as 9 century partnerships and 19 fifty partnerships in his 42 test innings. And we all know how crucial partnerships are for building good totals.

With respect to not being able to convert starts, it is something that Azhar has been able to overcome with time. Where he scored 10 half centuries in his first 14 tests, he has scored 3 centuries and 3 fifties in his next 9 tests, which also include two 150 plus knocks.

Azhar has not only scored in Asian conditions, but in all conditions that he has played in including England and New Zealand. He has not only scored against Asian teams but against all the opposition that he has come up against including Australia and England. Azhar averages above 33 and has at least one fifty plus score against all teams that he has come up against.

Considering the dogged approach that Azhar plays with, there were obvious doubts about his capability as an ODI player. But even in this space, Azhar has proved all his doubters wrong. He has had a remarkable start to his ODI career and averages almost 44 in the 9 ODIs that he has played. He has notched up scores of 58, 96, and 81* as an opener in ODIs and looks set to flourish in the limited overs format as well.

There is no doubt in my mind that Azhar Ali is the best batsman to come out of Pakistan in the last decade. Younis Khan made his test debut in 2000 and no batsman since then has made the kind of impact Azhar has made for Pakistan. There is also no doubt in my mind that Azhar is here to stay and will go on to become the main stay of Pakistan's batting line up over the next decade.

He has displayed the potential to become one of the Pakistan greats and be known along side the likes of Javed Miandad, Inzamam Ul Haq, Mohammad Yousuf, and Younis Khan.

Yes it is early days just yet and there is a long road ahead, but the kind of composure that Azhar has demonstrated over the past two years is a good indication of what he can achieve in the years to come.

He has made the number 3 position in tests his very own, he has played during the biggest scandal to hit Pakistan cricket and come out of it, and he has quickly learnt how to make it count when he gets a good start.

Azhar Ali is the rock that keeps Pakistan's batting together and he has the ability to shine in this role for a long time to come.

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  1. Anonymous said...

    Azhar Ali is definitely a great batsman, but I wouldn't say that he is quite up for it in ODIs, yet. He shone in the ODI series vs SL, but a strike-rate of 66.41 despite an average of 43.75 isn't what is expected of a modern batsman. He bats quite slowly in Tests too (SR:38.44) but Tests are meant to fight it out! He is a very good batsman, and I see no reason why he didn't lead in the first Test match against SL, instead of Mohammad Hafeez.

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