An unsung hero

Published: September 30, 2017
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The writer is a PhD student studying literature and philosophy at University College London

The writer is a PhD student studying literature and philosophy at University College London

If some stats-guru could tabulate the column inches and airtime dedicated to Umar Akmal, Ahmed Shehzad, or even Babar Azam and compare it to those expended on Azhar Ali, we may find that it amounts to something like the altitudinal gap between K2 and Naltar Peak. So you may know the joy I have in writing about the least sung of the unsung heroes; the rightful heir to the ‘tuk tuk’ throne — Azhar Ali.

I have strong memories of Azhar’s debut Test series against England in 2010. Yes, that infamous tour. With all the scandal and disappointment that resulted, the loss of Amir and Asif, and the betrayal of the fan’s faith, it is easy to forget all the drama that had preceded the tour during Ijaz Butt’s tenure as the PCB head. After all, the two (perhaps even three) best batsmen in Pakistan were not initially on that tour — Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf had received ‘life-bans’ during Butt’s administration. From the outside, it appeared like a power struggle between the players and the administration, and one that ultimately cost Pakistan much more dearly than either party could have imagined it would.

The net result of these pre-tour battles between an administration and its best players was that youngsters like Umar Amin and Azhar Ali got their first taste of international cricket. And what a taste they got. Early summer in England, ball swinging, Jimmy and Broad bowling with verve and bite, Salman Butt, the most senior batsman in the Pakistan team.

Statistically, many will point out: Azhar’s series was nothing to write home about. He averaged a touch over 21, scored one 92* in four Test matches against England, and was outscored by a young Umar Akmal, who, however, also only scored one 50+ score. The fact that Akmal’s and Azhar’s tallies were the best by any Pakistani batsmen in that series speaks volumes about the difficulty of the conditions and the bowlers, and about the brittleness of the Pakistan batting line-up, and the pressure-laden match situations in which Azhar made his runs.

But I can hear you shouting at your computer screens, he averaged 21! No matter how gritty his runs, that is a pretty shoddy return. I grant you this. However, the secret to perceiving Azhar Ali’s nascent potential in his debut stats, is not to focus on the runs he scored, but his strike-rate.

Granted a strike-rate of 35.51 is not something a player would normally brag about, and I doubt that Azhar Ali ever has. But that strike-rate reveals what others and I witnessed first-hand. It was the ugly and ungainly technique, his doe-eyed and sheepish presence at the crease, his apologetic and hesitant poking efforts at runs.

But also his determination and powers of concentration. His ability to survive quality pace bowling in favourable conditions, a few well-timed flicks and even some drives apologetically emerging on those rare occasions when Broad or Anderson pitched it up a touch too far. In what were otherwise limp and lukewarm batting displays, everyone could see potential in his ability to play out good bowling in tough conditions.

Thankfully hindsight is on my side. Azhar’s career has blossomed since, now placing him in the top ten batsmen in the world, having peaked at No 6 so far. Still he sits above David Warner, Hashim Amla, Du Plessis and Alistair Cook, and might I add, rightly so if recent form is given weight.

In 2016, apart from scoring a triple hundred in the UAE, Azhar also scored hundreds in the Caribbean, in England, scored a double hundred in Australia, and punched out fifties here and there as well. He averaged over 60. Matching or exceeding all the best players in the world bar Smith and Kohli on naked stats. The kind of runs Azhar Ali has gotten recently, and the variety of countries in which he has made them means he is creeping closer to the top tier of international batsmen in the world today.

It has been a pleasure to watch his game develop. Initially he relied heavily on the flick and the glance, pulling out the cut or drive every now and then when the opportunity presented itself. As he began to pile up the runs against various opposition in the UAE, we saw his game develop even further, getting a firmer grasp of his off-stump, standing a little taller, driving elegantly off the front and back foot and still clipping it off his legs for fun. Across several tours in Sri Lanka, Herath got him on a few occasions, regularly testing his game. Still Azhar would always bounce back with big scores in the following Tests, all the while improving his play against spin, using his feet more, getting a more balanced stride, sweeping more prudently and adeptly improving his nudging and nurdling.

But people took a while to warm to him. A sports fan likes to believe in a romanticised narrative for their team, an ideal blueprint, a winning method, ‘our way’. This path to victory, in Pakistan’s matches, is very volatile. But Pakistan is what it is. Until recently, it was Shahid Afridi, mercurial brilliance at its most sensational. Bagging more man of the match awards than any other Pakistani in ODIs. But the truth is, even before Afridi, Pakistan has always believed in aggression and endured inconsistent results, even with Wasim and Waqar, and the swashbuckling blades of Anwar and Ijaz in the 90s. Mercurial brilliance. Love it for what it is and live it as it is. The drama, the heart-racing onslaughts, the earth-shattering spells, the abysmal failures, the withering collapses — these peaks and troughs are all part of Pakistan cricket’s unruly appeal.

I doubt many youngsters are in the market to see a dour fifty. A well-judged leave. A solid forward defensive. Such innings are often bemoaned by the media and by Pakistan cricket fans as dull, lacking in flair or genius. Who can blame them? Everyone wants a little more flash nowadays. So Azhar Ali took his place in the pecking order. Extravagance over reliability, style over substance.

Surely now much of the world has begun to take notice of this quality player. At 31 years of age, he cannot be called young, but considering how long his predecessors played for, perhaps we can hope for the best. After his tours of England and Australia, the wider cricketing public took notice of what some Pakistan fans had been proudly taking heart in these past few years.

In ODIs however, it was a different story. His place in the side remained in question all the way up to the Champions Trophy.

We saw in the Champions Trophy the new shots he has added to his repertoire — the upper cut through third man, lofting hits to cow corner, cutting fiercely and flicking with ease. It is certain that he has had to adapt himself to the modern game. He retains his ugly but effective appeal, introducing some hoicks, pulls and slogs in with the drives and flicks. I hope that after the Champions Trophy, where Azhar performed very consistently, he will be given an extended run. I believe he will only get better and he has shown evidence of improving his range and type of strokes. At the end of the day, in this batting line-up, I would welcome a player who can average 40-45 with a strike-rate close to 80. This is the next step for Azhar.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 30th, 2017.

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