The last few years there have been many players coming in and out of the Pakistani cricket team. Two years back, Azhar Ali was one of them, part of a possible plan to transition the middle order from the aged warriors like Mohammad Yousuf, Younis Khan and Misbal-ul-Haq. He made his debut in 2010 in the “home” series versus Australia (Home here meant the Lord’s). He made 16 and 42 with Australia winning by 150 runs. That was the test series after which Shahid Afridi was sacked as captain. Also the experiment with leaving out the three old men was over. His next captain was Salman Butt. And Mohammad Yousuf was brought in for the next series against England.
In between all the no balls and other spot fixes, that series had its share of some good performances. Notably Azhar Ali’s 92* in the first innings of the 3rd Test at the Oval which Pakistan won by 4 wickets. Ironically the player of the match was Mohammad Amir. I remember seeing that match and what I can recall was Azhar’s composure as he played the English bowlers in their home conditions. When you contrast with the way the Indians played in the last series in England, the appreciation for Azhar Ali really goes up. In the previous two tests, he was struggling to score. However, this innings truly unveiled the talent especially the calm powerful but elegant hitting during the last wicket partnership with Asif.
Then we come to the third test v Eng at Dubai. Pakistan all out for 99. The bowlers bring the game back by dismissing England for 141. What was now required was for Pakistan to bat for at least two days and put up a score which would take the game completely out of reach for England. Given that the Englishmen were in no state to take one more shot at the spinners, even a 4th innings target of 300 was an unbeatable target to set. Azhar Ali came in the 11th over with the score at 28/2. He was finally out in the 150th over with the score at 363/9. In between, in almost 9 hours and having consumed 442 balls, he had scored 157.
It was slow batting but not boring.
At times during Azhar Ali’s match-winning, second-innings 157 for Pakistan against England in Dubai there was a distinct whiff of the past. Over eight hours and 53 minutes he was a model of diligent restraint, each patiently eked-out run taking the sap out of the opposition players’ legs and painstakingly laying the foundations to set an unattainable victory target. On the third morning, after losing Younis Khan, Azhar’s stonewalling majesty became quite hypnotic, described by my colleague Rob Smyth as a knock of “deviant beauty”, but one’s appreciation was rarely blunted by the monotony of his watchful defence.
The art of risk-averse, slow batting has recently been called into service most during defiant rearguard actions to stave off defeat. Yet here was a batsman prepared to mobilise its virtues to lay a siege rather than repel one. [the guardian]
In the last one year, those of us who have been following test cricket would have noticed a) test matches finishing in 3-4 days b) Teams collapsing for less than 100 c) Teams folding up in 3 sessions or less d) Batsmen not staying in the crease for more than 20 overs. (Okay the last one is an exaggeration).
In a single innings, Azhar faced more deliveries than Alistair Cook faced in the entire series. More importantly, he batted 533 minutes, almost 9 hours, one and half days, more than the full Indian team in each of the eight innings in England and in Australia.
Azhar’s innings was another triumph of character, resilience and technique and, above all, and a satisfying reminder in the era of dizzying run rates that dead bat does not have to equal deadbeat. [the guardian]
To see such an innings given the context of the game and to see a young man just 2 years into test cricket pull it off is itself a reason to reinforce one’s belief in test cricket as the most evocative format of the game. The game needs more of such innings not just from senior pros like Younis Khan or Ricky Ponting but from the younger batsmen who have grown up playing multiple forms of the game and can be at times quite muddled about their batting approach.