A Thorough Analysis of Azhar Ali's Test Career

The veteran has played 90 Tests so far in an illustrious career & was a crucial part of the Test side that reached #1.

All the way back in the summer of 2010, Pakistan cricket, which had been dealt a major blow in the aftermath of the 2009 Lahore attacks on the Sri Lankan national team, embarked on a bumper tour of England, as the ECB had generously lent a helping hand to the wounded nation by offering to host their home fixtures on English soil.

Pakistan was scheduled to play a bunch of T20Is & ODIs against Australia and England. Still, the main attraction was a full-blown summer of Test cricket: two Test matches versus Australia, followed by four Test matches versus England. Younis Khan, Pakistan’s all-time leading run-scorer in Test cricket, found himself in the bad books of the PCB at the time. This resulted from the controversy that had ensued less than a year earlier due to mutiny within the team over Younis Khan’s regimented approach towards captaincy.

However, as the adage goes, “One man’s meat is another man’s poison,” the beneficiary in this particular instance was a 25-year-old uncapped top-order batsman from Lahore, who had impressed appreciably for Pakistan A on a tour to Australia, playing against the A team and scoring runs consistently. That young cricketer was none other than Azhar Ali, and he happened to find himself thrown into the deep end from the get-go, making his Test debut versus a very strong Australian team at the Home of Cricket – Lord’s.

He scored 16 in his very first innings and followed it up with a promising knock of 42 in the 2nd innings, as Pakistan succumbed to a monumental 150-run defeat, prompting the retirement of then Test captain Shahid Afridi. Fast forward to the 2nd and final Test vs. Australia at Headingley, and Salman Butt took over the reins of Test captaincy as a new era of Test cricket was set to be ushered in for Pakistan.

As is so often the case with Pakistan cricket, instant changes brought about instant rewards. Pakistan defeated Australia to record a memorable three-wicket victory: their first win against the decorated cricketing nation since Sydney 1995. While the historic triumph was largely orchestrated by Pakistan’s belligerent seam attack (consisting of a young tearaway Mohammad Amir, swing and seam demon Mohammad Asif, and the disciplined and metronomic Umar Gul), which managed to bowl Australia out for a miserly 88 runs in the first innings, a youthful Azhar Ali also contributed 81 runs across both innings, batting at #3, scoring 30 in the 1st innings and a valuable 51 in the 2nd, as Pakistan managed to chase down 180 in the 4th innings with three wickets to spare.

Of course, chaos was a mere three Test matches away. All hell broke loose in the 4th and final Test versus England at Lord’s by virtue of the infamous Butt-Asif-Amir spot-fixing scandal. Azhar, still quite juvenile in the Test circuit, had to tough it out through arguably the darkest period in the history of Pakistan cricket.

He was an automatic pick for Pakistan’s Test team in the Misbah era, having also scored an unbeaten 92 against England in the Oval Test as well, which Pakistan went on the win. His unique selling point was his temperament, combined with his ability to get behind the line of the ball and play with a straight bat – a recipe for success in the longest format.

Azhar’s stock kept rising in Test cricket; he averaged an astounding 45.3 with the bat after his first 24 Test matches, recording 17 scores of over fifty, including four Test hundreds. His place was fairly cemented in the starting XI, up until that dreadful tour of South Africa in 2012/13, where he only managed 133 runs in six innings at a paltry average of 22.2.

That, however, did not deter Pakistan from dropping him for the side. Still, things did not get any better for Azhar in the Test matches that followed. He made only 85 runs in four innings in Zimbabwe (at an unsatisfactory average of 21.3) and 52 runs in the two-match Test series against South Africa in the UAE shortly after (at a ridiculously poor average of 13).

This run of dodgy form brought about the only occasion on which Azhar has ever been dropped from Pakistan’s first XI, as he sat out the first two Tests of the three-match Test series vs. Sri Lanka in 2013/14, played in the UAE. There was good reason behind this selection call, as in the last seven Test matches, Azhar had only mustered 272 runs at a puny average of 19.3.

In fact, Azhar was nearly axed from the Test squad itself for the Sri Lanka series, but then-captain Misbah-ul-Haq kept the faith in the right-handed batsman, reportedly convincing the selection panel for a good 40 minutes to retain Azhar Ali in the squad. Misbah’s faith was repaid in kind by Azhar, who made a return to the playing XI in the 3rd Test match at Sharjah, scoring arguably one of his most vital Test hundreds in the 4th innings, when Pakistan was tasked with the small matter of chasing a mammoth total of 302 in only 59 overs. He top-scored with 103 in just 137 balls, at a higher strike rate than usual, which was, of course, the need of the hour, ensuring victory and keeping Pakistan’s unbeaten streak in Test cricket in the UAE alive by leveling the series 1-1 against a formidable Sri Lankan unit.

Azhar did not look back for the next two years and embarked on his most prolific run in Test cricket. He racked up 1641 runs in the next 18 Test matches, at a colossal average of 51.3, including five half-centuries and six centuries, two of which were double-hundreds, and one majestic triple-hundred versus the West Indies in Dubai: an unbeaten 302 runs that forged his place in the annals of cricketing history as he became just the 4th Pakistani batsman to score a triple hundred in Test cricket. He found himself in elite company, that of legendary Pakistani batsmen Hanif Mohammad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, and Younis Khan.

The second of those two double-hundreds was a memorable knock of 205 not out in the Boxing Day Test versus Australia at Melbourne towards the end of 2016. Here, he further etched his name in Pakistan cricket folklore by becoming the first (and only, to date) Pakistani batsman to score an individual score of 200+ against Australia in a Boxing Day Test. Pakistan may have gone on to suffer a 3-0 whitewash in that Test series, but without a smidgen of doubt, Azhar Ali had established himself as a batting behemoth in Test cricket by the end of it.

Azhar’s purple patch continued till May 2017, where he scored a match-winning knock of 127 runs in the first innings versus the West Indies in the 3rd Test of the series (tied at 1-1). There was added context to this Test match, as it was the final swansong for Pakistan’s legendary batting pair of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, attempting to win a maiden Test series in the Caribbean. Pakistan went on to complete the perfect farewell for ‘MisYou,’ as Yasir Shah delivered the killer blow on his last ball of the Test match (and 7th last of the game overall), cleaning up Shannon Gabriel to secure Pakistan’s first-ever Test series victory on West Indian shores.

In this period, Pakistan had also managed to get their hands on the Test Mace for the very first time, having clawed their way to the top of the Test Rankings, albeit for a brief duration, which was a magnanimous feat considering the men in green had not played Test cricket at home since March 2009. Azhar Ali undoubtedly played a pivotal role in Pakistan’s run to the top of the ladder. At this point, he was definitely considered one of the leading batsmen in the world in the longest format. He piled up more than 3000 Test runs between 2014-2017 and became the only Pakistani batsman in history to hit two 200+ scores in a year in 2016.

That said, a new era had once again dawned upon Pakistan cricket, with Misbah and Younis leaving gargantuan shoes to fill, creating a sizable void in Pakistan’s middle order. A senior pro by this point, Azhar Ali was expected to take on the mantle of Pakistan’s most reliable Test batsman heading into the future (in partnership with Asad Shafiq) but could not quite deliver on that promise.

A quick look at his numbers gives a very clear picture of this phenomenon. Azhar has served Pakistan in 90 Test matches prior to the 2nd Test match versus Bangladesh at Dhaka, which is scheduled to start on 4 December 2021. He has amassed 6665 runs in 168 innings, scoring 18 hundreds and 33 fifties in his Test career, at a decent average of 42.5. Don’t let these numbers fool you, though, as in his first 60 Test Matches, right up until that renowned away Test series victory versus the West Indies, Azhar had notched up 4968 runs at a staggering average of 46.9, including 14 of his 18 Test hundreds. However, in the 30 Tests since, Azhar has only managed to score 1697 runs, averaging a meager 33.3, with only four Test hundreds.

This sharp decline in numbers is largely due to his appalling run of form in 2018/19, where he only managed to accumulate 602 runs in 13 Test matches at a substandard average of 24.1. These numbers are also inflated courtesy of five 50+ scores, including a sole hundred versus New Zealand, in a series he will not have fond memories of as Pakistan slumped to a 2-1 loss in their UAE fortress. Azhar was perhaps the main culprit in the first Test match, failing to score the required three runs to win his side the game, trapped LBW by Ajaz Patel as Pakistan were bowled out, agonizingly close to victory.

One would think that Azhar’s place would be under the scanner after this poor run of form. However, in classic Pakistan cricket fashion, he was appointed as Test captain after Pakistan failed to make it to the semi-finals of the 2019 World Cup in England. He occupied that role for only 8 Test matches, and his captaincy remained under intense scrutiny for the entire length of that period. However, he managed to turn his form around, scoring 118 in his 4th Test as captain against Sri Lanka in Karachi, and a match-saving 141 not out versus England at Southampton, in a Test match where many were contemplating his place in the XI.

He lost his captaincy after a 1-0 loss to England in that Test series, one which Pakistan could well have won as they lost the 1st Test match failing to defend 277 in Manchester. This was a game in which his failure to instruct his bowlers to bowl short deliveries to Chris Woakes in the 4th innings was highlighted and heavily criticized.

However, it seemed like having the burden of captaincy removed off his shoulders would bring about another peak in Azhar’s Test career, with scores of 93 and 126 away from home versus New Zealand and Zimbabwe, respectively, solidifying that expectation. In a stark turn of events, though, Azhar failed miserably on the West Indies tour in the summer of 2021, limping his way to 62 runs in 4 innings at a disastrous average of 15.5. Things aren’t quite looking on the up after the 1st Test versus Bangladesh at Chattogram, where the 90-Test-match veteran was dismissed for a golden duck in the 1st innings (he scored 24* in the 2nd innings as Pakistan secured victory by eight wickets), which triggered a collapse for Pakistan, as the visitors nosedived to 286 all out in their first innings, after having ended Day 2 at 145/0.

What is most concerning is perhaps his vulnerability early on in the innings in the last four years, especially having shown a tendency to lose his balance and failing to get behind the line of the ball – which had been his strength over the years. Add to that, he has now accumulated 18 ducks in his Test career (8 of them have come in the last 30 Test Matches, post Misbah & Younis’ retirement), with only Younis Khan ahead of him among frontline Pakistani batsmen with 19.

With Kamran Ghulam (2516 runs at an average of 51.34 in 33 First Class games) and Saud Shakeel (3347 runs at an average of 49.95 in 48 First Class games) eagerly waiting in the wings for a Test match debut, having scored consistent runs in First Class cricket, the argument arises whether it’s time for Azhar Ali to make way for young blood. Given those numbers, it is not an irrational argument to make by any stretch of the imagination.

One potential route for Azhar Ali going forward could be to move up the batting order as an opener – a role which he has occupied in the past, and that too quite successfully. He started as an opener in his domestic career and interestingly has a better average as an opener in Test cricket, as opposed to his preferred #3 position. In 37 innings opening the batting for Pakistan in Tests, Azhar has stockpiled 1556 runs at a remarkable average of 45.8, with a Balls Per Dismissal (BPD) ratio of 106.2.

However, what may have worked before may not work again, as Azhar’s numbers as an opener in First Class cricket over the last four years do not make for good reading: 1014 runs in 43 innings, at an inadequate average of 24.10, and BPD ratio of 48.8. Since 2018, the average opener in Test cricket has a BPD ratio of 66 and an average of 31.3, so Azhar is well below the standard. Additionally, given Abid Ali’s profuse run-scoring and Abdullah Shafique’s rock-solid debut in the 1st Test versus Bangladesh, slotting in Azhar Ali as an opener might not be seen as a viable option.

As a counter perspective, one could argue that Azhar has only failed in three consecutive Test matches and scored his 18th Test hundred in his 4th last Test. Another argument that works in Azhar’s favor is that he is a seasoned professional who has played 90 Test matches, and you cannot put a price on experience.

The next Test match versus Bangladesh at Dhaka may well go on to add more context to what has been a noteworthy Test career, worth a lot of praise, irrespective of its peaks and troughs. Ultimately, Azhar Ali has been a diligent servant of Pakistan cricket. Only time will tell whether he can manage to hit that coveted milestone of 100 Test matches, becoming only the 6th Pakistani cricketer to do so, provided he succeeds. A stalwart who absolutely dominated the Test arena for a good three to four years, Azhar Ali has served Pakistan cricket honorably and sincerely, captaining the national team in both Test and ODI cricket, and he deserves his due respect. For his perilous hard work and the many laurels he has achieved in his 11-year-long international career, he is worth being celebrated, regardless of what direction his career goes in hereon.

Is there one more rich vein of form left in the tank for the 36-year-old veteran? We shall find out soon enough.

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