Farewell Azhar Ali
A short tribute to the retiring top-order batsman, looking at his early days in the Pakistan side.
The importance of Azhar Ali in Pakistan cricket cannot be talked about enough in a world of rich and flashy T20 leagues.
The man himself came to the grand stage of Pakistan cricket at a time when it was emotionally at its lowest. The Pakistani pitches became isolated from the cover drives of international heroes after the unfortunate event of 2009. The T20 World Cup victory in England for Pakistan lifted morale, but it simply could not be considered emotional cover for not playing on home turf.
Fast forward to Tuesday the 13th of July 2010 – Pakistan are playing at Lord’s against Ricky Ponting’s mighty Australia. Azhar Ali is given his first Test cap, with his teammate Umar Amin and the Australians Steve Smith and Tim Paine all making their debuts alongside him. Australia are bowled for 253 early on on Day 2. Pakistan send their openers out, who manage just 11 runs between them.
A 25-year-old Azhar then steps out into the ground with a gracious crowd full of cricket enthusiasts. All eyes are on him as he bats for a rocky 16 in his debut innings, lasting 43 deliveries. Pakistan then collapse in regular fashion for a very poor total of 148.
A lead of 105 was enough to kick-start the Aussies, who went on to score 334 more to add to Pakistan’s misery. While the 440-run chase appeared impossible, the openers put together a 50-run partnership at a steady rate.
Enter Azhar, 390 runs to chase – he holds his wicket in place tightly whilst Salman Butt on the other end (only a year older than Azhar) shows his 7-year international cricket experience in the innings. Azhar holds on for an 87-ball 42 in a 102-run partnership, leaving his teammates with 8 wickets remaining to achieve 290. The Test match, however, is soon over as Pakistan loses by 150 runs. Azhar Ali leaves the stadium with a respectable 40+ score added to his name.
The second and final Test of the series is played at Leeds. Pakistan start very well while chasing a win against Australia after 13 consecutive losses, cleaning up the Australian stumps for 88. The Pakistani openers get to 80 before Azhar is called upon. He scores 30 runs in his third Test innings, as Pakistan reach 258. Australia reply with 349, courtesy of Michael Clarke and Steve Smith, making Pakistan’s target for a first win in 14 matches just 180 runs.
The openers, Imran Farhat and Salman Butt, hold up for 31 deliveries, making 27 together before Azhar is again invited to the crease. This time he displays a great deal of patience, taking the initiative to play the ball as he wills. He tenaciously brings up his maiden Test fifty by hitting a loose full toss for 4. Pakistan get over the line with three wickets remaining in an extreme Pakistan-like fashion.
Despite the spot-fixing controversy involving the skipper and two other others, ‘Ajju’ bhai maintained his professionalism and became the mature batsman in a team lacking experience.
Fifty-three players have made their Test debuts for Pakistan since Azhar. Many have come and gone within a handful of matches, but very few stood firm like Azhar. Azhar’s patience, ability, and coolness in the toughest situations will be forever cherished by fans and teammates alike.
The last few years since his ODI retirement have been indifferent. The lack of Test matches in the international calendar owing to limited-over games has made Azhar’s appearances few and far stretched.
He will forever go down in history as the first to make a century, double-century, and triple-century in day and night Test matches. His heroics during the Champions Trophy in 2017 will not go unnoticed either. He scored 3 half-centuries in 5 innings, including 2 in the semi-final and final. Truly a commendable tournament performance from the legend.
Not often does a Pakistan batsman retire with grace as Azhar did. Usually, retirements are smeared by controversy, and there is simply no choice left for the player. This, however, was Azhar Ali.
For Pakistan to rejuvenate this Test squad under the captaincy of Babar Azam, it will be extremely difficult to replace a legend such as Azhar.
Farewell, Ajju bhai.
The opinions expressed solely belong to the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views of Grassroots Cricket.