AZHAR Ali is Pakistan’s tragic hero. The man the team needs, but not the man the nation wants.
People complain he is too slow. They say he is not fit for One-day Internationals. It could all well be true about him being not as aggressive as Fakhar Zaman — who plays at a strike rate close to 100 — but to say he is not fit to represent Pakistan in limited overs cricket is a rather weak argument, especially in Pakistani context.
Pakistan’s World Cup campaign ended with a win over Bangladesh that could not help the Green Shirts edge New Zealand in terms of their net run-rate. As a result, Pakistan had to bow out, though not disgracefully; its 5th ranking is a reflection of its ability to regroup, considering its disastrous start against the West Indies. For a team that went into the tournament with 11 successive ODI losses, its final standing on the points table bodes well for the team.
So, why suddenly are we talking about Azhar? He has, after all, bid adieu to ODIs and looks pleased with his Test form. If only we were to sit down and do some analysis on why the team fared the way it did in the World Cup, we would have identified the weak link: the absence of an innings-builder, a solid batsman in the line-up. That is why we are talking about Azhar.
The problem is not specific to this team. It is endemic with the Pakistani style of batting — they lack temperament to stay on the crease and build their innings. Blame it on the madness of Twenty20 cricket in the country or on a weak domestic structure, the facts won’t change.
Do we remember the Australia game? At one point, the match was Pakistan’s to lose and they did lose it. Some reckless shots and batsmen’s failure to perform under pressure bring to mind countless situations when we have buckled.
Azhar played 53 one-dayers for Pakistan before announcing his retirement from the format. Though he said he wanted to focus on Tests, there were other factors, such as not being considered for selection despite consistently performing in the domestic and perceptions of being too slow for the format to name a few, that prompted the former Pakistan captain to call it quits.
Post-Misbah-ul-Haq, Azhar was made the captain of the Pakistan side. A natural choice as he was being trained to lead while Misbah was still at the helm. Unfortunately, the team Pakistan could not perform well under his captaincy and as the saying goes in local context: “To captain Pakistan is one of the toughest jobs in the country, even more so than being the prime minister.”
Subsequently, Azhar had to let go of his captaincy first and later his place in the side. Fast forward to 2019, Pakistan really have not done extraordinarily under a different captain — having managed to beat only minnows since the surprising victory in 2017 Champions Trophy. Failure to make it to knockouts in 2019 World Cup is not an impressive result either.
Coming back to Azhar, the batsman has not really stopped playing limited overs altogether. He recently featured for Somerset in Royal London One-Day Cup and saw his side to victory with notable scores of 68, 110, 43, 46, 72, and 45 in 11 games. He also took seven wickets in total that included a five-wicket haul for 34 runs against Worcestershire. But it is the batting of Azhar that we are more interested in.
In a recent interview to Press Trust of India, Azhar said Pakistan have found a reliable opening pair in Fakhar and Imam-ul-Haq and that he was content with his decision to have retired from one-dayers. With the experience and stability Azhar brings to the table, he is just the man Pakistan need to play on number three or four.
Do we remember the India v England game? When the entire Pakistani nation prayed for an India win? It does not matter that India lost the game, and it does not matter what the conspiracy theorists say. The way Indian captain Virat Kohli and opening batsman Rohit Sharma rebuilt after losing KL Rahul early on has a lesson for Pakistani team. Kohli and Sharma knew their middle order is fragile and that they could not bank on good ol' slogger in MS Dhoni anymore, so they played with lot of maturity and grit. Their temperament to hang in there for as long as they could showed they understood their team’s strength and weaknesses.
And then Dhoni and Ravinder Jadeja’s brilliant partnership in the semifinal against New Zealand was a similar display of maturity and grit where the two went about rebuilding the innings after India’s innings was in absolute tatters.
Now, let’s put our own Mohammad Hafeez, Shoaib Malik or Sarfraz Ahmed in similar situations. When Hafeez tried to slog-sweep Aaron Finch in the Australia match, was he doing a favour to Pakistan? Or when Sarfraz tried to take that impossible second run against Afghanistan, did he know how important his presence on the wicket could be? Can we say ever say with confidence that the ‘senior’ lot in the team played with any responsibility that the situation demanded? Or can we claim they knew about their role and responsibility at the time?
It would honestly be very hard to defend their actions. And that consolidates the argument in favour of a batsman with experience and temperament who could stick around long enough to see the team through a crisis and not become a part of the problem himself.
If the 34-year-old Lahore-born could be convinced to reconsider his decision of retirement from limited-overs cricket, Pakistan will do well to fill in the missing link in the middle order and aim for better results in the next World Cup in India.
Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2019