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The Amazing Azhar Ali

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Azhar_Ali_Pakistan_cricketHow did he do it? How did he lead Pakistan to a clean sweep over the West Indies in their worst format? How did he pacify the critics with his fastest ODI century? How did he then go on to score a triple century?

This must be a different man than the one I wrote about a while back. The heat was on back then. The score line was 4-1 in favour of England. The hosts pummeled their way to 444, whilst Azhar paid tribute to Jonathan Trott with scores of 82 (110) and 80 (104).

A Sarfraz Ahmed-led side beat the WT20 champions 3-0 in their favourite format. Surely Sarfraz would take over ahead of the ODI series. Some questionable sources even claimed that he had already been sacked as skipper.

The paranoia was understandable, considering that anything short of another 3-0 series win would have left Pakistan exposed to the indignity of missing out on the World Cup. But they stuck with Azhar.

It was time for the first ODI. The very first ball. Shannon Gabriel with the shiny white nut in hand. Azhar Ali on strike. Ian Bishop and Bazid Khan reminded viewers of what was at stake. Azhar had taken his guard but had a minute to spare. He placed his bat horizontally between his hands, with the handle one on end, and the toe of the bat on the other, as he stretched his torso from right to left, from off-side to leg-side, taking stock of the fielders, and perhaps even taking stock of the tricky predicament he was in.

Butterflies. Pressure. But he took guard again. Gabriel ran in, loaded up from wide of the crease, sent down a snorter that angled in, landed on a good length, only to straighten and take Azhar’s outside edge. The West Indies were jubilant. Azhar was aghast. Was this the beginning of the end? The ‘I told you so’ brigade certainly thought so. Maybe Azhar thought so too.

A failure in the second ODI meant that the pressure was on in the final game. Failure was not an option. A low score could have ended his ODI career as well as his stint as skipper. But he matched Sharjeel and Babar stroke-for-stroke, notching up 101 (109): the second fastest ODI century of his career. He raised his bat and gestured to a dressing room that understood the significance of his knock.

Azhar would live to fight another day. The skeptics would have to wait until the ODI series in Australia, Pakistan’s next assignment in the format. What could Azhar possibly do in Test Matches that would help his case in ODIs?

Simple answer. 302 not out: his highest Test Match score. Where did that come from? A bloke who strikes at around 42 took only 469 balls to accumulate a triple century.

 

In the space of a week, Azhar had played his best innings in ODI cricket, played his best innings in Test cricket, consolidated his opening slot, and secured the captaincy. When you combine these milestones with his 139 in the 3rd Test of the England tour - his first century outside of Asia - it is only natural to wonder if Azhar can go onto become one of Pakistan’s greatest.

But he averages 46 after 50 Test matches. Isn’t he already world-class? No. To be considered a world-class Test cricketer, he must score hundreds outside of Asia. An average of 31.24 across 20 Tests outside the subcontinent does not compare favorably to Misbah and Younis, who average 41.7 and 45.61 respectively. The two Tests against New Zealand, and the following three against Australia, could determine whether Azhar is truly a Test match great or just some guy who did well in Asia.

But this is where an affinity for Azhar Ali kicks in. An epic and engaging story is starting to develop around him. He began his career with a clean-shaven, boyish look and played with great maturity, which suggested he was punching above his weight. Then came his Asian dominance. Hundreds galore. A faint beard started to develop into artistically groomed fuzz. Life was good.

However, as time went on, people started to question his leadership and pedigree as an ODI cricketer. He fumbled and stumbled as he struggled to contain the chaos amidst whispers of discontent. But he proved them wrong. Emphatically so.

The story is not over. His away record is no reason for him to stick his chest out like The Amazing Spiderman. Peter Parker was totally unremarkable until he was bitten by an arachnid and developed the powers that made him so iconic.

Azhar Ali is Pakistan’s Peter Parker. The critics, skeptics, and even the guy writing this article, thought he was only above average. He must have been bitten quite hard. But he’s starting to show powers we never thought he had.

The Kiwis and Aussies, villains in Azhar’s bid to keep Pakistan prospering, are going to take stock of this threat. But if I had a gun to my head in a twisted game of chance, I would wager that best is yet to come from The Amazing Azhar Ali.

 

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Jay Dansinghani is a freelance writer, researcher, and author based in Hong Kong. Jay got into deep...

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