Is Azhar Ali indispensable? If not then Pakistan cricket team’s management, if it is serious in building a strong and established Test side for future, are duly expected to review their plans regarding the right-hander’s place in the national squad, sooner than later, simply because the batter is gradually becoming a liability.
In recent years, Azhar’s confidence level has visibly dipped with fast waning hand-eye coordination, perhaps due to age. Throughout his career, the 37-year-old never looked solid against well-directed short-pitched bowling, and this flaw is exploited by top-class pace bowlers.
Moreover, the batter by nature is of predominantly defensive mindset, which for reasons best known to Azhar, has not changed even on many occasions when it was required. It severely dents the team’s cause.
Amid this over-protective stance, add his tentative shot-making to this set of weaknesses and it certainly gives a bleak outlook.
Number three is regarded by experts as the most important position in a Test team. They should be game-changers like Australia’s Marnus Labuschagne, world’s top-ranked Test batter and New Zealand Captain Kane Williamson, ranked sixth.
Candidly speaking, Azhar despite his vast experience – plus the continuous chances he has been afforded by the national selectors over the years – has not succeeded in finding the right recipe to become a rock-solid cog in the national side.
It was a huge moment in the recently-held Rawalpindi Test where Joe Root – tactically planted at leg slip – getting down on one knee gleefully took a straightforward catch offered by Azhar at a crucial juncture on the last day.
The dismissal explicitly signified the right-handed veteran blundered in judging the situation and left the scene just when Pakistan wanted him to stay at the crease and help his team avoid the defeat.
Had Azhar, with 19 Test centuries to his credit, remained out there in the middle, the hosts might have saved the game against a compact English bowling attack.
Simply because if tailenders Naseem Shah (six off 46 balls) and debutant Zahid Mahmood (one off 21), who came in to bat at number nine could prolong the proceedings, 95-Test veteran Azhar could surely do it with authority.
He couldn’t. The 37-year-old, in the first innings also, had slumped on a featherbed of a wicket.
Rawalpindi proved a two-fold drawback for Azhar. At the outset, he couldn’t score on a batters paradise at the Pindi Cricket Stadium where openers Imam-ul-Haq and Abdullah Shafique – both far less experienced than Azhar – comfortably smashed hundreds in response to England’s gigantic 657.
Even Agha Salman, batting at number seven in only the third Test of his career, crafted 53.
Secondly, Azhar wilted again on the last day when he was needed to just survive, not even go for a win. Where debutant Saud Shakeel made a fighting 76, Azhar miserably waned.
Not to forget it was home ground and crowd, so no excuses. At the same venue, Azhar had amassed 185 – in a drawn affair – against Australia earlier this year.
Has Azhar, the present team’s most capped Test cricketer, flopped like this rarely during the past few years? Well, it’s a simple no.
Taking a glance at his career spanning over 12 years, one finds that while the Lahore-born batter had a memorable 2016 when he scored a triple century (302 not out) against West Indies in Dubai and two months later followed it up with an impressive unbeaten 205 against Australia at Melbourne, he started showing clear signs of decline since 2018.
Since May 2018, to be exact, till to date Azhar has accumulated 1451 runs at a wanting average of 36.27 in 60 innings of the 34 Test matches he has featured in.
Out of the five centuries he scored during this time period, only one was made outside Asia – a fine 141 not out against England in the drawn third and final Test at Southampton in August 2020.
Azhar’s obvious, bemusing and endless struggles against top-quality short-pitched bowling on Pakistan’s tours to South Africa (59 runs in six innings, 2018-19), Australia (62 in four innings, 2019) and England (69 in four innings, if 141 not out at Southampton excluded, 2020) became a hot topic.
The batter’s healthy average of 54 in the 27 Tests he featured in on UAE featherbeds – where Pakistan played all their home series from 2010 till 2018 in the aftermath of the March 2009 terror attack on the Sri Lankan team in Lahore – is a sharp contrast.
Azhar’s batting problem does not end here. It runs deep.
Even on largely lifeless tracks in Pakistan, where he averages a healthy 47.85 in nine Tests since 2019, the batter has not been able to give his input against top-quality opponents.
Against Australia in Karachi earlier this year, when Pakistan after flopping in the first innings ended up at a remarkable 443-7 to honourably save the game while chasing a mammoth 506, Azhar played no role in both the innings.
And after crafting a 78-run knock in the first innings of the third and final Test at Lahore, he disappointed in the second innings as Pakistan slumped to a 115-run loss while pursuing 351 for victory.
He then had a poor outing (3 and 6) in the first Test against Sri Lanka at Galle in July.
Furthermore, Azhar’s two Test hundreds in 24 innings of his last 14 Tests since January 2021 came against lowly Zimbabwe (126, May 2021) and Australia (185 on a docile track, as mentioned before) earlier this year.
It goes on to show that besides having some major problems in handling bowlers on fast, bouncy and seaming tracks in Australia, South Africa and England, Azhar has now started struggling even on Pakistani pitches.
England are on a roll. They will not change. After having won seven out of their last eight Tests with the novel “Bazball” show ever since their head coach Brendon McCullum took charge in May this year, they will come hard at Babar Azam and his men in Multan and Karachi no matter which type of surface they play.
Azhar is on the brink, he has to demonstrate in Multan that he can, and will, rise to the occasion. Otherwise, the Pakistan team management will need to seriously review the team composition, primarily Azhar’s capability and role, in order to secure the team’s interests in the long run.