The Azhar Ali Conundrum: How Pakistan’s captain fulfilled his potential

Azhar Ali became the 5th Pakistani to cross 6000 Test runs. That is no easy feat, after all the only players to have scored more runs are Mohammad Yousuf, Inzamam ul-Haq, Javed Miandad and finally, Younis Khan. But does this mean he’s the 5th best Pakistani batsman ever and is he truly a Pakistani batting great? These are the questions we take a deep dive into today.

Azhar Ali
Azhar Ali (CC by Pakistan Cricket on YouTube)

With all due respect to Azhar Ali, he has been Pakistan’s main top order test batsman for many years, but we’ve always thought that he’s just ‘good,’ not necessarily ‘great.’ So, I do not think Azhar belongs in the upper echelon of Pakistani batsmen with the names mentioned above. I feel like he’s more in the leagues of Misbah ul-Haq, Ijaz Ahmed and Saleem Malik. Here are a few reasons why I believe this is the case.

Firstly, his career average of 42.94 from 6098 runs does not qualify him to be a stalwart of Pakistani batting. But let’s break these numbers down further. In the SENA (South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia) region, the hardest places to bat in the world, he has only scored 1698 out of his total of 6098, which makes up for just 27.8% of his total runs. Furthermore, these runs have come in 57 innings at an average of 32.03. Now let’s compare this to Azhar’s record at Pakistan’s home away from home: the UAE.

In his fortress, Azhar has scored 2537 runs in 52 innings at an average of 53.9. Nevertheless, his overall dismissals show that he has been caught behind 25% of the time, which is a little high for a No.3 batsman. A few technical issues have also sprouted on these away tours. For example, in England, he’s been very susceptible to being LBW, which make up for 32% of his dismissals there.

This solidifies that Azhar has been very inconsistent on away tours, struggling to adapt to the moving and bouncing ball. Captaincy has also not helped his case, as he has scored 488 runs in 9 test matches as captain at an average of 37. It isn’t the worst average ever but from a number 3 batsman, he should have done better.

But is Azhar Ali truly bad? Let’s compare him to two other modern No.3 batsmen, Cheteshwar Pujara of India and Kane Williamson of New Zealand. In SENA, Pujara averages a mediocre 35.15. However, if you take out his performances in Australia, where he averages 55, he too is averaging 28.18 everywhere else in the batting graveyards of the world. Pujara may be slightly better but Azhar definitely holds his own.

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Now, let’s look at Kane Williamson. Given New Zealand is his home ground, it is still a difficult place to bat on. Williamson has scored 4,080 runs in SENA at an astonishing average of 50.37. To me, this certifies a batsman for greatness. These comparisons show that Azhar is definitely a good batsman but he isn’t in the league of legends of the game.

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Arguably, Azhar cannot be called one of Pakistan’s greats, but from this arises the more interesting yet complex question. Has Azhar Ali fulfilled his potential? Let’s move away from the numbers now. Sport is not always about stats or science, for that matter. It’s about the art. Azhar Ali has never been that artist, never the one to pose for the camera after creaming an elegant off drive.

An ugly batting style, scoring odd runs, Azhar has been drawing stick figures like a second-grader, while someone like Babar Azam has been painting masterpieces like the Mona Lisa. But is that truly a bad thing? Amongst many other batsmen, Alastair Cook comes from a similar mould and he ended up scoring over 12,000 test runs. By itself, this isn’t a bad thing. But on top of this, Azhar is a batsman with limited ability and talent, not better illustrated by the test match against New Zealand in Abu Dhabi in 2018.

An ugly batting style, scoring odd runs, Azhar has been drawing stick figures like a second grader, while someone like Babar Azam has been painting masterpieces like the Mona Lisa.

Pakistan was cruising towards a clinical win, and the line up imploded in the 4th innings chase quite spectacularly. As the wickets fell and the runs were squeezed, Williamson brought the field in to put further pressure on the batsmen. Azhar lacking the dynamic stroke play of white-ball cricket and showcased his one-dimensional game as he preferred taking singles and doubles as compared to hitting over the top of the infield with flair.

In a match where he definitely should’ve finished off for his country, Azhar buckled under the pressure (although there was no real pressure) and was LBW yet again and Pakistan lost by just 4 runs, their narrowest defeat in history.

This inning summarises Azhar’s career quite well. Not only does it demonstrate the low ceiling of Azhar’s potential highlighted by his limited talent, but it provides a good analogy of his career. So close, yet so far. Test greatness is on the horizon for Azhar, he can almost touch it. But just like waking up after falling in a dream, he falls short of hitting that ground. Taking all these facts into consideration, I do believe Azhar fulfilled his potential.

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He was never the poster boy for Pakistani batting, nor was he supposed to be. Simply put, he was the anchor that Pakistan needed at no.3 to provide some sort of stability in an otherwise shaky batting line-up. He was the batsman that blunted the new ball, scored slowly and let the other batsmen flourish around him. That’s all he ever was and that’s all he ever will be.

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No better example of this is the chase of 302 against Sri Lanka at Sharjah in 2014.

Needing 302 runs in 2 sessions on the final day of the test, Azhar played a match-winning knock based on his strengths of picking the bad balls and putting the balls into gaps to rotate strike. However, most importantly, he allowed the batsmen at the other end to play with more swagger and bravado. His partnership with Sarfaraz Ahmed was at run a ball and his century stand with Misbah came from just 111 balls, allowing both batsmen to play with energy and impetus, resulting in a remarkable victory for Pakistan.

Whatever it may be, Azhar’s contribution to Pakistan cricket should be respected. But at the same time, it would be futile to have expectations from him which he cannot live up to. When it is all said and done, when Azhar laces up his boots for the final time, his legacy and place in the history books should just reflect what he was, a good batsman who gave his service to Pakistan to the best of his capacity and ability.

At the end of the day, that is something that should always be worth applauding and remembering.

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Nisar Ali Khan assisted with this article, you can follow him on Twitter.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the official views of Sportageous or its founders. Assumptions made within the article are not reflective of the position of Sportageous as an organisation and its founders.
The curation of the article was supported by Kinza Tahir. You can follow her here on LinkedIn.

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