As Pakistan attempt to thrive without Misbah-Ul-Haq and Younis Khan, coach Mickey Arthur put the responsibility of carrying Pakistan’s cricket forward on the shoulders of two cricketers who had been understudies of Misbah and Younis for years.
It was the day of the first Test match between Pakistan and Sri Lanka. Everything seemed to move at a snail’s pace. The only pleasure the spectators enjoyed was the opportunity to take naps out of boredom. However, that soon changed when Azhar Ali glanced Lakshan Sandakan for a single to short third man in the 80th over of the Pakistani innings. He received rapturous applause as this marked his 5000th run in Test cricket and he became only the 8th Pakistani to achieve the feat.
Azhar Ali was born in Kot Radha Kishan, Punjab in 1985. As a youngster, he was always drawn to cricket, and aspired to become a leg spinner. In 2000, at 15 years of age, he took part in the Under-15 World Challenge final at Lords against West Indies batting at No. 8. He made his First Class debut for Lahore in 2001/02 as a No. 9 batsman who could bowl daunting leg spin.
After playing only one game in his initial season, he joined the Khan Research Laboratories (KRL) outfit in 2002/03. But his appearances for KRL were sporadic due to his limited game as he was neither a clear batsman nor a bowler.
Azhar played only seven matches in his first four years, and at 20-years-old it looked like his time for making an impact in First Class cricket was running out. Under such a bleak forecast, he played against Sui Northen Gas Pipelines limited. Here, he gloriously played a compact inning of 39 of 133 balls diligently for nearly 3 hours.
Come the next innings, he was promoted to No. 5 wherein he made a gutsy 64, facing a quality attack. That was the moment that altered his career forever. On the basis of his batting ability, he was promoted by KRL to No. 4 and since then, has never looked back.
After scoring consistently in 2007/08 and 2008/09, Pakistan’s selectors had put Ali on their radar. A year later, he was selected for the national team after his impressive performance in the Qaid-e-Azam trophy where he scored 445 runs in 10 matches.
Azhar played his first Test in England in 2010, a tour in which Pakistan cricket hit rock bottom owing to the spot-fixing saga. The image of Pakistani Cricket was disastrous with three cricketers including captain Salman Butt being involved in the scandal.
A month later, when sweeping changes were made to the team and Misbah-ul-Haq took charge, Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq were acknowledged as two youngsters who could shape the future of the country’s cricket.
Azhar had already displayed his potential through scoring a match-winning 51 against Australia at Leeds and 92* against England. Against South Africa, he made 63 and 90 against a quality pace attack. It was innings like this that aided Pakistan in finding a solid batsman in him for years to come, especially in a time when greats like Mohammad Yousuf retired and the future of Younis Khan looked uncertain. Pakistan’s problem of finding a No. 3 seemed to have sorted itself out with Azhar nailing the spot within the first six months of his international career.
His compact technique led to him being labeled as a Test cricket specialist and the selectors were reluctant to pick him for limited overs games. While he made his first 100 against Sri Lanka in his 15th Test, it was his 157 against England that got him his due acclaim in the English media.
As a few months passed, he made notched back-to-back centuries against Sri Lanka and his accomplishments showed that he could score runs outside of the U.A.E. In spite of Azhar’s sublime form, Pakistan lost the series 0-1.
Then, in 2014, when Pakistan won a Test series against Australia for the first time in 20 years, Ali played a pivotal role as he hit twin hundreds in the second Test at Abu Dhabi. Six months later, he hit a massive 100 after getting a limited-over captaincy against Bangladesh which was followed by two 100s in limited overs cricket.
Azhar will continue to play a key role in Mickey Arthur’s plans which can be attributed to his being one of the few batsmen in modern cricket who have scored runs in abundance at every corner of the globe.
Be it his triple 100 in the day-night Test in Dubai, his double 100 in Australia or 100s in the West Indies, the only time he hasn’t scored 100s has been when he has scored runs in even more crucial moments.
Only last year, he scored a fighting 58 on a Hamilton pitch which, in his words, was the most bowling-friendly pitch he had played on. Coach Arthur said the chief reason for losing the Abu Dhabi Test was Azhar being declared out cheaply, which is a high accolade coming from a man who is said to be a tough taskmaster.
At 32, Azhar still has a lot of cricket left in him. If he continues to score with the same momentum, he might soon be on par with the highest run scorers in Pakistan’s cricketing history. For that, Azhar must continue to score runs at the rate which will justify him being given the tag of Mr. Consistent.
Pakistan have begun their new sojourn without Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan and it seems as though a lot will depend on the contribution of this backstage hero.