Azhar Ali is an ODI batsman much-improved, but a harried one running out of time as Pakistan captain

Time is short for his captaincy of a side that has suffered more than just a series defeat in England. But asking Azhar to fill Misbah-ul-Haq's shoes, despite the fact the format seemed not to suit him, is on the PCB's heads, writes Osman Samiuddin.
Pakistan’s Azhar Ali walks off the pitch after being caught out for 80, during the fourth ODI against England at Headingley, in Leeds, England, Thursday September 1, 2016. Richard Sellers / PA
Pakistan’s Azhar Ali walks off the pitch after being caught out for 80, during the fourth ODI against England at Headingley, in Leeds, England, Thursday September 1, 2016. Richard Sellers / PA

Poor Azhar Ali. It was possible to foresee a year ago when he was appointed Pakistan’s one-day captain the predicament he finds himself in right now.

At the time he took over, after the 2015 World Cup, you could just about make out the operating logic in the Pakistan Cricket Board’s (PCB) decision. They wanted a little stability (they always want that though are rarely able to manage it) and a little continuity from Misbah-ul-Haq’s tenure.

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In Azhar, they got both. He is as stable as a rock, with the added feature that he will never rock anything, not a boat nor a block party. And in being a poster boy for the Misbah era, he appeared to the board to hold similar ethos as Misbah: a Misbah-lite. It was enough for them to overlook the fact that he had not played an ODI for two years and that even when he had, it looked like it may not be the format for him.

It was, all in all, a pretty humdrum decision by which you could not really get especially outraged or enthused. Sarfraz Ahmed, the wicketkeeper, might have been a slightly more energetic choice and he may well take over soon enough, but the lack of an obvious candidate was indicative of the malaise Pakistan had sunk into in their limited overs cricket.

That was actually the problem, one that was slowly becoming clear but did so unequivocally at the World Cup: a disastrous mix of factors in and out of Pakistan’s control meant that limited overs cricket was leaving Pakistan behind. It had been for some time.

The 50-over version is arguably the most volatile of cricket’s three formats right now. England are doing things as a batting side that the format has rarely seen before, as are AB de Villiers and several Indian batsmen.

For the last decade or so, it has undergone so many rule changes that it has become, effectively, a different sport to what it was before. Glimpses of the old ways are still available, depending on conditions: in Sri Lanka, for instance, where Australia beat the hosts in a relatively low-scoring series on slow surfaces.

But you can still tell how much it has changed in the entitled reactions of David Warner to the surfaces that he came across there. Because run-scoring did not venture too often over five an over, he thought Sri Lanka was not helping grow the game.

In any case, it could also be argued that what Pakistan needed at the time was someone with the volatility to match that of the format, or at least some dynamism to break the reverie that enveloped Misbah’s time.

More than ever it is what they need now, because just at this moment, not only is Azhar carrying the desperate and harried look of a man running out of time, he also doubles as the hapless man who is not of his time.

Time is short for his captaincy of a side that has suffered more than just a defeat in England. This has been a mauling and Pakistan is fortunate that, other than Trent Bridge, the results on paper do not look as emphatic as they were in reality. With a Bangladesh whitewash already against his name, this series is a tipping point for him.

It is unfortunate because, as a batsman, he has actually broadened his game. His strike rate before his elevation was an inexcusably turgid 64.84, a rate which has never been en vogue; since becoming captain, he scores 16 more runs per 100 balls than he did before. He has scored runs too, which is handy for all captains but especially Pakistani ones.

The tragedy for Azhar though is not only that he is arriving late to a party but that the party has actually ended. A strike rate of 80 is no longer enough at the top of the order, not nearly enough for an opener or a No 3. It is a shame, but that is the way it is – the game has evolved quicker than Azhar has.

Still, it is commendable that he has changed his game but more than that, he should be presented as an example in the vast wastelands of Pakistani batting talent. Azhar may or may not evolve beyond what he is now as a one-day batsman but he, we can be sure, will try.

If only the likes of Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shahzad, to name but two – and both far more gifted – were capable of something similar, Pakistan might not be where they currently are.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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Published: September 4, 2016 04:00 AM

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