Pakistan must wait before pushing the buzzer on Azhar

Out-of-form top-order batsman will resume scoring runs only if Pakistan get to play more Test matches, writes Osman Samiuddin.

Azhar Ali, Pakistan’s No 3 batsman, has arrived at the crease only 12 times in his 51 Test innings with a 50-plus start or more. Jekesai Njikizana / AFP
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There was little more Pakistan could have wanted from their Abu Dhabi win over South Africa last week.

Maybe for Adnan Akmal to have had a cleaner game behind the stumps. More pressingly, they could have hoped for Azhar Ali to score some more runs.

Azhar made 11 and three in the two innings, edging to the wicketkeeper in the first innings and to slip in the second.

That prolonged an increasingly miserable recent Test run, in which he has made just two fifties in his last 12 innings (average: 19.33).

The manner of both dismissals offer no solace, either. Thirty-seven of his 52 dismissals have been bowled, caught behind or leg-before, which are sneakily like the dismissals of many openers.

That is no surprise, because at No 3, he has effectively been an opener for Pakistan in his short career, and no batsman’s life is as fragile as an opener’s.

Only 12 times in his 51 innings at one down has he arrived at the crease with a 50-plus start or more already laid out. Usually when he has arrived, the new ball has still been shiny and hard.

Batting is desperately hard work and Azhar is one of those batsmen who, unfortunately, make it look every bit the struggle it truly is. Even when he is batting well, he looks as vulnerable as he does when he is not batting well, every outswinger potentially carrying his name on it.

But as much as his recent dip could be the result of any particular chink in his batting, it is almost certainly the result of Pakistan’s Test schedule.

Azhar is not now considered by Pakistan for any other format other than Tests.

Given Pakistan’s intermittent Test schedule since the England series ended in the UAE nearly two years ago, is it really surprising that Azhar has looked scratchy and disjointed?

Pakistan – and Azhar – have played only nine Tests since they beat England in Dubai in February 2012.

In between, they have had gaps of five, seven and then six months without playing a single Test. After the England series, Azhar has only played five one-day internationals, spread across the rest of the year.

So if he is looking more arrhythmical internationally than usual, it should not really be a surprise.

As a useful comparison, take the 12 innings he played before this schedule kicked in. That is, the 12 innings directly before this last, nightmare 12-innings stretch.

That was Pakistan’s last busy period of Test cricket and Azhar had three hundreds and a fifty to show for it.

All of which brings us to the next Test against South Africa, starting Wednesday in Dubai.

It is unlikely Pakistan will want to change a winning team if they can help it.

But in any scenario, they must persist with Azhar. This is exactly the kind of period in which a board puts faith and trust in the talent it has identified and developed, in the promise that Azhar has shown in three years.

Pakistan’s opening problems are not going to go away overnight.

Azhar’s presence – and, increasingly, his experience – has to be a vital part of Pakistan’s batting in the long term.