To a casual cricket spectator, hearing the name of a certain Virat Kohli or Joe Root is pretty normal. But mention the name of Azhar Ali, and the fan may have to put on his thinking cap before placing the rising star of Pakistan cricket.
From a leg-spinner to a right-hand top-order batsman, Azhar Ali’s fall and rise have been phenomenal to say the least. In 2010, the 31-year-old Lahori man received his maiden Test call on the back of his brilliant performances in the domestic scenes. Six years down the line, the uncertain player has transformed into a batting mainstay, nearly equaling the stats of modern day batting stalwarts Virat Kohli, Joe Root, Steve Smith and Kane Williamson, to name a few.
Chronicling Ali’s illustrious career
In 2013, Ali’s 270 runs in the seven Test matches he played, forced his way out of the playing XI. Taking Ali’s place, Mohammad Hafeez was recalled to play against Sri Lanka, but the veteran failed in his comeback. Hence, Ali made his way back for the final Test of the series.
During that last Sharjah Test, the history books were rewritten. Pakistan chased down 302 runs in only 58 overs to draw the Test Series 1-1. This inspirational run-chase went down as the fastest 300-run chase ever in the chronicles of Test cricket, with Azhar Ali’s incredible performance cementing his place in Pakistani cricket folklore.
On the last day of the third Test, Ali scored 103 from137 balls, at a strike rate of 75.18. He hit four sixes, all coming at a time when Pakistan needed to hike the run rate.
He meticulously caressed the ball, rotating the strike throughout his innings. He may not have played the winning stroke, but had done enough in creating history for his team before getting caught behind. From that moment on, whenever anyone talks about the hero of the Sharjah Test, only Ali comes to mind.
Fast forward to October 2016. Same venue – UAE, same format – Test Cricket, and same hero – Azhar Ali. This time, it was another island nation, the West Indies, different colour of the ball – pink, and a higher score – a whopping 302.
Confronted with a toothless bowling attack, Ali marched to a mammoth unbeaten innings, becoming his country’s fourth player to score a triple hundred in Tests. His marathon innings anchored Pakistan's first-innings score of 579 for 3 declared before the visitors moved to 69 for 1 in the 22 overs which they had to face till stumps.
His exceptional technique and marvelous temperament was evident in his innings, marking him as a certified opening batsman.
An unassuming performer
Ali is one of the very few international players to make his Test debut before having ODI experience on his international resume. He made his Test debut against Australia at Lord’s in July 2010 and played a crucial knock in his very second game, scoring a match-winning 51 at Leeds. With that knock, Azhar’s place in the squad for the Tests against England was extended.
He scored an unbeaten 92 in the first innings of the third Test at The Oval, taking his side to a win. Nobody could stop him from being a Test regular thereafter.
Another major highlight in his Test career was his double century at Mirpur when Pakistan toured Bangladesh last year. The 31-year-old took home the Man-of-the-series award for his exploits.
Let us take a look at the comparison of Ali’s Test stats with other top-rated Test batsmen.
Most of us know that Virat Kohli has played 48 Test matches, and has scored 3,554 runs at an average of 45. But not all of us know that Ali reached 4,000 runs in his 50th Test, a remarkable feat.
The current ICC Test Rankings topper Steve Smith has played 44 Tests and has scored 4,099 runs, a record not very far ahead of Ali. Joe Root, another very highly esteemed Test batsman, has played 46 Tests and scored 4,005 runs, at an average of 54, while Kane Williamson has 4,528 runs from 54 matches – both those records are very similar to Ali's.
The right-hander has already posted 11 hundreds besides 20 half-centuries, and has ‘greatness’ written all over his career.
Ali has always been the silent contributor, unassuming performer, and improbable hero. You will not find too many in the crowd dedicating posters to him, or even half as many calling him their cricketing idol.
But do not be surprised if in the coming years, or even months, the linchpin replaces Misbah-Ul-Haq as the Test captain. Sure, to be a part of the ranks of the top 10 best Test batsmen, perhaps Ali can be a little more aggressive in his approach. But there's no reason why he can't get there; he has already upped his scoring rate in recent times.
The self-effacing hero deserves a lot more credit to his name than he is getting at the moment.