Pressure on Azhar rises ahead of 'must-win' game
Azhar Ali has called Pakistan's final ODI against England a "must-win game" as the pressure on his captaincy mounts after just six months in the job. Pakistan have twice been beaten heavily after going 1-0 up in the series and can now only manage a tie at best.
In both Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, Pakistan struggled in particular with the bat. Azhar has only managed 66 runs in three innings at the top of the order and changes to the line-up - partly enforced by the sudden retirement of Younis Khan - have not helped. With Pakistan ranked a lowly No. 8 in ODIs, some commentators at home have turned their fire on the coach, Waqar Younis, despite the team's recent success in Tests.
"It's a must-win game for us," Azhar said of the fourth ODI in Dubai. "It won't be easy because England played well in the last two games and won, but we all realise the importance of this game, we will do our hardest work to win the game and I am confident that if we play to our ability then we can definitely win this game and level the series."
Pakistan narrowly avoided missing out on a place at the 2017 Champions Trophy earlier this year, winning series against Zimbabwe (twice) and Sri Lanka to stay above West Indies in the rankings. But their indifferent form could jeopardise automatic qualification for the 2019 World Cup.
"Pressure is always there in every series and different pressures - we had the pressure of qualifying for the Champions Trophy when we were playing against Sri Lanka but then the players responded very well," Azhar said. "So there is pressure and since it's a must-win game, you take that as positive and focus on cricket, if you use all your abilities then there is no doubt you can do it."
Following the World Cup and Misbah-ul-Haq's retirement, Azhar was recalled to the ODI side after a two-year absence to take up the captaincy. His tenure began with a first-ever series defeat to Bangladesh but results had been improving until back-to-back losses against England.
Asked about his future in the role was at stake, he said: "Things which are not in your control, you can't control so I think the best thing is to focus on what you have in your hand. I don't have any fear of losing anything. Do the job honestly and no one in the team has that fear and will accept whatever the outcome is."
A loss of form with the bat has also come at an unfortunate time for Azhar. Having marked his ODI return with two hundreds in his first five matches as captain, he has now gone eight innings without reaching 50, either side of a short lay-off caused by an infected toe.
"I scored a lot of runs when I started as captain, but sometimes you don't score runs. I am trying my best and was feeling well in the last game, middling the ball well so hopefully I will do that again in the next game and convert the good start. When I go in I don't take any pressure when I am batting."
His innings of 36 in the Sharjah ODI was curtailed by a run-out, one of three in the match that undermined Pakistan's hopes of setting a more testing target. Azhar has been run out five times in ODIs this year, as well as once in Tests - five of which involved Mohammad Hafeez - and he admitted it was something Pakistan needed to work on.
"Obviously you don't want run-outs but sometimes it happens," he said, "it was one of those days the calling was not good, three main batsmen got run outs and that is an area of concern. But it's not a big problem that we cannot solve, I think it's about focus and putting your mind into it."
He added that the batsmen had discussed the collapse that saw Pakistan go from 132 for 2 to 161 for 8. "I think all of us were hurt, we were in a position to score big and on that the kind of pitch it wasn't easy to chase. At that time 208 looked good and had we taken one or two more wickets then the match could have been in our favour.
"When it happens like this we discuss everything, obviously it's part of the game but we were hurt because it was in our hands, so we need to take full advantage and achieve the best. The message was that we should score the maximum runs."
There was some good news for Azhar to contemplate on the eve of the match, with the suggestion that Yasir Shah could be available again after a knee injury kept him out in Sharjah.
"Yasir, we will see his fitness today, how it goes, hopefully he is fit," he said. "He is feeling better, and we want to assess whether he can survive the 50 overs, you can't survive in a 50-overs game half fit, so we have to assess him. We will look at the pitch and then decide what combination we play."
Alan Gardner is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick