Pakistan struggle with No. 3 conundrum
Pakistan handed debuts to eight players in 2013, but the batting line-up between No. 3 and No. 6 remained constant, until Azhar Ali was dropped for Mohammad Hafeez in the Abu Dhabi Test. The move raised questions on Pakistan's long-term planning that aimed to allow youngsters to settle and establish themselves in the Test team in the long run.
Azhar made a debut for Pakistan in 2010 and has since been considered an automatic selection. He has brought stability to the top order, scoring 2081 runs at 38.53 and has become integral at the No 3 position in recent years. Though he experienced a dip in form in 2013 - he scored 270 runs in seven matches at an average of 19.28 with two fifties - the performances could be put down to Pakistan's irregular Test schedule.
In Abu Dhabi, Azhar was dropped in favour of Hafeez, who was also axed from the Test team in 2013 for his poor form. In five Tests, before Abu Dhabi, in 2013, Hafeez scored 102 runs at an average of 10.2. After three Tests at the start of the year against South Africa, Hafeez did not play a Test until the Zimbabwe tour in September. He was left out of the Tests against South Africa, and then came back for the match against Sri Lanka in December.
Hafeez's form in limited-overs, though, was much better, as he scored 1301 runs in 33 ODIs at 46.46 with five hundreds and four fifties in the same period. It was this form that sealed his place in the XI for Abu Dhabi, even though his form and technique in the longer format have been under the scanner for a while. On his third comeback to Test cricket, Hafeez scored 11 off 18 balls.
Azhar on the other hand, prepared for the Test series with two first-class hundreds. But Hafeez's selection means that the No. 3 spot in the Pakistan line-up is suddenly uncertain, even as the side tries to find a settled combination for the openers' slot, which has been in transition since Saeed Anwar and Aamir Sohail retired.
A rough patch is an inevitable part of a cricketer's career. Younis Khan, Pakistan's former No. 3, also suffered similar losses in form before settling down to become one of Pakistan's highest run-getters. Similarly, Azhar, who averaged 45 until 2012, also needs to be supported. Among the current crop of Pakistan players, Azhar is also seen as a future captain.
"Azhar brought a stability at the No.3 position," Basit Ali, Azhar's coach at his domestic team Sui National Gas and Pipelines Ltd, told ESPNcricinfo. "It was really an unfair call to drop him for a batsman who was meant to bat in the opening slot. It's a very important position, you need to have someone like Azhar - who have been developed to play a role for the specialised position.
"I have concerns that he was dropped from a place for which he has been an automatic option. He has become an important player in the last three years and dropping him from the XI doesn't make sense to me. Playing Hafeez at No. 3 is temporary, but dropping Azhar at this stage might disturb him as he is a future prospect and is here to stay for long."
Before the Test, Hafeez had rued the long gaps between Tests and admitted he had a technique-related issue against swing bowling. "We always have been ruing the lack of Test cricket and the six-month gaps between series are also making it difficult for players to maintain momentum," Hafeez said. "For me, it was a matter of not scoring runs in the format and, in fact, it's more than a technique thing for which I have worked so hard. I went on analyzing my videos to found why I have been struggling against swing bowling."
Hafeez's form may be peaking through the limited-overs run, but his temperament and technique in Tests have been challenged on several occasions. Age is also something he needs to factor in. Hafeez is 33, five years older than Azhar and the latter perhaps has a lot more to offer to Pakistan cricket in the long run.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets here