Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 1st Test, Abu Dhabi, 3rd day January 2, 2014

Pakistan struggle with No. 3 conundrum

Azhar Ali suffered a dip in form in 2013 but replacing him with Mohammad Hafeez may not be a solution for Pakistan's long-term plans

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • bigdhonifan on January 3, 2014, 13:14 GMT

    Entire batting line up need to e shuffled. Two old horses one with an average of 51 (Younia Khan) and one with 46 (Misbah). This is the weakest of batting lineup compared to other international teams. Once these two oldies retire, pakistan will struggle to score 100 Runs/innings.

  • RaadQ on January 3, 2014, 10:53 GMT

    As far as I am considered there is no "conundrum" as long as Hafeez is picked. TIME AND TIME we are shown that limited format form is not equivalent to test form, examples: eoin morgan, george bailey. A test batsman should be selected based on his First Class form, and Hafeez's form was awful. With Azhar Ali's poor form too, I would bring in haris sohail/fawad alam and shuffle the order if necessary. I can see Asad Shafiq's spot being scrutinised too.

  • dummy4fb on January 3, 2014, 9:41 GMT

    Azhar has done good at no 3 spot. He has been poor this year but if they were of to replace him then it should have been some one of same caliber. Hafeez is on and off at no3 in odis but test is different and hafeez simply is not good enough.

  • dummy4fb on January 3, 2014, 8:13 GMT

    Azhar ali 38.0 avg is not good for no 3 bats man. Omar akmal undoubtedly the most talented batsman of Pakistan should be in the test squad...the Pakistan cricket management has made him a wicketkeeper batsman...he is the future of Pakistan cricket.

  • getsetgopk on January 3, 2014, 7:09 GMT

    This day had to come, it was way clear to some ten years back when two young batsmen hit the international scene from Pakistan. Those two batsmen were Yasir Hameed and the other Mr. Professor. I was never in favor of Hafeez at that time. He just didn't look technically sound and that difficiency remains to date. Yasir Hameed was the guy the administrators should have stuck with but they gradually but surely sidelined him in favor of the mostly inadequate professor. And thats where we are at today. Hafeez was dropped subsequently, made a second comming in 2010 but have phased out again. Going by the past, he needs to be dorpped again for a year or two and maybe he'll be a tad better but at 33 that would be a fruitless exercise. I say enough with this rather long term experiementation, give Azhar a go, a consisitent one, 3 or 4 years and if he's upto no good, bring in another youngster. Hafeez just wont cut it. Feel sorry for saying this, I got nothing against him but the job needs doing

  • ZeeshanAdeel on January 3, 2014, 3:37 GMT

    Azhar Ali should have played this match. He has the right temperament of test cricket and I guess selectors should also give him the chance in ODI, especially when Pakistan is playing out of sub-continent....

  • drnaveed on January 3, 2014, 2:57 GMT

    it is now easy for anyone to write or say ,after failure of muhammad hafeez with the bat in the first inning, that ' he should not have been selected'.Playing against SL ,against whom he had scored those three hundreds recently, he was an automatic choice , ahead of azhar ali, as only one of the two had to be selected for the spot 3 position .but ... not scoring runs , is another topic. i think ,over confidence got better of him in that innings, even when he went to bat in the 5th ODI ,before he faced a single ball ,the commentators started saying that they are expecting another century from muhammad hafeez ,so he perhaps was on the moon after his recent success with the bat , along with the commentators .in addition ,he is a better fielder and also is a useful bowler.he should try to adjust himself according to the test cricket requirement ,sooner the better for him.i think, if he fails ,Pak should try sohaib maqsood for the one down position, for the future.

  • dummy4fb on January 3, 2014, 2:50 GMT

    Pakistani selectors just can't get enough of Hafeez, Malik or Afridi. No matter how shabby their performance, they will be choseb over and over again. Ther must be so many younger lads toiling away but never getting the chance to don the national colours.

  • dummy4fb on January 3, 2014, 2:41 GMT

    Azhar Ali should have been continued with, Hafeez is fine for One dayers and T20's but as far as test cricket is concerned only justification would be for him to play as an all rounder however at test level he hasn't shown enough promise in bowling either. I think Fawad Alam and Umar Akmal are also future prospects who should be considered in the long run as well once Younis KHan and Misbah call it a day.

  • dummy4fb on January 3, 2014, 1:47 GMT

    Kudos to our selection committee. They have been doing a wonderful job. When the ODI team which did well in SA and UAE were looking good, they were handed over tickets to go home, so that they can be replaced by Hafeez and Shafiq in the test squad.

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