Azhar strengthens claim to No.3 spot
Azhar Ali had played 31 consecutive matches since making his Test debut against England in 2010, but a dip in form in 2013 resulted in him being dropped for Mohammad Hafeez in the first two Tests of the series against Sri Lanka. With Hafeez failing in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, however, Azhar was given another opportunity in Sharjah and he took it in style, scoring a brisk hundred to help Pakistan chase 302 in 57.3 overs, and square the series 1-1.
Azhar's 157 and 68 against England in 2012 are perhaps his two best knocks, but the batsman rated his 137-ball 103 on Monday as his most valued one. "I tried to stick with the plan," he said. "The message was clear from the management [to go for it] and when I went in and I just played my game. I wanted to play positively and I did that and it's the most valued innings of my career."
More importantly for Azhar, who spent the first two Tests carrying drinks and watching his spot in the team slipping away, his innings kick-started his career. Misbah said Azhar had been picked because he was the team's No. 3. "Dropping Hafeez was a difficult decision but in the end we thought to bring Azhar Ali back because he is our established batsman at the position," Misbah-ul-Haq said after the win. "In the last many innings, Ali was struggling with only one 50 and that's why we brought Hafeez in place."
Azhar was dropped not only because of his indifferent form but also for not increasing his strike rate when needed. Until then, he had been an automatic starter in the XI, having brought stability to the top order by scoring 2081 runs at 38.53, making the No. 3 spot his own. However, a recent slide saw him make just 270 from seven matches at 19.28, with only two fifties, though even those performances could be attributed to Pakistan's irregular Test schedule during the time.
Still, he needed self-belief and someone to give him confidence. It was provided by his former coach Waqar Younis, who suggested a more attacking approach was the way back for Azhar. His 103 in Sharjah was full of aggression and in stark contrast to the holding role that he has performed for much of his career.
Azhar is known for his dead batting, occupying the crease and frustrating the opposition. His career strike rate before the third Test was 38.68 but his century came at 75.18. It was not unexpected, though, because Azhar had entered the series with a plan, after scoring two first-class hundreds at strike rate of nearly 60. If he is able to raise his game to meet such difficult demands, Azhar could become the versatile No. 3 Pakistan desperately need.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets here