Pakistan v Sri Lanka, 3rd Test, Sharjah, 5th day January 21, 2014

Azhar strengthens claim to No.3 spot

Azhar Ali's match-winning 103 off 137 balls in Sharjah went a long way to proving that he had the ability to bat according to the situation and make the No.3 spot his own

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Cricket on January 25, 2014, 10:51 GMT

    This is the problem with Pakistani selectors and Pakistani fans. One good innings and the guy is made into a god. You forget that just recently the guy was dropped for his pathetic performances in 2013. Furhter, in this series ASAD SHAFIQ showed how useless he can be.Remember, this was suppposed to be an easy series. Looks like people have forgotten about Asad and looks like he will be forgiven. Now if Azhar continues in the team then again it will require 12 - 18 months of failure for him to be dropped and behold HAFEEZ will be back. As if this is a game of musical chairs. Please stop this revolving door policy and bring FAWAD Alam & HARIS Sohail.

    Also most importantly, Dont forget of of this MISBAH & AZHAR efforts would have been useless if SARFRAZ would not have provided the accelaration that was required. AHMED SHEHZAD gave them a quick start but did not last. Then it looked as if they are not going anywhere untill SARFRAZ provided the most important 48 runs in 46 balls.

  • Johann on January 23, 2014, 5:59 GMT

    @Ali_Chaudhary. I still remember 3rd test vs Aus at Australia under Kumble's captaincy. Check Dravid's scores. But cannot count the number of times.

  • Android on January 22, 2014, 13:28 GMT

    in this article its clear that azhar mentioned he played his natural game. and he was successful. I think we can suggest improvement to azhars techniques but we should not tell him to play slow. he played positive now he needs to be consistent

  • Dummy4 on January 22, 2014, 11:13 GMT

    @Ali_Chaudhry.... sir i agree it is one of the innings of this decade but Azhar has a long long lonnnnnnnnnnng way to go to be compared on the same levels as Punter and Dravid. He has shown potential and class and most importantly determination and hunger to match these giants but its a lonnnnnnnnnnnnnnng way off....but no doubt, innings of this decade so far.. abs brilliant... couldnt sit on my chair when the game was on

  • Ali on January 22, 2014, 9:56 GMT

    Simply the best Inng by a no. 3Batsman in entire history of Test Cricket. Dravid played over 160 matches but could never Play an Inng like this. Even Punter and many others struggled to Play like this. what a Player Azhar Ali. You Beauty!

  • adeel on January 22, 2014, 1:23 GMT

    @Waheedahmad Malik - totally agreed. hafiz at best is no 6/7 batsman. not top order. his main asset is his bowling and he's a decent fielder. his batting in lower order will be handy since the ball would've lost its hardness and shine. so it will help him. having said that it should be the last life line thrown to him at that position as an all rounder and if he doesn't grab it then bring in someone young and new.

  • Ning-nong on January 21, 2014, 20:30 GMT

    Message to the Azhar Ali doubters, during the 2010 tour to England, Azhar Ali was the scalp that England wanted the most, he resisted whilst the others fell away with little or no fight. He like Misbah will continue to have critics from those who are not familiar with the demands of Test cricket. They come in a play according to the situation.

  • ick on January 21, 2014, 18:46 GMT

    It was the URGE to win and team got spirit with positive attitude from Captain, though, it was the first time Misbah got positive aggressive approach. He must have learnt lesson that this approach is better than he had in all the ODI's he ever played. I can't forget those maiden overs he played against Zimbabwe, the worst negative message sent to boys in the dressing room and on field. Misbah should take this approach to ODI's or let someone else be Captain in ODI's. His track record does not guarantee any victories against Aus, Ind, Eng, NZ and WI. He has to take this approach to ODI's to win matches. SL lost coz they adopted Misbah's ODI approach and Misbah got a new lease of life with this positive approach. Well played Pak.

  • Ali on January 21, 2014, 17:22 GMT

    Pakistan is playing no test match for next 9 months and test only players will always lack match practice. With Pakistan also shortening 3 test match series against austrilia to 2 test match series and replace it with ODIs. Test cricket is real crickets and it should be given equal importance, 6 out of 11 players are only test only players. It would be better if pakistan maintain seperate Test A team and compete with different teams

  • mainul on January 21, 2014, 16:24 GMT

    @ goflnut and @ amirsoorty . Spot on. This was a great victory, no doubt but Pakistan should also look for their weaknesses and sort these out.Azhar should work harder on his strike rate and ability to rotate strikes and odd boundaries and do it on a consistent basis, not only in this match.Only then he will be a world class player.Regarding Asad i think he will not get a place in any other top 5 test sides.I believe Pakistan have better batsmen than him. I am very disappointed with those Pak fans who regard Asad highly saying about his technique, temperament. But to be acknowledged as a good batsman your NO 1 quality should be consistency and then capacity to deliver in tough situations and making your team win.Sadly Asad dont have any.It is not about supporting a player blindly, it is about sensibly.

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