Azhar shows off his Test skills, again
When Rahul Dravid announced his retirement from international cricket a few months ago, a pall of gloom descended over cricket. It wasn't necessarily because of the departure of a great player. It was partly because of the uncertainty around whether the next generation have it in them to sustain Test cricket, because it is common opinion that the last generation of quality Test players is slowly slipping away. That they are being replaced by batsmen loaded with skill sets needed for Twenty20 cricket, but are rather lost in Tests. The search for young batsmen who display the virtues of patience, concentration and lengthy attention spans has gathered steam, and Azhar Ali, so far in his two-year career, has shown signs that he is one such player. He showed it at the SSC in this series and, again, at Pallekele, shrugging off his first-innings duck to get to a century in the second.
Azhar knows a thing or two about occupying the crease and wearing the opposition bowlers down. His job is to hold one end up so that another player can adopt a more aggressive approach, especially if there is scoreboard pressure. When Azhar walked to the crease late on the third day, Pakistan had just begun their task of erasing a first-innings deficit of 111 and setting a target that would give them a chance to level the series.
The momentum was firmly with Sri Lanka at the end of the third day. Pakistan had to practically double their first-innings effort to give themselves a realistic chance of fighting back. Adding to the pressure was an inconsistent middle order, a half-fit Adnan Akmal, and the seaming conditions witnessed over two completed days.
Pakistan, perhaps, were fortunate that the harsh sun had evaporated whatever moisture there was on the surface, making batting considerably easier on day four. There was no exaggerated movement in the air or off the pitch to test the technique of either Mohammad Hafeez or Azhar. Both had to ensure they batted an entire session, to gain psychological points over the hosts. Azhar, true to requirements, cut out the extravagance, only playing balls within his reach.
He was particularly impressive through the covers, pounding anything with width. Mahela Jayawardene maintained attacking fields for a while during the morning session, packing the slip cordon, but Azhar ensured he drove off the full face of the bat, exploiting the big gap between mid-off and cover, and also straight down the ground. He was judicious with deliveries that honed in on his off stump, preferring to leave them alone. His defence was solid too, and he found opportunities to pick up quick singles.
There may have been a case to accelerate post lunch, but the quick departures of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq forced Azhar to revert to a watchful approach. He had Asad Shafiq - the last recognised, fit batsman - for company, and the pair created some anxiety in the Sri Lanka camp with a stand of 100 for the fifth wicket. Prior to that, Azhar had shared stands of 94, 48 and 18. His was the prized wicket.
When Azhar reached his century, shortly after tea, it was his third in Tests for the year - the most by any batsman. It should silence his detractors, who in the past have pointed to his poor conversion rate - he had 13 fifties and only three centuries coming into this game. Another impressive feature of his innings was his stamina, converting twos to threes each time he exploited a big gap. The bowlers needed a mistake on his part and he obliged on 136, chasing a wide Fernando delivery. It was a rare lapse in concentration, after hours of hard work.
"Asad and I were aiming to play till the end of the day, so I was a bit disappointed to get out. I was disappointed to leave him alone," Azhar said. "Hopefully he can string together a good partnership tomorrow morning."
Reflecting on his good form in 2012, Azhar said that the England series in the UAE, during which he scored a career-best 157, convinced him that he belonged at the highest level. "I've been playing well over the last few Test matches," he said. "The England series especially gave me a lot of confidence. I am carrying on from there."
The batting conditions, he said, had eased. "On the first day, the first couple of hours were difficult for the batsmen. It was doing a lot for the seamers. It has settled down now and got a bit slower. But I feel that if a bowler puts in an effort, he can get something out of this pitch."
Though Azhar failed to bat out the day, he helped give Pakistan a fighting chance: their lead stands at 188 with two wickets in hand and Shafiq at the crease. He was confident his team had sufficient runs to create pressure. "We came into this Test with the intention to win and level the series. We have the runs on the board to put pressure on Sri Lanka. I don't think we need to rely only on the seamers. Saeed Ajmal is a world-class spinner and I think he can change the game for us in one spell."
Kanishkaa Balachandran is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo