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Azhar Ali: no show, all performance

In 2016, Azhar Ali has scored a triple century, a hundred in England, and now one in Australia - that too in the Boxing Day Test AFP

Sami Aslam has an interesting backstory. Discovered in a talent hunt - and, admit it, you thought they only threw up fast bowlers - he has worked his way up to this level by scoring runs in the kind of quantities that it is impossible to ignore.

He is preternaturally calm, with a face that may as well have been made of stone, so little does it change come rain, hail or hellfire. He could be the opener Pakistan have yearned for - or, at least, Misbah's Pakistan - for years.

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.

Babar Azam is the next big thing, even if he is from the House of Akmal. That should make compulsory an accompanying warning to guard against heightened expectations. But it also means that he has a cover drive you never want to miss. His languid energy at the crease stands in sharp contrast to his cousins', and Pakistan hope desperately that his career progresses as contrastingly.

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.

Younis Khan - ah, now, there's a story in almost everything he does at the crease and in almost everything he does away from the field. These days, there is a greater urgency about it all. Is he Pakistan's greatest Test batsman? Will he get to 10,000 Test runs? Why does he crouch so low? Are his best days gone? Will his eventual exit go off smoothly?

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.

Misbah-ul-Haq is playing Test cricket at the age of 42 and if there are more remarkable stories in cricket, even international sport, then they're probably not true. These days, each time he comes out to bat is an event, almost like the farewell tour of an outgoing US President. You can't help but get sentimental, and want to be there, to be able to say that you were. He's in a bit of a trough at the moment too, so everything he does - practice longer than the others, tinker with his stance and balance - is a national conversation.

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.

Asad Shafiq is having his moment in the sun just now - not before time, mind you. He is, it can be said without fear of dissent, the best pure batsman in the side currently. And now the talk is of how and when that status needs to be properly recognised. They've made a little bit of a mess of his inevitable move up the order, but he has quietly gone back down and scored one of Pakistan's most heroic hundreds.

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.

You see what's happening here, right? Someone or some issue or some point is always more interesting than Azhar, but lately, nobody is actually doing better than he what they are meant to be doing; that is, scoring runs.

This is a year in which he is now the fifth leading run-scorer in the world, mingling with the likes of Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Virat Kohli (though, at a party, you sense he might gravitate towards the fourth man ahead of him, Alastair Cook). It is a year in which he has scored a triple hundred, in which he has scored a hundred in England, and now this, the big one: a hundred in Australia, in the Boxing Day Test no less. Credentials are rarely established more emphatically.

In some ways, it is difficult to believe he has done all this; that he has an average currently creeping towards 47. Think back to those first appearances in Test cricket in that summer in England when it swung more than an Andy Warhol bash in the '60s. He struggled, oh how he struggled, and yet… and yet, he toughed it out, in a way that said he wasn't, perhaps, born to bat. And it is true that he did not begin life as a batsman: he batted at No. 9 in his first-class debut and at eight for a few games thereafter. Not until his eighth game did he move to five, nearly four years after his debut. And five years after his debut, ten matches in, he first played at one down; nominally, he was a legspinner, but he didn't bowl much those days.

Those first international runs in England, Misbah said the other day, were the making of him as a batsman. Those early innings also remain the template of his batsmanship because watching him at times is to be reminded of Shane Warne's observation of Monty Panesar: that he hadn't played 33 Tests but one Test 33 times. Warne's was a more cutting comment, aimed at Panesar's lack of evolution. That is not true of Azhar, but, some days, you could walk into an Azhar innings on 111 and believe, mistakenly, that he is on 11 on debut. Waqar Younis, twice his coach for Pakistan, has a tangentially related theory. He believes Azhar absorbs the presence of whoever he is batting with at the time and then begins to mirror it - so that if his partner is struggling, Azhar begins to look like he is as well, or if the partner is rotating the strike well, then Azhar perks up too.

It is an interesting observation, from a man who has watched much of Azhar's international career at close quarters. But it doesn't mask the fact that he has grown as a batsman, even if he can still eke out an almighty struggle in a way that Shafiq never might.

Look at the way he has developed his limited-overs game, even if there might be sniping that it is still some way behind what modern ODI batting is. It is a long distance between where he was at the start of his ODI career and where he is now. Look at the hundred that powered the Sharjah chase. And look even at his hundred in this Test. There was a period at the start of the England tour earlier this year when it looked as if England had him condemned, targeting his pads early and exploiting a tendency to fall over as he attempted to play through leg. Three times in the first four innings of that series, he was lbw.

He went away, worked on his balance at the crease and scored a hundred at Edgbaston. Yesterday and today, the full fruits of that work were evident in five straight-driven boundaries, which represent, surely, the most pristine driving of his career. Until a little while ago, you could have reasonably expected him to clip some of those deliveries through midwicket.

Not least impressive is that he has done this even as the prickly issue of his ODI captaincy rumbles along. He was actively booed by some sections of the crowd in the ODI series against West Indies in the UAE this year. It would have been reasonable if the uncertainty there had an impact on his Test batting, but it hasn't. That ODI conversation is a valid one, and it will happen in another place, on another day.

Meanwhile, Azhar Ali.