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Azhar Ali, the survivor, steps into another storm

He was in England 10 years ago, didn't look likely to be back, but here he is, as one of Pakistan's best

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Of all the players who debuted - or were still very early in their careers - on that tour of England a decade ago, Azhar Ali looked the least likely to still be around. Umar Akmal was just five Tests old and there were 129 + 75 + 46 + 52 +0 + 77 + 51 + 27 + 49 + 49 + 8 + 15 reasons to love him already. Umar Amin was this left-handed stylist and Mohammad Amir, so Imran Khan told us, was better than Wasim Akram at that age.
Yet not only is Azhar still around and back at the scene of his debut, ten years on he's now at the back-end of a pretty illustrious career. Only six batsmen have scored more Test runs than him since then and three of those are all-timers.
If he looked least likely then it wasn't because he didn't do well - he was Pakistan's second-highest run-scorer across those two Test series and his two fifties - 51 and 92* - were in low-scoring wins. It wasn't that he didn't look the part though, ok, maybe that a little: ESPNcricinfo's ball-by-ball data reckons he was in control for 85% of the balls he faced but thinking back now, you'd argue there's a stray extra digit in there. The abiding memory is of Azhar squared up, beaten, little foot movement as if by moving his feet, he may set off a mine or two.
No, it was more that he was precisely that kind of strait-laced, honest struggler that Pakistan cricket loses so easily. Not aggressive enough, not gifted enough, not a personality enough, not ambitious enough, not willing to make enough noise about perceived injustices, all attributes often mistaken for cricket ability in Pakistan.
Lucky for him that he was about to enter an era in Pakistan cricket unlike any before it, one that valued him for not being any of that. Slowly, incrementally and under watchful guidance, his batting grew so that he became an integral part of the Misbah-ul-Haq years, at the centre of some of its finest triumphs.
And looking back now it makes sense that once he did get through that summer, it was the making of him. Because it was a torrid tour, not least on the field where the ball swung like it has rarely since. Off the field doesn't need recapping here. The average age of the XI that took the field against Australia in the first Test of that summer - Azhar's debut - was 25. Azhar was 25. He is the only survivor from it and rarely does 'survivor' feel as appropriate a word in a sporting context than it does in the context of that summer. That summer should've come with a support group, for players and fans alike.
"I learnt to take on a challenge, that's the biggest thing," he said, on the eve of the Old Trafford Test against England. "If your first tour is challenging, and I was against two top sides, for me, I was thinking I've played the toughest cricket there is first, now I can build on that.
"I contributed in the two wins and it gave me belief that if I can do well there, in those conditions, then I can overcome most challenges anywhere. Also, I learnt that there will be ups and downs over a career but you can't give up. Sometimes, as a young player, you give up on yourself and you develop doubts. But I got support and eventually that tour became a guide through my career."
He's right. What could've been tougher after that? Not playing at home. Pfft, done. Career troughs, everyone has them. Playing a Test again after a long gap, as is the case for so many after in this pandemic? Azhar's a Test-only player from a non-Big Three member - a five-month gap is standard pretty much every year (though in other years he is likelier to get some competitive cricket in between).
Captaincy? However suited he is or isn't, as an experience, it can't match those of the two who captained him on that tour. Or the future captain who also debuted in his first Test. And remember this is also still, quite literally, the Misbah era, so there is a degree of on and off-field stability, even if it is a trade-off for (Misbah's) weird selections and (Azhar's) tepid captaincy.
It actually says something about the success of Azhar's career subsequently, that he returns now with the slightest whiff of unfulfillment about it. The post-MisYou years, as he has often admitted, have not been good ones. It's been doubly frustrating not because he was expected to fill that gap, but because he had filled that gap. In the two years leading up to their retirement, he had more runs, more hundreds and a better average than both of them. After the Australia tour of 2016-17, his average was up to 47. It is now in a slightly fraught place, not dissimilar to his debut tour. He needs runs and he's not looking like he can make too many of them.
Let's revisit that earlier table though, of the leading run-scorers, since his debut. The figure to look at there is not the runs, or the hundreds or the average. The sixes hit is fun, because he's hit more than Hashim Amla and Kane Williamson.
But 14,129 is the one to note, the balls faced, the most by any other than Alastair Cook. He's faced one more ball than Joe Root, who has played 26 more innings. On average, he faces plays 96.12 balls every time he goes to bat, the third-most after Steve Smith and Cheteshwar Pujara (since Azhar's debut, and with a minimum of 100 innings played).
No numbers capture the essence of Azhar quite like these, still around all this time later, a storm weathered only to live through some more.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo