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Hassan Cheema

Hail Azhar the ODI batsman, but wait on the captain

Azhar Ali has shown he can survive in the modern ODI game as a batsman, but still seems unsure of what his bowling captaincy style ought to be

Hassan Cheema
Hassan Cheema
Azhar Ali got to 50 off 55 balls, Pakistan v Zimbabwe, 1st ODI, Lahore, May 26, 2015

Since being appointed captain, Azhar Ali has scored a hundred and two fifties in just four innings  •  AFP

His appointment induced cries of mini-Misbah and allegations that he was a yes-man. To put it simply, Azhar Ali's selection was anything but popular among most of the Pakistani cricket fraternity. And with the series loss against Bangladesh, all doubters could act smug knowing that they were being proven right. And yet his first ODI victory, against Zimbabwe, provides a template for where he wants his team to go.
He won the toss and batted, believing that he could bat the opposition out of the game, a luxury rarely afforded to Pakistani captains.
There's been a trend in Pakistani cricket over the past decade of captains raising their games on being given the highest job in the land. It goes back, at least, to Inzamam-ul-Haq whose average was five runs higher as captain than without the post. Since then the likes of Shoaib Malik, Shahid Afridi and most recently Misbah-ul-Haq have all raised their games significantly when leading the side. And it's something Azhar certainly seems to be following.
Since being appointed the captain he has scored a hundred and two fifties in just four innings. The team, particularly in bowling, may not be what Pakistanis have become accustomed to but his individual contribution has certainly been up to the mark. For anyone aware of his domestic record this is not much of a surprise. Not many know it, but Azhar possesses one of the highest averages in List A ever. His appetite for runs has already been proven in the longest format, and his ability to combat pressure has rarely been in doubt. But even with these qualifications what he's doing now seems unsustainable. But at least he's provided an answer to all those who questioned how, if at all, Azhar could survive in the modern ODI game.
And it's not like he didn't warn the world of this. In an interview with ESPNcricinfo prior to the Bangladesh series he laid down what he thought his task in this team was. "My role at the top will be to give a sound start and for our top six batsmen to play the most number of overs. We also need to match the pace of cricket being played these days. Big scores will also offer some comfort for the bowlers, who have been enduring a large share of the burden."
While his belief that with him at the top of the order the team would be better equipped to bat their full quota of overs seemed logical, his argument that he could lead a team that matched the pace of batting in the modern game seemed unrealistic. After all, before being appointed captain his strike rate had been in the mid 60s, not exactly what one would consider modern; and one concern with his Test batting has consistently been his lack of stroke range.
But in this small sample size he's certainly provided an argument to change those established notions. His strike-rate over the past four innings is 90, and it's not as if playing long innings has allowed him to catch up - in none of those four innings has he scored under 21 runs after his first 30 balls.
It's not merely the stats that bear this out but his approach too. Against Zimbabwe, while Mohammad Hafeez allowed himself the best part of half an hour to get set, Azhar looked proactive from the start. Whereas Hafeez found himself, at one stage, on 5 off 24 balls Azhar never allowed the balls-to-runs gap to grow significantly.
His constant use of his feet, especially against fast bowlers, has been one trick in his armoury that's rarely been on show in Test matches, for obvious reasons, but has been on constant show in this stint. Helped by the lack of pace from the Zimbabwe attack, he danced down the wicket at any given opportunity. The two sixes he hit in this innings were more than what he had achieved in his ODI career to date - a facet of his game that is ever improving, and something that he has consciously worked on. His desire to try to rotate the strike has been a welcome surprise at the top of the Pakistan order. And the fact that he seems to do it without taking unnecessary risks certainly provides Pakistan with at least one positive from this transition period.
Of course there are caveats. He's been helped by where his four innings have been - modern Pakistan batsman struggle more outside Asia than those from other major Asian teams, and Azhar has yet to play on a wicket that could be considered helpful to anyone but spinners. Further it's not as if Pakistan haven't had false dawns before - Afridi scored two hundreds in his first three innings as permanent captain eliciting cries of change with the added responsibility, and then followed it up with just one fifty in his next 25 innings in that tenure (although his bowling at the time certainly made up for his batting failures).
And there's the small matter of the team's performances. After putting up a mammoth score, the Pakistan bowlers (and their captain) could not live up to their reputations against Zimbabwe.
In fact, for all the talk of him being mini-Misbah Azhar has certainly separated himself from his predecessor. Whereas one thing Misbah's detractors always pointed at to signify his negativity was his refusal to bat in the top three, Azhar has publicly stated that this is where he will bat.
And then there's the small matter of captaining a bowling unit. Misbah, both in the Ajmal era and the World Cup, managed to lead a bowling unit that was the envy of the world. Azhar still seems unsure of what his bowling captaincy style ought to be. To be fair to him that's not much of a surprise. Misbah had years of captaincy experience (both in the domestic game and with Pakistan A) to develop and hone his style. Azhar's odometer just isn't anywhere near what Misbah's was in 2010.
The challenge for Azhar now perhaps will be to make sure he isn't another Shoaib Malik - an inexperienced captain who raised his game significantly as a batsman but was the first Pakistani captain in over a decade to lead in over 20 games against top-8 sides and finish with more losses than wins.
But one suspects he might not mind - after all, Azhar hasn't exactly wilted under the pressure of the challenges placed in front of him so far. That, for now, might be enough for him to survive.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. @mediagag