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Match Analysis

The ungainly, unexciting, unappreciated world of Azhar Ali

Not for the first time, the batter went about quietly and effectively doing his job, while nobody cared that he was doing his job

For a player supposedly always on the wane, Azhar Ali's record isn't too shabby, is it?  •  AFP/Getty Images

For a player supposedly always on the wane, Azhar Ali's record isn't too shabby, is it?  •  AFP/Getty Images

Azhar Ali is on the wane, yeah? You know this, I know this, we all say it at parties to make sure everyone thinks we know our cricket. He has been a solid, if stodgy, servant for Pakistan cricket, and perhaps it might be time to move him on? Yeah? Cool. Better to go with players who've been more prolific in the past few years, one might suppose. Just one question: name said players.
What's that you're saying? There isn't a single player with more Test runs than Azhar since January 2020? Why don't you learn to use ESPNcricinfo's Statsguru properly, for goodness' sake? Let me see what you've done.
Hmmm, can't find anything wrong, but this can't be right. Close the window and start over, let's make sure we get the inputs right. Well, would you look at that, Azhar's name pops up at the top again? 1021 runs at 48.61. Oh dear, that's more than 150 clear of every other Pakistani. Even Babar Azam, who averages a measly 43.88 in comparison. In fact, of all players with at least 200 runs, only Fawad Alam averages better at 50.21. Could we consider dropping Azhar on those grounds then? I mean, look what good a short stint out of the side did for Fawad.
Oh, never mind, I've cracked it. Pakistan have played against Zimbabwe and Bangladesh a fair bit this year. Just like Azhar, isn't it, to pad up his scores against softer opposition to deceive us with numbers like these. Go back, remove filter those two sides out, and let's see how his numbers look now, the cheeky chancer.
Wait, let me adjust my glasses. He still averages 46.56? I guess he can't in terrible form, can he?
In the shifting sands of Pakistan, thirsting after public approval is an ephemeral fling, not a long-term occupation
It's a conversation far too many who follow the Pakistan Test side will have had among themselves, because of the stark disparity between human nature and cold, unfeeling truth. Azhar is the sort of cricketer too many still think has been "exposed" every time he hits a rough patch, despite the nearly 12 years he's now spent knocking about in international cricket. He can be ungainly, and he's almost made a virtue of being unexciting. While Imam and Azhar were busy compiling their 208-run stand, the crowd kept shifting uneasily in their seats, breaking out into chants of "Babar!" Few would have minded the Pakistan captain walking out to replace his predecessor.
But Azhar isn't in the game of crowd-pleasing. In the shifting sands of Pakistan, thirsting after public approval is an ephemeral fling, not a long-term occupation. And in a game where the stars had aligned perfectly for him, Azhar reverted to basics. He had come in at 105 for 1, with the new ball all worn out and tattered and the bowlers ground down on a slow wicket that was more Abu Dhabi than Rawalpindi. If he didn't bat on and on over here, then what even was Azhar's purpose in life?
It was Imam who made way for Babar; no way was Azhar about to leave. He had been there 263 balls, and was finally finding some rhythm. The crowd whimpered contentedly when Babar struck a couple of luscious straight drives early in his innings; an Australian journalist in the press box remarked it had been worth making the trip to see that alone. When Azhar was on strike, the press pack buried their heads in their laptops, and the crowd flicked through their phones. When Babar unleashed the sweep against Nathan Lyon the crowd erupted. When he eased the next ball behind point to canter to the non-striker's end, they simmered down.
Azhar didn't help himself after a sharp bit of fielding saw Babar run-out at the non-strikers end. No one noticed that during their 101-run stand together, Azhar had scored 65 to Babar's 36. It was Azhar 101, doing his job while nobody cared that he was doing his job.
Pakistan batted on, but by now the fans had other interests. Chants of "We want Warner," broke out from the stands as the Australian opener went to field at long-off. He'd play the crowd, give them a wave, do a little dance and thank them for their support. It was more love than a Pakistan crowd has perhaps ever openly showed the former Pakistan captain, who was fast (well, not that fast, it's still Azhar) approaching his fourth double-hundred.
But, as Azhar half-acknowledged in the press conference post-day, Pakistan had left the declaration a bit too late, and needed a move on. So he took on Nathan Lyon, sweeping him over midwicket for six to move into the 180s. Knowing the declaration had to come soon, he brought out the reverse sweep - if Azhar came with a user manual, that would have voided the warranty. You soon saw why, as the ball ballooned up to Cameron Green, who took a smart catch moving from short third man.
It was the perfect end to Azhar's day, a bit of unselfish batting from a player who's so often accused of playing for himself and his records. If he had, he might have another double-century to his name, but even so, Azhar Ali continues to find ways of making Test match runs. Not too shabby for a player on the wane.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000