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Should Pakistan go back to Azhar Ali, the opener?

Like Australia's recall of Chris Rogers in 2013, it could be the right solution for the short term

Danyal Rasool
Danyal Rasool
Do Pakistan have one half of a solution for their opening woes hiding in plain sight?  •  Getty Images

Do Pakistan have one half of a solution for their opening woes hiding in plain sight?  •  Getty Images

A month shy of his 36th birthday, Chris Rogers had only ever played one Test match for Australia. This wasn't a travesty of justice; for the best part of his career, the opener had to wait his turn behind Matthew Hayden and Justin Langer, and latterly a combination of Shane Watson, Phillip Hughes, Simon Katich and David Warner, each of whom were either better, sexier or younger than him. So the New South Welshman bided his time building up a rock-solid domestic career in both Australia and England, content that it was likely just about as far as his talent would take him.
Fast forward to the 2013 Ashes series in England. Katich had been removed from CA's contracts list two years ago, controversially, and Hughes' inconsistent returns had led Australia to push him down the order in an attempt to get more out of his unquestionable ability. Watson had moved up and down the order too, and his most recent act in Test cricket had been his departure from India in the wake of Homeworkgate. Warner, meanwhile, had just punched an opposition player in a bar.
Australia had a decision to make. They made one that didn't look too far into the future or signal any long-term intent in terms of the direction they were taking. But calling up Rogers to plug a gap at the top proved a pragmatic and brutally effective step.
He had over 20,000 first-class runs over the best part of 15 years, and more experience playing in England and Australia than most of his more established teammates. He lacked the boyish charm of Hughes, or Watson's wrecking-ball drives down the ground, but he was a decent, honest professional who had built up a decent, honest career. He was also, if for the extremely short term, the best opener in the country.
What might that have to do with Pakistan? Well, they've tried a plethora of opening combinations over the past decade, and looked about as likely to stumble upon a solution as a toddler fiddling with a Rubik's cube. The trend continued with Abid Ali and Imran Butt against South Africa in Karachi, where they put on 5 and 22. They'll almost certain retain the same pairing in Rawalpindi, but it remains to be seen for how long they endure.
Since the start of 2016, Pakistan have tried 14 different openers. Only India (16), and Sri Lanka and Australia (15 - remember, Rogers retired in 2015), have played around at the top more, and all three teams have played significantly more Tests than Pakistan in this period.
In fairness, other Test sides - other than New Zealand (who have used just four) - have all had to juggle around at the top too, so for once, this isn't a uniquely Pakistani problem. We appear to be in a golden age of Test match opening bowling partnerships, but that has spelled trouble for their batting counterparts. Opening partnerships have averaged 30.91 in the decade that's just begun, and 34.51 in the 2010s. They're the two lowest-averaging decades for opening stands since - wait for it - the 1900s.
Since, arguably, the retirement of Andrew Strauss in 2012, no Test side has managed to lock in two set-and-forget openers, and the days of Langer and Hayden or Graeme Smith and Herschelle Gibbs seem like fuzzy, faraway memories.
What makes Pakistan's case so intriguing, however, is that they might have at least one half of the solution hiding in plain sight. Sometime during the past five years, Pakistan decided Azhar Ali was better suited at No. 3, where he has the majority of his career (110 of 158 innings). Perhaps Azhar, or Pakistan, or both, believe it's his best position.
But in batting him at No. 3, Pakistan have ignored his record as opener: his average of 45.76 at the top of the order is better than those of Alistair Cook or Andrew Strauss or Marvan Attapattu or Gautam Gambhir, among a host of other distinguished names. His accumulation methods might not be pretty, but his numbers certainly are.
There is some nuance to those numbers, of course, not least because since January 2010, openers have averaged higher in the UAE and Pakistan than anywhere else, and while he's yet to open at home, 10 of Azhar's 37 innings as opener have come in the UAE. But Pakistan's other openers in this period have also played a lot of their cricket in these two countries, and most have struggled to make the most of those favourable conditions.
Shan Masood has struggled to buy a run since a superb 156 at Old Trafford, while just under 60% of Abid Ali's Test runs came in his first three innings; he has since averaged less than 20. Imam-ul-Haq, meanwhile seems to have faded from contention, having last played Test cricket in 2019. Sami Aslam, who combined with Shan Masood relatively successfully - albeit briefly - has his eyes set on a career in the USA.
It might be time to sit back and wonder, as presumably the bigwigs at Coca-Cola did a few decades ago, what was wrong with the old formula after all. Azhar Ali's average as opener is higher than any other Pakistani batsman's since January 2010. In that period, three of Pakistan's seven highest-averaging opening partnerships have included him. He has a triple-hundred in the UAE from the top of the order, and he's the only visiting opener in history to score a double-century at the MCG; no other current Pakistan opener has a double-hundred anywhere. If this wasn't a batsman reputationally associated with the middle order, he'd be at the front of a fairly short queue of contenders making a persuasive case to face the new ball. It isn't like he doesn't face the new ball as things stand anyway, given he bats almost exclusively at No. 3 and Pakistan's openers haven't hung around for too long of late.
And while Azhar is 35, the same age as Rogers before that 2013 call-up, this might not be the worst time to consider returning him to the top. Stripped of the captaincy with signature Pakistan insensitivity - for the second time in his career, his removal was known to the media before being officially communicated to him - Azhar has decided against doing his talking off the pitch, and has quietly begun building up a head of steam on it. A potentially career-saving hundred against Sri Lanka last year was followed by a likely match-saving century against England in the summer, a 93 in Christchurch, and two steely knocks against South Africa in Karachi in sticky situations that received less attention than they perhaps deserved.
It certainly would be typical of his career to expect Azhar to bail Pakistan out just after Pakistan themselves bailed on him, but it's also a reminder of what a versatile asset he has been over the years. Sure, his absence in the middle order would need serious plugging, but with Haris Sohail and Asad Shafiq currently out, and Agha Salman and Saud Shakeel among the squad, that is an area Pakistan could cover far more effectively than the opening positions.t the s
It's not the sexiest idea or the longest-term solution. But Rogers, once recalled ended up playing 24 further Tests over two years, scoring 1996 runs at 44.35, including four Ashes hundreds and one in South Africa. That's not a swansong. It's a second career.
About to turn 36, Azhar might not so much have been stripped of the captaincy as liberated from it. Pakistan have searched high and low for a man who might be half-decent at facing the new ball. It may be worth giving that dressing room one final look after all.

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