Amid the dark gloom of Melbourne, lingering over the MCG since the afternoon of Boxing Day, a diminutive Pakistani shone, standing tall for his nation. Azhar Ali, the 31 year old, evergreen in age in comparison to his counterparts Younis and Misbah, surpassed his teams’ entire batting order on his way to an unbeaten double hundred. With his nation dwindling at 4/125 on the opening afternoon of the Boxing Day Test, it was Azhar Ali who excelled in this test, as Australian pacemen Hazlewood, Starc, Bird and endearing spinner Nathan Lyon attempted to probe his defences and halt his strike rate.
Come the morning of day 3, Azhar Ali remained at the crease, ably assisted along the way by Asad Safiq and Sohail Khan, to guide his nation beyond a first innings total of 400. Fittingly, despite remaining 196 not out at the lunch interval, his captain Misbah-ul-Haq deemed it necessary he return to the crease, in spite of a possible declaration, to reach his landmark double hundred.
Azhar is no stranger to enduring a prolonged innings. This was most profoundly demonstrated in October of this year, as he persisted on his way to a score of 302 not out against the pink ball and the West Indies. It was this innings that cemented his place as one of the class openers of world cricket in recent times, on the back of 1450 runs at an average of 55.7 since the beginning of 2015. Including his most recent triumph, 2016 has seen Azhar amass over 1100 runs, more than that of stars Smith, Williamson and Warner. Ranked officially by the ICC as the 16th best batsman in the world, Azhar is surpassing this ranking at a rate of knots, and appears to have cemented himself as the premier batsman in this highly regarded Pakistani side.
Yet it has not been an easy path to this recent success for Azhar. Debuting, coincidentally in the same Test as Steve Smith at Lords in 2010, at number 3 for Pakistan, it took him 15 Tests, and 28 innings, to reach his maiden Test century against Sri Lanka in Dubai, Pakistan’s ‘home away from home’. With only four centuries to his name, five years into his career by the beginning of 2014, the Punjabi’s place in the Test side came into question.
Further turbulence was experienced as he was hastily rushed into ODI captaincy of Bangladesh following Misbah’s resignation in 2015. He led Pakistan on a tour of Bangladesh, only to see his side whitewashed 3-nil by the minnows. Pakistan greats such as Javed Miandad questioned his ability to lead, believing the Pakistan Cricket Board should have admitted “they made a mistake in appointing Azhar as the ODI captain” in 2015.
Yet this period of time also marked a turning point for Azhar, as he advanced to average 111 in the preceding two match Test series of Bangladesh, which supplemented his two centuries in late 2014, as Pakistan ground Australia into the UAE dust. From this point, Azhar has seen his Test performances exponentially improve in leaps and bounds, perhaps his defining innings the 139 he produced against England’s Anderson, Broad, Finn and Woakes in a losing cause at Edgbaston this year. Azhar averaged 42 in this four Test tour of England, to help draw the tour 2-all, and subsequently see Pakistan reach the peak of the Test rankings for the first time in their history. That Azhar Ali has proven himself capable of scoring runs, and centuries, in a wide range of conditions, is a testament to his ability as batsman. Centuries in England, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and now Australia exemplify the ability of the small right hander, and his compact, all-conditions scoring technique.
His double hundred at the MCG in trying conditions, as his seniors Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq again failed to fire, further confirms his standing as one of the leading batsman in Test cricket. All the more astonishing, his Test average of 47 with twelve centuries has been achieved at a time of difficult circumstances in Pakistan cricket, with Azhar Ali yet to play a single Test match in his embattled home country. Azhar’s rise to excellence has similarly mirrored Pakistan’s phenomenal improvement in recent times, with the hope that much of this success will be enjoyed in the series and years to come, as he seems destined to lead this ever improving Test side.