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On Azhar Ali, Misbah and the Rest

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On Azhar Ali, Misbah and the Rest

 

Kamran Wasti

This is a comeback. I had told myself that I would not bother to write because I had thankfully been able to get my Cricket books in a decent order, including my Cricketer (Pakistan) archive. I had also managed to revive my stamps. Far better options than writing on Cricket or having an aimless banter with the meme-loving, opinionated ‘expert’ that frequents the Pakistani cricket web playground. Furthermore, I had told myself that unless more than three people asked me to do so, there was no point in doing so. As it turned out, and very much to my surprise, more than three people did ask me (four to be precise) to do so and then I was made to read this article about Azhar Ali.

The writer makes some interesting observations some of which I do not agree with (I am being diplomatic here).

A far more obvious point is that a very good way to become captain in Pakistan is to avoid a catastrophic tour. We have the case of Saleem Malik and the West Indies in 1993 – the next time he played a test, Malik was captain. We have Rameez Raja and the 1994-95 African tour. His next test, after that very West Indian tour that Malik missed, was as captain. And we even have Misbah himself who was ditched after being struggling badly and averaging under 20 in Australia and New Zealand in 2009-10, survived England 2010 by sitting out and then returned as captain. A lot of people made what they thought was a very “logical” point: How come someone who is not even in the first XI (Azhar Ali in this case) be brought in as captain? Well, to tell you the truth, they are ignorant nincompoops who never cared to know the way cricket works in Pakistan, do not give a damn about history and they can now rot eating their own words for every meal of the day.

Another straightforward point which I tried to communicate to a lot of people around December 2014, including some people in the Pakistan Cricket Board, was that Azhar Ali should be part of the World Cup squad. They of course were unconvinced. So unconvinced that they would condescendingly sneer at my suggestion and move on. Only one of them bothered to ask why I suggested that and that too in a most patronising manner (not that I mind that). My reasoning was simple: He is a limited player but because he consciously tries to be copybook, retains the potential to increase his range. The faster, truer wickets in Australia with big, fast outfields and under bright sunshine would suit his style of play. In fact, Azhar Ali’s style of play bears striking resemblance to that of an embryonic Hashim Amla who was a similarly strokeless wonder until he got a run in one-day cricket (Amla’s pre-ODI strike rate of 46 is very Azhar Ali-like; since then, he has scored his runs at a strike rate of 53). There was one slight difference though: Hashim Amla did not face the kind of stereotyping that Azhar Ali faced and was just around 25 when his first one-day game happened. In Azhar Ali’s case, his run came when he was around 30. In any case, the limit opportunities he got in one-dayers, Azhar had not done that badly one bit. But anyway, he thankfully ended up avoiding the World Cup.

Another point that the writer seems to be fixated with is what he called the “utilization” of players. Consider the case of Muhammad Hafeez – the fact is that there is not a startling increase in his strike rate. It is about the same. Against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe in particular, he was scoring runs at around the same 90 something strike rate that he scored in these two rubbers. The real problem was Misbah. I do not follow one-day cricket that seriously but it was a norm to see Pakistan score runs at around five an over before Misbah would arrive and the scoring rate would drop to 4 or even 3.5. Remember the World Cup win over South Africa? Pakistanis were going at almost six when they reached 100 and it was there at Misbah, coming in at Number 4, ahead of Sohaib Maqsood, who had been shaping up decently during the series, scored his runs at less than 4 runs an over – he was probably the last or one of the last men dismissed and he scored a “valiant” 50, enough to garner praise from those whose creed he is part of but he hit just three or four boundaries and played some seven overs of dot balls. Does not matter of course because Pakistan won but the Misbah show here was not an exception; it was the Standard Operating Procedure. What has happened here is that Misbah has effectively been replaced by Azhar Ali with batting positions switched while the core now has unassuming but committed young men like Muhammad Rizwan and a veteran in Shoaib Malik whose main problem always seemed to be his insecurity. For now it is obvious that he is secure having earned a good reputation, ironically through 20-20 leagues and apparently has realised that at 33, his playing days may be limited and he should make the most of it.

I can understand the obsession the writer seems to have with Umar Akmal. I was convinced of his ability after he hit around 300 runs during an A Team tour to Australia in 2009, before he made his international debut but Sydney 2010 dismantled a lot of things. Forget the talent which has after 16 tests sees just one hundred and convinces three different coaches never to select him. Remember though that even when he does get a chance, purely by luck, to play a first-class game in England, he does what he does best – a “brilliant” 20 and an “swashbuckling”13. No further comments on this except that thankfully, we are moving towards an era where he will be redundant.

The real issue here is not that Azhar Ali has “upped” his game – he always had it in him. It was simply that stereotyping is another norm in Pakistan cricket, especially since this internet/media boom turned the simple cricket fan into a pompous “expert” and Azhar was a victim. And it is actually more pronounced because we, as a nation, shun test cricket as a lesser skill subconsciously if not otherwise. So Azhar Ali, the limited, boring grafter was never going to be good enough in One-Day Cricket.

Whether Pakistanis qualify for what in my book is another meaningless one-day staged play or not, Azhar Ali has made his point. For now, savour the way he shames those who stereotyped him.

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