Azhar Ali announced the end of his Test career ahead of the final match in the ongoing series against England. His career spanned over a decade of intense change for Pakistan as a cricketing nation, and his contribution deserves celebrating even if it falls slightly short of the top rank.
When Azhar leaves the field at the end of the Karachi Test match, he will finish his career as one of Pakistan’s best Test batters. He sits fifth in Pakistan’s all-time Test run-scorer rankings (7,142), fifth on the lists of most hundreds and most fifties scored for the country (19 and 54), and fourth on the individual highest Test scores list for Pakistan (302*). Only five have played more Test matches than him for Pakistan, and all of them played at least part of their career before Pakistan’s exile from hosting international cricket. Of those whose Test careers began after 2009, Asad Shafiq has played the next most matches, 20 shy of the number Azhar has played (97).
Among the players who have scored more runs for Pakistan than Azhar (Younis Khan, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf), all average over 50. Azhar’s overall average of 42.51 sits at the bottom end of a significant gap to the foursome who dominate Pakistan cricket’s history books. With the amount of runs Azhar has scored, he sits alone in that gap between the all-time greats and those who fell short, with over a thousand runs more than the next-highest scorer (Saleem Malik) but with a significantly lower average and at least four fewer centuries to those above him. If one ranks Pakistanis with 3,000 runs by batting average, Azhar drops down to 11th place, behind the likes of Misbah-ul-Haq and Zaheer Abbas.
The undoubted pinnacle of his career, between 2014 and 2016, promised that he could finish-up ranked among that cream of the crop. During that period he averaged 57.81 and scored eight of his hundreds, including two doubles, a triple and two in a Test match against Australia. But, a subsequent decline meant he averaged 35.95 since, leaving him finishing up adrift of Pakistan’s top rank.
Perhaps, it is the era in which Azhar has played which has contributed in some part to his place in Pakistan’s cricketing memory. He began after the Inzamam and Yousuf, titans of the nineties and noughties, retired (though he played two Tests alongside Yousuf). With Younis and Misbah contributing to what was a more steady looking batting order in the early part of his career, Azhar flourished as part of that generation. A steady flow of centuries came in the early part of his career, including his nine-hour marathon against England in Dubai, and he found a way to emerge out of his lean patch in 2013 better than ever. With the retirement of both Misbah and Younis in 2017, there was space for Azhar to occupy the gap those two had left.
Pressure often brought out the best in Azhar. A double-century at the MCG, where he became the first Pakistan player to score 200 in Australia, opening the batting, carrying his bat and scoring almost half of his side’s runs, springs to mind; as does his performance against England at Southampton in 2020. In that match, Azhar scored 141 not out in the first innings and blunted England’s attack for two and a half hours in the second, scoring 31 runs and securing the draw.
But, since the Younis and Misbah’s retirements, he has been unable to fully occupy the limelight they left. Instead of stepping up to lead Pakistan into a brighter era, every hundred has felt a promise rather than a deliverance. During the tricky years before and during the pandemic, he endured his most pronounced drop in form, one that he never managed to fully come out of.
Pakistan have demanded a lot of Azhar. Proposed as the solution to their perpetual top-order woes, and given the captaincy on a placeholder basis after Sarfaraz Ahmed’s oust, he has been outshone recently by Babar Azam’s arrival on the international stage. During a time of change, volatility and instability for Pakistan cricket, he has been a constant presence but unable to completely pick up where those before him have left off. During the reintegration era, he has just about managed to keep Pakistan afloat before the torch could be passed onto Babar, but at the expense of some personal legacy.
So where does he fit in Pakistan’s Test match batting royalty? Not among those who will be discussed as the greatest. Not among those who completely faded away. Babar will surely overtake several of his positions by the time he finishes his career. If Abdullah Shafique continues the start he has made to his Test career, he may find himself around Azhar’s totals as well, although it is too early to tell.
We shall remember Azhar’s career as an out-stander in a tricky decade of Pakistan cricket, who should be celebrated for his contributions even if they do not quite measure up to those who came before.