It might not be fair, but less than a year into Azhar Ali’s stint as Pakistan Test captain, his career is already on the line, writes Sankalp Srivastava.
When Azhar Ali survived a minor scare in the 12th over of the second Test against England, Pakistan would have breathed a collective sigh of relief. Coming into the match, his position as skipper and also as a batsman was under intense scrutiny. However, as the bails stayed on even after the ball trickled down to hit the stumps, luck seemed to be on his side. England’s shortcomings in the slip cordon only amplified that feeling.
But as James Anderson had him caught in the cordon in the eighth over after lunch on day one, out came the question from the Pakistan Twitterverse: Is Azhar Ali going the Sarfaraz Ahmed way?
The question might seem premature. It is, after all, less than a year since Sarfaraz was stripped of the Test and T20I captaincy ahead of Pakistan’s tour of Australia, and since then, Azhar’s record, in a mere seven Tests in charge, reads: Won two, drawn two, lost three. Hardly catastrophic.
It’s true that the manner of those defeats is concerning. Pakistan were hammered by an innings in both Tests in Australia, while Azhar Ali came in for strong criticism after his side failed to break the partnership between Jos Buttler and Chris Woakes that won England the first Test of the ongoing series. “He let them milk the situation,” Phil Walker, Wisden Cricket Monthly’s editor-in-chief, said of Azhar’s captaincy on Wisden Cricket Weekly podcast. “It was evident when they were knocking off the runs so easily, from 80 down to 70 down to 60, you have to squeeze the game. You have to ask them to take a risk. They didn’t have to hit it in the air, they didn’t have to engineer a situation, they were just allowed to play.
“Azhar’s new to the job, he is a very experienced cricketer. But Pakistan cricket has shown you that you don’t last long in the big job if you lose big hinge games like that.”
But Australia is a place Pakistan never win – they have now lost 13 Tests in a row in the country, a streak stretching back to 1995 – and the latter defeat could be excused as a new captain finding his feet.
Of greater concern is Azhar’s batting form. Since the start of 2018, he has scored 828 runs in 18 Tests at 25.87. He averaged 13.62 and 10.62 outside Asia in 2018 & 2019 respectively, compared to 51.71 in 2016 & 42.87 in 2017. He has just one 50-plus score in his last 18 Test innings, and though that knock was a century, it came in almost the least trying circumstances possible. He entered with the score reading 278-1 with the innings just Test cricket’s second occurrence of all top-four batsmen making hundreds in the same innings.
Azhar Ali continues to struggle!
— Wisden India (@WisdenIndia) August 13, 2020
The England tour couldn’t have come at a worse time for Azhar too, who has been exposed against quality seam bowling even when his overall form was good. He has been dismissed lbw on nine occasions in 12 Tests in England. According to CricViz, his average drops to 13 for balls that seam more than 0.75 degrees and since the start of 2018, he averages just 12.44 against good length deliveries from seamers – figures that don’t bode well with a tour to New Zealand expected in the winter.
Since 2018 against balls that seam a ‘large’ amount (+0.75°) Azhar Ali averages 13; v balls that don’t seam he averages 158. That’s a difference of 145, way, way above the global average difference 24 (40-16). #ENGvPAK
— The CricViz Analyst (@cricvizanalyst) August 13, 2020
And yet still it’s hard to shake the feeling that it’s only a matter of time until a player of his class comes good. For all the struggles, his Test average still sits at 41.95. He has a triple century to his name, and a double hundred in Australia. Sarfaraz’s humility in carrying the drinks speaks to a team behind the cause too.
Still, the calls from the voices that matter have started to grow. “If we win the remaining Test matches he should continue as captain,” Wasim Akram told Cricket Pakistan after the first Test. “It depends on his performance. Obviously, if we don’t win and he doesn’t perform then Pakistan Cricket Board have to look for someone else.”
Another couple of failures, and another defeat, and those opinions might become unignorable. It might not be fair, but Azhar might have one game to save his Test career. Such is the life of a Pakistan Test captain.