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Zimbabwe v Pakistan

Azhar Ali could yet be ranked among Pakistan’s greatest Test batsmen

Ben Gardner by Ben Gardner
@Ben_Wisden 4 minute read

Being one of Pakistan’s true greats isn’t beyond Azhar Ali, writes Ben Gardner.

If you were to carve a Mount Rushmore of modern Pakistani Test batsmanship, there would be little debate about the make-up of the quartet that deserve honouring.

Younis Khan, Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Mohammad Yousuf occupy the top four spots on a number of national Test record lists, including the most centuries, the highest averages (min. 1,000 runs), and the most runs.

There is also a distance between them and the next players on the list. Each has more than 7,500 Test runs, with Miandad’s 23 hundreds the fewest among the four; among non-active players, no other has more than 6,000 runs or 15 hundreds. Each averages more than 50, while in a reasonably distant fifth is Misbah-ul-Haq, averaging 46.62.

However, in terms of runs and hundreds, one active player is closing the gap. Azhar Ali has just made his 18th Test hundred, and is now within 1,000 runs of Yousuf’s overall tally. His average of 43.28 sees him some way down the list, dented by a fallow stretch in 2018 and 2019 in which he averaged 27. Since then he averages a tick under 50, with an unbeaten 141 against England confirming a player back near his best. While things can change fast in the world of Pakistan cricket, he could yet end up with a record that demands consideration alongside the very best his country has produced.

Whether Azhar qualifies as a true great will prompt much debate. There have been standout moments, and his record is even more impressive when you consider that his first home Test came nearly 10 years into his career. He did as much as anyone to make the UAE a near-impenetrable fortress, averaging 53.97 in Pakistan’s adopted home, with a high score of 302* one of just four Test match triple centuries in the history of Pakistan cricket.

Arguably his most impactful knocks came against England. There was a near nine-hour 157 in a ball-dominated 2012 series, sealing a whitewash against the then-No.1 Test side, and he averaged 42 and made a hundred in the 2016 series draw which took Pakistan to the top of the world.

He has also stood tall in the country Pakistan have struggled in most. They have lost 17 Tests in a row in Australia, with Azhar featuring in five of those, but he has been blameless, averaging 52 and making a special day/night double century in 2016.

Perhaps the aspect of his career that holds Azhar back most from greatness is his inability, so far, to truly become Pakistan’s main man, the player to be relied upon to churn out scores regularly, rather than each statement score being something of note. The opportunity to do so presented itself at the end of the MisYou era, with the symbolic handing of the torch over to both Azhar and Asad Shafiq at the end of the 2017 series in West Indies.

Azhar made a century in the final Test of that series, which ended with Shannon Gabriel’s infamous hoick. His average stood at 47, and he seemed ready to step out of the shadows of the greats and become one himself. He wouldn’t make three figures again until December 2018, when his average had dropped under 45.

At the age of 36, he might not have long left as a Test cricketer. Or he could look at the examples of Younis and Misbah-ul-Haq, with the former making 2,985 runs after turning 36 and the latter 4,214, with each averaging over 50. Such a glut isn’t beyond Azhar. Should he achieve something similar, Pakistan’s Mount Rushmore may yet need to make room for a fifth member before Babar Azam’s inevitable coronation.

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