No.8 in Wisden’s Test innings of the year list – part of the 2020 in Review series – is a valiant captain’s knock by Azhar Ali against England.
Azhar Ali 141*(272)
England v Pakistan
Ageas Bowl, Southampton
August 21-25, 2020
Azhar Ali isn’t the classiest batsman in modern cricket, but he gets you the tough runs. The technique looks laborious and even more crammed up when he wears a sweater, elbow guard and all the other paraphernalia. Yet, it’s difficult to not marvel at his unwavering resolve to take down any attack, brick by brick, especially when the chips are down.
Against England on the second day of the third Test of the series, Azhar’s battle was two-fold; it wasn’t just an under-pressure captain trying to save Pakistan from a series loss, but also a batsman searching for personal vindication in his attempt to shrug off a two-year-long lean patch.
James Anderson’s impending 600th Test scalp was the focus of all attention, and under the grey skies of Southampton, he looked destined to race to the mark. England had snatched the series lead in the first Test, rain had ravaged the second, and the third one was also drifting the home team’s way. Anderson had waited long, but so had Azhar.
Averaging 25.87 since the start of 2018, Azhar had an enormous task at hand when he walked out with Pakistan at 6-1, a score that became 11-2 by the fifth over, and 30-4 by the 13th on day three. Pakistan were a massive 553 runs behind, and Azhar only had a scratchy looking Fawad Alam and wicketkeeper Mohammad Rizwan for company among recognised batsmen.
Even while the top order surrendered meekly, the skipper’s batting stood out due to a distinct change, both in technique and mindset. Having fallen to leg-before dismissals twice in Manchester, Azhar was batting with a more open stance. It appeared to give him more space to manoeuvre his arms and counter the late swing, also opening his area of play against Dom Bess. All through this, he remained disciplined, resisting all temptations to poke outside off, and was determined to put the loose ones away. Against Jofra Archer, he found it wise to rock on the backfoot and thump the ball between backward point and slip. It’s a shot that can go very wrong very easily. Azhar looked in complete control.
Anything on the stumps was dutifully flicked away, and once he was past fifty, he unleashed a few authoritative pulls as well. At the other, Rizwan was acting as the ideal foil – the trail was still huge, but Pakistan had found the will to fight.
A drive off Bess fetched him his 17th Test century, a knock possibly even better than his triple ton given the circumstances, but Azhar’s celebration was without any frills, just like his batting that innings.
Once Rizwan departed, the game was ready to slip away quickly – the lights had receded even more and the new ball was in action. But Azhar’s determination was unflinching. There were a couple of reprieves towards the end of the day, but nothing that could have taken the sheen off a superlative knock, one that kept England at bay, right down to the last ball he faced, an asterisk remaining next to his score.
Brian Lara called it one of the best captain’s knocks in modern cricket. Can’t argue with the great man.