Azhar Ali celebrates his ton. Photo: Andy BrownbillPakistan 6/310 at stumps on day two, Boxing Day Test
Azhar Ali was on his knees while resting during the many drinks breaks of his long innings in Melbourne. He was on his knees when arching his body away from n bouncers. When he passed his century, his 12th in Test cricket and his first in this country, he dropped to his hands and knees to kiss the turf. Ultimately, though, it was the home bowlers whom Azhar brought to their sore and creaking haunches.
Patient, tough-minded, diligent, ruthless. Professionalism has not always been characteristic of Pakistan’s batting on these shores, but Azhar was the consummate craftsman. For the past 20 years, Pakistani batsmen have too often misplaced their reputations and mental steadiness in transit to . They have boasted big numbers at home, but on n wickets they have tended to the mercurial: glittering but unstable. Azhar is made of a more straightforward base metal. Dull, even. His batting has none of the cliches about unwillingness to work hard. It all looks like work to Azhar, and this is something to be celebrated. Sandpaper was his preferred tool as he ground to the bone. Aside from some copybook straight drives off Mitchell Starc, he played few memorable shots and went about his business with an upright, compact, style-less style similar to his Indian counterpart Murali Vijay, all arm-guard and straight bat, calibrated to effectiveness, guided by an unflappable control tower under the green helmet.
Just how carefully Azhar applied himself to the different bowlers is shown in his output. Against Josh Hazlewood, ‘s premier paceman, he scored 19 runs from 76 balls, rarely chancing to drive. Against the dangerous Jackson Bird, he made a respectful 41 from 83, including three boundaries through slips. Against Mitchell Starc, he attacked, scoring 38 off 62, while against Nathan Lyon, he nibbled safe singles on the on-side, accumulating 27 runs from 47 balls. The conclusion is that for more than seven hours at the crease, Azhar treated each bowler and each ball on his merits. His production of runs gives a clear picture of their current bowling strengths and weaknesses. Hazlewood and Bird were far and away their best. Starc was, when not too short, too full and, when not too straight, too wide. He is bowling fast but not threateningly to a batsman of this class. And Lyon was a toothless tiger.
Azhar has become a puzzle n bowlers struggle to decode, both home and away. He scored two centuries in their last series in the Emirates, and his first on n soil elevates him into esteemed company. Only Ijaz Ahmed and Javed Miandad have scored more centuries for Pakistan against , and no Pakistani, including those with the benefit of playing in front of home crowds, averages higher against than Azhar’s 71.77.
His rise to this level in Test cricket has been slow but ever onwards. As a junior representative, he was selected as a leg-spin bowler who could hold up an end in the lower order. He built the foundations of a defensive technique, but was not picked as a batsman until his 20s. He won his place for Pakistan in 2010 in the middle order, but took half a decade before he was allowed to open. Meanwhile, he plied his trade in club cricket in his native Lahore as well as in first-class outfits such as Khan Research Laboratories and Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited and with short-form clubs the Baluchistan Warriors, the Punjab Stallions, the Lahore Lions and Qalanders, and the Abbottabad Rhinos. Such is the lot of the working professional in Pakistan. Cricket is no longer the terrain of the one-club player.
The product that emerges at the end of this long tunnel of refinement is a disciplined no-frills opener who never gave a hint of hope over two days in Melbourne. He had one scratchy period on Monday when infected by the struggles of his leaders Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, but otherwise Azhar went about the accumulation of runs like a research scientist or a pipeline engineer turning up for another day on the job. He raised his milestone, appropriately, with a tuck behind square leg off Lyon. Then came a slightly delayed, modest raising of the bat and a deliberate thrust toward friends in the Great Southern Stand. He dropped to his knees for a bow and a kiss, facing not Mecca but the team changing room. He looked weary, but it was his opponents who needed a break.