Azhar Ali: A tale of remarkable resilience
In a mono dimensional society like Pakistan's, if you are able to woo people with your skills, you're considered a hero. If you're able to breathe fire, you're considered a mentor and if you have a way with words, you're a boss, otherwise you're just one of the few 'sane' Pakistanis left out there.
Being cool, calm and collected can cost you a plenty especially when you talk about Pakistan Cricket. Similarly, being a sensible player means that you don’t always have the biggest and broadest fan base. The same was the case with Azhar Ali. The story of Azhar, is no fairy tale. It's a story of great determination, of sweat, of sacrifice and of hard work. In short, Azhar's is a tale of patience, of some highs, of many lows and most certainly of Azhar's is a tale of remarkable resilience.
Things never went according to plan for the youngster who started off as a leg spinner at the junior level. After having failed to impress the concerned authorities, Azhar started paying more attention to his batting. After constant hard work, Azhar was able to develop strong temperament and a good batting technique, almost perfect for the longer format of the game. Azhar has worked his way steadily up Pakistan's domestic scene since 2006. That was the season he began opening regularly for Khan Research Laboratories, a move that fetched him two hundreds and two fifties in five matches, and ever since then he hasn't looked back.
By the mid of 2010, Azhar finally got his test call up and eventually played his debut match against the mighty Australians at the iconic Lord’s cricket stadium. Needless to say, the nerves got the better of him as he could only register a meagre 16 and 42 in the first and second innings respectively. But that particular test match under the captaincy of Salman Butt kick started his now rather illustrious Test career.
ODIs were never Azhar’s cup of tea owing to his below average strike rate. After being given a go for almost two consecutive years, Azhar was finally dropped in 2013. The period from 2013 till Misbah’s retirement was a tormenting one. Azhar had to only concentrate on test cricket and forget the limited over format; something which he was not willing to take on.
With the Silent Guardian, the great Misbah ul Haq, hanging his ODI boots in 2015, a huge vacuum was left to be filled in our ODI Captaincy. Who was going to be his successor? How was it all going to play out? The most unexpected answer came in the form of Azhar Ali; someone who had been had not played a single limited over match for almost over two years! Azhar, being the character he is, grabbed the opportunity with both hands and vowed to lead his national side to bigger and better things.
Azhar the opening batsman, was off to a dream start scoring mammoth runs and eventually became the only Pakistani captain with three tons to his name but Azhar Ali the leader, still had a lot of catching up to do and like all the young Pakistani captains of the past, had to deal with loads of criticism. His defensive tactics along with negative field setting made him face the music. As the head of a relatively young team, Azhar kept on experimenting with his playing XI and had to pay for his inexperience. During his time as ODI captain, Pakistan suffered defeats against the likes of England and Bangladesh with another series drawn against a weak Zimbabwean team; a dismal record that emphasizes on the fact that it's still early days for the lad from Lahore.
His struggles in the ODIs, however, did not stop him from performing in the white overalls. In almost every test series, Azhar started off struggling to maintain a set tempo but by the end of these series, he would almost every time, bounce back in impeccable fashion, registering well deserved hundreds to his name; the recent tour of England being a perfect example.
Then came the ongoing series with the West Indies; one that is impossible to forget for the 31 year old. If Azhar's entire career is to be summed up in one innings, it has got to be the dream innings he played in Pakistan's 400th test match, the second ever to be played as a day night match. From the first ball to the last, Azhar stuck to crease and played every delivery to its merit. Slowly but surely, Azhar reached the much awaited hundred after having been in the nervous nineties for a surprisingly long time. Raising the bat to the gallery before performing the sajda, thanking the Lord for his blessings. After which, he calmly carried on and some hours later a wide one was cut past backward point for the four that took him past 200. A salute and a set of nine push-ups followed; by that stage, we all thought it was only a matter of time before the tiring batsman would throw his wicket away. But we were all wrong. Only a 112 balls later, Azhar finally fulfilled his lifelong dream, to join the coveted league of legends who had gone past the 300 mark and boy was it well deserved! Captain Misbah hugged his companion and seemed as if by then, had passed on his legacy, Pakistan had now put an end to the Windies' misery. A tired yet jubilant Azhar left the field with his head held high. Dare I say, had Misbah not opted for declaration, Azhar Ali was all set for a well-deserved 400*
The rise of Azhar Ali is a lesson for the struggling youth of today. In 2002, Azhar Ali came on as a substitute fielder to see Inzamam ul Haq score an epic triple hundred in Lahore. He never would have even dreamt that eventually he would become only the 4th Pakistani to achieve the feat.
Sylvester Stallone's world renowned lines from the Rocky is most relevant to the ups and downs of Azhar Ali's career: "It's not about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward, how much you can take and keep moving forward, that's how winning is done."
© Cricket World 2016