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Azhar Ali shows nerves of steel in Pakistan’s historic win over Sri Lanka

Azhar Ali scored 103 off 137 deliveries to script Pakistan's remarkable victory over Sri Lanka in the third Test at Sharjah © AFP
Azhar Ali scored 103 off 137 deliveries to script Pakistan’s remarkable victory over Sri Lanka in the third Test at Sharjah © AFP

By Bharath Ramaraj

During the 2002-03 season, when Azhar Ali bowled his brand of floaty leg-spin and took four wickets against Peshawar in First-Class cricket, not many envisaged him to play for Pakistan. A decade or so later, he is the toast of an entire nation and has inscribed his name in the folklore of Pakistan cricket by essaying a monumental century to help them beat Sri Lanka at the Sharjah Cricket Ground. While chasing a target of 302 in just over 60 overs, he anchored Pakistan’s ship with steady perfection and seemed unfazed by Sri Lanka’s negative tactics. Azhar, in his bid to taste glory, spent every ounce of his energy and showed nerves of steel to script a remarkable win.

It looked unlikely that Pakistan would even come close to chasing down Sri Lanka’s total, as to score at over five runs an over on the last day of a Test match is akin to a trial by fire. This is where a batsman’s temperament comes to the fore, even more than being blessed with an amalgam of iron-clad technique and repertoire of strokes. Azhar waited, waited and waited for an eternity for Sri Lankan bowlers to err in their length and made them pay by scoring boundaries. Only when Rangana Herath started to pitch it on the rough, outside his leg-stump did he bring out a slightly risky sweep shot to outfox the wily left-arm spinner, who was trying every trick in a bowler’s hat to seduce the batsman into making a mistake.

Azhar was content on keeping the scoreboard ticking by taking every single on offer and allowing Sarfraz Ahmed to play with dash and freedom. He stood there like an impregnable rock to guide the chase. Play each ball on its merit and building partnerships was his simple mantra. It has to be said that captain Misbah-ul-Haq, batting at the other end with composure, must have soothed Azhar’s tangle of nerves, but he seems to have that nous to do well in times of crisis for Pakistan.

Azhar has been many times criticised by fans for his lack of flair and panache in his batting. But despite the oddities of his rather ungainly stance and his lack of shots through the off-side, he has been able to chug along some fine scores in his brief career. Five Test hundreds in 32 Tests at an average of a shade under 40 isn’t bad for a cricketer who started out as a leg-spinner. It wasn’t long ago when cricket pundits wondered whether Azhar was good enough to make the step up to playing Test cricket. In fact, when he made his Test debut at the neutral venue of Lord’s against Australia in 2010, the other debutant, Umar Amin glowed more with his raw talent. It gives an inkling that we perhaps underestimate the importance of temperament in Test cricket.

It was only the second time Pakistan chased successfully over 300 runs in the fourth innings of a Test match. Now, the Test match at Sharjah may not have touched the highs of thrills and spills that one witnessed when Pakistan chased down a target of 314 on a raging turner at Karachi against Australia’s spin twins, Shane Warne and Tim May in 1994. But Azhar and company with their nerves of steel have certainly brought a smile on the faces of Pakistan’s adoring cricket fans. For Azhar, who once upon a time was languishing in the lower leagues of Scottish cricket, it is nothing short of a fairy tale story that has come true.

(Bharath Ramaraj, an MBA in marketing, eats, drinks and sleeps cricket. He has played at school and college-level, and now channelises his passion for the game by writing about it)

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