Seldom does a player get an opportunity to start his Test career on his home ground, leave alone scripting a fairy tale-like beginning. On October 6, 1997, Pakistan faced South Africa for the first Test at the Rawalpindi Cricket Stadium. The hosts roped in three debutants — Ali Naqvi and Mohammad Ramzan as top-order batsmen and a certain Azhar Mahmood to share the new ball with Waqar Younis, in the absence of Wasim Akram. But what followed would have been heartwarming for the Pakistanis, since two of the three debutants essayed tons in their first outing in the Test arena. Azhar’s batting prowess had been unearthed, and a fifty in the second innings proved that his hundred was no flash in the pan, against one of the most intimidating attacks in the world.
The young lad from Rawalpindi, it seemed, had all the ingredients to make it big in Test cricket. Azhar finished the series as the second-highest run-scorer, behind Gary Kirsten, and registered an average of 101.50. A few months later, during Pakistan’s return tour to South Africa, he scored his third Test hundred, a magnificent 132 to steer his side not only out of troubled waters, but to an emphatic 29-run victory. He was talked up as being one of the finest all-rounders in the country, and his performances in the One-Day Internationals (ODIs) provided substance to back up the hype, but he soon found himself out of favour with the selectors, and against all expectations, played his 21st and last Test in the June of 2001. One of the most promising all-rounders, a captain material, had his Test career prematurely terminated.
Albeit being dropped from Tests, Azhar managed to hold on to a spot in the ODI team, but he wasn’t really contented with how he was being utilised in the line-up. “I am labelled a one-day player when I have performed well at Test level and last year in county cricket with Surrey. I am supposed to be a No 6 but I end up at No 9. What can you do batting at No 9?” said Azhar in an interview to ESPNcricinfo’s Kamran Abbasi, back in May 2004. Soon, with young and capable all-rounders proving their worth, Azhar struggled to feature in the ODI side too.
However, notwithstanding the position at which he came in to bat or bowl, Azhar didn’t have the numbers to demand a spot in the national side. In 134 ODIs till the end of 2004, he averaged a meagre 17.93 and 38.10 in the batting and bowling departments respectively. His statistics in Tests were slightly better, but not enough to feature on the selectors’ radar. The treatment meted out to him by the powers that be should also be partially blamed for his downfall, since immediately after a good outing, he would inexplicably be dropped. Azhar played just nine ODIs thereafter, finishing with 1521 runs at an average of just over 18.
Having accepted the fact that Pakistan would seldom require his services, he turned his attention, more than before, to county cricket. In 2007, he signed a contract with Kent, and became an integral part of the unit. The fact that he became a British citizen after marrying his British wife ensured that he took field as an English-qualified player. He was open to representing England on the international circuit, however, it never materialised. But playing for Pakistan continued to be at the forefront of his thoughts. “I’m always available for Pakistan. I haven’t retired yet. On March 17 , I qualified for England as well. But there’s nothing like playing for your home country,” he said, in another interview to ESPNcricinfo, in 2011.
He continues to play in the shortest format of the game across many leagues. Between his last ODI in 2007 to now, Azhar represented the Lahore Badshahs in the now defunct Indian Cricket League (ICL), Auckland Aces in the 2011-12 HRV Cup — New Zealand’s domestic competition, and Dhaka Gladiators in the Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), apart from county cricket in England. He was also a part of Kings XI Punjab in the fifth season of the Indian Premier League (IPL), during which he stole the limelight with his performances for a brief period of time.
A tally of 21 Tests and 143 ODIs does not do justice to Azhar’s repertoire, but whether his premature exit was a resultant of the circumstances, or his own doing, is something that can be endlessly debated.
(Karthik Parimal, a Correspondent with CricketCountry, is a cricket aficionado and a worshipper of the game. He idolises Steve Waugh and can give up anything, absolutely anything, just to watch a Kumar Sangakkara cover drive. He can be followed on Twitter at https://twitter.com/karthik_parimal)
First Published: February 28, 2013, 12:15 pm