Azhar Ali's approach goes back to a bygone era in Pakistan cricket

Azhar Ali is vitally important to the new look Pakistan © Getty Images

 

By Madan Mohan

 

Azhar Ali ground English hopes to dust on Day 2 of the final Test of the series being played in the Emirates with an obdurate 75 not out. In the company of veteran Younis Khan, who struck an unbeaten century, he steered Pakistan not just out of the woods but into the driver’s seat. Pakistan had slipped to 28 for two early in the second innings but finished the day on 222 for two, patiently batting England out of the match. Patience? From Pakistan?  Are you kidding?

 

I have, of course, read of the feats of the famous Hanif Mohammed, who played the longest Test innings, a 970 minute 337. I had seen glimpses of what some other stalwarts like Javed Miandad and Salim Malik could do. But by and large, I have grown up watching a Pakistan team that seemed to be strangely infatuated with flash. Their ’90s squad was a veritable all star ensemble and yet, collectively, they failed to actualise their potential.  

 

Pakistan really should have been the team that took over as the No.1 team in the world from West Indies. Briefly, they seemed poised to get there, squaring series against the West Indies home and away and winning the World Cup in 1992. Instead, it was Australia who regrouped and became a champion side once again. Match-fixing, corruption and bickering may well have taken their toll but there also seemed to be a tendency to play to the gallery.  The players sometimes seemed to let showmanship distract them from the team goals and I often saw their batsmen perishing to poor shots at the brink of victory.

 

Things got worse in the noughties as their batting and bowling strength both reduced considerably. Shahid Afridi came to symbolise plenty that was wrong with the Pakistan team. The fact that he enjoyed a huge following for his antics perhaps says it all. Pakistan have enjoyed a bounty of talent but this talent only shone in patches and they flattered to deceive.   Worse, glimpses of this spectacular talent seemed to matter more than the results. One remembers Afridi being asked his favourite shot, and the batsman replying any shot that went for a six!

 

It’s hard to reconcile the Pakistan cricket team one knows with the likes of Hanif Mohammed.  How could that approach and temperament almost completely disappear from Pakistan’s batting, indeed even be regarded with scorn? As it turns out, it didn’t, really! All it needed, in hindsight, was a change in mindset and leadership that emphasised focus and discipline. 

 

The spot-fixing scandal and political instability have rocked Pakistan in recent years, with captaincy resembling a game of musical chairs in the meantime. These circumstances somehow conspired to make the phlegmatic Misbah-ul Haq the new Pakistan skipper. And Misbah seems to prefer victories to heroics and glory. Pakistan have finally shown the stomach for graft and grim battle to secure a draw or, even, victory.  They have at times appeared dour and boring, even attracting some uncharitable criticism for this tendency, but they finally have their priorities right.

 

In an earlier Pakistan set up, Azhar Ali’s scoring rate would have made him a little less eligible for a Test spot. With 732 runs at an average of 45 in 2011, he is vitally important to the new look Pakistan. To kill England with boredom, so to speak, is even more creditable.

 

A strike rate of 30 might provoke chuckles at a time when a strike rate of 60 is considered slow by some, even in Test matches. But it is those 75 runs next to his name that matter, all the more so in a dogfight such as this. In tandem with Younis, he has more or less shut England out of the match already. There could still be a collapse on Sunday to set up a nail- biting finish, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

 

Azhar has chosen an unglamorous and staid but solid path to construct match-saving and match-winning innings. With more of his ilk, Pakistan cricket may recapture some of their past glory.  And the sweet taste of victory should soon conquer the lingering lust for entertainment. 

 

(Madan Mohan is a 26-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)