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Azhar Ali’s Return to Form

Ben Jones analyses an excellent knock from Pakistan’s captain.

At the start of this innings, it felt like Azhar Ali was near the end. Long-term struggles with the bat and a mixed start to his captaincy tenure have drawn criticism, the latter exacerbated by the failure to win the first Test of this series. In the high pressure, cut-throat world of Pakistan cricket, it was not inconceivable that Azhar’s job – and position in the XI – was on the line.

Even away from that intense environment, you could understand the mounting criticism. Since the start of 2018, Azhar was averaging 25.87; only one specialist batsman, Kraigg Brathwaite, had batted as often as Azhar in that time, and averaged less. Captain or not, if you’re in that sort of a rut, questions start to be asked.

It’s no surprise then, that things began in a rather tense manner.

At the start of his innings, Azhar was not attacking at all. Not a single one of the first 30 balls he faced was met with an attacking shot. He was trying to soak up the pressure, the counter-attack not even faintly on his mind. He just sat.

That lack of attacking intent did not translate to a lack of risk. In those first 30 balls, he played a false shot 43% of the time; almost half of the deliveries bowled to him brought an edge or a miss. Never in his entire career as Azhar played with as much risk at the start of his innings, and survived those first 30 balls. With his entire career on the line, he’s never been closer to losing his place at the crease.

As the seamers fell away, England were pushed to turn to their second string, and Azhar was more than capable of coping. Against Dom Bess, Azhar swept very well; it should be no surprise, given that he averages 88 with the sweep in Test cricket against spin. After going for just seven runs in his first six overs, a combined assault by Azhar and Mohamman Rizwan forced Root to go back to his seamers. It wasn’t an ultra-aggressive approach, but with the field up Pakistan took the bait – and made it out of the trap alive. 

He has been getting trapped on the crease far too much of late, a fact he was clearly aware of. Today, he made a concerted effort to get forward. In the first two Tests of this series, when facing good length balls from the quicks, Azhar got forward 54% of the time. In this innings, that rose to 74%

He made a clear shift to his technique, opening himself up a touch against the seamers. A small change, a tweak, but a clear one. Since the start of last year, Azhar averaged just 8.80 against balls projected to hit his stumps from the quicks; in this Test so far, he’s only scored 5 (36) against those balls, but he only played a handful of false shots in those 30 odd balls. Four of his seven dismissals in that time have been lbw; nine of his 19 in England. To combat that threat is a clear vindication of his strategic choice.

Once he’d seen off the new ball, the threat did fall away significantly.O ld ball movement has been minimal in this Test. In overs 41-80 we’ve seen an average of 0.57 degrees swing; that’s the least for any Test in England since data has been recorded, back in 2006. Jofra Archer cranked up the pace and bowled with some menace, but little incisiveness. 

He had some fun, and rightly so. He began to rock back, wheeling out the cut shot as his creative outlet, his designated extravagance. A full blooded pull in front of square off Archer was a reminder that Azhar isn’t only a poker and a prodder – the lad has shots.

He had luck at the end of the knock, as well as the start. Dropped twice off a visibly fuming James Anderson, you started to get the sense that Azhar was suddenly a man with luck on his side – something you could not have said for quite a long time.

The celebrations from the Pakistan balcony showed that Azhar still very much had the support of the dressing room – though woe betide the cricketer who doesn’t visibly celebrate their captain’s success. Azhar has bought himself a chunk of time now, time perhaps to mould this young attack into something like his own. Dynasties lie on these fine margins, but for now, all Azhar has is another shot, another chance to go out and prove himself a worthy skipper for this young group. But at the start of the day, I doubt he would have asked for anything more.

Ben Jones is an analyst at CricViz.

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