PAKISTAN TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2018-19
Azhar Ali has failed to fire in the ongoing series against South Africa. © Getty
Though cricket remains a team sport, every team has marked individuals who can deliver in particular situations. And when they fail to live up to the expectations, it puts the whole unit down. That, somewhat, has been the case for Pakistan since the retirements of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. Their absence was to leave a vacuum in the Pakistan batting unit. But, at that point it all looked momentary. It was anticipated that Azhar Ali and Asad Shafiq will rise through the ranks and take control.
It has been almost two years and numerous matches, both at home and away, since the two greats left but the vaccuum still remains. Batting collapses are now a regular feature. And, they are not limited to away series or second innings anymore. They happen in the UAE and even while batting on day one.
Again, cricket is not an individual sport. But the fingers are always pointed at Azhar and Shafiq. After all, with almost 10,000 runs across almost 150 Tests between them, the two are required to take Pakistan out of trouble like how the two retired greats did. But, more often than not, it is the dismissals of Azhar and Shafiq that spark a collapse – like in the series-deciding Abu Dhabi Test against New Zealand. When they come out amidst a collapse, their wickets amplify its intensity.
Back to the marking of individuals. With Azhar and Shafiq, combined with Sarfraz Ahmed, only three players from the current lot had been on the corresponding tour six years back. They were to be the guiding light for what is relatively a younger unit. The trio failed and it has been the younger batsmen who have shown spine.
But, after the Cape Town Test,in which Shafiq and Sarfraz scored fighting fifties, all guns are quite rightly now point towards Azhar as he remains the only specialist batsman in the Pakistan camp to have not scored the fifty. The situation is so dire that he stands at the bottom of the list of the specialist runs aggregators with just 44 runs – with 36 of them coming in the first innings of the tour – across four innings.
Since the retirements of Younis and Misbah, Azhar has scored seven fifties and a century. But, his bat largely remained quiet when his side really needed one of their senior men (especially him) to stick it out. His average in the window has been just a shade under 30, which is almost 12 runs less than his overall average. He scored two fifties and his only century in this window came in Pakistan’s last Test assignment against New Zealand at the UAE. But, the confidence that he had gained from those runs haven’t gotten him going in South Africa so far. He hopes it won’t be the case in the last two innings.
“Since the last few years I have felt the best when I was batting in the nets,” said Azhar on the eve of the third Test. “I had a decent series against New Zealand and was in good confidence coming into this series. I felt very good in the nets and during the side game. But, unfortunately, I haven’t performed in the Tests. I still have one Test and hope that I can convert that good touch into something in the middle. Because no matter how good you feel in the nets, it is important to transfer that in the middle. I am confident that if I get a good start I can convert it into a big score.”
To add to his woes, this tour has brought his technique under scrutiny after he was bounced out thrice by the same bowler, Duanne Olivier, across the first three innings. With Pakistan’s next Test series scheduled only towards the end of this year, Azhar will be desperate to set things right just to get his confidence back. If he can find some runs in a potential win now in Johannesburg, it will benefit him personally and the team as well to pull one back with the series already lost.
“I knew we were going to get pace and bounce [here]. But, even the South African batsmen would say that the bounce has not been even. Cracks were there, but it was for the both teams. Maybe we should have done well and we had the opportunities. But, the South African bowlers bowled very well. All of the bowlers bowled at 140kph plus, apart from [Vernon] Philander, but he is very accurate.
“It is disappointing to have lost the series. But, every Test match that we play on away tours in England, South Africa or Australia is important. We will look to bring our A game tomorrow and win the Test match. It will be very good for the morale. Because the tour doesn’t end here, we have ODIs after this series.”