LAHORE: What do you do when one of your most consistent performers ever retires, leaving the captain’s spot vacant and the middle-order in complete disarray? If you are Pakistan, you call in a Test-only player who hasn’t played an ODI in over two years. And on top of that you call him in, all 30 years of age, in the name of selecting a young captain.
And since you are Pakistan, and logic and common reasoning do not apply to you, that eyebrow-raising decision will prove to be a master stroke — at least in the early few weeks.
Azhar Ali may have suffered the ignominy of being Pakistan’s first ODI captain to lose a series against Bangladesh — that too a 3-0 whitewash — but the skipper was one of the few players to emerge from that series with any sort of credit.
He has taken that superb personal form into the Zimbabwe series and has been vital as the team attempts to finally start making scores that are fast becoming the norm rather than the exception.
Under Misbahul Haq, Azhar’s predecessor and the only other captain he played under, the right-handed batsman averaged a decent enough 41.09 but his strike-rate of 64.84 meant there was little space for him in the side. He was the kind of player that epitomised exactly what was wrong with the batting line-up of the time; he was solid but was unable to provide any sort of momentum to the innings — a player ideal to make or chase scores between 200 and 250 but fatal for the team’s chances of anything more.
The 30-year-old was the first to admit that things need to change when he took over and he was the first to admit that change was needed even more so after the Bangladesh series. He has been hitting all the right notes with his statements in press conferences and with his bat on the pitch.
At least on a personal level, the change has arrived. His scoring rate has improved drastically and now stands at an impressive 91.76. He has promoted himself further up the order and now opens the innings, providing the sort of base that the more explosive lower-order has been crying out for so long.
All the more remarkable then that the improvement in his strike-rate has come without a marked increase in risks taken. Since taking over, he has scored 72, 36, 101, 79 and 102 in five matches; at an average of 78.
In Azhar’s personal success lies a valuable lesson for all of Pakistan’s batsmen. The 30-year-old had scored 452 runs in 14 outings prior to being appointed captain; scoring 162 (36%) of them in boundaries. Since becoming captain, those numbers are 168 runs out of 390 in boundaries (43%). The rope is being found with almost similar consistency but runs are coming more than 40% quicker.
The improved scoring rate then is not due to boundaries but due to better rotation of the strike, which has helped the skipper pace his innings according to the situation. He has crossed 50 four times in the five matches and has finished all of them at a strike-rate of better than 90.
These spectacular early numbers are surely going to gradually fall towards the median as time passes, and these runs have come against undoubtedly the two worst bowling attacks of all Test nations but Azhar can only face what he is up against.
It would be interesting to see how he takes the team forward once his own purple patch ends but he has provided the others with a perfect blueprint for change. Hopefully the others will follow in his wake and Azhar will be spared the cursed fate that befell Misbah; having to do it all on his own time and again.
The new captain still needs to go a long way to prove himself as the leader Pakistan need but for now he is leading from the front; doing what he preaches, his actions speaking louder than his words. It turns out even old dogs can learn new tricks, there is still hope yet for Pakistan.
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