Why Azhar has the tough­est job in cricket

Crit­i­cism of Pak­istan cap­tain is out of pro­por­tion but he may need to show a harder edge to force home any Test ad­van­tage

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport / Cricket - CHIEF CRICKET WRITER By Scyld Berry

Shin­ing, ra­di­ant, bril­liant. This is what “Azhar” means, but it did not quite work out like that for Pak­istan’s cap­tain to­wards the end of the Old Traf­ford Test, when Jos But­tler and Chris Woakes stole the game away with their au­da­cious bat­ting. Pak­istan, hav­ing dom­i­nated the Test un­til the fi­nal hour, missed out on a vic­tory that would have lived up to the first name of their cap­tain, Azhar Ali.

Azhar has been a quiet achiever – one of the few vis­it­ing bats­men from any coun­try to have scored a Test dou­ble-cen­tury in Aus­tralia – dur­ing his decade in in­ter­na­tional cricket as a solid top-or­der bats­man. But the rau­cous re­ac­tion to Pak­istan’s de­feat, and the vi­tu­per­a­tion heaped upon Azhar, have come at the op­po­site end of the scale to his in­nate quiet­ness.

They il­lus­trate how im­por­tant, rightly or wrongly, Pak­istan’s cricket cap­tain is to his coun­try.

“I take all re­spon­si­bil­ity for this de­feat as cap­tain,” Azhar ad­mit­ted on his Twit­ter ac­count, adding that his team had not played well.

But such a con­fes­sion did not stop the storm of dis­ap­proval grow­ing into a mon­soon of con­dem­na­tion on so­cial me­dia after Eng­land’s three-wicket vic­tory in the Old Traf­ford opener.

“Azhar Ali per­haps the most or­di­nary Test cap­tain of Pak­istan cricket his­tory” was one of the po­liter ver­dicts. Lit­tle or no al­lowance for the fact that Azhar has been in charge for only seven Tests.

It may come as a sur­prise to some of Pak­istan’s more pas­sion­ate fol­low­ers that Azhar, 35, is seen in a dif­fer­ent light in cer­tain quar­ters, such as Som­er­set, where he has played for the last two sea­sons as an overseas player.

“As far as I was con­cerned at Som­er­set, and a lot of the boys would say the same, he was an out­stand­ing con­trib­u­tor to the team on and off the field,” said Brian Rose, Som­er­set’s pres­i­dent and for­mer cap­tain, adding from his ex­pe­ri­ence: “When you’re ahead of the game but even­tu­ally lose, it’s very hard to take.”

Som­er­set’s cap­tain Tom Abell is even more ful­some about Azhar. “He’s prob­a­bly the best team man I’ve ever come across. His ded­i­ca­tion to the team and what we were try­ing to achieve was in­cred­i­ble. He’s one of the nicest blokes you could wish to meet and he was al­ways there of­fer­ing sup­port. I couldn’t think of any­one be­ing a bet­ter leader of his coun­try and I can cat­e­gor­i­cally say there is no one I’d rather play un­der.”

In an as­tute pro­file of Azhar be­fore this Test se­ries, Os­man Sami­ud­din, of Cricinfo, char­ac­terised him as “that kind of strait­laced, hon­est strug­gler Pak­istan cricket loses so eas­ily. Not ag­gres­sive enough, not gifted enough, not a per­son­al­ity enough, not am­bi­tious enough, not will­ing to make enough noise about per­ceived in­jus­tices, all at­tributes of­ten mis­taken for cricket abil­ity in Pak­istan”.

Of course, Pak­istan’s Ox­ford-ed­u­cated Test cap­tains – Ab­dul Hafeez Kar­dar, the first of them, and the most fa­mous, Im­ran Khan, now the coun­try’s prime min­is­ter – would have rid­den su­perbly above the storm that en­sued after the first Test de­feat, and dis­dained so­cial me­dia had it been around.

Azhar has main­tained a small Kar­dar-Khan link with Ox­ford by send­ing his son to the Dragon school there while he was rep­re­sent­ing Som­er­set. His son had a suc­cess­ful sea­son, scor­ing a cen­tury in a 20-over prep school match. The fa­ther, more mod­estly, av­er­aged 28 in county cricket, but re­ac­ti­vated his leg-breaks in white-ball cricket with suc­cess. Azhar be­gan rep­re­sent­ing Pak­istan at Un­der-15 level as a leg-spin­ner

To lead his coun­try back from 1-0 down against Eng­land, Azhar is go­ing to have to make some runs and lead from the front.

To do that he may have to cor­rect the ten­dency which has crept into his bat­ting to play from the crease, and of­ten chest-on, as if he were one of the West In­dian righthande­d bats­men ear­lier this sum­mer who were can­non-fod­der for Stu­art Broad, Woakes and the new Dukes ball.

As a cap­tain, a harder streak per­haps at the cri­sis? “He’s in­cred­i­bly car­ing and re­spect­ful,” Abell tes­ti­fied. But on the last af­ter­noon a cap­tain has to flog his horses if needs be, fire up his fast bowlers and not be too re­spect­ful of the op­po­si­tion.

Woakes scored 19 and 84 not out, while Broad made in­valu­able con­tri­bu­tions of 29 not out and seven: both are no­to­ri­ous for be­ing pace bowlers who “don’t like it up ’em”, but were hardly bounced.

And is it con­ceiv­able that some of the ro­bust vo­cab­u­lary used by his so­cial-me­dia crit­ics might come in use­ful?

Ad­mis­sion: Cap­tain Azhar Ali took full re­spon­si­bil­ity for Pak­istan’s first Test de­feat, but did not de­serve the vit­riol

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