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The Azhar Ali conundrum
Australia tour of the UAE

The Azhar Ali conundrum

In the build-up to the Pakistan-Australia Test series in the UAE, Australia’s pacemen Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle identified Azhar Ali as one of the key wickets. Rightly so, in the seven Tests against Australia, Azhar averages 69.75 with three hundreds and four fifties.

The last time two sides met, Azhar had a wonderful time, scoring the highest number of runs from Pakistan and only second in the overall list behind Steve Smith. Keeping that in view, both Aussie quicks highlighted his runs in Australia.

However, Azhar has had few problems in the last couple of innings, with the straighter ball being his nemesis. On the recent tour of England, Broad and Anderson targeted Azhar’s stumps and subsequently, he was trapped lbw and cleaned up twice. His movements at the crease in the first Test at Lord’s looked fine until Azhar’s head fell down the slope, trapped leg before wicket.

Azhar’s setup at the crease is fairly orthodox with a slight trigger movement from his feet, readying himself for the ball coming at him. His back foot goes slightly back and across and after that, his front goes slightly across but not in a closed off position. If the ball is outside off-stump, his movements look fluent as his foot gets closer to the ball and he can hit through the line easily.

But when the ball is slightly aimed towards the stumps, he has been committing slightly early with his front foot which means his balance is askew and the trouble comes. His alignment to the ball (when it is straight) looks out because his lower body is aligned towards extra cover but the upper body tries to compensate for that movement – meaning that the lower body is facing one direction (extra cover) and the shoulders facing other direction (pointing down the wicket, as shown in the image below). The dismissal in the first innings at Headingley is a classic example of this. That means he pushes out in front of himself rather than moving correctly and allowing the ball to hit his bat.

 Azhar Ali's dismissal at Headingley

Azhar Ali's dismissal at Headingley

The solution to this is obviously hitting a lot of balls in the nets and allowing the ball to come to him. That means a shorter third movement (when the ball is aimed at his stumps) which will allow his bat to come down at the ball to make contact. It will be easier for him to drag his foot back when the third movement is shorter as compared to a bigger stride and then dragging back his front foot and instantiating his downswing. The shorter stride will also allow him to open up the cut shot, which he doesn’t play often.

Early on in his innings, with the newer ball, Mitchell Starc can ask a few questions because he can swing the ball back into the right-handers at a high pace. In the UAE, the ball will do something early on but the conditions might not favour as much when the ball gets older. Siddle is another man who has to be watchful against as he gets in very tight to the stumps and can nip the ball back into the batsmen.

Azhar holds the key for Pakistan since he is one of the most experienced players in this line-up and his ability to bat for longer periods can certainly worry the opposition.