Azhar Ali had a spectacular 2016, scoring 1198 runs over the last year, which was the second highest tally in Tests by a Pakistan batsman in a calendar year. Azhar’s sensational 205* against Australia also made him the first Pakistan batsman to score a double hundred on Australian soil. And earlier in the year, he had become only the fourth Pakistani to score a triple century, joining the elite club of Hanif Muhammad, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. His presence has added stability to the batting line-up given the poor form of the two veterans Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq over the year. We witnessed several brilliant performances from Azhar over the year; so let’s do a quick recap of some of them:
If we rewind the clock to Pakistan’s tour of England last summer, Azhar was struggling to make runs and was being attacked on his pads. International cricket can be a tough place to be in, especially nowadays where there is a lot of video analysis going on and the bowlers come up with specific plans for each batsman.
England’s support staff had worked out Azhar Ali and their bowlers were setting him up with some away-swingers, dragging him across his crease and then getting it to nip back in to him. That meant that Azhar had to change his technique slightly to get back into runs and it worked.
His stance changed slightly as he became just a tad more open chested. Previously when he began his trigger movement, he would take his front foot slightly more across the stumps and his head started falling towards the off side. Now, when he began his trigger movement, he remained more open-chested at the point of ball release and slightly more upright at the crease. This image makes the point more clear.
The image on the left is from the Lord’s Test. His front foot is further across towards the off side and his head is falling over. The one on the right is from the Edgebaston Test where he scored a century. He is more open chested and slightly more upright at the crease. That improves his balance and aids in playing the ball straight back from where it has come from. Let’s have a look at where England bowled to him and how he adapted to the conditions.
His judgment of where his off-stump is was crucial in this innings. He left the ball well, played it late and forced the bowlers to bowl at him, where he picked a lot of his runs. His boundaries against the quicker bowlers came when they pitched the ball up to him. No boundary against the seamers was scored on the up. Instead he looked to tap the ball in the gaps rather than going for the full-blooded drives which can be a touch risky when the wicket is doing a bit. He scored two of his boundaries from the shorter length deliveries.
Against the spinners, he drove well and used the depth of the crease to great effect. He turned the ball to the leg side from off stump and drove through the covers when the ball was tossed well outside off stump. Overall, it was a fantastic innings, which required a lot of character and mental strength.
Scoring a triple hundred is no small achievement and very few players get to this landmark. You need bit of luck as well but Azhar has showed that he has the hunger to score big hundreds and for that you need a lot of discipline, commitment and terrific levels of concentration. Let’s have a look at where West Indies bowled to him:
We can see a lot of yellow balls around the 6M mark and on the shorter side of that. Azhar wasn’t hesitant to drive the ball on the rise in these conditions and this shows that he had adapted well from the English conditions. We can see a lot of short balls in this pitch map but they didn’t bother him much. Against spin, he was keen on playing it square on the off side whenever the ball was dropped short. He defended nicely with a decent stride forward or went deep inside the crease. We also witnessed sweep shots and reverse sweeps too, which is a good way to manipulate the field.
This was probably the best innings from him and again he showed that he has the temperament to stay at the crease for long periods of times. It is not easy scoring against the likes of Starc and Hazlewood in their own backyard but adapting to the conditions and sticking to your game plan holds the key. Here is look at his wagon wheel:
We saw a lot of drives down the ground from Azhar Ali during his magnificent unbeaten double hundred. He scored 55 runs down the ground, which highlights that he was ready to pounce on anything that was slightly overpitched. We can see a lot of triples in the cover region and that is because of the longer boundaries. He scored 32 runs in 8 balls in the region behind square on the off side. Some of these were thick outside edges but there were deliberate upper cuts and guiding the ball with soft hands. Whenever the Australian bowlers bowled in line with the stumps, he clipped it away for runs.
In many ways, this was the year Azhar emerged as one of the fulcrums of the Pakistani batting lineup, and one of the most accomplished batsmen in the world. The move to opener has come as a blessing both for his team as well as his own form, and he looks set to continue improving.