Azhar Ali is caressing the ball all around the dial at the iconic Qaddafi Stadium in Lahore. Battling to retain his spot in the one-day side, he carefully executes his strokes. The media personnel, gathered at the pavilion end, gaze towards the ground contemplating his replacements. The practice match between Pakistan Greens and Pakistan Whites continues.
National chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq arrives at the ground for a press conference, to announce the limited-overs squads for the tour of the West Indies, and the journalists ambush him by their complaints. Apparently, Inzi had not been returning their phone calls. The former Pakistan captain defends himself, while decorating a wide smile on his face. Meanwhile, Azhar keeps ticking the scorecard. He is batting on 81.
There are still 15 minutes in the press conference and Inzamam makes his way towards Pakistan’s Test captain Misbah-ul-Haq, perched besides the boundary rope. Azhar cuts Mohammad Amir’s wide delivery to the deep-point for a single as the practice match goes on.
It is 3:30 p.m. and Inzamam helps himself to a podium set on the edge of the ground, under the shade of Patron’s Enclosure.
He emphasises his committee’s resolve to try out “new players” before making the Twenty20 International and One-Day International squads public. Behind Inzamam’s giant stature, Azhar is busy negotiating Mohammad Asghar’s finger-spin. The former ODI captain dances down the wicket and squirts the ball towards the cover fielder to take himself into the 90s. The reporters, and also the PCB (as it seems), stand aloof. Until a reporter asks Inzamam about Azhar’s future in the limited-overs’ side. Someone whispers, “Azhar is about to score a century.”
Inzi takes time. He looks at the podium and grins. It makes you wonder how he perceived the query. He raises his head and says: “We have not totally discarded him. He is an excellent player. It is just we want to give new talent a chance.”
Inzamam still has it, the response makes one think. He has not forgotten how to nullify a scorching delivery at the business area. Like his playing days, he can still nudge a fast ball towards the third-man with his lazy elegance. He adds, “Azhar may return for the Champions Trophy. We may need him there as the conditions in England will not allow the opening batsmen to score runs easily.”
By the time the press conference ends, Azhar has completed his century. He is standing on 101. The media personnel disperse. Soon it is conveyed that Pakistan Whites have won the match by two wickets, and Azhar scored 102 out of 100 balls. What a day for Azhar!
He is booted out of the one-day side less than two months after he had captained it. He does not have anyone to blame other than him, due to the dreadful run Pakistan have had in the one-day format under his captaincy. Pakistan had lost 18 and won 12 under Azhar since the last world cup.
But he can claim to have been misled. When Sarfraz Ahmed was stormed in as the ODI captain last month, the cricket board’s chairman had promised to keep Azhar in the side on the basis of his batting skills.