The rain was torrential; there was no way they’d get the game back on. Water drainage in Lahore is, putting it kindly, not ideal, and the storm drains around Gaddafi Stadium had begun to heave, water spilling over onto the streets. The game between Multan Sultans and Karachi Kings was called off, unseasonal rains having come to Multan’s rescue after an uncharacteristically limp batting performance. There was a crowd at the exits, people hastening to leave. It included Pakistan’s Test captain Azhar Ali, uncomfortably conspicuous in an immaculate grey suit, no longer required for punditry work now the game was done.
Security arrangements meant everyone – no exceptions, clearly – would have to walk the kilometre or so from the media box exit to the front gates of the stadium complex. Azhar made his way out, trying his best to avoid stepping into muddy puddles, his shoes clearly not designed for this eventuality. It wasn’t long before the departing crowd picked out they had somewhat special company, and even as the rainwater lapped at their ankles and soaked their feet, they began to throng Azhar, eager for a selfie. The man himself, arguably too polite for his own good, tried his best to oblige as he continued to make his way through the crowd, as the flash lights went off and the drizzle began to intensify. You’d be hard pressed to find Azhar’s counterparts in India, Australia or England pressed into such a situation.
It wasn’t pretty, but little about Azhar Ali has been. This was a man who made his international debut in England in 2010 – yep, that tour – and decent enough as that went, there was little that caught the eye. He scored an unbeaten 92 in the only Test Pakistan won that series; the most recent YouTube clip of that innings currently has eight views. His teammate Asad Shafiq – with whom Azhar appears destined to be compared and contrasted – would make his debut a few months on, and with that attractive a cover drive, it was easy to imagine he was the real future star of the middle order. Azhar was there, there to be used by Pakistan, and, at times, there to be taken advantage of.
He was appointed ODI captain in after the World Cup in 2015, a format he didn’t even play at the time; he never made the World Cup squad. Following poor results in England and Australia, he was dropped unceremoniously; the news was allegedly leaked before Azhar himself had been informed.
The previous year, he had been appointed captain of the Lahore Qalandars franchise in the inaugural season of the PSL as a marquee player, only to be stripped after one season. And when, in 2019, Sarfaraz Ahmed’s loss of form with both gloves and bat became untenable, and there was no other viable candidate, it was perhaps unsurprising the PCB turned back to Azhar Ali.
The job may have been a natural one for Azhar had it not come so late. For that young man with the unremarkable technique, and the downright ugliness with which he accumulated his runs, had perhaps turned into the best top order batsman Pakistan have produced since Saeed Anwar retired. His average hovered around the mid 40s, his place in the side was secure, and runs came in huge numbers in both the UAE and abroad; big hundreds in England and Sri Lanka were complemented by double centuries in places as diverse as Dhaka and Melbourne. But now, just when the opportunity for leadership had opened up, there was a sign a rough patch was turning into a malaise.
He’d managed just 59 runs in a tour of South Africa where Duanne Olivier tormented him for fun, and it continued on his first tour after assuming the leadership, when he crossed double figures just once in Australia. A soft hundred against Sri Lanka in Karachi had appeased no one, and having served his purpose, calls in Pakistan to do away with him intensified once more.
So when he walked out on Sunday as James Anderson and Stuart Broad prowled, and watched this morning as Asad Shafiq nicked off yet again, there was much that would have weighed on his mind. But he was canny enough to understand this was a pitch to be exploited once the new ball stopped nipping around, and spent the first hour alongside Fawad Alam taking the sting out of it. At lunch, he’d managed 10 off 53; he would have heard the knives sharpening. But he wore the pacers out and negotiated Dom Bess well, even as he watched Fawad Alam give his wicket away cheaply to the offspinner.
As the day wore on, and the pitch eased up, glimpses of an Azhar seen less frequently during his career emerged. It was an Azhar who batted with the abandon of knowing he belonged at this level, who, with Pakistan so far behind in the game, needed to worry about nothing but batting long. He even pulled Jofra Archer, bowling at speeds exceeding 90, comfortably into the square leg more than once, and cut him above the slips when he went even shorter. He caressed Broad through cover, and sliced Anderson past point. He punched Bess through the offside to bring up his hundred, a roar as he raced to complete the run the first indication of how much a game that has brought him so much pain still meant to him.
It means plenty for Pakistan, too. The last time he scored an away Test hundred, his head coach Misbah-ul-Haq was at the other end. With Shafiq faltering and no certainty around the No. 6 position, Azhar’s lack of form had left a hole where the middle order needed to be, and intensified the burden on Babar. Cricketers with 6000 runs who average over 40 aren’t to be discarded lightly, and for a young Pakistan side, his longevity is an asset worth cherishing more than is perhaps in evidence sometimes.
That day, Azhar trudged on grimly through the floodwater. If his patience wore thin, he didn’t let it show, and by the time he got to his car, after what seemed like an age, his shoes and the base of his trousers were caked in mud. He’d found himself in a sticky situation, but found a quietly dignified way to get through it. As you’d expect from him every single time.