Azhar Ali may not want to follow Shahid Afridi’s recent footsteps but his entry into cricket replicated that of the former Pakistan captain – they both started as bowlers.
Twenty wickets at first-class level may not scream talent but it was that very leg-spin that made him the staunch and resolute batsman that he is. The plaudit that his defence has earned in the last 15 months is courtesy dodgy pitches, testing conditions and his teams’ need for survival.
Prior to his Test debut, Azhar’s career revolved around KRL’s pitches in Rawalpindi and his short stints in Scotland – both swing and seam savvy. He bowled more than he batted, his efficacy called upon when his team needed someone to hold up an end. For someone who did not go to school, Azhar’s words, and stroke-play, ooze character and a disposition of mind.
“As a kid, I liked to try everything and enjoyed bowling leg-spin so I took that up,” recalled Azhar as he shared his early days that were influenced by his siblings’ love for the game. “I didn’t go to school as father got posted in Murree and took me along but I started playing club cricket on my return to Lahore and got told that I was good.”
Azhar’s represented Pakistan at the under-17 level before playing the Under-19 World Cup. With bigger things expected of him, his break came when his bowling action was modified and his performance deteriorated. The accuracy disappeared, the wickets failed to arrive, he was not playing as much as he wanted to and the future looked bleak.
“There was a period of 3-4 years that I didn’t play consistently. A match here and there was all I got and I wasn’t making any progress.” But then came KRL who, according to Azhar, not only gave him time in the middle, but also the backing and the push he needed to move up the order.
“I then started playing as an all-rounder and moved up from number six to three.”
A smile appeared on Azhar’s face when he recalled the relief that accompanied the move and the knowledge that he will be playing cricket again. Until that point, he talked sitting hunched over, the eyes wandering about. Now, he sat back, arms crossed with a look of content and spoke about his Test debut.
“My formula for success is simple: tough conditions, tough opponent, easier for me. If I had made my debut against Zimbabwe on a flat surface, I had no option but to score. At Lord’s, I kept thinking that even if I failed, it’ll be against tough bowlers through an exceptional delivery.”
Twenty-five innings and nine half-centuries later, as Azhar and his followers await that maiden Test ton, he goes back to that afternoon as a kid when he realised how badly he wanted to represent Pakistan.
“Standing on the roof, I said to myself that if someone comes along and tells me to jump in return for a place in the Pakistan side, I’d do it. Now, the dream has become reality.”
The writer is Sports Editor of The Express Tribune
Published in The Express Tribune, October 9th, 2011.
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