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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 13 December 2018

Azhar Ali, more nondescript than notable, calmly goes about his work in Abu Dhabi Test to surpass 5,000 runs

Pakistan on 266-4, still trailing Sri Lanka by 153 on first innings, with Azhar 74 not out

Pakistan's Azhar Ali on his way to an unbeaten 74 against Sri Lanka on Day 3 of the first Test in Abu Dhabi. Tom Dulat / Getty Images
Pakistan's Azhar Ali on his way to an unbeaten 74 against Sri Lanka on Day 3 of the first Test in Abu Dhabi. Tom Dulat / Getty Images

When Azhar Ali scored a triple century against West Indies in Dubai last season, he revealed a little known fact about himself. He had, in actual fact, been a fielding substitute for the national team in the game fourteen years earlier when Inzamam-ul-Haq scored 329 in a Test for Pakistan.

Compare and contrast the celebrities of those two. It remains like night and day. The organisers of the new T10 Cricket League, for example, have Inzamam pegged as the leading “celebrity” at their launch event planned for the day after the conclusion of this Test match.

It is difficult to imagine anyone seeking Azhar’s endorsement to sell their new whizz-bang cricket concept 10 years after he retires. Even now, as a current, and highly prolific, player, his persona is more nondescript than notable.

And yet this is the batsman on which Pakistan’s immediate future as a Test team must be based. It has been, almost imperceptibly, for some time already.

For so long, he has been Test cricket’s Other Guy. A player whose stats in the format over recent years place him in the company of the likes of Steve Smith, Kane Williamson and Virat Kohli – but who rarely warrants mention.

Understandably, most laurels afforded to Pakistan in the recent past have related to either Misbah-ul-Haq or Younis Khan, the two “legends”, as coach Mickey Arthur termed them this week, of this side.

But Azhar's average of 60 in the UAE is the best of any Pakistan batsman to have played a significant chunk of matches here. He is zeroing in on Younis and Misbah’s aggregate for most runs here, too.

Now the two stars have moved on, maybe Azhar will start to get his due attention. At the first available opportunity, he is going about showing he can be banked on to lead the way.

This is Azhar’s 61st Test. He is the most senior player in the team by four matches, ahead of Asad Shafiq, with captain Sarfraz Ahmed next on 37.

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More coverage of the first Test:

Day 2: Chandimal’s Abu Dhabi Test hundred proves he is a leader, says Sri Lanka coach

Day 1: Sri Lanka prove batting worth at Zayed Cricket Stadium

Analysis: New Pakistan cricket captain Sarfraz Ahmed proves he will be his own man

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He has been tried as a captain, in the limited-overs format, and dispensed with. He may be without the tacit endorsement of being the side’s leader, but at least he can show the way forward by performance.

And he can demand the same of his colleagues, too, in the way that Inzamam, etc, did in the past, even if Azhar has nothing like the domineering personality of senior players of the past.

Like when Babar Azam, the young star, gave away his wicket with two balls left to face. It left Pakistan on 266-4, still trailing Sri Lanka by 153 on first innings.

Maybe being caught at the wicket down the legside could be construed as unfortunate, but Azhar, the non-striker, was livid it had happened.

He and Babar had been building a partnership. When it was broken, caught by Niroshan Dickwella off Nuwan Pradeep’s bowling, Azhar furiously smashed his pad with his bat at the other end.

Azhar, for his part, has been typically rock steady. He is 74 not out ahead of Day 4, and eyeing a 15th Test century.

“Azhar has been scoring lot of runs and as his career shows he has scored 5,000 runs in 61 Tests,” said Sami Aslam, the opener who himself made a half century and shared in a century opening stand with Shan Masood.

“He is scoring a lot of runs in Australia, England, and last year I think 1,700 runs. He is the main player after Younis and Misbah.

“He is the most senior player and taken the responsibility in Pakistan team right now.”

Dickwella said Sri Lanka do have a plan for Azhar, and that Babar’s late dismissal had revived their belief they can force a victory in the match.

“Luckily we got the fourth wicket, and we are hoping to get a good start tomorrow morning [Sunday],” Sri Lanka’s wicketkeeper said.

“The first session and how we approach it is going to be crucial. How we bowl tomorrow morning will decide the game.

“We have to attack their batsmen and put them under pressure. If we can get around 120, or even 100-run lead, it is more than enough to make them bat again on the fifth day.”