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I proved doubting Thomases wrong in ODIs, says Azhar

I proved doubting Thomases wrong in ODIs, says Azhar

KARACHI: One of the most reliable players in the current Pakistan side, Test vice-captain Azhar Ali has really made rapid strides ever since being installed as skipper of the national one-day team.

The 30-year-old from Lahore has enjoyed a prolific post-World Cup period after being elevated to the leadership of the one-day side following the retirement from that format of long-serving skipper Misbah-ul-Haq and ageing all-rounder Shahid Afridi.

Often regarded unsuited for limited-overs cricket, the articulate Azhar dispelled that perception emphatically in the recent series against Bangladesh and Zimbabwe after being overlooked for the 2015 World Cup where Pakistan were eliminated at the last-eight stage by eventual champions Australia.

Returning to the one-day fold after more than two years in the wilderness – his last appearance was against India at Kolkata on Jan 3, 2013 – the upright right-hander from Lahore made 72, 36 and 101 in Dhaka during Bangladesh’s landmark 3-0 victory in April and followed that with scores of 79, 102 and 46 in the historic 2-0 series win against Zimbabwe last month.

“The results didn’t go our way as most people were hoping before the [Bangladesh] tour started. Admittedly, Bangladesh outplayed us and were the better team in front of vocal home crowds. As someone leading your country for the first time, I felt downcast,” Azhar told Dawn in an exclusive interview on Saturday. “In such situations, there was nothing one could do. Personally, I had good series with the bat since I wanted to make a strong statement to those who doubted my ability as a one-day player.

“The World Cup snub was something I still failed to understand really. But I had to overcome that disappointment and, in fact, it has inspired me to prove people wrong. I have been successful in that respect since taking over as the ODI captain and opening the innings.”

Azhar, who is due to leave for the Sri Lanka tour with the Test squad on Monday, admitted he had no words to describe the return of international cricket to Pakistan after a lapse of more than six years.

“Honestly, I’m lost for words because most of us got extremely emotional while playing on our home soil for the first time. The boys were very excited about playing in front of our own people,” the soft-spoken Azhar remarked. “The atmosphere was electrifying with the spectators egging on both teams. Credit to all who made it possible in the short time available and special thank to the Zimbabwe team for touring Pakistan.”

Azhar has made the No 3 slot in the Test side his own since making debut against Australia in the off-shore series which was staged in England in 2010. A lapse in form prematurely ended a run of 31 consecutive appearances from debut when Azhar was dropped for the first two Tests against Sri Lanka in the UAE in 2013-14.

Returning to the team for the final game of that series in Sharjah, Azhar hit an uncharacteristic match-winning 103 off 137 balls as Pakistan completed a frenetic run chase to win by five wickets to level the series.

Azhar credits his success in the highest form of cricket to Test skipper Misbah and senior batsman Younis Khan and regards the two stalwarts as his role models.

“There is no doubt in my mind that Misbah and Younis are true legends of Pakistan cricket. What they have achieved over a long period of time is simply remarkable,” the Test vice-captain observed. “It is my desire that somebody should make a documentary of the work ethics adopted by Younis and Misbah. The reason they are so successful is the level of intensity they put into their game.

“If their careers are documented, the future players will know the real value of two wonderful players with whom I have had the privilege of playing and sharing the same dressing-room. The critics may not regard them as high as the legends of world cricket, but in my book they are among the topmost stars of Pakistan cricket.

“Players like me and Asad Shafiq, for example, are extremely fortunate for being part of the group featuring Younis and Misbah. For us it has been a tremendous learning process throughout our time in international cricket, watching both of our heroes at close quarters.”

Azhar will be heading into the three-match Sri Lanka Test series in a rich vein of form. In his last 10 Tests, he has amassed 1104 runs at 61.33 with four centuries, including a career-best 226 in the last match against Bangladesh in Dhaka a month ago.

“The upcoming series is a big challenge for us. The last we were there, Sri Lanka beat us 2-0 in the two-match series. [Slow left-armer] Rangana Herath troubled all our batsmen throughout the series. This time we will be better prepared to handle him,” he vowed. “He got me in all four innings but I aim to set the record straight. If we succeed in nullifying the arm delivery that Herath bowls so well then it would become easier for us.”

Published in Dawn, June 7th, 2015

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