Ever since Azhar Ali was announced as the new ODI Captain for Pakistan, there's been a lot of talk about his limited overs strike rate and about how he lacks the captaincy credentials to have even been considered for the job in the first place. To be completely honest, when I first heard the news, I raised an eyebrow myself. It's not that I dont like what I've seen of Azhar Ali as a player in Test Matches. He's stoic in the face of (often unjustified) criticisms of his batting style, he's confident in his ability to occupy the crease and he consistently grinds the opposition bowlers down allowing the other batsmen to take advantage.
Despite being a fan of Azhar as a Test player, I still have reservations about his Test batting. Not because he bats slow, that's not an issue. There's room in Test Cricket for those who bat slow. What I struggle with his Azhar's lack of strike rotation. I really wish that he would just learn to drop the ball at his feet or dab it down leg and run a quick single to the other end. Is it really that hard to do for an international batsman?
It's with those reservations, about Azhar's batting strike rate in mind that I mulled over the news about Azhar becoming Pakistan's ODI Captain. Like many Pakistan fans, the first thing I did was to check his ODI batting strike rate which is a very disappointing 64.8. Things weren't looking good.
His last ODI was played in the first few days of 2013 which means that he'd been appointed captain of an ODI team that he hadn't even played in for over 2 years! Three words came to mind, classic PCB blunder!
So I decided to check what Azhar had been doing in domestic one day cricket since his last ODI game for Pakistan. I wanted to see what to expect from Azhar in the ODI arena. Whilst it's true that Pakistani List A Cricket is leagues behind the standard of International Cricket, it's still the only indicator we have of a batsman's form and scoring rate until he actually plays international cricket.
Azhar Ali has played in 5 List A series and batted in 25 inns since his last ODI appearance for Pakistan, these are his batting stats...
25 inns. 1384 runs @ 55.36 avg. 81.3 SR. 4x 100. 8x 50. 126x 4. 12x 6.
Over the last two years and 25 inns, Azhar has a batting average of 55.36 and a strike rate of 81.3. Even more impressive is the fact that he has 12 fifty plus scores, that's 50 or more runs in every second game.
Ok Azhar I thought, you've got my attention. Maybe you are worth giving a chance to but how do these figures break down? I noticed that Azhar hadn't played any List A games between April 2013 and November 2013. There were 12 games before mid 2013 and 13 games after mid 2013. But what caught my attention was the difference in Azhar's batting stats before mid 2013 and after mid 2013.
It looked like the stats belonged to two different players. Let me shows you what I mean....
12 inns. 679 runs @ 56.58 avg. 73.6 SR. 1x 100 5x 50. 55x 4 4x 6 (Before Mid 2013
13 inns. 705 runs @ 54.23 avg. 90.4 SR. 3x 100. 3x 50. 71x 4 8x 6 (After mid 2013)
Both sets of stats have an impressive batting average in the mid-50s and 6 scores of fifty plus. But there was a huge difference in the strike rate, so huge is the difference that you'd be forgiven for thinking the two sets of stats belonged to two entirely different players. The first set of stats could easily be identified with the Azhar Ali we know and are familiar with, no-one would protest. The average is good but the strike rate is well below the modern standard of 80.
But if I hadn't seen the stats for myself, you would have found it impossible to convince me (or any Pakistan fan) that the second set of stats with a batting average of 54 AND a strike rate of over 90 belonged to Azhar Ali. In fact I'd be reminding you that April the 1st was 15 days ago and that maybe you should look for someone a little less savvy in his cricketing knowledge to play your jokes on.
But it's there in black and white. Admittedly it's only Azhar's last 13 List A games but it shows that he is capable of batting at a modern strike rate. It also seems to show that this is something that he's been working on in his last two List A series.
So suddenly there seems to be a logic behind his selection. I guess it makes sense for Azhar to be recalled to the ODI team in order to fill the void left by the joint retirement of Misbah and Afridi. We need a dependable bat and we need to stop the top order collapses. As an opening batsman Azhar fits both moulds and is as good a choice as any of the untested alternatives but what about the ODI Captaincy?
I can understand recalling him to the ODI team in the absence of Misbah but why make him Captain? Why not Fawad or Sarfaraz?
I can buy the argument that Sarfaraz might be a little too young or a little too new at the international stage but what about Fawad? I cant think of any good reason for excluding Fawad, in fact it should have been Fawad but maybe there's a good reason for giving it to Azhar?
Since his last ODI for Pakistan, Azhar has been captain in 16 List A games, these are his batting stats below...
16 inns. 822 runs @ 51.34 avg. 83.5 SR . 3x 100. 5x 50. 82x 4 7x 6. 11 wins. 5 losses. - As Captain
These stats are a little more sedate than his stats post mid 2013. His average is 3 runs lighter and his strike rate is 7 points lower but I actually prefer that because these figures look a little more realistic to me. I cant see Azhar blazing away at a strike rate of more than 90 at the international level but I can totally buy Azhar having a high average and a useful strike rate around 80.
Once again he has scores of 50+ in every second game and his conversion rate of 50s to 100s is very good. 3 centuries as Captain is a good omen for the future and if he can replicate his winning percentage of 68% at international level then Pakistan would be winning more ODI series than they'd be losing.
Looking through Azhar's stats had been more therapeutic than I'd bargained for. I'm starting to feel a little more optimistic about Azhar's inclusion in the ODI team. Maybe the PCB has made another one of their golden blunders, resulting in an unexpected bonus for Pakistan cricket.
Maybe Waqar and Misbah do know what they're talking about and identified Azhar's form and captaincy potential in the same way I have above. If that's true then they really should have been playing him in ODIs for the last year at least but we cant change the past so let's look to the future.
Only time will tell if Azhar was the right choice as Pakistan's ODI Captain but I'm happy to support him, not only because I would support any Pakistan Captain but because his List A stats for the last two years are impressive enough to earn him that backing.
I'm not expecting him to transition his List A form into International form overnight. Given his two year absence from ODIs, I'm willing to give him a year to get steady on his feet and to build a new ODI unit around him. Over the coming year I fully expect Azhar to fail regularly but if he can succeed as often as he fails and in the process, if he grow into a stronger captain and player each time, then Pakistani fans could be in for an exciting year of ODI cricket.
What's Azhar Ali done to become ODI Captain?
What's Azhar Ali done to become ODI Captain?