Appointed as Misbah-ul-Haq's replacement as captain in the aftermath of the 2015 World Cup disaster, Azhar Ali's captaincy failed to inspire the Pakistan team to any greatness. With the former World Cup winners plunging to a lowly eighth position in the ODI rankings, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) had no option but to replace Azhar with Sarfraz Ahmed for the tour of West Indies. The Pakistan batsman was also ignored for the recent tour of the West Indies adding further insult to injury.
A few months are a lifetime in the world of Pakistan cricket and the Pakistan selectors after having previously discarded Azhar decided to make a U-turn by bringing him back for the Champions Trophy. Considering the criticism Azhar had received prior to his removal as skipper and even by Pakistani standards, it was a surprise that he was recalled for the Champions Trophy tournament in England.
Pakistan's Champions Trophy campaign got off to a terrible start when they suffered a humiliating 124 run loss against their arch-rivals India in Birmingham, re-emphasising the enormous gap in skills between both sides but as Azhar explained, the blame for victory lay squarely on some basic mistakes by his side.
"We only have ourselves to blame and as a team, we have to collectively accept the responsibility and take the blame. We made some crucial mistakes and they were the turning points and proved to be pivotal in the outcome of the match against India," Azhar explained.
Head Coach Mickey Arthur and captain Sarfraz Ahmed had been at pains to allay any fears of their side succumbing to the immense pre-game stress that is involved in typical India-Pakistan games but it appeared that the team lost its nerve when confronted with the magnitude of the occasions as Azhar remarked, "I don't think we were under pressure or more nervous than we would be for any other international match. India versus Pakistan matches are always huge encounters and are decided more often than not in key moments and we were found wanting at the key moments."
The Pakistan bowling firepower has in the past been a major factor in successes against India but it appeared that a combination of some loose bowling and fielding errors where two crucial catches of Yuvraj Singh and Virat Kohli were spilt seem to take the wind out of Pakistan's sails.
"I thought we had India in check when they were batting for large parts of their innings and although they weren't losing wickets, they were not scoring at a huge rate. However, the dropped catches of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh seemed to be the turning point. If we had taken those two catches it could have been an altogether different match and India would not have found it easy to reach such a large total. If we had taken the catches of Kohli and Yuvraj, then who knows there may have been a different outcome to the match," Azhar reasons.
There aren't too many batsmen in the world of cricket which command so much respect as do the duo of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh and allowing them lives at crucial points of the game was something that hurt Pakistan in Azhar's view, "Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh are world-class and proven performers. If you give players of that calibre lives by dropping catches off them then they will make you pay for your mistakes. We should have capitalised on those opportunities, but we didn't and they made us pay for those errors."
Mohammad Hafeez's vast experience and big-match abilities have been recognised by many and to find that he was not asked to bowl one over in the whole India innings left many experts confused. It would have been logical to employ the services of a bowler with a record like Hafeez's but as Azhar explained rather unconvincingly, it was the captain's decision based upon the conditions and the demands of the match situation.
"The captain knows best but I believe Mohammad Hafeez did not bowl against India as the conditions were difficult for spinners when we were bowling. Conditions were damp and we were on and off the field and it was not easy for the spinners to grip the ball. I think the captain felt that conditions were more suitable for the seamers as the ball was moving around at times especially when it was damp and overcast," he said.
With a revised target of 289 in 41 overs, the Pakistan batting was tasked with making a game out of an increasingly tough situation. A tough required run-rate meant that the batsmen would have little or no time to play themselves in and whilst the Pakistan openers did put up a 47-run partnership, the run-rate was nowhere near what was needed. This pattern continued throughout the innings where scoreboard pressure and a regular loss of wickets did not allow any freedom to Pakistan as Azhar explained.
"When it came to our batting, we just could not keep up with the required run-rate and build momentum. When you are chasing seven or more an over you need to build momentum to the innings right from the start but we just could not do that."
The odds were stacked against Pakistan whilst bowling and the equation was tough when they came into bat but on a personal basis, Azahr seemed to show exactly why the selectors chose him for the job. He displayed strong character, driven possibly by a bid to repair his reputation in the shorter format of the game and duly became the top scorer in the Pakistan innings with 50 off 65 balls. Whilst he was dismayed by Pakistan's loss to their rivals, Azhar sought to draw some positives from his own performance.
"I wanted to play positively out there and my intentions were to go out there and try to keep up with the scoring rate and I tried my best to do that and to keep the required run-rate in check, but I feel that I could have batted better than I did."
Pakistan were clearly marked as underdogs at the beginning of the tournament and for a good reason as their lacklustre performance showed in the game against India. However, with two games remaining, it is up to Pakistan to see whether they can lift their game to a level which will help them compete with the top teams of the competition. For Azhar Ali, his team needs to move on from the embarrassment of the defeat against India and the equation is quite simple, "We have two matches left at the Champions Trophy, they are must-win games and we owe it to ourselves and the fans to up our game and perform better than we did against India", he concluded.