Azhar Ali's comical run out in the recent Test match against Australia grabbed more media attention than his retirement from one-dayers. One of the batting heroes of Pakistan's stirring Champions Trophy victory against India called time on his career in white-ball format to focus his attention exclusively on Test cricket.
"My run out has not only overshadowed my retirement news, my son, Ibtisam, teases me that there are more videos of my run out than footage of my triple hundred and double hundreds on the internet," jokes the former Pakistan captain in an exclusive chat with Firstpost.
"I did not want to clutter my mind with thoughts of making a comeback in the one-dayers and wanted to channel all my energy towards Test cricket. I have set aside a couple of goals for myself and this includes regaining my Test form. I also want the new opening pair of Imam-ul-Haq and Fakhar Zaman to feel settled in the openers' role. Both of them are talented and have delivered the goods."
Azhar made his Test debut in 2010 and has amassed over 5,000 Test runs with an impressive average of over 44. But in 2018, he has been battling a lean patch with just two scores of over 50 in his last 10 innings. He was looking good for a big knock during the second Test against Australia in Abu Dhabi before his farcical run out.
Batting on 64, Azhar guided a Peter Siddle delivery towards the vacant third-man region. Confident that his shot had crossed the boundary, he walked towards the middle of the pitch for a quick chat with his partner Asad Shafiq. The ball had actually stopped a few inches from the rope and Mitchell Starc's throw to the keeper found Azhar stranded.
"One of my dreams is to improve upon my Test average from my current 44 to 50. My other ambition is to sign off with centuries against all Test playing nations," said Azhar.
The 33-year-old has scored tons against England and Australia, which included an unbeaten double hundred at Melbourne Cricket Ground but centuries against New Zealand and South Africa have so far eluded him. The veteran of 67 Test matches will have an opportunity to set the record straight as Pakistan's next two Test assignments will be against these two countries.
Starting his career as a specialist leg-spinner during his under-15 and under-19 days, Azhar evolved himself as a frontline batsman only in his 20s. His prolific scoring in the domestic circuit saw him break into the Pakistan national team in 2010. Despite the towering presence of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq in the Pakistan batting line-up, Azhar was not a mere foot soldier but a trusted lieutenant.
He stamped his own identity with his signature no-frills batting style, racking up big scores. His strike rate did not send the pulse racing but he emerged as one of the most efficient top-order batsmen in world cricket. He was the star of several of Pakistan's rousing Test wins, which saw them rise to world number one in the ICC rankings in 2016.
"I still harbour ambitions of crossing 10,000 runs in Tests but with Pakistan not playing too many Test matches, it is a long shot. Another unfulfilled ambition is to play against India in Test matches.
"I do not know if it will happen during my Test career but I would love to experience the challenge. An India-Pakistan (match) is a battle of nerves and there is excitement. But there has not been any untoward incident between players during an India-Pakistan game. India's bowling attack has improved so much in recent times. In the past, the Indian bowling was one-dimensional, depending on just the spinners but now it boasts of a potent pace attack."
So according to Azhar, who is currently the best Test batsman? "Virat Kohli is my choice. A year back, I would have been surprised if he had made it as my most favourite Test batsman. But in last one year, he has scored Test runs everywhere — be it South Africa, England or at home."
Azhar was one of the batting stars for Pakistan during their 2017 Champions Trophy final victory over Kohli-led India.
"We had lost the opening game in the tournament against India but gradually everything fell in place. After that we had wins against Sri Lanka, South Africa and England. So we were high on confidence coming into the game against India. We had nothing to lose as no one had given us much of a chance when we started our campaign. When I came to open with Fakhar Zaman in the final, I wanted to bide time before going after the bowlers. Luckily the plan worked. Once I settled down, I played the attacking shots."
Azhar's half-century was overshadowed by Zaman's blistering hundred but the 128-run opening partnership was the perfect launch pad for Pakistan to put up an impressive 338 in their 50 overs.
It was a satisfying tournament for Azhar as he hit two back-to-back half centuries in the semi-final and the summit showdown. After being dropped from the previous one-day series against the Windies, he was making a comeback to the ODI side. But a nagging knee injury forced him to miss the next one-day assignment against Sri Lanka in UAE a few months later.
He made an unsuccessful comeback to ODIs in New Zealand earlier this year but scores of 6,6,0 meant he would lose his place in what eventually would be his last appearance for Pakistan in the 50-over format.
The forthcoming Test series against New Zealand followed by South Africa will be crucial for Azhar. He is eyeing big scores and hoping that video clips of these knocks will flood the internet and become more popular than his farcical run out.