January, 1958, Pakistan found themselves in a hole in Bridgetown. Following on against West Indies, what ensued was one of the most significant, and perhaps most revered, innings in the country’s cricket history. Hanif Muhammad’s 337 remains the highest score for Pakistan; but its greatness lies in everything around it – the context in which it was scored, and the legends that have surrounded it since.
Nearly seven decades on, another Pakistani joined Hanif, in far different circumstances. From the pitch to the match situation to the bowling attack to even the time of the day – in every regard Azhar Ali’s triple century was in complete contrast to what Hanif did. The only commonality might be that here again was a Pakistani top order batsman famed for his defense who willed the opposition bowlers into submission just by the longevity of his innings. Beyond that, you might be able to find more similarities between the two candidates for the 2016 US Presidential Elections than these two innings.
The listlessness of West Indies’ performance deserves some recognition though. Over the last two years they’ve won just one Test, but there have been regular glimpses of them having a plan and putting up a fight. Neither of those things were apparent over the first two days in Dubai though. When the conversation around a match regularly turns to having a two-tier system for Test cricket, or to the solutions behind the malaise that one of the teams finds itself in, then you know that the match isn’t exactly a contest. Of course the players will get the pelters but their preparation for this tour – or rather everything that has happened since the World Twenty20 – shows that the majority of the blame lies with the suits at West Indies Cricket Board.
There will also be questions raised about a pitch where such a scorecard became a reality. Dubai, maybe even more so than the other two grounds in the Emirates, has always helped bowlers, particularly the spinners. Until today there had only been one double hundred (by Graeme Smith) in nine Tests here, and even that happened after South Africa – then the undisputed best team in the world – had skittled Pakistan out in double figures. The key to Dubai has been how quickly it begins to break, almost like what the pitches in India were for the South Africa series last year – but with this Test being a day-night affair it’d seem that this pitch will take longer to break than usual. And Pakistan took full advantage of that.
Having said all that, having applied all the caveats, one still has to remember that there have been worse bowling attacks, on less helpful pitches, which haven’t conceded a triple hundred. And that truly is the story of this Test. Azhar became only the 25th player in the game’s history to achieve that landmark. Considering it came within twenty fours hours of him suffering from cramps as his body began to give way towards the end of day 1, shows both the mental and physical fortitude that he has developed. The fact that he would then return for Pakistan’s bowling effort and stand at his customary short leg position only magnified how willing to sacrifice some players in this dressing room are for the larger cause.
This, of course, was never supposed to happen. A leg spinner turned obdurate batsman the early years of Azhar’s career were defined by his inability to convert. At one stage of his career he had a single Test century from the fourteen occasions that he had crossed fifty. But much like the man he would describe as his “role model”, Azhar’s learnt the art of going big. Younis Khan, perhaps the foremost exponent of that art in Pakistan’s history, was missing for this match. Thus, as per Azhar, he took over Younis’s corner in the dressing room, and kept it as Younis does – a tribute that Younis is bound to appreciate. And he admitted that maybe that helped him play like Younis – unsatisfied by a mere hundred overnight – as the thirst for runs remained unquenched, even with every milestone he passed.
Azhar also pointed out how he has expanded his game due to his presence in the One-Day International team. The results of that are obvious – his strike-rate since the 2015 World Cup is ten runs higher than it was prior to it. Much like this Test team Azhar isn’t obviously talented, but his continuous desire to improve incrementally has brought him where even he didn’t think he would be. Three of his partners fell short of their hundreds; each falling victim to a loss of concentration. Their efforts only highlighted how extraordinary Azhar’s achievements were. Only three men before him have achieved this feat for Pakistan – each of them have come to define Pakistan’s batting in their respective eras. To even be in the same conversation Azhar has overachieved beyond what his biggest fans would have thought possible in 2010.
But even in his greatest moment he admitted to being bittersweet: if only this was in front of a packed stadium in Pakistan. If only.
Of course in years to come the number of witnesses for his efforts will far outweigh the couple of thousands that actually turned up. History has a habit of doing such things.
Halfway through his innings Azhar crossed the total runs tally that Hanif Mohammad had achieved in his career. Much like that innings in Bridgetown the tomes for Hanif will forever outweigh Azhar’s emulations. But when all is said and done, when all that remains are hazy memories and mere numbers, Azhar’s name will be in the record books. And there will be no asterisks next to it.