Azhar Ali is man-made

The battle to make Test runs in the modern game

Azhar Ali has been a cricketer I have followed for a long time. I have a batsman crush on him. That Pakistani fans thought he batted too slow while holding up their entire top order was part of it. That they blame every shortcoming of the team on him is another. But also, he's gritty. Not ugly gritty, but gritty in the sense he's squeezing out whatever he can to make it. And for a short time, he was one of the best batsmen on the planet.

Azhar Ali is no one's idea of one of the best players in the world, but he made that happen.

Azhar Ali's runs are a celebration of hard work and determination.

There will be many narratives around Azhar Ali's hundred. Those who want him gone will say it won't mean much as it came too late in the series. Others will add the fizz had left the contest. And some will believe he toughed it out and showed fight he hadn't in previous innings.

Most of that above paragraph is nonsense. It did come late in the series, but the score is only one-nil. If the fizz was gone, it wasn't noticeable from Jimmy Anderson's temper or Jofra Archer's bouncer. And the thought that this guy fighting for his captaincy every match wasn't trying hard before is mega-brained idiotic.

The real story is around his front leg.  Historically Azhar Ali has been weak just outside off stump.  In his ball by ball data, he's averaged 21 in his career from length balls outside off stump. Last three years, that average is 10. You can't make runs in Test cricket if you can't play the ball on a length outside off stump.

And Azhar Ali has proven that over the last couple of years.

He scores at 1.25 runs an over when the ball is bowled there.  So he's not putting any pressure on the bowlers at all, he just sits there. And if you think that all batsmen struggle there, you're right, but top six batsmen around the world average 21 there, and score there at two runs an over. Meaning that Azhar is twice as vulnerable there as average Test batsmen.

But in this series, he's been out LBW twice to Woakes. And he's looked all over the place, his front leg jutting across the stumps, ruining his balance and then having him try to make up for it with an awkward curtain rail swipe. It was so noticeable that even though England's original plan probably would have been bowling outside off; they adapted and started attacking the stumps.

So for this innings, Nasser Hussain noticed that he had changed his set up. Opening up his stance, meaning that when the ball is full and straight, he doesn't have to play around that front leg. This change is the major reason he survived and made more runs. But the other is that England didn't bowl as much on a length outside off stump. They attacked his stumps, but he'd changed that. And the delivery they tried the most was back of a length outside off, and Azhar is good at that.

That closed stance that Azhar had been using was most probably to stop him from nicking off to the length balls outside off stump in the first place. It shows how tough the game is if you aren't a great batsman. And Azhar isn't.

Azhar started as a bowler, and even when he first made runs at Test level, he hit the ball towards fielders the way tailenders do. So for him to make 17 Test centuries has involved him having to find ways to survive and score that perhaps don't come as naturally to him. His ability to learn, adapt and grow, plus his patience, make him something special. Some of these are natural skills, but when we talk about natural batsmen, we mean footwork, timing and aesthetics. So by cricket standards, he is man-made.

To maintain a Test career, Azhar is having to continually stay ahead of the bowlers and analysts of the world.  And that has never been harder. Every international team has access to video on their phones. If Jimmy Anderson is in the gym on an exercise bike, before he pedals he can set his phone up to show every ball Azhar Ali has faced from right arm seam he has been uncomfortable with in the last few years.  He can also change it by lines or lengths. And if he's a completionist, he might look at his dot balls too.  Then there is Hawkeye data, and a team of analysts doing a similar thing.  Oh, and they made the pitches spicier around the world at the same time we had an incredible crop of bowlers all turn up.

Any batsman making runs now has done something special.

If you're Joe Root, batting now is tough. Azhar is more in the Rory Burns or Chris Rogers end of the game. Someone who is limited in their technique, trying to put it all together, in the glare of modern Test cricket will always battle. To make a hundred, pulling himself out of this slump against England's attack in these conditions with his top order gone is probably one of his greatest achievements as a batsman.

But it doesn't end with this hundred. Bowlers continue to hunt. Every change to your technique means that an additional issue can arise. Azhar will never clock cricket, he's not Steve Smith. This one resulted in a hundred, but in a year's time, he'll have to adjust something else.

Of course this knock was when Pakistan couldn't win the series, and it was after three (that doesn't seem like many) failures.  It also showed character, but perhaps not in the sporting cliche way. It wasn't that Azhar tried harder today than in his other innings; it was that he worked smarter between them. That he was willing to say what had worked for him for all those runs, wasn't now. That in the middle of a rough series while people called for his head, he went out and just found a way to be better. That's how you turn yourself into a Test batsman with 6000 runs and 17 hundreds without being a natural.

Azhar Ali's career is a celebration of hard work and determination.