Azhar Ali has been removed as Pakistan Test captain, with limited-overs leader Babar Azam replacing him in the role. That makes Azam, 26, the Pakistan captain across all three formats, bringing to an end Azhar’s brief second stint.
In just over a year as the man at the helm in Test cricket, Ali led Pakistan in eight Test matches, which included two wins – against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh – and three defeats, which led to series losses against Australia and England.
As ESPNcricinfo reported last month, there had been serious discussions at the PCB about the possibility of a younger replacement to Ali as Test captain. Ali’s annual appraisal was carried out in September, with him meeting PCB CEO Wasim Khan, believed to carry significant influence with the board chairman Ehsan Mani – whom the ultimate decision rests with. At the time, Azam was an obvious leading contender for the role, given he remains one of the few players in Pakistan guaranteed a starting spot in all three formats. Unlike Ali or his predecessor Sarfaraz Ahmed, there are no questions over Azam’s form with the bat, a cause of instability for both men over their tenures.
Azam’s appointment marks an inexorable rise in profile for the batsman, who, in the last few years, has pulled away as Pakistan’s best batsman in all formats by some distance. That inevitably made him a candidate as captain, given Ahmed’s tenure ultimately came to an end due to a sustained dip with the bat. From that perspective, it was something of a surprise to see the PCB turn to Ali, who, at the time he was appointed, was suffering from his own loss of form. Despite scoring a couple of hundreds as captain, his overall dip in form was a palpable presence throughout his time.
Azam, meanwhile, began to settle into the Test side fairly quickly after a slightly rocky start in the format. A half-century in Centurion on a day he famously took apart Dale Steyn even as his team-mates faltered was a harbinger of his growing comfort in the format. Since the start of 2018, only four men have scored more Test runs than Azam, with none of them even remotely able to match his average of 62.90. He was handed the white-ball captaincy at the same time Ali was given the Test reigns. In nine innings as T20I captain, Azam has scored six half-centuries, averaging a shade under 56 and striking at 142.70.
Azam’s first assignment will be a two-Test series against New Zealand in December, preceded by a three-match T20I series. The jury remains very much out on Azam’s tactical nous as captain, but the results so far – over admittedly a small sample size – are around where you might expect them. Pakistan have won five of the seven T20Is under his captaincy. The recently-concluded ODI series against Zimbabwe were the only 50-over games Pakistan played since Azam was appointed captain, with two wins and a defeat that went to a Super Over.
Ali, who was handed the limited-overs captaincy after the 2015 World Cup, was summarily removed after a dismal tour of Australia at the start of 2017. Last year, upon being appointed Test captain, Ali, then 34, spoke about how the appointment was his chance to leave the type of legacy he wished to build, having learnt from the experiences of an unhappy limited-overs stint a few years earlier.
There is little chance that’s how his stint will be remembered. It began with a nightmarish tour of Australia, with Ali’s own struggles against the rising ball very much still an issue; he breached double figures just once all series. While it was followed by home series wins against Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, the results failed to convince many it was a vindication of his captaincy. Even a hundred against Sri Lanka was put down to the lifelessness of the pitch instead of a return to form with the bat.
His final assignment, a three-match series in England held in biosecure conditions, ended with a narrow 1-0 defeat that Ali’s captaincy may best be remembered for.
There is no indication – yet – that Ali’s removal will jeopardise his place in the side, as it happened to Ahmed. However, with the protective blanket of captaincy stripped away from him, he will undoubtedly feel the pressure to contribute with the bat on Pakistan’s next tour, a two-match Test series against New Zealand.