It is a fact universally acknowledged that things change dramatically in Pakistan cricket, but the symmetry of the latest development coming out from the PCB is so neat it might have been considered too corny for fiction. In January 2017, after a 4-1 ODI series thumping in Australia, Azhar Ali was asked to relinquish leadership of the ODI side – which he did – handing the role to Sarfaraz Ahmed.
Almost three years on, a week before Pakistan are due to fly to Australia for three T20Is and two Tests, Sarfaraz was asked by the PCB to give up the captaincy on Thursday. He refused, forcing the PCB’s hand. The Test replacement? Azhar, of course.
A beaming Azhar called the appointment a “huge honour”, terming Test cricket the sport’s “best format”, saying he relished the opportunity to “leave a legacy” in the sport. The 34-year old had captained Pakistan’s ODI side in 31 games, and stepped in as leader of the Test team for one match when Misbah was unavailable. He said he would prioritise a culture that would encourage positive, exciting cricket and heaped praise on his predecessor.
“There could be no greater honour,” Azhar said. “This is an opportunity for me to leave a legacy. The amount of cricket I have played for Pakistan, the next four-five years are very important for me both as a player and a captain.
“The Test Championship is coming up, and that’s like a World Cup for Test cricket. Right now, we are No.7 in the rankings, so we have a fair distance to travel. The teams we’ll play in the Test Championship will almost all be higher ranked than us. So there are many challenges, but it’s also a great opportunity to play fearless, exciting cricket and get the desired results.
“Secondly, I’d like to thank Sarfaraz. The way he’s led Pakistan, and the services he’s provided Pakistan with, are excellent. I spoke to him after today’s announcement and my full support lies with Sarfaraz.”
With Sarfaraz’s diminishing form – particularly in ODI and Test cricket – a subject of increasing media scrutiny, and speculation about his future rife in the wake of the 3-0 T20I series defeat at home to Sri Lanka, Azhar was considered the top contender to take over Test captaincy. The former ODI captain, however, said he had not formally been spoken to by the PCB until yesterday, but admitted media reports had helped him be mentally prepared for the role.
“I was only spoken to yesterday but the media had sort of prepared me over the last few days,” he said. “I had spoken to senior cricketers and the elders in my household, and sought their advice. It wasn’t a difficult decision, therefore, and I took this great opportunity.
“I aim to bring players through under my captaincy that can serve Pakistan cricket for many years to come. This is what I mean by leaving my legacy. I want to transfer my experiences to them, and help them learn how to play fearless, positive cricket. So winning is very important, but building a positive culture is my top priority. As you know, I have prioritised Test cricket, because it is the best format of the game, and the format that sees the players’ best skills come out. My priority will be to have my players focus on red-ball cricket, because white ball cricket will take care of itself.”
Azhar revealed the PCB had handed him the captaincy on a long-term basis as opposed to reviewing the role series-by-series, as had, at least officially, been the case recently with Sarfaraz. It was the condition upon which Azhar said he accepted the captaincy, and was excited by the opportunity it presented to foster a culture that prioritised intelligent decision-making.
“The way your team is built affects the way you captain, and that changes according to conditions. But we need to build a team culture where we take the right decisions under pressure and stay calm. We need to take positive options and empower players to take their own decisions. This is something that I’ve learned from my own cricket, and I’ll try to do better. Sarfaraz has done a fabulous job, but life has to move on. We can’t dictate everything to the players, so we should teach them to take better decisions.
“I specifically asked whether my appointment will be short term or not. I got full support from the board that my appointment is not a short-term thing, which is why I accepted it. There’s no set timeframe they’ve given me, but I’ve been assured there’s enough time for me to prove myself and implement my own ideas on the team.
“When there’s a lot of pressure on you and the results aren’t coming, as happened when I captained the last time, then sometimes change can be good. It doesn’t mean that you’ve given up.”
Azhar doesn’t do giving up. He left Australia in 2017 as captain, and now, when the team returns to those shores next month, it is he who will lead them out in whites once again. If you didn’t know any better, you might have assumed nothing much had happened in those intervening three years. Plenty has, however, and as Azhar looks to leave his defining legacy for Pakistan cricket, he finds his destiny in his own hands once again.