Somerset’s overseas replacement for Matt Renshaw is experienced Pakistan opener Azhar Ali, one of the world’s top batsmen. He has a compact technique, built around getting behind the line of each delivery. He averages 45 in test cricket and certainly knows how to knuckle down and play a long innings, with 14 test centuries and a strike rate of 42. First class cricket is his speciality, having not played a t20 since February 2016. He is certainly a crease occupier, having faced more than 250 balls in an innings eleven times in test cricket.
He was the first player to make a century, double-century and triple-century in day/night test cricket – all in the same innings, with 302* against the West Indies in October 2016. It was described by Cricinfo as a ‘marathon 469-ball knock’, featuring a tight defence and lots of drives and flicks.
Azhar is 33 years old, having made his professional debut in the early 2000s as a teenager. Gradually improving performances in domestic cricket led to his Pakistan debut in 2010, in a test against Australia at Lord’s (a ‘home’ series for Pakistan). He made 16 and 42, before passing fifty for the first time in the following test. A difficult series against England followed, but 92* led to Pakistan’s only win of the series, at the Oval.
He scored ten fifties before making his first test century, against Sri Lanka at Dubai in October 2011. He kicked on from there, with 150 against England and further hundreds against Sri Lanka in 2012. By now he was established at number 3 in a Pakistan batting order that also featured Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq.
In 2014, he made twin centuries against Australia to help seal a 2-0 series win, and hit his first double century against Bangladesh the following year. He became Pakistan’s ODI captain after the 2015 World Cup, but it was not a particularly successful stint – he lost 18 and won just 12 matches as captain, before resigning two years later.
However, test success continued, scoring his first away century against England in 2016, with 139 at Edgbaston, followed later in the year with an impressive 205* against Australia. He has remained fairly consistent since, but it must be said that he didn’t have the best tour of Ireland and England earlier this year – opening the batting, he registered just one fifty across the three tests, with 11 his next highest score. It partly explains why Mickey Arthur and the PCB encouraged Azhar to find a county deal.
A right-handed batsman, Azhar also bowls some part-time legspin. This will be his first spell in County Cricket, but he has had a few stints with Huntly CC in Scotland. While it will be difficult for him to match Renshaw’s high standards, hopefully he can bed in quickly, having played in England already this year, and contribute to a potential Somerset title challenge.