Azhar seeks to regain form, Karunaratne remains optimistic

KARACHI: Azhar Ali may not have scored big runs this year but the Pakistan captain still held hopes for his side despite being handicapped by a largely inexperienced bowling line-up going into the ‘must-win’ final Test against Sri Lanka here at the National Stadium.

In the last 12 months, the 34-year-old right-hander has mustered just 157 from six Tests with at a dismal return of 14.27 from 11 innings. During this dreadful period — dating from last year’s Boxing Day Test against South Africa in Centurion — Azhar has made only three scores between 36 and 39, while there have been seven single-digit innings from his bat sandwiched in the brace of 36.

Azhar downplayed his lack of runs during Wednesday’s pre-match media conference while saying he had been middling the ball nicely during the net sessions.

“I think this talk [run of poor scores] has been gaining momentum every time I come for the presser. But I felt good during the first Test [he made 36] on that last day in Rawalpindi,” Azhar said. “I’m aware of the fact that I’ve not been able to get big knocks under my belt. This can happen to anybody at any phase of the career. Obviously, this can disturb you mentally if you aren’t getting runs in big chunks.

“In the larger context, the team does feel the pressure if a player is not contributing either with the bat or ball. Personally, I felt in good nick during the first Test until I lost my wicket to a delivery that suddenly stopped in flight and got me in a trap.

“I’m looking forward to a big innings here [in Karachi] because the pitch at a glance looks full of runs. The conditions in Karachi are just about perfect for batting in ideal weather for cricket, which is great to see after the chilly week in Rawalpindi last week.”

Azhar pointed at inexperienced bowling line-up as the reason behind Pakistan’s failure to pick 20 wickets in a Test match.

“This has been a major worry for Pakistan in recent matches. Most of the bowlers we now have are still going through the learning phase of their careers. The transition [from domestic] to international cricket is never easy, especially if they [bowlers] are greenhorns.

“However, there is no lack of effort because guys like Shaheen Shah Afridi and Nasim Shah are constantly clocking 140-plus despite the conditions being extremely challenging at times,” the skipper underlined.

“But having said that, I believe there is no shortage of energy and enthusiasm from these youngsters. And as they go along, they’ll get better and better with the experience of international cricket. But at the end of the day, you can’t win a Test match if the team fails to pick up 20 wickets.

“The batting wasn’t the issue at the Pindi Cricket Stadium and the way Abid Ali displayed what a fine batsman he is definitely the highlight from the first Test. This guy should have been in the Pakistan team at least six years ago, because he hardly got out in domestic cricket,” highlighted Azhar.

“As a captain, I’m very, very happy for Abid getting a fantastic debut century in a record performance. He really has the determination, focus and temperament to be a consistent performer in international arena” Azhar stressed.

Meanwhile, Sri Lankan captain Dimuth Karunaratne forewarned Pakistan by stating the tourists are determined to conclude the rain-hit series on a winning note.

“There’s no doubt, whatsoever, what our goals are. We here to play for victory because this is a big challenge for both teams after already one Test got rained out. Going forward we’re taking the positives out from the first Test. Dhananjaya de Silva scoring a wonderful hundred plus the opening partnership [Karunaratne and Oshada Fernando putting on 96 in Rawalpindi].

“The contributions from the lower order were very good too and we’re hoping that we can perform well in this game in Karachi also. There’s a positive vibe within the squad and each one of us is aiming that we do well as a unit despite Kasun Rajitha is out because his injury hasn’t healed. But we’ve got another pacer in Asitha Fernando.

“However, we have still not decided on the playing team yet because the pitch has a bit of grass on it at the moment. We aren’t sure if they will cut [the grass] tomorrow [morning of the match]. We’ve got 12 players already to do the battle, including Lasith Embuldeniya.

“Regarding the combination we may pick either two frontline spinners or opt for three fast bowlers. It is hotter than Islamabad here in Karachi and the conditions suggest that the pitch will turn as the Test progresses. That’s why we are waiting to see what the curator does come Thursday and then make the right call,” Karunaratne asserted.

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