Since Test cricket began, 31 batsmen have scored 5000 or more runs when batting in the top three positions, from Kumar Sangakkara (11,916) and Rahul Dravid (11,331) to Richie Richardson (5142) and Don Bradman (5078). (Bradman’s aggregate is the lowest among these 31, but his average of 103.63 is obviously the best by far.) Of these 31 batsmen, there are eight each from Australia and England, four each from South Africa and West Indies, three each from India and Sri Lanka, and one from New Zealand.
That covers all major teams except one. There’s no one to represent Pakistan in this list. A country that has produced outstanding fast bowlers throughout Test history has struggled to produce as many batting luminaries, but the vacuum is especially glaring in terms of top-order batsmen. In the middle order, starting at No. 4 or lower, Pakistan have four batsmen who’ve scored 5000-plus runs – Javed Miandad, Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf and Saleem Malik – plus Younis Khan who has an aggregate of 4759, but in the top three positions the highest is only 4055, again by Younis. None of the others have even touched 4000, with Saeed Anwar next at 3976 runs from 89 innings. Anwar opened the batting in 86 out of 92 innings he played in Tests – and batted at No. 3 three times as well – but he played relatively few Tests given his class – 55, compared with 247 ODIs.
The good news for Pakistan is that their current incumbent at No. 3 could well break those records and surge past the 5000-run barrier as well. The 30-year-old Azhar Ali has been around Test cricket for five years, is firmly entrenched at No. 3, and has racked up more than 3000 runs at that slot. His average when batting in the top three is a respectable 44.28, which is third among Pakistani batsmen who’ve scored 2500-plus runs at these slots. With his best years as a batsman still arguably ahead of him, there is a fair chance that his average will go up as well over the next few years.
Recently there has been a fair amount of uncertainty over the No. 3 slot for a number of teams: Australia have pushed Steven Smith to that slot after experimenting with Shane Watson and a few others, England have ditched Gary Ballance, Sri Lanka are searching for Kumar Sangakkara’s replacement, Hashim Amla has dropped to No. 4 to shore up South Africa’s middle order after Jacques Kallis’ retirement, while India are playing a merry-go-round around that position with Rohit Sharma and Ajinkya Rahane (with Cheteshwar Pujara in the mix as well).
Amid all these movements, Azhar Ali has become one of the most well-entrenched No. 3s in Tests, along with New Zealand’s Kane Williamson. Since his debut in July 2010, Azhar has batted at No. 3 74 times in Tests; no other Pakistan batsman has batted there more than four times. In fact, since July 2010, only Sangakkara has batted more often at No. 3 (80 innings) than Azhar. In terms of averages he isn’t among the top five in the list below, but there is a good chance that he will climb up there over the next few years.
One aspect of his game that Azhar needs to work on, though, is his strike rate: among the 20 batsmen who have faced at least 5000 deliveries since July 2010, which is when he made his Test debut, Azhar’s strike rate of 40.72 is easily the lowest; the next-lowest is Alastair Cook’s 44.98. His dot-ball percentage of 77 is the highest – marginally higher than Jonathan Trott – while he has only scored 39% of his runs in fours and sixes, which is also the least among all batsmen. (Chanderpaul is next at 40%.) The combination of those two factors – high dot-ball and low boundary percentage – means Azhar tends to get stuck more than most other batsmen.
Among these batsmen who have faced at least 5000 deliveries since July 2010, Azhar’s average of 44.06 ranks 16th, but in terms of balls faced per dismissal, he is ranked eighth, which again indicates he doesn’t always convert time spent at the crease into runs. Joe Root, for example, faces three fewer balls per dismissal compared to Azhar (105 to 108), but he averages 10.6 runs more per dismissal (54.66 to 44.06). That’s because Root has a much higher strike rate of 52.28, compared to Azhar’s 40.72.
The good news for Azhar fans is that he is clearly showing signs of improving on that front too: since 2014, he has increased his strike rate to 44.45, and in 2015 alone it’s 48.17. That’s also a function of him showing better form and scoring more runs – he has averaged 57.04 during this period, with five centuries in 13 Tests. Also, he has found success as an ODI batsman too in 2015, scoring 664 runs at an average of 55 and strike rate of 86 from 12 matches. All of these numbers indicate a batsman whose graph is on the upswing, and a batsman whose best is yet to come.
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S Rajesh is stats editor of ESPNcricinfo. Follow him on Twitter