ISLAMABAD: Australia quicks Mitchell Starc and Peter Siddle have singled out Pakistan's Azhar Ali as the key wicket for the tourists in this month's two-Test series in the UAE.
If the numbers are anything to go by, their concerns about the diminutive opening batsman are well-founded; in seven Tests against Australia, Azhar averages 69.75, having made three hundreds and four fifties.
The last time the two sides met, in Australia in the 2016-17 summer, the 33-year-old made scores of 5, 71, 205no, 43, 71 and 11 to be the tourists' leading run-scorer and second only to Steve Smith from either side in what was a clean sweep for the hosts.
Azhar debuted in the same Test as Smith and current Australia captain Tim Paine at Lord's in 2010, and has forged a reputation as a dependable opening batsman across 65 Tests, averaging 44.84.
In that time, only seven players worldwide, and no Pakistanis, have scored more than his 5,202 Test runs.
"They've got a quality batting line-up, and on some really flat wickets their whole middle order's going to be a really good battle," Starc was quoted as saying by cricket.com.au.
"I think someone like Azhar Ali, who scored a fair few runs against us in Australia last time they were here, he'd be a big one at the top of the order for them.
"He can bat long periods of time, he's not too fazed about being tied down. So I think if we can get him early and get their middle order in against a newer, harder ball, then that's a good starting point."
Starc and Siddle were both on the receiving end of the best of Azhar in Abu Dhabi four years ago, when he became just the eighth Pakistani to score hundreds in each innings of a Test as the Aussies were thumped by 356 runs to round out a 0-2 series defeat.
Siddle, who is back in the Test squad and hoping to don the Baggy Green for the first time in almost two years, also nominated the opener as the hosts' dangerman.
"The key wicket for them is always going to be Azhar Ali," Siddle said. "He's one of the leaders in that side now.
"From the last tour when we went over there, they had the stars and the old heads of Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq to lead them, they're probably a little bit less experienced now, which is good news for us, but they've still got a lot of class players.
"We saw that on the last tour (to Australia) – they had a lot of young guys that stood up and performed well for them.
"So I think (Azhar) is going to be the big wicket, but in that time these young guys have come about, and they play some exciting cricket, so we've got to be on our toes and prepared.
"But like I said, they are a little bit less experienced this time around, so if there's ever an opportunity to beat them away from home, it's definitely this time around," Siddle said.