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Azhar Ali: Pakistan ODI team needs batsmen who can provide stability

Azhar Ali © AFP
Azhar Ali averages over 40 in ODIs © AFP

By Saj Sadiq

Azhar Ali walked into the limelight in a year when Pakistan faced its greatest period of upheaval. The year was 2010 and the middle-order stalwarts Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf were absent from the Pakistani team that visited England. Azhar was drafted into the lineup for the Test series against Australia and England in July 2010. He made his debut against Australia in July at Lords. He scored just 16 runs in his debut innings, but to all keen observers, the resolve in his attitude showed signs of a perfect middle order batsman in the making.

To date, the 29 year old from Lahore has an admirable Test record where he has 2,192 runs in 32 matches which includes 5 hundreds and 15 half-centuries. Quite apart from the many innings he has played to provide stability to a notoriously brittle middle-order, Azhar’s most memorable innings so far have been the 157 he scored against England in the 2012 series and the 103 which he compiled on the last day of the record breaking 3rd Test against Sri Lanka in Sharjah earlier this year.

In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Ali described his participation in the exciting victory against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, the battle against critics and self-doubts about his batting form before the Sharjah Test, his views on how Pakistan can overcome the threat of Mitchell Johnson, his determination to show himself as a batsman who can bat in all formats and his desire to be part of the World Cup 2015 squad.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion.net (PP): Just how much pressure were you under as you went out to bat against Sri Lanka in the second innings of the Test at Sharjah?

Azhar Ali (AA): There was a lot of pressure on me, no doubt about it. When you go out to bat on your international debut there is always a lot of pressure on you, but at Sharjah it was a different type of pressure on me. That match was of course my comeback Test match after being dropped for a few matches and I knew I had to perform or I could be back on the sidelines once again. The first innings low score meant that when I went out to bat second time around, there was even more pressure on me.

It was of course a one-off Test match for me having not played the first two Tests of the series and that meant that there was even more pressure on me to go out there and perform. It was a tough situation but one that I hope will stand me in good stead for the future as I really learnt a lot from that experience.

(PP): After a successful run in Test cricket, you were dropped for the first two Tests against Sri Lanka in the UAE. What was going through your mind after you were dropped?

AA: I’m not one of those people who would sit around and feel sorry for myself as that gets you nowhere. I tried to turn it around into a positive by telling myself that I needed to improve, that I needed to perform and the reason why I had been dropped was that I was simply not performing. I told myself that whenever the next chance came to play for Pakistan, I would grab it with both hands and ensure I made the most of that opportunity.

(PP): What were you thinking when you were going out to bat in the second innings of the record-breaking Test in Sharjah?

AA: As a team we decided we would definitely try to chase down the target of 302, irrespective of whether it looked like we would lose the game. There was a feeling of no fear in the dressing room, a really positive mindset amongst all the players.

The openers had got us off to a brisk start which helped and when I went out to bat I was thinking that I would play with a positive intent and not to let the Sri Lankan bowlers settle. I could have batted for myself and for my own career and for my average, but that was not the team plan and my main focus and primary concern was for the team to win, rather than any personal targets. In that situation I tried to put it out of my mind that I had been in poor form and that this could be my last innings for Pakistan for a long time if I failed. I put the thought of failure out of my mind and thankfully it worked.

Then when Younis Khan came out to bat with me we were 48 for 2 wickets. Younis said to me to play positively and to stick to the team plan which was of course to score quickly and look to rotate the strike and keep the scoreboard ticking over.

(PP): Do you feel that the 103 against Sri Lanka could be a turning point in your international career?

AA: Definitely. I cannot emphasise just how important that innings was for me and my confidence. It came just at the right time for myself and for Pakistan. I went out there with a clear mind and with clear goals. When you are out of the team, lots of thoughts go through your mind ; Will I get another chance? Will I play for Pakistan again? Is this the end of the road for my international career? Has the captain lost faith in me? These are the sort of things that go through your mind, but thankfully I feel that with that century I have managed to remove some of the doubts from within and got some of the critics off my back.

(PP): 103 from 137 balls at a strike rate of over 75 in that Test match against Sri Lanka at Sharjah, surely a message for your critics that you can score quickly when it’s required?

AA: Yes definitely. I think some people get too emotional about strike rates in Test cricket due to an overkill of limited overs cricket. I’ve always batted according to the situation in whatever format I’ve been selected for. If I couldn’t score at a decent rate then there is no way that I would have been picked for the Pakistan one day side.

I know what my strengths and weaknesses are in my batting and I’ve always maintained that you play to your strengths. I’m not the sort of batsman who will look to smash the ball all over the park because I know that if I attempted that then I would lose my wicket quickly.

Admittedly I have got bogged down during some innings in Test cricket and that is an area of my game that I have been looking to improve. Undoubtedly strike rotation is one aspect of my batting that can be improved and I’m definitely working on this.

(PP): You’ve only played fourteen one day internationals. Are you disappointed and frustrated by that statistic?

AA: That’s something that the selectors obviously decide. My job is to go out there and do my best when I’m picked and whichever format I am picked for. However one day cricket has changed with the introduction of two new white balls and for that reason I think teams need to have the right balance of batsmen in their line-ups and respect the new ball. As we have seen on many occasions of late, if you have too many aggressive batsmen then this can backfire and I think batsmen who are orthodox can be of more benefit nowadays and I think it’s imperative to ensure the right balance is there in your batting line-up.

I’ve gone into face the new ball in tough conditions mostly in my one day career and still average over forty which I think is a good effort and I feel that I have always batted as per the team’s requirements in one day internationals.

(PP): Prior to the century against Sri Lanka you had made 67 runs in 8 Test innings, what do you feel was the cause of that poor run of form?

AA: It wasn’t down to poor form. I was middling the ball nicely in practice and out there in the middle. I was on occasions getting a start, settling at the crease and then playing a loose shot down to poor concentration or on occasions dismissed by a ball that was just simply too good.

I think the run of poor form was because I was over-analysing my batting too much, thinking about each and every shot and dismissal which can cause anxiety and confusion. I spoke with some of my senior colleagues such as Misbah-ul-Haq and they told me to just go out there and bat normally, not to over-think and over-analyse and to try and play to my strengths and to enjoy it rather than get uptight at the crease.

(PP): You are one of the recent crop of Pakistani cricketers who have never played an international match in your homeland. Explain how strange that feels and how difficult it is?

AA: I think it’s a huge disadvantage that we cannot play our home fixtures in Pakistan in our own conditions and in front of our own fans. UAE is our second home as such but it’s not the same as playing at home. I think it’s particularly difficult when you come into the Pakistan side and unlike other players around the world who will get the chance to play in home conditions sooner or later, Pakistani newcomers don’t get that chance.

I also feel sad for Pakistani cricket fans who are amongst the most passionate in the world and they never get their chance to see their heroes in Pakistan in their home towns and cities. It’s a sorry state of affairs but I hope that international cricket returns to Pakistan in the near future.

(PP): You’ve been mentioned as a possible successor to Misbah-ul-Haq as Pakistan’s Test captain. Have you given this any thought?

AA: Misbah has done an amazing job since taking over as Test captain in difficult circumstances. His effort and work can never and should never be underestimated. He has been an inspiration to the likes of myself and other Pakistani cricketers and he has been a pillar of support for all of us.

I’ve never really thought about the Test captaincy and it’s not something that I would chase. If people are mentioning my name as a possible Test captain then that’s very kind of them. I’m no different to any other cricketer who will say that it would be an honour to captain my country but at this moment in time I am looking to re-establish myself as a Test cricketer and to break into the one day side rather than worry about or chase the captaincy.

(PP): Looking ahead to the series against Australia later this year. What are your plans for Mitchell Johnson?

AA: He’s been in fantastic form of late and there has been no stopping him. He’s found his rhythm and that always helps a quick bowler. His confidence is high and he will be a formidable opponent in UAE. In the past he has bowled quick but now he has added accuracy to his bowling and he’s moving the ball both ways which isn’t easy to handle as a batsman. He’s a match-winner and a bowler who has really improved.

The key to facing Johnson will be to ensure our concentration levels are at their peak and our mind and planning is clear. Any slip-ups and he will pounce, but we can cope with Johnson and I’m certain we will have a solid game-plan against him.

(PP): We’re not seeing Pakistani batsmen feature in County cricket these days which many feel is a hindrance to their development. Do you think this is a missed opportunity?

AA: I agree. Over the years many great Pakistani batsmen have played county cricket and that has benefited the players individually and also Pakistan as a team. One or two seasons in County cricket makes a huge difference and I was hoping to have this opportunity also but it’s not happened yet. I definitely think more Pakistanis need to grab the chance of playing County cricket, particularly the batsmen who can learn about playing in conditions in England which of course can be bowler-friendly.

(PP): Do you think you can make the Pakistan 2015 World Cup squad?

AA: Definitely. I average over forty in one day international cricket and I feel I have the qualities to succeed in this format. I definitely think the Pakistan one day combination needs some batsmen who can provide some stability and not necessarily go with a batting line up that is all out attack. As I mentioned earlier the one day game has changed and the Australia and New Zealand tracks will be testing for batsmen especially with two white balls being used. I hope the selectors have a re-think and I am given another chance in one day cricket.

(Saj Sadiq is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net, from where the above article has been reproduced. He can be followed on Twitter at @Saj_PakPassion)

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