Azhar Mahmood has played for numerous T20 teams around the globe © Getty Images
By Saj Sadiq
Born in Rawalpindi, Azhar Mahmood played 21 Tests for Pakistan, scoring 900 runs and taking 39 wickets, as well as featuring in 143 One-Day Internationals (ODI), scoring 1521 runs and taking 123 wickets between 1996 and 2007. He began his Test career in 1997 on a high note, scoring a belligerent Test century against South Africa in Rawalpindi, later adding two more to his tally against the same opposition in 1998. He began his ODI career against India in 1996 and was later a part of the Pakistan side that reached the final of the 1999 World Cup in England. He played his last ODI in 2007, although the match is remembered more for Pakistan’s famous defeat to Ireland at the World Cup in the West Indies, which resulted in them crashing out of the tournament in the first round.
He has since become a prominent figure in domestic competitions around the World, including the Indian Premier League (IPL), Ram Slam T20, Big Bash League (BBL), Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), and Caribbean Premier League (CPL), where he has represented teams including Surrey, Lions, Auckland, Barbados Tridents, Barisal Burners, Dhaka Gladiators, Kent and Kings XI Punjab.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Azhar spoke at length about Pakistan’s performance in the recently concluded Asia Cup 2014, assessed the team’s chances in the ICC World T20 and expressed his concerns about the pace bowling attack as well as offering his services in a mentor role to help Pakistan before and during the T20 World Cup.
Excerpts from an interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): How would you rate Pakistan’s performance in the recently concluded Asia Cup 2014 in Bangladesh?
Azhar Mahmood (AM): Overall, I believe Pakistan did really well, especially in the batting department. In the last game, they were 18 for three and they recovered to score 260 in the end which is a big achievement. To be honest, I have not seen this type of a performance under such circumstances in the last six or seven years from any Pakistani side. It was great to see and one has to give credit to Moin Khan, as he was the coach of the side. In addition, it’s also important to note that we have someone like Zaheer Abbas who is there as a batting consultant and definitely someone the players can speak to and get some good advice based on his experience.
By far the biggest positive to come out of the Asia Cup was the comeback by Fawad Alam. I was really impressed by the way he batted and I am not speaking just about the final where he scored a hundred, but also his comeback game against Bangladesh where he made 74 and held the innings together. Misbah-ul-Haq, whilst taking a lot of criticism about playing slowly, has been doing this job for Pakistan for the last three-four years and it’s good to see Fawad help him in that role. In Fawad’s case, although he is not a big striker of the ball, he was rotating the strike which is his style of play and this made a big difference to the result against Bangladesh.
In terms of Pakistan’s bowling, everyone in the world says that we have a world class bowling attack. In the Asia Cup, we did appear to have a better attack than the other teams, but I don’t think our bowling is world class. One can say that we have bowlers in our attack who could be termed as world class but clearly, they are not in great form as we saw during the Asia Cup.
PP: You raise a good point about Pakistan’s bowling not being at its best at the moment. What are the reasons behind this and how does this look at Pakistan’s chances in major tournaments in the future?
AM: Let’s take the example of Umar Gul, who made a return to international cricket during the Asia Cup after recovering from injury. He did not bowl that well and his current form is not very good, which is a worry. On top of that, our management has another problem and I won’t put the blame on Misbah for this. It is simply the fact that we have played most of our recent cricket in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) where the pitches suit spin bowlers. As a result of this, our mentality is such that we have started to rely on three or four spinners per match whereas, historically, Pakistan’s main strength has been our fast bowling. Especially when you play in Asia, you do need fast bowlers to take wickets with the new ball at the beginning, and also towards the end of the innings when they come back to bowl using reverse swing.
Junaid Khan is a brilliant bowler but by the time he comes on to bowl with a ball that is not new, he is unable to swing it. I am in no way doubting Hafeez who has a great record with the ball but let’s look ahead at where we will play the ICC World Cup in 2015. I know that we have to play the World T20 in Bangladesh but, the 2015 World Cup will be played in Australia-New Zealand. So we do need to think about the proper use of our fast bowlers as we will not be able to play three spinners there! Let’s think about the long term and not the short term.
The management needs to plan ahead with an eye on 2015 to see how we can improve our performance and win the World Cup. Also, as I mentioned before, Umar Gul does not seem to be in good form on his return from injury. I didn’t see him bowl any of his trademark yorkers, in fact, I did not see any yorkers being bowled at the death by Pakistani bowlers at all.
PP: On the subject of yorkers, as you say, there was a real lack of them being bowled by Pakistani bowlers, which is strange for a bowling attack which historically boasted of the likes of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis as proponents of this art. What is the reason for this? Is it a lack of confidence or simply the absence of skills?
AM: I have to put that down to a lack of confidence. Our pace bowlers have been playing cricket for a while and I am sure they know how to bowl a yorker. So again, it’s possibly an issue of confidence but it may also be a case of lack of practice of bowling such deliveries. Another factor could be due to weakness in the body or simply a lack of fitness, as in the case of Umar Gul, who I saw bowl with a slight limp in the Asia Cup.
However, I come back to my original comment about fast bowlers not getting the opportunity to bowl with the new ball as they used to. Junaid for example should bowl with the new ball in the first ten overs. We also have Bilawal Bhatti, but we don’t use the fast bowlers correctly. We are simply not using our fast bowlers effectively and over-relying on spinners. Our strength is in our fast bowlers using the new ball, as they are the ones who have taken wickets and have won us matches. I don’t blame Misbah for this as his selection strategy is based upon the type of pitches where Pakistan are playing most of their cricket.
PP: You mentioned the fact that Misbah cannot be blamed for Pakistan’s recent performance issues but he is taking a lot of criticism in the media. Is this justified?
AM: There is a lot of pressure on Misbah at the moment. A lot of stuff is being said about him in the Pakistan media. I was recently watching a TV channel in Pakistan where they were analysing the number of fifties he has scored in games that Pakistan has lost! These people seem to forget that in the same number of games that they mention, he has scored vital runs when the team has needed those runs. On many occasions Misbah has made a decent score and helped Pakistan rebuild their innings and to victory. Why is he being targeted in this way? Instead of being negative towards him, we should encourage him so that he can guide the team going forward.
PP: Are you impressed by Pakistan’s selection policies in the recent past? Do you feel that there is consistency in these policies?
AM: Look, we have new management in place. We have Moin Khan and Zaheer Abbas who have come into the picture and we need to look ahead and see how we wish to proceed. Our biggest problem is that if a player does not perform in one game, then he is in trouble! The other day, Wasim Akram was on TV and he jokingly asked “Do we have 200 good players waiting to come in?” I will echo what Wasim Bhai is saying and ask: Is it the case that we have such riches of talent that we can simply discard one player and replace him with another without second thoughts? You have to be aware of the strengths of your own players!
Look at the case of Nasir Jamshed, who was dropped in favour of Sharjeel Khan. In the matches he has played so far, Sharjeel has been scoring 20-25 runs and getting out — now, will you drop him too? Why not carry on with him and help him develop into a good player? We never seem to do the right thing — all we seem to be worried about is finding excuses for throwing players out of the side. Then we complain that we have never found a good pair of openers since the days of Aamir Sohail and Saeed Anwar!
My question is: How will you find good openers if you don’t allow players to play for a good length of time? Only when you give players a chance will you be able to develop good players. The same was said about the dearth of good players after Inzamam-ul-Haq, Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, and I have the same answer for that as well. If you don’t take the time to develop players and instead, subject them to the “in and out” policies, then it doesn’t matter what calibre of players they are — whether they are the likes of Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mohammad Yousuf or Javed Miandad, they will never become better players. If the player is constantly worried about establishing his position in the team or being dropped, then how can he concentrate on his batting?
PP: Whilst we speak about the pressure on players for keeping their position in the team, it appears that even coaches have the same issue, as we have seen with Moin Khan who has been appointed as head coach for just the Asia Cup and the World T20. Isn’t this decision quite unreasonable?
AM: That’s exactly what I’m saying — this kind of appointment will only give rise to short term thinking. The coach in this situation will only think of the two tournaments and hope the team can win so that he can establish his position. This is the same situation which is faced by the players. Instead of thinking that they have to play for Pakistan in the long term, they start to worry about the next few games and start playing for themselves and not for the team. This goes against the whole idea of cricket being a team game.
I have said this before as well that the team is in desperate need of a psychologist who can talk to the players and understand their mental approach. The approach to the game of our players is very different from what I have experienced playing cricket around the world. I have personally used a psychologist myself which has helped me to improve my performance and play really good cricket around the world in the last three years. I say this again that we need someone in the team who can support and help our players, as our cricketers are not very mentally strong.
PP: The current coaching staff consists of Head Coach Moin Khan and Zaheer Abbas as batting consultant with Shoaib Mohammad as fielding coach, and Mohammad Akram as the bowling coach. What are your views about this setup, especially after the departure of foreign coaches Dav Whatmore and Julien Fountain and with local personnel taking over?
AM: I feel that the induction of local coaches is a very good idea as it helps reduce the communication barrier with our players. The local coaches though, should be highly qualified like other coaches around the world. We have Shoaib Mohammad who was undoubtedly an excellent fielder during his time but what recent experience does he have of working as a fielding coach? If you are going to replace Julien Fountain as fielding coach then you have to bring in someone who is suitable for that position. PCB (Pakistan Cricket Board) has appointed a local coach who no doubt was a good fielder but then even Ijaz Ahmed was a brilliant fielder, why not bring him in as he has worked with the Pakistan team before?
Zaheer Abbas was a brilliant player in his time but he hasn’t played any T20 cricket and he doesn’t have an idea of the pressures and strategies needed in this format of the game. You need someone who has played cricket recently. No one is doubting the ability and calibre of these gentlemen, but all these decisions to hire coaches are short term solutions.
PP: Regarding the Pakistan Super League (PSL), you’ve played T20 cricket around the world for various leagues, if the PCB came to you for advice on how to set the league up and where to play the tournament, what would you say to them?
AM: I’m always ready and happy to give my advice but as far as the Pakistan Super League is concerned. I would suggest that the league should take place in Pakistan and not in Dubai. Considering the situation in the country, you may not have many international players playing in this league. However, we must improve upon the quality of the current domestic T20 tournament, where the tournament ends in four days with teams playing just two or three games, and losing one match can result in them being knocked out.
This tournament should have a longer format and should also feature all the top domestic and Pakistan international players. In addition, all the matches should be televised live on local channels and there should be more matches — at least eight to ten matches for each team so the player performances can be analysed properly, which is not possible in a T20 tournament that lasts just four days.
So the question is: How can we get good quality international cricket back to our country? The way to do this is to create a brand of Pakistani T20 cricket which is so strong that even if foreign players don’t participate, the supporters come to see the local players in action. Once this tournament gets going, show it on international television channels where people from round the world as well as international players can see 30,000 supporters at the grounds. This will obviously make them think about participating in this event. There is no other way, in my view, to restore international cricket in the country and to get other teams to travel to Pakistan.
Just take a look at what happens in the USA. They name their local baseball and basketball league winners as “World Champions” although they only have their local players featuring in them! Pakistan has the resources in terms of sponsors, money, players and grounds. All we need is for some wise heads to sit down and devise a plan about this tournament and it can definitely work as this is not rocket science.
PP: On a personal level, are you disappointed at not getting a chance to play in the IPL this season?
AM: I’m not disappointed but a little surprised as I had two wonderful years with Kings XI Punjab and my performance overall in this format has been quite good and I’m also one of the top five performers in Twenty20 cricket. Looking from that angle, when your name does not come up, then it is definitely shocking. I think out of the 500 or so players who were listed for the auction, my downfall was that I’m not playing international cricket at the moment. If one looks at my performance, which has been excellent, then there is obviously some disappointment at not being picked for the IPL.
PP: There has been criticism of you playing in the IPL as a Pakistani by some people. What message do you have for those people?
AM: My only message being a professional cricketer is that playing for Pakistan is my first priority. However, if I’m not getting a chance to play for my country and I do get a chance to play elsewhere, then obviously as a professional cricketer I would take up that opportunity. In the past, I got a chance to play in the IPL and I made myself available for that.
The people who criticise me never asked about me when I was not getting a chance to play for Pakistan or inquired about my involvement with Pakistan cricket. I am not alone in this situation, there are also a number of other Pakistani players with a similar predicament, who no one cares about. My view is that I am a professional cricketer and playing cricket is my job. Let’s be clear about this — all the players in the current Pakistan setup want to play in the IPL as it is one of the biggest tournaments after international cricket.
When the Indian Cricket League (ICL) took place, all the Pakistani contracted players that played in that league got banned as did I. Later on, these contracted players got a chance to play for Pakistan as well. I got banned even though I wasn’t a contracted player at the time and I think I might be the only Pakistani player who has played three World Cups without getting a central contract! No one at that time asked about my welfare or whether I could afford one square meal!
Just look at Yasir Arafat, who is another one who cannot get an opportunity in international cricket. People really should give us credit for not being disheartened and for not abandoning cricket. This is because we love this game as it has given us a lot and we do want to play for as long as we can. By God’s grace, I am really happy about the fact that there are quite a few domestic leagues that happen all around the world and I have participated in all of them. Even if I’m not playing international cricket, I’m playing competitive cricket which is important for me. Take for example the games at Lashings CC in England, which players from around the world come to play in. I played two games for Lashings and make no mistake, the money is good. However, the atmosphere in those games was one that made you feel that your cricketing days had come to an end! I therefore decided not to play there again and have not played since last year as I am really only interested in playing competitive cricket.
PP: How do you rate Pakistan’s chances at the ICC World T20 2014?
AM: Pakistan have a really good and bright chance when it comes to T20 cricket. You cannot write them off but they will have to play disciplined cricket. The way they bowled in the 50-over format in the Asia Cup was not up to standard and they will have to improve it as they really do depend on their bowling to win games. As far as the batting is concerned, Umar Akmal has been playing really well in recent times and Shahid Afridi has hit form, which is a good sign for Pakistan. The main point that favours us is that we have recently played in Bangladesh and we will be used to playing in those conditions. In general, I would say that the Asian teams have a very good chance of winning the World T20 tournament.
PP: You represented Pakistan for many years with great dignity and have played in many leagues around the world and have tremendous amounts of experience playing with, and against some of the best players in the world. How do you feel can you share this experience and give something back to Pakistan in the coming years?
AM: Definitely! There is no doubt in my mind that whatever I am right now is all because of Pakistan and I cannot deny that. I may have played in many domestic leagues around the world, but the fact is that first and foremost, I’m a proud Pakistani. A lot of people go abroad to earn a better living and I am no different in that regard.
I haven’t formally made an offer but have spoken to someone in the PCB and told them that I am available if needed. I have reminded them that with the World T20 approaching fast, they should consider my experience which consists of close to 200 T20 games around the world. Essentially, I simply want an opportunity to pass on my experience and am not looking for a position as a coach or an assistant coach, otherwise the current staff may feel threatened by my presence. You may consider me as a mentor or a consultant — someone who can sit with the players and talk with them to share my knowledge of the game. This can be useful, especially if you consider that I have played two T20 tournaments in Bangladesh where the World T20 is being held and I can talk and share my experience about how they can handle tough situations during the games being held there.
One must also consider the fact that I have played against the top players in the world such as Chris Gayle, Sunil Narine and Virat Kohli recently. I have batted and bowled against all these players and I have a very good idea of their weaknesses and strengths. I am confident that I can pass on some very useful knowledge to our Pakistani boys. As I said, I am always there and if I am given an opportunity during the World T20 to work with Pakistan, I can go there and help out as after that I have to go back to my county season. As I said before, I haven’t formally made an offer but have spoken to someone in the PCB who is an ex-player himself and told him that I am available at any time to serve my country.
(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)