By Shayan Siddiqui
Karachi born all-rounder, Ashar Zaidi’s name came to the fore in the year 2000 when he was picked for the Pakistan Under-19s team which took part in the World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000. He has also played for the Pakistani domestic side Pakistan Telecommunication Company (PTCL) in the Patron’s Trophy, scoring close to a 1,000 runs in two consecutive years.
A left handed batsman who bowls left-arm spin, the 32 year old Zaidi had played 88 First-Class games for Islamabad where he scored 5,176 runs and took 49 wickets, when he migrated to England in 2001. He has since spent the last three years playing for Accrington Cricket Club in the Lancashire League. During his stay with Accrington, he broke a 54-year-old club batting record in 2013 by scoring 1,446 runs at an average of 68.50, and also took 79 wickets at an average of 13.50.
He recently made the headlines in England after he wrote to several counties asking for a trial and was picked by Sussex after an impressive all-round performance for the second XI.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Ashar speaks about his early career in Pakistan, his lack of chances in international cricket, factors behind his decision to move to England, his stint with Sussex and his hopes to tie up a County deal.
Excerpts from the interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): Tell us about your early days in cricket, how you got introduced to the game, and how your interest grew.
Ashar Zaidi (AZ): I played a lot of tennis ball cricket on the streets with my friends. One of my friends then took me to a club and said it was a bit more fun playing with a hard ball so I thought I’d see how it goes. I started off bowling medium-pace as I did with a tennis ball but one of my coaches suggested I’d be better off bowling spin with a hard ball and that’s how it all started.
I was playing for Pakistan Under-19s about 12-13 years ago. I had a good season back home playing for Islamabad and then got picked to represent Pakistan at the Under-19 World Cup in Sri Lanka in 2000. Hasan Raza was the captain and we lost in the semi-final. I didn’t get much of a chance in that tournament and I only played one or two games but I did well in the first game.
The next two First-Class seasons didn’t go too well for me but then I bounced back when I played for PTCL in the Patron’s Trophy. I did really well for them in the first couple of years, scoring about 1,000 runs in two consecutive years. It all just kicked on from there and I was picked for Pakistan A and went on several tours.
PP: How did you then go through the Under-19s setup, did you go through trials?
AZ: At that time, we had a club league in Islamabad in which every club had an Under-19s team. I was captain of my club’s Under-19s team and had a good season there mainly as a bowler that batted in the middle-order. The team did really well and I got picked for trials for Islamabad Under-19s and did really well for them also. I then got picked for the domestic championships at Under-19 level and scored about 680 runs in that championship, I think I was the highest in Pakistan that year. I then got picked for Pakistan Under-19s to play in the World Cup in 2000.
PP: You’re one of quite a few Pakistanis who have left Pakistan to play cricket overseas. Why was that and what made you choose England?
AZ: I’d played 10-11 years of cricket and the only thing left for me was to play international cricket for Pakistan. I represented Pakistan at junior level so I was quite hopeful that I would be given a chance at the top level. However, that never happened for some reason. I really don’t know whether it was political or something else. Later in my career, I scored an unbeaten double hundred against a touring Zimbabwe side in 2004 that put me in the limelight and in the news. There were suggestions [that] I could be the next opening batsman for Pakistan but I was never given the chance. Salman Butt, Misbah-ul-Haq and Bazid Khan made their debuts in that series so there were many new faces but I wasn’t selected which was strange, as I had just scored a double hundred.
So I’d been through all that injustice and in the last season that I played, I scored three centuries and also a double century against Sialkot. They then announced the Pakistan A side and my name wasn’t in it again so I thought ‘That’s it’. I packed my bags as I had had enough of all that. I had to think about my family and my future. I was going nowhere just by playing domestic cricket so I had to make the choice.
I had got married the season before and had family in England so I made my mind up. I had a good time back home, but I was going nowhere playing in First-Class cricket even though I was performing well. I had to make a decision that was best for my family and my future.
PP: Given that you’re an all-rounder that bowls spin, is it tougher for you on the pitches in England compared with those back home?
AZ: I think I’ve found it a bit easier to play in England because the wickets are a bit more damp up north so they spin a bit more and stop on the batsman. They do all sorts of magic up there compared to the one I played on at Sussex where it’s a really flat wicket. You want the wicket to be doing something all the time so I’ve really enjoyed it. I’ve been all over England. I played two years in Liverpool, two years in Durham as well as in the Huddersfield League, Staffordshire League and Bolton League. In Lancashire and during my time in the Bolton League, I found there’s much more help than anywhere else for a left-arm spinner. So since then I’ve made Lancashire my home!
PP: You contacted quite a few counties asking for a trial, what gave you the idea to do that and were you expecting a response?
AZ: I’ve been performing in England for the last 3-4 years and the only thing stopping me was the fact I didn’t have a British passport. However earlier this year I got a British passport and Alhamdulillah, I was also having a very good season. I spoke to a couple of friends like Azhar Mahmood, Yasir Arafat and Azharullah and asked them if I had a chance since I was 32-years old. Even though that’s a good age because you’re experienced, often the teams prefer to have a younger player in the side. But you can only try so I emailed all the counties and Sussex’s 2nd XI coach Mark Davies came back straight away — I literally got a reply within an hour saying they are really interested in giving me a trial.
PP: Tell us about that 2nd XI game where you scored 192 runs and took six wickets, a performance which propelled you into the Sussex 1st XI?
AZ: When I got the reply back from the Sussex coach I gave him a quick call and he just asked a few general questions. He said they are looking for a left-arm spinner and maybe someone who bats in the lower order. They wanted me to come for a trial as they were really impressed with my statistics both in England and in Pakistan. I told them that I’m not a genuine left-arm spinner as I knew they were looking for a replacement for Monty Panesar. I said I could be an all-rounder like a Ravindra Jadeja or a Samit Patel — someone who can bowl a tight spell from one end and give you runs down the order. They were more than happy with that and suggested I play in an upcoming three-day game against Durham 2nd XI so they can have a good look at me.
I went down there and it was basically supposed to be a trial for my bowling rather than my batting since they were more interested in my bowling. We won the toss and batted first as it turned out so I had a good chance of showing my batting talent before I started bowling! It was quite a surprise for them because they were expecting more in the bowling department rather than my batting!
That was the only 2nd XI game I played because that was the last game of the 2nd XI season. As soon as the game finished, I had a good chat with the coach and he felt I was experienced enough to be playing county cricket in the 1st XI. I was shocked as I’ve seen people struggling all their life scoring thousands of runs and still can’t make it to the 1st XI, and there I am – into the team within two or three days. It’s really a dream come true.
PP: You haven’t had much experience of playing First-Class cricket in England yet but how does it compare with playing in Pakistan?
AZ: I think it’s a bit more chilled, a bit more relaxed here. In Pakistan there’s too much structure and coaching. The coach is constantly in your head, shouting and swearing – there’s a lot of pressure for no reason on the players. Here in England, I’ve been so impressed with how the training sessions are run and how they go about their business. It’s so much more professional, it’s unbelievable. The trainer and coaches don’t really interfere, that’s what their role is and they make the players relaxed — They know how to get the most out of a player.
In Pakistan, however, the coaches think the “Danda Service” (stick) approach is the best thing — they put pressure on the player which is totally wrong. That’s why you don’t see many youngsters coming through because it’s really really hard. You might wonder why the likes of Misbah or Hasan Raza or Imran Farhat score runs, it’s because they have seen all this for years and they don’t listen to the coaches — they just go about their business. However, as soon as youngsters come in, they get too much coaching and there’s too much pressure put on them. I was so impressed here at Sussex as I was so relaxed. It didn’t even feel like I was playing a county level or a First-Class level match.
I think the cricket here is a bit different. In Pakistan the cricket is much much harder. The standard is a bit better when compared to England because obviously the talent over in Pakistan is the best. Here, obviously the conditions are a bit different but apart from that, I think Pakistani First-Class cricket is much harder.
PP: How are you getting on at Sussex? Are you confident you’ll be able to cement a regular spot in the 1st XI?
AZ: I’ve signed with an agency which deals with a lot of international players and they’re working on my behalf with Sussex. They’ve been in contact with Mark Robinson, the 1st team coach, and they’ve got very positive feedback from him. They were very impressed with my 2nd XI performance and also with my 1st XI debut. I’m playing in the next game against Durham (currently ongoing) and after that they’ll discuss my opportunities.
I can’t see any problem as I’ve settled down really well and all the lads have been fantastic. I haven’t found it any different mixing in with them — I’m not a shy person as I’ve been living here for a while and know how it works. I think I’ve done enough to show them what I’m capable of and how experienced I am. I’ve got a few more years in me to play at this level and make a living out of it. I’m looking at signing a deal, if everything goes right Insha’Allah, maybe in the next month or so. Obviously, they won’t take much time to discuss it because they’ve seen enough of my performance. So I don’t think it should take them long to make a decision. That’s what I’m hoping for and that’s what I’ve worked for over the last three to four years since I’ve been here — especially this year I’ve worked really hard on my game and my technique.
PP: We’ve seen examples of a couple of players leave Pakistan and represent other countries. If you had the chance to play for England, would you take it?
AZ: Definitely, who would want to miss out on the chance of playing at the international level — playing at that level is my dream. I’m not too sure it will happen but you never know luck could be on your side and things could go your way. Obviously, I would have loved to play for Pakistan. It’s my country and I would always go back there and play, but that’s not working out at the moment. I’d jump on the chance to play international cricket anywhere.
PP: Recently players like Misbah-ul-Haq and Mohammad Irfan have come into the team at a fairly late stage in their careers so perhaps there still is a chance for you?
AZ: Exactly. As I said, with luck on your side you can have a really good season. We’ve seen someone like Azharullah have a fantastic start — who knows next year he might do the same thing and he could make the national side. I’ll try my best if given the chance and take any opportunities to play international cricket.
PP: With regards to your experience with First-Class cricket in Pakistan, are there any particular players you played with whom you thought might make a name for themselves but haven’t been able to do so?
AZ: There were loads and loads who could have played for Pakistan. I’ll mention Shehzad Malik from Sialkot, I thought that guy should have played for Pakistan or at least for the A side. He certainly should have been given more chances than he was given. I played with him for three years at PTCL, and also played against him. I think that guy was a fantastic player. He’s done everything in his power, he had a good record and had a great time.
Another player was Aamer Bashir. Oh my God, I think after Inzamam I’ve never seen anyone else who played anything like that, that guy had class and was unbelievable. I’ve toured with him — we went to Sri Lanka with the Pakistan A side and he scored a couple of hundreds, he was amazing. You see players like Azhar Ali or Asad Shafiq being given so many chances at such a young age but that guy had so much experience behind him and scored lots of runs but still wasn’t given an opportunity. It makes me really sad that players like him have passed by, but he was awesome. I think these two players should have played international cricket a long long time ago.
PP: We’ve seen a lot of Pakistani batsmen struggle outside Asia, why do you think that is?
AZ: Whenever we used to play against a strong Lahore or Karachi side away from home, the groundsman would have been given strict orders by the international batsmen. I’m talking about international players like Mohammad Yousuf or Salman Butt who used to give orders to the groundsman to make a proper flat track. They didn’t want any grass on the wicket because our bowling attack included Rao Iftikhar, Shoaib Akhtar, Azhar Mahmood, Saad Altaf – there were some good fast bowlers. Orders were given not to prepare a seaming wicket because the batsmen just wanted a flat wicket.
So if they have a mentality like that to just score runs, how can they improve? That mental setup has to change. In the nets when they practice, they don’t care if they get out hundreds of times – they just go out and play their shots and think ‘who cares’. A lot of these players know they are automatic selections because of their political backgrounds or whatever, so they don’t care if they get out hundreds of times in the nets. When it comes to international cricket, these players get exposed as we recently saw against Zimbabwe. The ball nibbles around a bit and that’s it – their off-stump or middle-stump is gone.
In the nets they don’t like facing bouncers. If a bowler tries to bowl short they’ll say “Come on, just bowl half volleys!” So if you have a mentality like that, how are they going to face the likes of Dale Steyn or Morne Morkel on a fast, bouncy wicket? The mentality is to just prepare a flat wicket, score 50-60 runs, and get picked for the next game or the next series. That’s the mentality these days.
PP: Islamabad hasn’t produced that many cricketers that have gone on to play international cricket, why do you think that is? Afaq Raheem is one in particular, who many thought would play for Pakistan.
AZ: There is a lot of talent among the guys that have played for Islamabad but for some reason they’ve not been given a lot of chances. Afaq Raheem played for Islamabad all his life and he’s an absolutely great player. He could be your opener for the future or take the number three spot because of his technique. He toured with Pakistan, didn’t play a single match and then was left out for the next series. We keep making mistakes like that. Some players get chance after chance while other players are taken on tour and aren’t given a single opportunity. Apart from that, I think one of the other reasons we don’t produce many cricketers is because the cricket is too easy in Islamabad to be honest.
PP: You mentioned playing alongside Shoaib Akhtar for Islamabad, what was that experience like?
AZ: Yes, in the last T20 tournament I played with and actually captained Shoaib Akhtar which was a big thing. It was very good but he didn’t say much. To be honest, I was expecting him to be fired up! He was really good with the juniors because he knew the juniors have a hard time anyway with the coaches.
PP: Ashar, thank you very much for your time.
AZ: My pleasure.
(Shayan Siddiqui is a writer and moderator at Pakpassion.net, from where the above interview is sourced with permission)