By Saj Sadiq
Zulfiqar Babar is the son of former Pakistani international footballer Abdul Ghaffar. Although never forced to play football, Babar inherited the love of sports from his father and persevered throughout his domestic career to make his international debut at the age of 34 years and 229 days — becoming the second oldest T20 debutant after Inzamam-ul-Haq. As if to prove a point about his 12 year wait to enter the international scene, he endeared himself to Pakistani fans in his debut game by picking up three for 23 and also scored an invaluable 13 not out off 17 balls, hitting a six of the last ball of the innings to guide his team to a two-wicket victory.
Bowling slow left-arm orthodox spin, Babar has played 63 First-Class games, picking up 309 wickets at a fantastic economy rate of 2.67. His List A and T20 records is equally impressive where he has picked 50 and 31 wickets respectively. He is also no slouch with the bat, averaging around 16 in First-Class and List A games — a useful skill which saw him take Pakistan to victory in the West Indies.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Babar spoke in detail about the late start to his international career, aspirations as well as the experience of playing in his first international game and Saeed Ajmal’s gesture to give up his position to allow his debut.
PakPassion.net (PP): Given your physique were you ever interested in bowling fast or was spin bowling always the preferred option?
Zulfiqar Babar (ZB): I always wanted to be a spinner. My mentor, the late Shahid Munir was also a left-arm spinner and he encouraged me to express myself by bowling left-arm spin. He was a fantastic role model for me, always there for me when I needed him and there for me through the good times and the bad times. His passing due to a car accident has left a big vacuum in my life and I always think of him before I enter the field of play for any cricket match that I’m taking part in. His words remain an inspiration to me in cricket and in my everyday life and I dedicate my success in cricket to him.
PP: You missed several seasons of First-Class cricket — That must have surely hindered your progress?
ZB: Things work in strange ways sometimes in Pakistan and change very quickly. I’m sure you are aware of what I mean. One day you are revered, the next day you are nowhere. Likewise I was playing First-Class cricket and then for a few seasons I was out of favour for some reason.
For the first six seasons of my First-Class cricket career, it literally was a case of turning up for each match and seeing if I would get a chance to play. Some days I would be included, others I would just sit and watch as one of the reserves. On other occasions I wouldn’t even be in the squad and either go home, or just go and practice in the nets.
Then the hierarchy at Multan regional cricket changed and I started to get more regular opportunities to play. In 2009 I really established myself and broke bowling records after taking 134 wickets in a season. That was my breakthrough season and after that season I’ve been playing First-Class cricket on a regular basis.
PP : You come from Okara, tell us about the cricketing infrastructure in that town and how difficult it is for players from small towns to make it to the highest level of cricket in Pakistan?
ZB: All roads lead to Multan for cricketers from Okara. Cricketers from Khanewal, Okara and Sahiwal more often than not have to head to Multan to play their First-Class cricket and to get noticed on a wider scale. If you can find a good local club in your home town and good people to back you then the sky is the limit. Most of the boys from this region play their club cricket in their home towns before venturing to Multan region to take the next step up in their cricket career.
Sometimes luck can play a big part in how your career develops. I’ve seen a lot of good cricketers over the years get limited chances in domestic cricket and club cricket, yet others who are less deserving in my opinion have played a lot of cricket at club level and in domestic cricket.
PP: You’ve toiled for twelve seasons in domestic cricket before your international chance finally came. There must have been times when you thought you were never going to play for Pakistan despite your consistent performances in domestic cricket?
ZB: Hand on heart it never bothered me. My intentions have always been to do my best for my region and my department in First-Class cricket and leave the selection of the Pakistan team to the selectors. I’m a professional cricketer not a selector, so I never troubled myself too much with the thought of when I would play international cricket, if at all.
I just said to myself to continue to work hard on my game, on my fitness and to perform to the best of my ability and leave the rest to the Almighty and the selectors. If the chance of playing cricket for Pakistan came, great, if not then I would just focus on earning an honest living in domestic cricket and watching international cricket from my living room!
Many of my friends and colleagues would go overseas during our off-season break and play league cricket abroad. They’d come back carrying a few pounds extra of weight and carrying a few extra pounds in their pocket and have a lacklustre attitude after playing some cricket that wasn’t very competitive. I was offered the same incentives but I declined and instead would train with my coach’s and work on areas of my game that I felt I needed to improve upon during the close-season. I would particularly work on areas of my bowling where I felt that I had not been up to the mark in. Thankfully I feel that my hard work has paid off and my chance for Pakistan has come and I am honoured to have been given that chance.
PP: Do you feel that domestic cricket in Pakistan has changed for the better or the worse in the twelve years that you have taken part in it?
ZB: I think that coaching standards have dramatically improved. The amount of time spent on preparation and the technical aspects of the game with the coaches has dramatically increased. Before any First-Class match all of the players these days are prepared so well in that they have all of the information on the opposition players. A few years ago this wasn’t always the case.
In addition I think the mentality of the Pakistani cricketer has changed over the years since I’ve been playing First-Class cricket. There was a time when there wasn’t a lot of innovation but these days batsmen are coming up with more and more ways to target bowlers and coming up with new ways to challenge you particularly in the shorter formats.
PP: What did your team mates say to you ahead of your international debut against the West Indies in Kingstown?
ZB: Despite making my debut at the age of thirty four and with all the many years of cricket behind me I was nervous and had butterflies in my first two overs. Taking a wicket in my first over definitely settled me down after Lendl Simmons had hit me for a six. Mohammad Hafeez was very helpful, he said to me to just do what I had been doing so well in domestic cricket over the years, to relax and to enjoy the experience and not to get too tense.
PP: Saeed Ajmal dropped out of the side to allow you to play your second Twenty20 international match. How do you feel about Saeed’s gesture?
ZB: It was a fantastic gesture from a wonderful man. There is always professional rivalry and not many cricketers would give up their place in the starting line-up to another cricketer. I actually felt even more pressure when Saeed [Ajmal] gave up his place in the team as it meant that I was replacing a world class spinner and that my performance would be scrutinised even more. Thankfully I managed to pick up two wickets and we won by 11 runs, but the gesture by Saeed is one that I will always appreciate.
I’d actually come to know well before the match that I would be in the starting eleven as Saeed Ajmal had spoken with me. Saeed said to me that “you’ll be playing instead of me and I want you to give your all and perform really well. I have full faith in you and I’m sure you will do a good job.”
PP: Tell us about the match-winning six you hit off the last ball against the West Indies. What was going through your mind before that shot?
ZB: The West Indies fielders inside the circle were very close as we only needed one run to win. I thought that if I tried to go for a single, I would most likely be run out. So I thought I need to loft the ball over the infield and over the fielders. Thankfully I middled it nicely and it went for a six. It was a very proud moment for me and it was great to see the jubilation amongst the whole squad and the beaming smiles.
PP: How well do you feel you have integrated into the international set up. It can’t have been easy coming into international cricket at such a late stage in your career?
ZB: I’ve been made to feel very welcome particularly by Misbah-ul-Haq, Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez. They have a lot of international cricketing experience between them and it’s always good to speak with cricketers who have played a lot of international cricket around the world. It’s always good to share your thoughts and ideas with other experienced cricketers. It’s very helpful having welcoming and experienced cricketers around you when starting your international career.
PP: There’s an abundance of left arm spinners in Pakistan at the moment with yourself, Abdur Rehman and Raza Hasan competing for places in the Pakistan side. The healthy competition must surely be good for Pakistan cricket?
ZB: Pakistan has a lot of spin bowling options at the moment and that is definitely a good thing for the country’s cricket team(s). Competition for places breeds intensity and nobody can take his place for granted. Abdur Rehman and Ajmal are world class spinners and Raza Hasan is also a very good prospect and all of these cricketers work very hard on their bowling. Sometimes people forget the amount of work that is put in behind the scenes by cricketers and the amount of hard work put in to maintain those high standards. The likes of Ajmal and Rehman work very hard to achieve the success they have and they are an example to all spinners not only in Pakistan but around the world.
Over the years Pakistan has been blessed with great fast bowlers like Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis, but at the moment it’s the spinners where our main threat is. We are blessed to have spin bowling talent that is the envy of other countries.
PP: How has life changed for you since making your international debut?
ZB: Before I was known as Zulfi Lamba (Big Zulfi) by everyone and now I’m called Zulfiqar Babar. I’m a religious individual and I always believe that everything that happens in your life is God’s will. It was up to the Almighty when I would play for Pakistan and that I would have to wait for so long to make my international debut.
I have no hard feelings for anyone or regrets. What will come my way will come my way. As a person I will never change despite playing international cricket and in fact now that I have played some international cricket, the desire and hunger is even greater to play for my country. Some people change once they have played for Pakistan, I have seen that myself, they forget who they are, where they came from and who the people were who put in all the hard work to get them to the level they have reached, but I don’t see myself going that way.
PP: You’ve only played the twenty over format so far for Pakistan, surely the aim will be to play for Pakistan in the fifty over and five day format?
ZB: To play Test cricket is the pinnacle for any cricketer and I would dearly love the chance to play Test cricket for Pakistan. At the moment my aim is to continue to perform well in domestic cricket and if the selectors think that I deserve a chance to play Test cricket or in the fifty over format then I will gladly accept that chance and the challenge.
PP: How many years of top level cricket do you think you’ve got left in you?
ZB: That’s a difficult question as I’ve not really set myself a target of playing until a certain age. I’m working hard on maintaining and improving my fitness levels which have improved but could definitely be improved upon. Levels of fitness is an area that we sometimes lack in Pakistan cricket and even some of our young cricketers do not have the levels of fitness they should have. I’m reluctant to say when I will stop playing cricket as at the moment I’m really enjoying the challenges and opportunities. As I say though, there’s a lot of hard work ahead for me, particularly on my fitness.