‘Waqar Younis has also asked me to work on the grip’

Regarded as a prime contender for the crucial all-rounder slot in the Pakistan team, Bilawal Bhatti currently finds himself excluded from selection for the national ODI team. Since his debut for Pakistan in a T20I game against South Africa in 2013, Bhatti has represented Pakistan in all three formats with varying degrees of success. He has picked up six wickets in two Test matches, six wickets in 10 One-Day Internationals (ODIs) and five wickets in nine T20I games.

Currently involved in playing league cricket in England, 23-year-old Bhatti spoke to PakPassion.net about the experience of playing cricket in England, answered some of the concerns regarding his high economy rate, explained his determination to remedy his shortcomings and to return to the Pakistan team, the emotions he felt playing international cricket on home soil and why the new ODI rules introduced by the ICC will help in motivating fast-bowlers.

Excerpts from an interview:

PakPassion (PP): Tell us about the experience and advantages of playing in the Lancashire League at the moment. What are you expecting to take away from this stint?

Bilawal Bhatti (BB): I have played in the Staffordshire as well as the Derbyshire leagues in the past. I have to admit that I wasn’t impressed with the standard of cricket played in the Derbyshire League. However, whilst the Staffordshire League was more challenging for me as a player, the Lancashire League is a tougher one which is played under the win-lose format — no draws. Basically every team in this league has four or five big name players and even if one team scores 250, the other team is bound to try to chase that down which makes this a very competitive league. However, in the Staffordshire League, teams would go for a draw if the score was close to 200 which was a little boring.

Playing here has some obvious financial benefits. Also, since there is no domestic cricket in Pakistan at the moment so you aren’t losing out on opportunities to play domestic games back home. Playing here as a professional puts a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and you do learn a lot from this experience such as how to finish the game under difficult conditions. You are required to give your 100% in batting and bowling and to help your team through tough situations. This teaches you to be a better bowler as it helps you to adapt and also how to out-think the batsmen.

PP: How would you answer critics who say that an international level bowler shouldn’t be playing league cricket?

BB: If you can spare the time and you are being paid good money for the job, then what is the harm? This is my profession, this is my bread and butter and one cannot just give it up. As there is no cricket happening in Pakistan at the moment and it’s unbearably hot, so what training can you do there? Back home you can either train early morning or late in the evening. You are basically free all day, so isn’t it better that you come here in England where the facilities are top class and you can play and practice during the day? My accommodation is right next to the ground and I also have access to a bowling machine. I am able to play five to six hours a day with two matches during the week as well. So I am getting practice and learning and also being paid for that.

PP: Based on your experience so far, how difficult is the jump from domestic to international cricket?

BB: I don’t think there is so much difference between domestic and international cricket except for the pressure which is greater in international cricket. The game is the same, but it’s the responsibility of representing the country in international cricket which creates the pressure on the players. Those players who can handle the pressure will do well. I suppose, it also depend on how you adapt to this level of cricket at the start of your career. If you can perform well in the first few matches and take on the pressure then you feel at home in international cricket.
There is also the fact that in international games, you get to feel the presence of crowds as well, whereas domestic cricket doesn’t draw in that many spectators. A good example is that of domestic cricketers in India who play the Indian Premier League (IPL) in front of large crowds. They usually don’t have an issue moving to international cricket. Make no mistake, the standard of cricket at the domestic level in Pakistan is very good, but we don’t have so much public interest and also the games are not televised which makes a difference. All in all, it’s the confidence in your skills and the ability to handle pressure which separates the two types of cricket.

Of course, when you are playing domestic cricket, the opposition will have four or five good players whereas in international cricket, you may well encounter eleven good players. In that situation, the margin for error is very limited. In domestic cricket, if you bowl a few bad overs you still have time to recover but in international games where eleven top class players are representing their country, this is not that easy.

PP: Your critics always mention your economy rate in limited-overs cricket. What steps are you taking to improve this aspect of your game?

BB: I completely understand those concerns. Your fans and supporters will always feel disappointed if you aren’t doing well. I have debuted in all formats of the game and there were some games where my confidence took a beating. I am trying very hard to fix these issues and all I need is one or two good matches which should help me in achieving my potential. I am biding my time and working hard on my bowling and God willing, just like a batsman who needs one good innings to get back into form, I am looking for that one good spell to get me going again. Waqar Younis is also helping me in this regard and I will prove myself whenever I next get a chance to represent Pakistan.

I will also add that just like Waqar I am also an attacking bowler and you do go for runs sometimes when you attack. So my economy rate has been affected due to my attacking role. But, you must also realise that you cannot take wickets without being an attacking bowler. You can examine the bowling records of any top-class fast bowlers such as Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar or Brett Lee and you will note that runs do flow when the intent is to attack the batsman. In my case, I have had a few bad games, but all I need is one good spell, very similar to Wahab’s spell in the 2015 World Cup to turn things around. As you can see with Wahab, his confidence level has sky-rocketed after that spell. Apart from that, Wahab has also put the fear in the minds of the batsmen that he is quick even though he had been bowling at similar speeds before as well. But that one spell against Watson has made sure that batsmen have started to respect him and not attack him with ease. Even I am waiting patiently for that one spell which will change the path of my career.

Anyone can have a low point in their career. I have seen good batsmen in the domestic scene who have batted at No 10 as they were low in confidence. In international cricket, you have the example of Ricky Ponting and even Sachin Tendulkar who went through rough times towards the end of their careers. Of course, I am not anywhere near them in terms of comparison, but all I am saying is that there are ups and downs in one’s career. Fact is when the going is good, even a full-toss will get you a wicket or when you are down, then your better balls will go for four.

I recall that in my season in First-Class cricket which really introduced me to the world as a good player, I took 85 wickets and was bowling so well that I could have run in with my eyes closed and taken wickets. I am working towards gaining this type of form again and hoping that I will not disappoint my fans and perform to the best of my abilities for the country as well.

PP: Given that most fast-bowlers are tall and well built, how are you able to generate so much pace with your build?

BB: This is a question which is asked often of me. To give you some background, let me say that when I started playing cricket, I used to play a lot of street cricket. I also had the opportunity to play alongside players like Imran Nazir and Qaiser Abbas at club level. I had great interest in playing cricket and my family also supported my enthusiasm. Sarfraz Azeem who was my coach at that time worked very hard with me as I was very interested in batting and bowling.

I also used to follow Abdul Razzaq and was a great fan of Andrew Flintoff in those days. I was told then that I was too short to be a good fast-bowler and that I should concentrate on bowling spin. In fact, I started to bowl spin and did bowl it for a few days but honestly speaking, there was no attraction in it and I did not enjoy it at all. I told them that I should be allowed to bowl fast or they should let me go. I was then told to continue fast-bowling at my own risk as they did not see a future for me in there. I did not take that advice and continued bowling fast and the results are there for all to see. I suppose my development as a fast-bowler is due to the fact that I have worked hard and am a natural athlete with what can only be described as God gifted talents. My speed really comes not from the strength of my shoulders but by the quick run-up which helps me generate the pace.

PP: International cricket resumed after a while in Pakistan. What was it like to play in front of home fans during the Zimbabwe series?

BB: There are no words to describe that feeling which we all experienced to see international cricket return to our country. Personally speaking, this was the greatest day of my career when we played our first international game in Pakistan after six years and I was representing Pakistan when that happened. On that day, we arrived at the ground about two and a half hours before the start of the game. Waqar warned us to control our nerves as although we had played in front of large crowds outside Pakistan, playing in front of such a large home crowd would bring out completely different feelings. When we saw our supporters filling the ground wearing Pakistan shirts or holding Pakistan flags or when we heard the roar of the crowd, that just sent goose bumps down our spines and the feeling was indescribable.

PP: A lot of people complain that today’s Pakistani fast-bowlers lack the aggression of the type we saw from Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis. What is the reason for that?

BB: Yes, it is true but this seems to be the case for all fast-bowlers around the world and this does have something to do with the old ICC [International Cricket Council] rules which thankfully, have now been changed. It’s simply the fact that as a bowler in ODIs you are limited in what you can do. With the old rules, you couldn’t take too many chances with your bowling due to the number of fielders in the circle and flatter pitches. The fact is that whenever the fast-bowlers find favorable tracks they take wickets and good teams are bowled out for under 200. Fast-bowlers are afraid to take chances on flatter pitches and this takes away the aggression. This is not only true for Pakistan bowlers but also applies to bowlers around the world. People talk about aggression in Mitchell Johnson’s bowling, but that has only come into the fore during the Ashes series in Australia. So wherever there are favourable pitches, fast-bowlers have shown aggression. However, as I have said before, the recent changes in rules regarding the reduction of the number of fielders in the ring and power-plays will give new hope to the bowlers. Even spinners’ game was being affected by the previous set of rules and they will welcome the changes.

PP: Despite Pakistan having produced some great fast-bowlers in the past, how difficult is it to be a fast-bowler in Pakistan given the flat-tracks and weather conditions?

BB: Even today we have fast-bowlers coming through our domestic cricket system, but what it boils down to is that we use Grays balls in our domestic competitions whereas Kookaburra is used for international games. This is not a ball that our bowlers are used to. Now we have one T20 tournament where these Kookaburra balls are used and the bowlers who have been using Grays all year have difficulty adjusting to this type of ball. This is another reason why our bowlers struggle a bit when they move from domestic to international cricket.

PP: In terms of specific technical issues, what is Waqar Younis asking you to change in your bowling?

BB: One important area I have been asked to attend to is the length of my deliveries, especially when it comes to bowling with the new ball. In addition, Waqar has also asked me to work on the grip and try out a new one he has suggested.

Coming back to the length of my deliveries, in domestic cricket, I have been bowling with the older ball, but recently in the past few games, I have bowled with the new ball also. Waqar’s view is for me to keep on trying and working hard on the length aspect with the new ball and I will be successful eventually. Also, if I can perfect my outswing and combine it with 140 kmph speed, then I can be more successful against any batsman. I expect to make these changes in the next two to three months.

PP: What goals have you set for yourself for the future?

BB: I have many goals but the bottom line is that each of those goals requires hard work which I am now doing. While I am away from the national team, I am working on my batting and bowling as well as my fitness. The idea is to come back into the Pakistan team and establish myself so that I am not dropped again. I would like to play eight or nine years at the least and fill the role for the all-rounder slot that Pakistan so badly needs at the moment. I am working hard on all aspects of my cricket and I am convinced that one is eventually rewarded for their effort in whichever field of life. All it takes is one good spell to turn things around and I am hoping that this will come soon for me.

(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion, where the article first appeared)