Transcript: Couch Talk with Azhar Mahmood

Couch Talk 99 (Play)

Guest: Azhar Mahmood, Former Pakistan Cricketer

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former Pakistan All rounder Azhar Mahmood. He talks about why his international career was cut so short, about being offered Pakistan captaincy, and the life of globe trotting T20 specialist, amongst other things.

Welcome to the show, Azhar bhai!

Azhar Mahmood (AM)– Thank you very much for having me.

SJ– It is absolutely my pleasure!

You played your last Test for Pakistan when you were 26 years old, and that was 12 years ago, and the last ODI was during the 2007 World Cup. It was said that you were too old to be picked again because you were in your early 30s. Now, you look at someone like Misbah (ul Haq) who has played most of his international cricket after he turned 34. Do you sometimes wonder that Pakistan has missed out on getting the most out of you, as a cricketer?

AM– Yes, I would say that because that is the problem in Pakistan – when people turn over 30, they say “oh, he is done. He is getting old and he is done.” That is what happens to Pakistani cricketers. You can see a lot of cricketers who are still 33, but they are the same age as me. But, they change their ages on documents and stuff. So, that is what happens and people do these things- to carry on with their career. I think that is one of the reasons. You see all the Pakistani players, the likes who played with me, I think maybe they were younger than me by one year but not by 5 or 6 years because we started our career at the same time and played under-19 cricket at the same time.

What happened in 2001 was that they told me that I am not a Test match player, that I am a One Day player. After 2001, I never got a chance to play Test match cricket. There was a label put on my shoulder and they said, “He is just a One Day player.” If you can see what happened after that – I played One Day cricket till 2007. I played around 100 matches from my career’s start in 1996 till 2001 and I think I played around 14 odd ODI in 6 years (after 2001 till 2007). So, every time you perform well, you get back into the side. So many times it has happened that without playing a game I was dropped. I can’t help what is going on in the selectors’ mind or with the officials at that time. But, simply, I can say that they didn’t want me in the team at that particular time.

SJ– Going to the earlier part of your Test career, you had players like Wasim (Akram), Waqar (Younis) and Shoaib (Akhtar) in addition to Abdul Razzaq, and of course you had Mushtaq (Ahmed) and Saqlain (Mushtaq). So, in terms of you fitting in as a bowling all rounder, and this is a question from one of the listeners – Hassan Cheema, do you think having another seam bowling all rounder option in Abdul Razzaq hampered your Test prospects in those days?

AM– No, I don’t think this thing happened. That is a media, or the people who were involved at that time, that is their propaganda. You mentioned in your question, in 1996 we got Wasim bhai in our side, we had Waqar bhai, we had Shoaib, Saqlain, (Shahid) Afridi, Razzaq. We played Test, matches together, even ODIs together. If we play with Moin (Khan) bhai included in that, we played 4 all-rounders in one team. When Wasim bhai and Moin bhai left, you can’t play two all-rounders at that time? They said, “No, we can’t play two all-rounders in the team we can play only one.” No doubt, in 1999, Abdul had done really well. After the World Cup, in around 2001 when I was injured, at that time he had done really well for himself and for the country. So, credit given to him. But, where I was concerned, they said “We don’t want him.”

In 2001, I got offered to be the Pakistan captain. I think that was my biggest mistake to refuse that, because I was naive, I was just concentrating on cricket. I thought that because the senior players are around, they need to get their chances and I just need to concentrate (on) my cricket and I have to learn my cricket. I learnt my cricket a lot from Wasim bhai and Waqar bhai and all the senior players form that time. So, I was quite lucky to play with those greats, whom when you were a kid you were watching on TV.

SJ– Absolutely. But, do you believe that your career, especially the Test career, would have been much different if you had accepted your captaincy at that time?

AM– Yes, definitely, I would say that. We had good bench-strength in the 1999 World Cup if you see – Mushtaq bhai on the bench, Salim (Malik) bhai on the bench, Waqar bhai on the bench. I was playing, and all these young guys were playing at that time. So, you can say that when you become a captain you have to play. So, I would say that things would have been different. But, in the end if I see the bigger picture, I don’t have any regrets.

SJ– If you look at it, your numbers are better than Abdul Razzaq’s in Test and his numbers are better than yours in ODIs. So, perhaps you could have been the first choice all-rounder in Tests and he could have been the first choice all-rounder in ODIs, and when they could have accommodated two, they could have?

AM– Now (if) you can see Abdul’s numbers and then my numbers, they are much better in both forms now because he got more opportunities to play. He played 50-odd Test matches and I played only 21 Test matches. If you see talent wise, and technique wise, I would say that I was a better all-round and I am the better all-rounder still, now. If you go on the circumstances of numbers, he got more opportunities. Why? Because he played regularly in the side and he got confidence from the captain and the coaches. I am not talking about myself or defending myself here, but I am just saying – if you put anyone in my situation where you don’t know when you are going to play or get into the side or when you are getting a game, it is different. For a player, when these things are happening around you, sometimes you get self doubt in your mind and that is the worst [thing to happen].

SJ– If you look at your Test career, especially looking at the batting, you had a tremendous start – in your debut Test you scored a 100 and then the two phenomenal 100s against South Africa in South Africa. But, your batting sort of slipped, the run production slipped. Have you been able to pin point a reason why that happened?

AM– When you come in the team, your goal is to go and perform. When you are a newcomer, you just concentrate on one thing- you need to go on the field and perform to your best. The reason behind it is that when I got my 100, I was batting at no.7 and all of a sudden I opened the batting in Test match cricket and bat at no.3, at different numbers and they are different scenarios to bat at those numbers. That is one of the reasons why that thing happened to me. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to handle all the situations at that time. But, yes, you can say that slipped out a little bit, but it wasn’t that bad. When I played my last two matches, my best figure was at Lord’s, second last match – 4 for 15. And next game, you can see that when the things are tough, I was at no.3 or no.4 batsman. These things happen. In the next Test I only bowled 8 overs, in my last Test match. I made 37 in it, in my last innings, when the rest of my team made 200 or 220 runs. That wasn’t a bad performance, but at that time the lobby was working against me and these things happened.

I was going through a lot of things- I have to concentrate on my performance when you don’t know when you are going to get a game, and every time you get a chance and you try to do over-smart things, you want to do well – these things are not helpful. I was really unlucky because if Wasim bhai was the captain a little while longer, maybe my career would have been slightly different because at that time we had so many captains in the last 4 years that I played. Every captain has a different frame of mind and confidence on their players. Some people had more confidence on Abdul Razzaq while some captains had more confidence on me. These things happen. If you see that period of time of my Test career, from 1997 to 2001, we got 6 or 7 different captains.

SJ– But now, if you see, under Misbah, there seems to be some semblance of stability. There is not complete wholesale changes or constant chopping and changing. But, since 2007, when you played the ODI, have you realistically thought that there was a possibility of you getting selected for Pakistan because the selectoral committee in Pakistan were not against playing players who were on the other side of 35?

AM– See, that is the problem. Recently, I have been approached by the Pakistan cricket board and coach to play against India, when I was 37. And, I played in 2007 last. I am talking about 2013, after 6 years. at that time I was 32. So, what criteria is it now that they now ask me to come and play for Pakistan against India? Because I was performing well all around the world. I will tell you one thing when this happened – I always played county cricket and I became a local there. So, people asked me about playing for England. I never said “I don’t want to play for England.” But inside, deep down, I never wished to play for England. That is for sure, and I never wanted to. The only concern that I was having at that time was that I wanted to prove myself, that I am a good enough player, and these guys messed it up with me. That is the only reason when people ask me “Do you want to play for England?”, I never said “No.”

But, recently, when Pakistan asked me to come and play for Pakistan and asked if I want to play for England, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that I wanted to prove myself on a higher level – international level, but unfortunately I can’t do that because am not playing international cricket. But, these days, I am playing all around the world, playing with the same internationals in a different league. So, I made my name again by the grace of God. So, I am satisfied in that, that the people can see and talk about “Why can’t we play Azhar in the team?” when I got a phone call from the cricket board, I was satisfied from the inside and thought that they have realised that they had made a mess out of me and that I didn’t get a chance to enhance my talent on international level. That is a satisfaction for me, as a player. You just play to go out and perform on a higher level. And, by alhamdulilah I achieved that.

SJ– I actually want to talk about your career beyond your career with Pakistan. Quick question – do you know how many major teams you have played for so far?

AM– I think it is 13 now?

SJ– I think it is 14, including Pakistan, county, T20 franchises and domestic sides.

AM– I think if you don’t include Lahore Badshahs, if you include them, it is 15.

SJ– So, I am guessing you are considering yourself more close to Surrey as your home side now, because you live there?

AM– Definitely, Surrey is closer to me after Pakistan because I started my career in Surrey in 2002, when I was in and out of the team. I started my career form there. I am glad that this year I am back in Surrey.

SJ– But, right now, you are in Bangladesh playing One Day matches in Dhaka Premier Division. Why? What is the attraction for you to put through this?

AM– It is nothing for me. I love to play cricket. At the same time, I want to spend time with my family. They asked me to come and play in the Dhaka Premier League for a long time. I think it is a 6-8 week tournament. I said “No.” first of all because I can’t spend that much time here. Then, Tamim Iqbal – he is a friend, like a brother – he asked me “Why don’t you come and play a few games, 3 or 4 games for 2 weeks?” so, I said “OK, I will come and play.”  I’m not playing any cricket now. One year, after county season, I thought “OK. Now, I will have 6 months’ rest, I will do just my training. I will find it really difficult when I come back.” I was fit, strong, but I want to be match-fit. So, by coming here and playing, it is just to get match fit. Now, I am getting old, to be honest, there is no question about it. If I bowl more overs, my body stays fitter and I am in good nick. So, I don’t want a gap of 2 – 3 months where I didn’t bowl. Now, in England, the winter starts and after this you can’t do anything outdoors. That is the only reason to play if I got any opportunity to play in these environments. I don’t play One Day cricket in England, but these guys asked me, so I thought I could go and do my training as well.

SJ– OK. You and players like Chris Gayle or (Muttiah) Muralitharan are blueprint for what professional cricketers could be like in the future. You have a lot of affiliations with many different teams in many different nations and continents. In fact, you played in the Caribbean Premier League for the Barbadian Tridents just a few days after Surrey’s FLT20 competition ended. What sort of mental and physical approach do you have to these tournaments, to these games where you are in and out in just a matter of a few days?

AM– My thing is that I just want to play cricket, to be honest. That is the one thing. On a different environment, it will help me to go on different teams and different countries to play for them. It is a great opportunity for me to learn their culture and learn how to prepare. So, that has really helped me a lot. When I was in Surrey, talking to Ricky Ponting and things like that… you can see how I am preparing myself and how these guys prepare for their game plan, and what they do and how they do. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be playing for the next 5 years. I have to move on to the next career, which maybe coaching and stuff like that. Watching these sort of things, if you become a coach where you are involved in cricket – perhaps I can’t do anything apart from cricket, it is in my mind how these guys are playing and what is the psyche behind it and how they work at things. One thing that I love about this game – you learn every single day of your life, you learn from your club, you learn from international players. So, I am still learning the game.

SJ– When you go from playing in FLT20 and 2 days later you are in West Indies playing in another T20 tournament, what is your approach to the game itself? Suddenly, you are going from England to a different condition, to a different team. A lot of the times, you may not even know all the names of your teammates!

AM– Yes, that sometimes happens when you are playing on so many teams. There are so many hotels too. Some guy asked you, “Where did you stay in Sri Lanka?” you say, “Oh! I can’t remember that.” You are absolutely right about West Indies – I didn’t know all the players’ names, especially the domestic players. So, it is hard. But, when you spend more time like when I was in Auckland, I was there for 6 weeks and I knew every single one of them. But, as a professional, my job is to go and perform on the field. If I can help these youngsters – they come and talk to me about cricket – I learn from the players and I definitely want to pass on to the players, I don’t want to keep it to myself.

I was at Surrey, when Jade Dernbach was starting his career at Surrey, I told him how to bowl from the back of the hand and stuff like that. I can pass on my knowledge, it doesn’t matter. If he is performing well, I am happy for him. I don’t like to be a person who doesn’t want stuff taken from him and doesn’t want to tell anyone my secrets. I tell them. This worked for me, try this, maybe it would work or maybe not – keep it if you want it, throw it away if you don’t want to. If it worked for you, keep it.

These are things that you get from a lot of players – methods and different opportunities – like, bowling a Yorker is totally different for every single one of us. Wasim bhai looked at the top of the stumps, Waqar bhai (looked at) the middle of the stumps, myself and Shoaib bhai (looked at) the base of the stumps. Every one has a different method of doing it. As long as you know that these guys are masters at bowling the yorkers, all three of them, but all three are different. When you talk to any youngster and tell them that you need to bowl a Yorker, you can’t say to them “Look at the base of the stump” or “Look at the foot of the batsman.” I always tell them, that everyone is different. I tell them that these are the three targets, go to the nets, work out which one is best for you and take it from there. These are the things that make me excited and I can go and talk to people about cricket.

SJ– But, cricket is still about team sport where a lot of the things are said about teams that do well have to have the right team chemistry and all that. But, in your constant moving around, how does it work?

AM– Yes, people talk about the team effort and team game, but it needs to be in a longer format not in shorter format. What happens in T20s is that you don’t have time to adjust. If you make 150-odd and if someone gets 80 odd then they are going to win against you guys. You can’t see more team performances where you have a team scoring 150 and all of them chipping in with 20-30 or something like that, or get 2 wickets each. You get performances like someone gets 80 odds and many people get less than 10; or one person gets 40 odd runs to win the game. i think, in the shorter form it is slightly different than the longer form.

SJ– So, you treat it as a job – you come in and bowl 4 overs and then have a hit and then move no to the next match and the next tournament or wherever?

AM– Yes, you have to work it out. Whenever you go and see before the game, when you get time to adjust you see the players whom you don’t know. You have to react and ask them for information from the analysts and the coaches and they provide you with stuff like someone likes to play on the leg side or “Don’t bowl it there.” With experience, you can see where he wants to hit and the way he wants to do it. Because I am an all-rounder I can put myself in the shoes of the guy bowling – I put myself in that positions – if I am batting, what I am going to try to do. Same thing when I am batting – as a bowler where his field is and where he wants to bowl. Maybe that helps.

SJ– We talked about this – a sort of free agents in T20 franchise based cricket. Do you see if this could be possible in the future, maybe 10 or 20 years, possible even in Test arena where key players from all over the world go all over the world and become part of teams? Do you see something of the sort happening?

AM– I am not sure about Test match cricket because it is the long format. I can’t see that because people don’t have enough time to come and watch Test match cricket, to be honest. T20, because it is the shorter format, I can’t see franchise cricket in Test matches. But, definitely, Test match cricket will be there in the future as well. If you are having good Test match series like India-Pakistan and the Ashes, you can’t beat that.

SJ– Alright. One last question – you are 38 years old now, and the day you might be calling an end to your cricketing career is probably not too far away, probably around the corner.

AM– I think it is too far away, man! As long as I love the game, as long as my body is together…to be honest, in the last 4 years, I haven’t had – touchwood and by grace of God – I haven’t had injuries that I used to have before. Because, when you become older and when you become slightly wiser, you know your body well and you know how you are going to keep on moving and what you require to stay fit on this level. I know quite well now about my body and about my stuff, what I am doing. That has helped. If I see 5 years back, I never thought that I would be playing at the age of 38. But, because I can’t make a plan, the planner is upstairs – the God – he is the planner.

SJ– Whenever that happens, fine, what sort of plans post-cricket do you have? Coaching, media work, TV work, anything of that sort?

AM– To be honest, when you make plans, in my life that is what happened to my Mrs also; she said, “You are laid back, you don’t plan your stuff.” Because, in my life, I see the stuff happening to me, that is unbelievable. That is from God. When I make a plan, you have to do a little bit of planning here and there. But, a future plan? I have no idea. I said in my earlier answer, that I might do coaching, I have done level 2, and I want to do level 3. It is not necessary that I become a coach. I just want to do it for my satisfaction.. So, I am not saying that (for sure). To be honest, I can’t make plans, they never worked for me. But, I don’t know anything apart from cricket. It will have to do something with cricket – media work or coaching.

SJ– Whatever you do, all the best! Thank you so much for providing the entertainment over the years, thoroughly enjoyed it!

AM– Thank you very much!

SJ– Thank you!

AM– Cheers. Bye!

SJ– Cheers!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman