Couch Talk Episode 85 (play)
Guest: Ebba Qureshi (Wife of Pakistani Cricketer Azhar Mahmood)
Host: Subash Jayaraman
Navigate to various sections of the conversation by clicking on the following links
Subash Jayaraman (SJ): Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. The guest is Ebba Qureshi aka Mrs. Azhar Mahmood. She talks about the important role the wives play in the lives of the modern day professional cricketer, how she met him, about putting her career on hold to support her husband’s, and the various issues that the families have to handle as the cricketer criss-crosses the world in the name of cricket.
Welcome to the show, Ebba.
Ebba Qureshi– Thank you. It is a pleasure to be here.
EQ– Yes. It has been a long ten years, because of so much that has happened. Apart from that, it has been blissful ten years as well. I wouldn’t change it for anything.
You asked this question – where did we meet? I am one of the three Pakistani wives that have met at The (Kennington) Oval. The Oval is quite special to most of the Pakistani wives, I would say. We met back in 1999, when the World Cup was happening back in England. I had gone to a match with my family. Azhar claims that he remembers me from the crowd, which I don’t know whether he is telling the truth. But, he is adamant that he remembers me from the crowd. We had gone to see them to get autographs. My brother, who plays club cricket as well, he was a big fan. He is a younger brother. So, I took him up, when I had just learnt to drive. It was one of the adventurous things that you do. It started from there.
Azhar was probably – and I am not saying because he is my husband – the most approachable “shareef” gentleman that we met. I was just finishing my university, so I was breaking into the PR industry. For me to make contacts was going to be a achievement at first. But also, it was something that would come in handy later in my professional life. it was nice to meet someone who was a gentleman, who was happy to work with women to put it that way. In Pakistan, ten years ago, I wasn’t exposed to a lot of women who had worked in the marketing and the PR industry. I found that he was very welcoming, very helpful. We met there, and we had introduced to our parents. Then, he proposed. It took us four years to finally tie the knot.
SJ– How did it work? Before you got married in 2003, and even after that when he was playing for Pakistan – he was playing till 2007 world cup in the West Indies. In the 8 years spanning before and after the marriage, how did you manage the distances?
EQ– It was definitely a long distance relationship. We never saw each other. It was sort of phone, email conversation. He wasn’t big on email. It was mostly phones, calling us from wherever he was. I would call him, sometimes. Since we met in 1999, he got a shoulder injury. His physio and trainer, Dale Naylor, is based in the UK. Once a year, I would have the privilege to see him, or he would come and see my parents in that 4 years period. it was difficult. I would not recommend it to anybody. A lot of patience and a lot of tolerance. At the same time, distance is quite healthy as well. I don’t think that if we were living in the same country it would have taken us that long to get married. It wasn’t easy, though.
SJ– Especially as a professional cricketer for a high profile team like Pakistan – young man, always on the road – how do you maintain the healthy relationship while not trying to be over bearing and at the same time be not too aloof? It is a tough one for both sides.
EQ– It is very tough. Trust is the main thing, to be honest. I told you earlier, he is “shareef”. That was the giveaway. I knew that he was a gentleman. And he was extremely honest, and I could trust him and he could trust me. Like I said – the main thing is trust. Never at any point did I think that he wasn’t being sincere or I should think twice about this. It was like I knew that he was very sincere and faithful, and he was interested in getting married. I was not one of those very possessive kind of person. I knew this was his lifestyle. He doesn’t spend any of his time at home. He is used to the exposure. At home, he might feel imprisoned. I would probably drive him away if I was like that. Azhar was very focused. It was his cricket, it was all about his training. It was all about Pakistan. It still is. So, I haven’t had a problem in the ten years that I have been married to him. Touch wood.
SJ– Let us talk about the cricket as well – the effect it has on him and as a professional cricketer he has to have his life devoted to cricket. It is a question from a listener, Srikant – do they bring cricket home? After the game or tour or series is done, do they bring the thoughts of the successes or the disappointments home? How does the wife or the girlfriend handle that?
EQ– In my house, it definitely comes home because I am extremely involved in Azhar’s highs and lows with regards to cricket. I have a sincere love for cricket, and it always has been so. It wasn’t something that got embedded when I got married. It was there from a lot before. My family is very much into cricket. Hence, I don’t think he has a choice. I don’t think it is about Azhar bringing it home. He is always telling to me that “I have a coach in the ground and I have one back at home.” it is important for your partner to be involved but also to be able to detach yourself from it.
If it has been a very tough series, where he has had a tough time, I would make sure that it wasn’t the main topic on the dining table. I would have to find something to distract him. We talk about something else until he is ready to talk about it. Azhar is quite open. He lets it out, he likes to face it. He doesn’t brush it under the carpet and think that it never happened. So, I don’t think that we are a conventional family where cricket doesn’t come home.
It happens to a lot of Pakistani families. I know wives that are completely detached from the game. They follow their husbands, but once they are done with the game, it is all about the children and other things. Possibly maybe because the player/cricketer himself does not choose to speak to his wife about it, or she is not involved. With me, it is kind of work as well as passion in my husband’s profession.
SJ– Interesting point you raised about other wives as well who probably don’t care about cricket. In your case, you are involved, you have your career which is involved with it. But you also have two young kids. How does it work? We have seen you at the grounds that Azhar is playing at. How does it work? The travelling with the kids… ?
EQ– It is tough. I am probably one of the few wives that takes her kids around everywhere. I have a principle and I have always done this – I always take my kids everywhere, whether they are two months old or 5 years old. My eldest was 2 months old when we were on our first trip to India, and then we went to Pakistan. Living in the UK, a lot of mothers don’t travel with their kids until they are as old as 18 months because of the thoughts like “my kid might get unwell, (s)he might not get used to the routine.” If I chose that, I might not get to see my husband, and they won’t get to see their dad. I made a conscious decision when I had my child, to travel with my husband wherever it was possible to do so. We did that, and my kids have loved it. We loved it.
Azhar loves having them around. Because we had children when Azhar almost departed from Pakistan – for them this is cricket – this is what their daddy does. My elder one saw Azhar play in Pakistan. My youngest, Manha, who is one, she hasn’t. But what she is seeing is that her daddy travels everywhere and he is playing cricket. He carries his massive bag. For them, a bat and a ball is very normal, like a briefcase in any household. It has been tough. I have taken them to stadium. i take them everywhere with me. They love watching their daddy. He likes having us at the ground.
We embrace his success. We celebrate together. We also support him at tough times. If he has had a bad day or tournament, we are there for him too. That is what is important. I think people forget that from the outside. They think it is all hunky dory, that it is all glamorous, all about money. A lot of emotional stuff also goes on with it. It is extremely important. I know families that have had pressure put on their relationship because of cricket because the guy is finding it difficult to deal with his failures or just a bad patch of form. I wouldn’t say failure – nobody fails. It is just form – form comes and goes. Families get completely detached from it. They have no idea what their father or husband is going through. Hence, there is pressure on their relationship, on their wives and kids. I think it is important to identify these problems and issues in your family, especially if you are a sportsman’s wife and make sure that you are there. Everyone know that this is hard hitting the celebrities now, because they go from being everything to nothing – especially if you are in subcontinent.
EQ– The match Pakistan lost to South Africa is a prime example of it. Heroes and zeroes.
SJ– I agree. You are saying that the support system for the family – wife, girlfriend, kids – that seems to be more stable than a young buck trying to handle everything on his own. The fame, loss of form etc.
EQ– You have to be mentally very strong. Azhar is a very strong person, mentally. This is something he has said in several interviews as well – he enjoys having his family around himself because it is something that takes him away from dark sides of things in cricket or fame. I cannot imagine a player who is single or not married or perhaps does not even have a partner is going through. He is on his own. He goes to his room once they have played a game. They may have been booed, or may have had a bad series. They have to face the world by themselves. I don’t want to portray the bad side of it. but it needs to be addressed in a lot of areas, in a lot of fame-based places, and professions. If you come to us, this is why I take my family everywhere. We make sure we are together wherever we are.
SJ– You talked about the wives of other Pakistani cricketers as well. Is there a club for the wives and girlfriends of Pakistani cricketers? Sometimes we see, for example, when Australia are playing at home, at SCG or MCG, you will see a little enclosure where you have some of the wives and girlfriends. Do you see some of that existing with the sub continental players too?
EQ– No. It doesn’t in the Pakistani team. We are all good friends, almost like family friends. Whenever someone is in the UK, they come to us and we spend some time together. When we are in Pakistan, we visit them. When we were with the Pakistan team, the wives would sort of travel together to the ground. Our kids will go out together, have lunch together. There is no club as such. It doesn’t exist. I don’t think it is a part of the culture over there. i know there is something like that in basketball or baseball teams in America, in New York. You mentioned it to me as well. but it does not exist in Pakistan. It should, it will be nice. But the problem with the Pakistan team, and I say this with a little bit of a chuckle – there is so much of inconsistency that there is hardly going to be a club ever. People are coming in and out of the team so much that nobody stays long enough to be part of a group or be a member of a club.
SJ– The thing I mentioned to you was about the New York Yankees having a Wife/Girlfriends’ Club. A new member joins in and then the senior member says to them that “you are going to be bombarded with paparazzi, things are going to be written about you, and you are going to have to be ready for that.”
EQ– There is no such thing for us, though.
SJ– That is possibly so with Pakistan. But how about when Azhar is playing out with different T20 tournaments? Like, he is in India for two months and you are there too. You have the same team travelling around. Is there any value to having a support group?
EQ– There would be value. The thing is, again, every year the teams change. There is an auction- you have new members come in. You meet new wives and partners. We spend a lot of time together – the wives and the partners – going to the ground, lunch, dining. You make some good fast friends, some for life. But there isn’t such group as such out there. you have the managers or partners etc, or their wives to make you feel comfortable. They will tell you about the places that you need to see or go to. It is basic hospitality. They provide good hospitality. But, there is no club. In cricket it is a bit difficult to exist because players are chopped and changed, especially with the T20 culture now where there is so much of buying and selling of the players in franchises. So, you kind of go through the system and then you have the seniors. It can work with an international team, but only if the players stay there long enough. I am not sure if the Indian team has something like this, but I am sure it can work with them as they are a little bit more consistent.
SJ– One question comes from Peter Della Penna – do the wives and girlfriends of cricketers, or for that matter any group of athletes – do they take offense to the WAG terminology. Do you use just embrace it?
EQ– I don’t think there is any harm in embracing it, but I don’t see myself as a WAG, if you are talking about me. I don’t know about the others. We see it more as a footballers’ wives kind of thing. Their life style is completely different from a cricketer’s wife, unless you are someone like Sachin Tendulkar’s wife or someone else very high profile. We don’t think that the lifestyle profile of a WAG described suits a cricketer’s wife. I am coming from a Pakistani wife perspective – wife to a freelance cricketer – there is no point in taking any offense. You should just embrace it. I don’t see why it should be offensive to anyone.
SJ– You mentioned Azhar not playing for Pakistan. From 1999 to 2007, he was playing for Pakistan. How is that any different from how his lifestyle has changed since he became a freelance cricketer? How has your life changed?
EQ– My life changed immensely because I hardly see him nowadays. If he was playing for Pakistan, we would be in Pakistan with him. We would travel. Now, because our family dimensions has now changed – we now have kids, my kids go to school here. So, I have to stay put in the country more. Hence, I can’t travel with him always. All these different T20 leagues are taking place in different countries – it means that I don’t see him as much. That is a big change. It is not negative. It is something that I have become accustomed to, it has become a part of my life. That is the main change. When it was the Pakistan team, we spent a lot of time together. We would be in Pakistan together, travelling together, even when I had my little one. Physically, that is the difference. Mentally, huge difference. I am just talking about the Pakistan team. When we got married, Azhar was in and out of the Pakistan team a lot, and put a lot of mental pressure on himself – whether he was playing or not, is he in the team or not. Now, he doesn’t have to worry about that. He is playing his natural game, he doesn’t have to worry about half the stuffs he was worried about when he was in the Pakistani national team. “Am I going to be good enough for this? Have I performed enough to be in the next game?” there were lot of mental pressure. A lot easier now.
SJ– From the wives’ perspective – in your case – your career is also tied in with this. So, it works out. Whereas, that is not always true for cricketer wives, but still they have to live with the fact that the guys are going to be travelling all over the world and sometimes won’t see for months at a time, perhaps. It puts tremendous strain on the relationship. Based on the things that you have seen, what are your thoughts on that?
EQ– I have put my career in second gear at the moment. I am a marketing PR consultant and an events organizer. I do it when I can, when I have the time. I have become a freelancer. I am not full time anymore, because I don’t think I can give my family the time and they already don’t see their dad, if they don’t see me too that will be quite sad for them. A lot of the wives that I know had to put a stop to their career, or put it on second priority and now are going back to it when their husbands are retired or coaching or stopped playing. Now, they are going back to their profession. Some of them are doctors who have gone back to practice. Some of them are teachers who have gone back to teaching.
A wife has to give up a lot. It is not like a traditional family where you and your wife can carry on working and doing what you have been doing before marriage. The wife has to give up a lot. Bear in mind that there a lot of traditional wives out there that are quite happy to sit at home and look after the family, at the in-law’s, or back home and enjoying life that way. It is just the mindset for everyone, to be honest. I enjoyed my career while I wasn’t married. I took a break from it, I enjoyed it, came back to it with my own convenience. That is the way it is – you have to be very flexible. If you are going to be very career minded, you are going to be extremely set on the fact that “I have to work on my career, I cannot give any time to anybody”, then I think it will be very difficult for that person to stay in the relationship.
SJ– Another thing that I wanted to talk to you about – the loss of anonymity for the wives and girlfriends. The player is on the TV when he is playing, or on the newspapers’ front or back page, even when he is not playing. But, with the way the modern cricket is played with the T20 leagues etc snd how new is covered 24×7 – constantly. I suppose there is a need to put something on the papers and on the TV. Now, we know some of the cricketers and their girlfriends and their wives. Probably 15 years ago, we might not have know about those things. Now we know who Azhar Mahmood’s wife is, we know what she looks like because we have seen her on TV. We know Sachin Tendulkar’s wife, and other things. Is the loss of anonymity good or bad?
EQ– I think there should be some control on the privacy. I choose to be on the social network – twitter. I choose to be there because it helps at work. Azhar doesn’t use twitter much, though he is there. But, when he does, he has a good amount of followers. People, if they don’t get an answer from Azhar, they try and get from me. To be honest, I came on that for my work – PR and etc. i enjoy it. I am an extrovert. I love meeting people and socialising, discussing things and etc. With regards to wives coming on TV, there should be some kind of privacy, some kind of control. It is OK to come on TV during a match, you can’t help that. I was quite adamant that I don’t want my kids to be on TV or papers. That went down the drain in the IPL. I never use my daughters’ names on twitter, for example. If I am on TV, I would just say “my daughter” etc. it was just a choice that I have made. I found out that with the new culture that has evolved with the cricketers’ wives are news to people. You can’t hide from it. There is not much you can do about it. As long as it is done in good taste, I don’t have a problem with it. As soon as people start invading your privacy, that is a problem. It is nice to know what a cricketer’s wife looks like. I would be inquisitive, too. But, their family, how they look like, like how celebrities act around with their families…. We have a very nosy society these days. Because of that, the media is compelled to do that. As long as it is done within limits, I don’t think it is bad or uncomfortable.
EQ– I knew I wouldn’t slip out of this without speaking to you about this.
SJ– When Kings XI Punjab played the Mumbai Indians, you have let your feelings known to the world through the twitter feed. Would you like to elaborate on that, please?
EQ– There is nothing much to say. I think a mountain was made out of a mole. It is something that happens a lot, and can happen again. The thing is that you have 140 characters in each tweet. You can only say so much. I have a reputation of being taken the wrong way. I actually have managed to get myself that reputation. Thanks to people like you, I can clarify that now, because you can only do it so many times on twitter or a newspaper.
The thing is that it has happened before, and I have only found out that it has happened to other people once I have let my feelings out on twitter. We had an extremely good hospitality throughout the IPL, no doubt about it. It was brilliant. Even Wankhede. It wasn’t the stadium. I was told that like everywhere else, where we would have a corporate box . I had a one year old. She would need her nappy changed, she needs to be fed etc. I could do that like other people, yes, in a stand, like other people did. The fact of the matter is that when you are there, wearing a red Kings XI Punjab shirt, they know that you are either the players’ wife or family. Sometimes you do, sometimes you don’t get something uncomfortable said to you. I had my daughter with me and we were at the ground. We weren’t either in a box or in a stand where we had access to toilets, for example, or mineral water and food, or we could leave the ground easily with someone escorting you so we could get to our cars. I had a pram, I had a buggy with me. All of this was looked after by IPL, by Kings XI, especially.
When we got to Wankhede – and I was told by Kings XI management that it has happened before too – everybody, not just me, every other partner had complained and wanted to leave. In fact, I stood there with my kid. It was extremely hot. We come from the UK – we are not used to the humidity. I can, my 7 year old can, but my one year old was struggling. I had to get water for her. I had to get her to a place where she would feel less uncomfortable. I think it was the Sachin Tendulkar stand. I had friends who lived in Mumbai who had tickets to that stands and have given away those tickets because it gets extremely hot in that stands. There is no ventilation. You couldn’t breathe over there. it was that hot. On twitter, when I said things like that, people said I was very stuck up about where I sat. In fact, the reason I go to the Oval here is because I can sit like a normal human being and do all the nare-baazi like everybody else does and enjoy myself. I don’t mind standing in the queue. It was because of my children that I said that I would have expected a little bit more. There are others who expressed their views on twitter, but they did not come out the way mine came out. But everyone from the Kings XI management left, it wasn’t just me. Looking back, I had a fantastic tour. It does not by any means change anything about it.
SJ– Okay. Thanks for the clarification.
One last question, and I will let you go, Ebba. That is – Azhar is now 38, and is nearing the end of his career. When a cricketer finishes playing his cricket, there is suddenly emptiness. Now he is going to get reintegrated with family side of life. you see a lot of cricketers taking up commentary duties or writing or whatever. Are there things in motion there that is going to keep Azhar busy, and what is your role in it?
EQ– Absolutely. These are the things that we have been thinking over the last ten years. According to Pakistan, Azhar had aged at the age of 30, and that was the end of his career. That is a stance that they took and it really made us take a stance about what we need to do. cricket comes naturally to them. So, it is natural to fall to something cricket related- coaching, commentating, academies etc. any other business which is completely different is a huge diversification for them, so they will have to re-establish from scratch. I would definitely be involved in anything he does after cricket because I have put my career on hold for a while, it makes sense that I would support him and help each other to work to a future that would help secure the future for our kids. It is going to be extremely difficult; I know it will be for him. We spent some time with cricketers who in the process have retired and have found themselves in the vacuum, the emptiness, where there is nothing to do after cricket. They realised how what their lifestyle has been. It is not going to be anywhere near that. They struggled a bit, possibly because they have not had the time to think or organize something for the future. Obviously, eventually, they have managed to do something about it and get back on track. That is a big lesson for people like us. We have to have something planned for the future.
SJ– Alright! Thanks a lot for coming on the show, Ebba. It was an absolute pleasure talking to you.
EQ– My pleasure. Thank you so much. It was great to talk to you.
SJ– And, I hope I can get Azhar some day?
EQ– Absolutely. I am sure I can put in a good word for you.
SJ– Thank you. I really appreciate that.
EQ– Thank you, Subash!
SJ– Cheers! Bye.