Even as Pakistan are finding the going tough in Sri Lanka, Azhar Mahmood. the seasoned allrounder, is plying his wares in the English County circuit, for Kent. Mahmood last turned out in Pakistan colours some five years back, and has since been playing cricket across in the world in various domestic leagues.
His latest stop was the Indian Premier League. During IPL-5, Mahmood, now 37, was the lone Pakistani player, bolstering the cause of Kings XI Punjab. In this freewheeling chat with Wisden India, Mahmood opened up to review his career and reflect on his journey as a professional cricketer. Excerpts:
You just came through your first year in the IPL. Can you tell us what works for the tournament, why it is so big?
It's the quality of cricket, no doubt. The number of games played, and presence of top international players. Especially this year, there have been a lot of last-over finishes, last-ball finishes. Just like the crowds, the players too find it exciting. The IPL is the biggest tournament in the world right now if you take away the ICC events. There are countries where even international cricket doesn't attract the same crowds as IPL. Wherever I played during the IPL, the grounds were full. That was very good. Also, people of India are so passionate about cricket. In Asia, Sri Lankans and Pakistanis are passionate as well, but the Indian crowd is something else. Despite so many matches in the IPL, almost every game saw a full house. That's what I mean when I say passionate about the game. And they're crazy about the players, too.
If you could change one thing about the IPL, what would it be?
(Laughs) I would say give some freedom to the bowlers. We get hammered with batsmen playing a lot of different shots, reverse-sweeping and so on. We have to endure being launched into the crowd on a regular basis. I think we should also be allowed some leeway, like two bouncers an over which will give the bowlers an extra option. I know crowds love those big hits, Mr Gayle hitting those sixes. But I think all bowlers, especially the fast bowlers and the medium-pacers, will agree with me on this.
What does the future hold for the IPL?
It's been so successful for the last five years. I've been listening to post-tournament comments and people are telling me IPL 5 been more successful, more people have come to watch the games. Nothing can stop the IPL.
Before coming to India, what expectations did you have regarding the IPL?
In the past, I used to watch matches on television, I have done commentary on IPL for ITV. I had played with these guys before. Coming into the competition, I felt that since I was not playing international cricket anymore, this was a great opportunity for me to show my talent and tell people I'm still good enough to play this game.
And you did prove that, didn't you?
Yes, by the grace of Allah, I proved that. I'm quite pleased with that. If you're fit and can play this game, then why not do it?
Now that the tournament is over, would you say you met your expectations?
Yes, definitely. I had a wonderful time with the bat and the ball, on the field and off the field. I'd have liked to have got more runs for my team. But I was batting down the order and that was part of the team plan, so I can't complain. You should never feel satisfied if you want to do well. If I say I'm satisfied, then maybe next time I won't be as motivated or work as hard. In that sense, I must say I underachieved. That will help me keep my standards high for next season, for my own sake and for the team. You have to learn every single day, you know. People will say, "Oh, he's 37, he has to compete with the youngsters". If you have to compete with youngsters, you have to work hard and be passionate about the game.
Being the only player from Pakistan to play in this IPL, did you feel like an ambassador of your country?
Yes, to be very honest. I feel that way wherever I go. Even when I was playing for Pakistan, I always felt that way. During county cricket, I feel I am a representative of the club. When I came to Kings XI Punjab, it was my responsibility to look after myself and look after my franchise. That's important for me - my respect and my club's respect. When you play for your country, you're an ambassador of your country; when you play for a county, you're an ambassador of your county. When you play for Kings XI Punjab, or any other city, you represent them. Sometimes, you have to make sacrifices because you are seen as a role model.
What was it like, working with Adam Gilchrist?
I've learnt a lot from him. He's been a wonderful player for many years for Australia. Off the field, he is such a nice human being. I always respected him as a player, but now, since I've spent time with him, I've more respect for the guy as a human being. You can see some of the things he's done for youngsters; being a senior player, a captain and yet treating youngsters on par, that shows the quality of the person.
What are your impressions of Parwinder Awana?
He's a really good prospect and has a very good head on his shoulders. He is one to watch, he should have a bright future ahead.
When you look at the likes of Awana, do you reflect on your own early days?
Oh definitely. When you're a youngster, you want to play for your state, your country. When there are senior guys around you, you can go and ask them stuff. When I was young, I always asked Wasim bhai (Akram) and Waqar bhai (Younis) how I could improve as a bowler. When a youngster has the talent and wants to learn from the seniors, he will invariably go to the next level. I've seen a lot of cricketers with tremendous talent, but they don't want to go and pick the seniors' brains.
But the youngsters in Kings XI, like Awana, Harmeet Singh and Mandeep Singh - they are desperate to learn. They keep asking you questions about the game, how to handle situations. IPL is a great opportunity for the Indian boys to learn from different players because they are sharing a dressing room with Australians, with English players, with Pakistani players.
It's almost 15 years since you made your Pakistan debut, your last match for the country was five years back. How do you reflect on your journey?
I did have a great run. I had a rollercoaster career, a lot of ups and down, but I have no regrets. At the end of the day, I'm happy where I am and I'm still enjoying my cricket. I'm not playing international cricket, but I'm happy. I played my last Test in 2001, I only played 21 Tests. Maybe I should have played more Test matches, but that is part and parcel of the game. I don't think Pakistan have produced more than 200 Test players, and I am one of them. If you look at the bigger picture, that's not bad at all. And how many people have played more than 140 one-dayers for Pakistan? Maybe 20-25 people? I have no complaints. But given the talent I have, I have to admit I underachieved in international cricket because I didn't get the opportunities to justify my talent.
Would you say the arrival of Abdul Razzaq, who like you is also a pace bowler who is a more than useful batsman, prevented you from playing more matches for Pakistan?
No, that's just a media myth. My debut was in 1996, Razzaq's was in 1997, (Shahid) Afridi made his debut in '96 and Wasim bhai was still playing. From 1996 to 2000, we played four allrounders. To be very honest, Razzaq and I were totally different allrounders. We were allrounders, but our games were totally different. He was basically a bowler who turned into an allrounder. He performed well during his time. When you're playing one-day cricket, every team wants to have allrounders. But in Pakistan, they said only one allrounder can play! I can seam the bowl around, I am a swing bowler and he is a hit-the-deck bowler. He can seam the ball both ways. We've got different abilities.
Since the early 2000s, you've been playing county cricket. You've played as a professional across the globe. Which stint have you enjoyed the most?
I love playing at The Oval. England is the best country to play cricket in, especially as you don't have to fly from one place to another. It's a small country, so you can get to another city in a few hours just driving. You don't spend your whole day travelling.
You had a stint with Lahore Badshahs in the ICL. Is it fair to compare the ICL with the IPL?
ICL was a different league, it wasn't supported by the ICC and the BCCI. To be honest, I wasn't sure what was going to happen when I played in the ICL. I was not contracted by the Pakistan Cricket Board at that time. Like I said, I've always wanted to play cricket wherever I've got the opportunity. That's what I'm doing these days, playing all around the world.
The ICL did help a lot of players earn some money, after which the BCCI decided to hike match fees for domestic cricket. In that sense, it has helped - not necessarily the international players, but players who play domestic cricket.
Despite India and Pakistan being similar geographically and in many other aspects, why does India struggle to produce genuine quicks while Pakistan has an abundance?
I understand where you are coming from. When a child is growing up in India, he looks around and finds his heroes in Sunil Gavaskar, Sachin Tendulkar - they are all batsmen. They don't have a hero who is a fast bowler. In Pakistan, it is the other way around. We used to have Javed Miandad, who was one of the best batsmen in the world. But when I was young, our hero was Imran Khan. Then we had Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar... It's a trend thing. Fast bowlers were more popular in Pakistan, so everybody's hero was a fast bowler and they wanted to bowl fast.
A case in point - despite losing Mohammad Asif and Mohammad Amir, Pakistan still have a very potent fast bowling department...
Yeah, we still have good fast bowlers coming up. Indians always produce good batsmen, the likes of Virat Kohli and Rohit Sharma. Before these guys, there was Dravid, there was Laxman. As a youngster growing up, you watch Sachin, Dravid, Laxman and you want to become like them. That's why the focus is more on batting than bowling. In Pakistan, it's the other way round.
Talking about Asif and Amir, how does one prevent young players from straying?
It depends on all the cricket boards. They need to educate players from the grassroots level. Anybody can come to us and say I'm a fan of yours and stuff like that. We don't know where he is from, what background he is coming from. All boards and the ICC should sit together and make it mandatory to have seminars, to educate youngsters about the pitfalls of associating themselves with strangers and people who might dangle a carrot in front of them. As a role model you have to meet people, but there is a limit. If you don't know someone, don't try being a friend with them.
If someone comes to me and says I am a great fan of yours, I have no idea about the person. Maybe he is a dodgy guy. If I get close to him, I could get into trouble, like how these guys got into trouble. I think there was an agent involved also. All agents involved should be vetted by the member boards and the ICC. It is very important to educate young players to stay away from these guys. We want cricket to be in safe hands. I think it is everybody's duty. I feel it is my duty to talk to youngsters, it is the duty of every senior cricketer to ensure the youngsters don't go astray.
What are the challenges that lie ahead of cricket in future?
Oh, I have no idea. When one-day cricket started, people said Test cricket was finished. But people still love watching and playing Test cricket. People thought T20 cricket will fade away quickly, but it has become a huge crowd-puller. If you ask someone who doesn't understand the game to come and watch a Test match, and after five days you say it is a draw, he is nonplussed. But in a Twenty20 game, you have a result in three hours. Cricket's a great game, a gentleman's game, and it has a great future. Now, because of Twenty20, a lot of other countries are involved in playing cricket, which is good.
Is there a danger that T20 cricket may undermine Test cricket?
No, there isn't. People like you and me, we still go and watch Test cricket. I'm talking about the person who doesn't understand the game, who doesn't know cricket. Test cricket will always remain the ultimate test of your skill. It is still the best form of cricket. There is nothing which matches it.