'My biggest mistake was refusing the Pakistan captaincy'
Excerpts from the show
Subash Jayaraman: You played your last Test for Pakistan when you were 26 - and that was 12 years ago - and the last ODI was during the 2007 World Cup. Do you sometimes wonder whether Pakistan has missed out on getting the most out of you as a cricketer?
Azhar Mahmood: 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." You can see a lot of cricketers who are still 33, but they change their ages on documents. You see all the Pakistani players who played with me, I think maybe they were younger than me by one year, but not more than five or six 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. There was a label put on my shoulder. I played around 100 matches from my career's start in 1996 till 2001, and I think I played around 14-odd ODIs in six years after. So many times it has happened that without playing a game I was dropped.
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 allrounder, and this is a question from one of our listeners, Hassan Cheema, do you think having another seam-bowling allrounder option in Abdul Razzaq hampered your Test prospects in those days?
AM: No, I don't think this thing happened. That is the media, or the people who were involved at that time, that is their propaganda. 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 Moin bhai is included in that, we played four allrounders in one team. When Wasim bhai and Moin bhai left, can't you play two allrounders? They said, "No, we can't play two allrounders in the team, we can play only one." No doubt, in 1999, Abdul had done really well. After the World Cup, around 2001, when I was injured, he had done really well for himself and for the country. So, credit to him. But, where I was concerned, they said, "We don't want him."
In 2001, I [was offered the job of] 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 were around, they need to get their chances and I just need to concentrate [on] my cricket.
SJ: Do you believe that your career, especially Test career, would have been much different if you had accepted the captaincy at that time?
AM: Yes, definitely. 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: Your numbers are better than Abdul Razzaq's in Tests and his numbers are better than yours in ODIs. So perhaps you could have been the first-choice allrounder in Tests and he could have been the first-choice allrounder in ODIs, and they could occasionally have accommodated two?
AM: Now [if] you see Abdul's numbers and then my numbers, they are much better in both forms because he got more opportunities to play. He played 50-odd Test matches and I played only 21. If you see talent-wise and technique-wise, I would say that I was a better allrounder and I am a better allrounder still. But he got more opportunities. Why? Because he played regularly in the side and he got confidence from captains and coaches. I am not 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. That is the worst part in your career.
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 hundred and then the two phenomenal hundreds against South Africa in South Africa. But your batting sort of slipped.
AM: The reason behind it is that when I got my [debut] hundred, I was batting at No. 7 and all of a sudden I opened the batting in Test match cricket and batted at No. 3. I wasn't in the right frame of mind to handle the situation at that time. But yes, you can say that I slipped a little bit, but it wasn't that bad. When I played my last two matches, my best figures were at Lord's, second-last match - 4 for 50. You can see that when things were tough, I was at No. 3 or No. 4. In the next Test I only bowled eight overs and made 37. That wasn't a bad performance, but [like] you say, at that time the lobby was working against me and these things happened.
I was really unlucky because if Wasim bhai was the captain a little while longer, maybe my career would have been slightly different. At that time we had so many captains in the last four years that I played. Some people had more confidence in Abdul Razzaq while some captains had more confidence in me. If you see that period from 1997 to 2001, we got six or seven different captains at that time.
SJ: But now, if you see, under Misbah there seems to be some resemblance of stability. Since 2007, have you realistically thought that there was a possibility of you getting selected for Pakistan because the selectorial committee was 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. I played in 2007 last. I am talking about 2013, after six years. So what criteria is it now that they now ask me to come and play for Pakistan against India?
I always played county cricket and I became a local there [in England]. People asked me about playing for England. I never said "I don't want to play for England." But deep down, I never wished to play for England. That is for sure, and I never want to.
But recently, when Pakistan asked me to come and play, and asked if I want to play for England, in the back of my mind, I was thinking that I wanted to prove myself at a higher level - international level, but unfortunately I can't do that because I am not playing international cricket.
SJ: I am guessing you consider 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.
SJ: But right now you are in Bangladesh playing one-day matches in the Dhaka Premier Division. Why?
AM: I love to play cricket. At the same time, I want to spend time with my family. I think it is a six-to-eight-week tournament. They asked me to come and play. I said no first, because I can't spend that much time here. Then Tamim Iqbal - he is a friend, like a brother - asked, "Why don't you come and play a few games, three or four games for two weeks?" I said "Okay, I will come and play." Coming here and playing, it is just to get match-fit. I don't want a gap of two to three months where I don't bowl.
SJ: You and players like Chris Gayle or Muttiah Muralitharan are a 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. 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 few days?
AM: I just want to play cricket, to be honest. It is a great opportunity for me to learn about different cultures and learn how to prepare. That has really helped me a lot. When I was in Surrey, [I was] talking to Ricky Ponting and things like that. I want to be playing for the next five years. I have to do that and move on to the next career, which may be coaching. If in the future I can become a coach or something like that - it is in my mind how these guys are playing, what is the psyche behind it, and how they work at things.
SJ: When you go from playing in FLT20 and two days later you are in West Indies playing in another T20 tournament, what is your approach to the game itself? A lot of the time, you may not even know all the names of your team-mates!
AM: Yes, that sometimes happens when you are playing on so many teams. There are so many hotels too. Some guy asks 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 the players' names. But when you spend more time - like when I was in Auckland, I was there for six weeks and I knew every single one of them. 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.
SJ: But cricket is still a team sport. In your constant moving around, how does it work?
AM: Yes, people talk about the team effort, but it needs to be in a longer format not a 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. That is what people are like now. You can't see more team performances - where you have a team scoring 150 and all of them chipping in with 20-30. You get performances like someone gets 80-odd and many people get less than ten; or one person gets 40-odd runs to win the game.
SJ: So you treat it like a job - you come in and bowl four overs and then have a hit and then move on to the next match and the next tournament or wherever?
AM: Yes, you have to work it out. You have to react and ask 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 [the batsman] wants to hit. Because I am an allrounder I can put myself in the shoes of the guy bowling if I am batting.
SJ: Do you see if this could be possible in the future, maybe ten or 20 years, possible even in the Test arena, where key players go all over the world and become part of teams?
AM: I am not sure about Test cricket. I can't see a franchise format for Test matches. People don't have enough time to come and watch Test cricket, to be honest. But definitely Test cricket will be there in the future. You have good Test match series like India-Pakistan and the Ashes. You can't beat that.
SJ: 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 four years, I haven't had injuries that I used to have before. 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 at this level.
SJ: What sort of plans do you have, post cricket?
AM: I have no idea. I said in my earlier answer that I could do coaching. I have done Level 2 [certification], 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. Maybe later on, I would say, "Yes, I want to do that" and I can't do that. But I don't know anything apart from cricket. It will have to be something to do with cricket - media work or coaching.