Mahmood is Auckland's secret ingredient
Auckland had every reason to feel at home in Cape Town on Monday night. The North Island climate of their home city was replicated almost perfectly, as an icy south-easterly wind kept Shakib Al Hasan wrapped up in a blanket until he came out to bat, and had the cheerleaders hoping for boundaries to keep them dancing and warm on the sidelines.
Add to that the sparse turnout from Capetonians with no home side to cheer and little reason to brave the cold, and this might've been an Aces v Central Districts match at Pukekura Park. Indeed, Lou Vincent made the Knight Riders attack look like park cricketers in a ferocious assault that launched their chase, and with three wins on the trot Auckland have shown a hunger and fearlessness that should take them deep into this tournament.
But Auckland's success was not built on familiarity with conditions alone, and it was neither Kyle Mills nor Michael Bates who made the most of a green, New Zealand-style wicket. It wasn't Martin Guptill, ostensibly Auckland's best batsman, who guided their chase. On both counts, it was the evergreen Azhar Mahmood who shone for the unheralded Kiwi domestic side.
It says a lot about Auckland's fortunes that Mahmood, a few months from his 38th birthday and forgotten by Pakistan since the Caribbean World Cup five years ago, is their star player. The man who's plied his trade for Dhaka Gladiators, Islamabad Cricket Association, Kent, Kings XI Punjab, Lahore Badshahs, MCC, Pakistan International Airlines, Rawalpindi, Surrey, United Bank Limited and, of course, Pakistan, is now an integral part of yet another side.
"He's great to have in the side," said Auckland captain Gareth Hopkins. "His knowledge of cricket helps me out as captain, and helps both the bowlers and the batters out. He's a big part of our team."
Mahmood is in a fearsome run of form at the moment, and rode into this match on the glory of his record-setting five-wicket, fifty-run combo against Hampshire at Centurion. His MVP status is backed up by the stats: He's scored 130 Champions League runs, for just once out, and now has nine wickets at just 6.67 in the tournament.
His performance with the ball, removing Jacques Kallis and Manoj Tiwary with consecutive deliveries for ducks, was the fulcrum upon which this match turned, and Kolkata captain Gautam Gambhir admitted as much. "Azhar picked up two wickets in one over and that is where I think the game turned in their favour," he said. "I think he's a quality player. When things go your way, you've got to make the best use of it, and he is doing that.
Hopkins said: "The way that we bowled in that middle period, with Azhar picking up two quick wickets in that one over, I think that was the key to them only getting 130-odd."
Mahmood was at it yet again with the bat, guiding Auckland to victory with 14 balls to spare with an unbeaten 42-ball 51. That it was he who hit the winning runs proved a fitting end to the game for a man who has lit up the early stages of this tournament. That the stroke, a one-legged pull through midwicket, also took him to a second consecutive half-century made it even sweeter.
"Mahmood is such a quality player that he fits in around the other batters, and he assesses the situation and deals with it and he passes on that experience and gets confidence into the other batters," Hopkins said.
Apart from the Kolkata-Delhi derby, when one IPL team had to come out on top, the Fancy Dans of this tournament have struggled against the Plain Janes. Mahmood is rapidly showing that there's nothing plain about the Champions League's less glamorous teams.
Liam Brickhill is a freelance journalist based in Cape Town