Ageless Mahmood still going strong
After playing for 10 different domestic teams across eight different countries, in nine different competitions, it's fair to say Azhar Mahmood has done a few laps of the Twenty20 circuit. But in the last throes of a career both impressive in its longevity and modest when you take into account his considerable talent, Mahmood is the freelancer with a difference.
The format's fourth highest wicket-taker, Mahmood is also the only Pakistani cricketer in the IPL by virtue of being a British citizen. So far, the exclusion of Pakistan players from the IPL has remained, despite India's willingness to continue sporting relationships with their neighbours.
Which makes Mahmood's position all the more interesting; as officials and ex-players clamour for a more open competition, he is seen as one that has slipped through the net and can enjoy the rewards that come with partaking in Twenty20's premier competition. But for a man thought to be in a position of comfort, he doesn't sit easy.
"The saddest thing is whenever I go to India, even when it was with the Pakistan side, people love us," he reflects. "It's such a great environment and there are so many similarities to back home that should unite us."
"I love Chandigarh - it reminds me a lot of Islamabad, it's a similar sort of city and one of the many in India that would love to have players from Pakistan representing their franchises. But don't get me wrong, Islamabad definitely has the better food, no doubt about that. Then again, I suppose it helps when I know all the places to go."
South London must hold a similar familiarity, having spent five seasons playing his cricket at The Oval between 2002 and 2007, before a return for this year's FLt20 as a non-overseas player. While Glen Maxwell didn't quite tick, and the participation Ricky Ponting and Kevin O'Brien ending with the start of the Caribbean Twenty20, Mahmood adopts the crown of marquee player - one that may not shine as brightly, but still suits him well.
His performance of 13 wickets with the ball has eclipsed his exploits with the bat (138 runs at an average of 19), and there is a sense he feels that he hasn't done himself justice. The stats support his ruefulness; in the last two years he has 17 scores of fifty or more, primarily, from batting in the top four.
"I think for any batsman, it's the best place to bat," he says. "For me, most of my runs have come at No 3. It gives you more overs to get yourself in so you can prolong your inning - if I start slowly I know I can make up for the dot balls with some boundaries. But my role at Surrey is to bat down the order and take the new ball, so it makes sense, especially if we are chasing and I might have to go straight away from bowling at the death to batting. I sweat a lot so I need time to towel myself down."
Mahmood's best return as a Twenty20 batsmen came in a 2011 summer with Kent, where he flourished as a loose fixture in their order to score 485 runs - including one of his two hundreds. His second came as an opener in the 2011-12 season for Auckland in New Zealand's domestic HRV Cup. Forging an at times barbaric partnership with Martin Guptill, he settled into a groove, averaging just over 41. Opening in England is, as of yet, an uncrossed bridge and for good, if rather peculiar reason.
"I wouldn't like to open now because the handshakes at the beginning of every match mean that you're in a rush if you're batting first. I like to chill out and have five or ten minutes to just sit down. I don't have any routines, but I don't want to be rushing to finish putting all my kit on after saying 'hello' to the opposition!"
There'll be no need for such formal pleasantries with Somerset rival and former Rawalpindi and, later, Kent team-mate Yasir Arafat on Tuesday. As well as sharing a few shirts, they are also the only two players with 200 wickets and 1,000 runs in Twenty20 cricket, though Arafat stands alone as the highest wicket taker in England's Twenty20 history (closely followed by Mahmood).
For years, Arafat has displayed a level of performance that few others have matched in the game's 10 years. His death bowling, which has contributed to his 19 wickets in this campaign, remains as precise as ever - "Oh, my death bowling's better," laughs Mahmood - and will certainly cause Surrey problems. Mahmood has taken the time to inform his team-mates about what to expect, as well as running through some plans to combat his lethal yorkers. But even as opponents, there will be very little malice in this quarter-final showdown.
"I think of him as a younger brother," says Mahmood. "He's a very nice, down to earth guy. I called him after his 4 for 5 against Warwickshire and congratulated him. There have been times where he has had a couple of issues with his bowling and we've talked and I've tried to help me as much as I can. But he doesn't need much help from me - he's a quality bowler."
There is a real charm to Mahmood; his smile on the pitch seems unweathered by the years. His hair still boosted by the boyish curls he sported when he first played in England as part of Pakistan's World Cup squad in 1999. International cricket may be over for him, but his interest and association is anything but.
A keen watcher from afar, he maintains solid friendships within the team. Last week he was spent time with Pakistan's current bowling coach and ex-Surrey paceman Mohammad Akram, championing his work with the latest pool of fast bowlers. "There are more coming," he warns.
Any thoughts of a similar career path are met with a few caveats and one, specific, rebuttal.
"I don't think I could ever be a head coach, that's for sure. I just don't have the temperament. And I know how much you need - I've been in Pakistan dressing rooms! A head coach needs to know how to deal with each individual and get the best out of them. It's not something for everyone. I wouldn't mind a specific role but, for now, I feel I still have time left in me.
"I enjoy playing far too much."