Azharullah brings romance to Finals Day
When Twenty20 was launched 10 years ago as the new elixir to revive the ailing patient that was county cricket, the sales pitch was clear. It was razzmatazz, excitement, glamour; big names, big hitters, big nights. All wrapped up in an easy, bite-sized package for the modern consumer.
Yet maybe the thing that has given Twenty20 cricket - in England, at any rate - its special quality is an ingredient you suspect no one foresaw, and certainly did not plan for. That quality is romance; the kind that used to give the FA Cup its magic. The sense that anyone can win; that the richest need not prevail, that the underdog can have his day.
This is the competition, after all, won three times by Leicestershire and there will be an underdog in the Friends Life T20 final on Saturday, thanks to the semi-final draw pairing Essex and Northamptonshire. Essex are there for the fourth time but can be counted as underdogs this year, having scraped into the quarter-finals with the worst win-loss record of all the qualifiers, even if they did thrash fancied Nottinghamshire once there. Northants were never anything but outsiders - only once before through to Finals Day and carrying the embarrassing statistic, before this year's competition began, of having won only three of their last 27 T20 matches.
There has been a touch of romance about their transformation, too. Much as head coach David Ripley is right to applaud the contributions of Alex Wakely, David Willey, Kyle Coetzer, Steven Crook, and the overseas players, Cameron White and Richard Levi, the romance comes in the shape of Mohammad Azharullah, generally known as simply Azharullah. He is the Pakistani bowler who came to England to play league cricket, married an English girl and decided to stay. No one this season has more T20 wickets.
The romance, the magic, is in how he and Northants were brought together, an unlikely alliance given Azharullah's status as an adopted Yorkshireman, for three years the overseas pro for East Bierley in the Bradford League, then two with Shelley in the Huddersfield League, and since 2009 married to Emma Taylor, from Halifax, whom he met while she was the scorer for Pudsey Congs Cricket Club, and with whom he has a daughter, Aisha, who turns two on Finals Day.
The connection with Northants came about through Congs committee man Ralph Middlebrook, whose son, the offspinning allrounder James, is on the Wantage Road staff.
"When I married my wife, she said to me 'what are you going to do?'" Azharullah said. "I told her 'I'm going to qualify to play county cricket'. I played a lot of cricket in Pakistan and it was the only thing I knew, so to play county cricket was my goal."
In fact, he had played 53 first-class games in Pakistan, taking 190 wickets, the majority for the Water and Power Development Authority, so he thought he had a reasonable chance of achieving his goal. Nonetheless, it still required faith that the three-year qualification period would not coincide with any waning of his powers. Or see him run out of money.
"It was a gamble," he said. "I just believed in myself that I would get an opportunity. I had a good record on paper and I thought that if anyone saw my pace and looked at my record they would give me a trial.
"I had to give up my job with the Development Authority when I decided to stay here and you can't earn much money from league cricket. I worked for a year as a personal trainer and I have to thank Emma for working too and supporting me. She has been brilliant."
It was a gamble for the county, too. "When Azhar came to us in the winter, our playing budget was already allocated," Ripley said. "But credit the club. We did not find as much money as we would have liked but we found some and Azhar backed himself to do well and kickstart his English career. It has worked out for both sides.
"He has a very high level of skills. He has decent pace, hits his yorkers, takes pace with the slower ball and can bowl a bouncer. And he can execute his skills under pressure."
Ripley did not rush his new charge, reasoning he would need time to get into shape. But when his chance came, at the end of May, he took three wickets in a County Championship debut truncated by rain. And then came the Flt20, in which he excelled.
"I knew that I was kind of a surprise package here because people don't know me so well," he said. "I hadn't played T20 for four years because I moved here but we played a lot of T20 in club cricket in Pakistan.
"I learned to reverse swing because in Pakistan if you are not from a rich background or play for a rich club you play with old balls and with an old ball you have to make it do something. And we play so much on flat tracks so you have to develop some skills to survive.
"In club cricket in Pakistan, we play on concrete wickets. The ball doesn't swing so you either have to bowl a yorker or create some skills, bowling bouncers and slower balls and adjusting the field according to the batsman. So I knew that there would not be many bowlers doing what I have learned in Pakistan. Even so, I've surprised myself that I'm at the top of the table of wicket-takers."
He goes into finals day with 24 wickets, four more than Yasir Arafat, one of the players he names among his inspirations, alongside Azhar Mahmood and Rana Naved-ul-Hasan. Yet modestly, he mentions none of them when he talks about the qualities of the Northants team, their work ethic and how they found their belief when they beat Somerset at Wantage Road in July, when Steven Crook made 63 from 43 balls but 150 for 8 still seemed below par.
"We had never beaten them at home," Azharullah said. "But we had a meeting at the halfway stage, David Ripley and Cameron White made great speeches and we said we had to make it up with a couple of maiden overs, or some run-outs or brilliant fielding. We just raised our standard a little bit more, responded the way the captain asked, and that's when we started believing more that we could do it."
Azharullah, in fact, dismissed Peter Trego and Nick Compton in the same over, each for a duck, and finished with 3 for 16. On three occasions he has taken four wickets, twice against Glamorgan, culminating in 4 for 16 in Cardiff as Northants clinched the home quarter-final against Durham that they won comfortably.
"We're not a surprise package now," he said, attaching a reminder that Northants are squarely in the race for promotion in the Championship and a semi-final place in YB40. "We take some momentum into the finals day and if we carry on playing cricket as we have been doing we can beat anyone."