'I have learnt the value of my wicket'
How do you feel about your successful series in India?
There is a unique thrill and passion involved in Pakistan-India matches. I am proud of how I did there. I enjoy playing against India, and every time I have played them, at the Under-17 or U-19 level or for the national team, I have scored runs.
All your three hundreds have come against India, and most of your runs too.
Playing against India is very important, not only for a player but also for fans. The one who performs well against them is an unforgettable hero. The Indian crowds are very supportive towards their team. They clap hard, shout hard, hoot a lot, and sometimes become hostile towards the opposition. Every single voice within the stadium is against you. That increases the pressure on you. The only way to be heard in such a crowd is to overwhelm them with your performance.
I talked to myself, kept my nerves calm and waited for my turn to perform. I enjoyed that. I really wanted them to be quiet and feel the pressure I did on the field.
You spent nearly three years away from the national team after an impressive start to your international career. Why did it take so long to come back?
I was distracted and lacked a basic awareness of cricket. I was a raw cricketer. I was a talented batsman but my goals were all blurred. I was immature, didn't know the tactics of playing according to the conditions, didn't know how to tackle scoreboard pressure, and I struggled to convert fifties into hundreds. I did manage to play international cricket in 2008 but didn't improve, so I was pushed back into the wilderness.
I regret not keeping myself in the best shape. Had I maintained myself earlier, those years might not have been wasted. Perhaps I wasn't serious about my cricket and life was moving ahead unplanned.
But I think there may have been some good to it. Since I wasn't settled three years ago, it brought the best out of me. It took time, but I am now an improved batsman, and the process of learning never stops.
I worked hard, especially on my fitness, and now I am more consistent with the bat. I have grown a lot more mature than before and now have an assured place in the side. I can't afford to be complacent anymore since I am in a situation where teams will have done their homework on me. I have to think ahead and give them nothing.
How do you maintain your fitness when you are not playing?
Cricket is my life and my ultimate priority right now. When I return from any tour, I spend a day or two with family and then head to the academy to start my demanding routine, just like any office-going person starts his day in the morning and returns home in the evening. I am here all day, practising and training under the specialist trainer and coaches. I do enjoy stuff outside cricket, like socialising with friends, but most of my friends are also cricketers, so in every way I end up with cricket.
Who were the people who helped you build your career?
My brother Yasir and a friend, Kashif Siddiq. Choosing cricket as a career isn't a straightforward business in Pakistan, but seeing my infatuation with the game, my brother chose it for me. He would take me to the ground when I was about ten or 11. I was never allowed to watch TV, because he thought it might affect my eyesight. He developed a strict routine for me. I had to sleep around 9pm, because we had to get up early for a morning practice session at the Muslim Model School's nets at Minto Park. In the afternoon, I went to the Ludhiana cricket club.
You parents emigrated to the US when you were young. Why did you choose to stay back?
It's mainly because I don't like it there. I have a lot of friends and I love spending time with them. I had limited social contacts and friends in the US. Apart from that, I have a future in cricket in Pakistan. When I was in the US in 2006, I got a call from the PCB about my selection for the U-19 World Cup. Things started to turn my way so quickly in cricket that I never gave a thought to returning to my parents. I live here in Lahore with my sister and my brother mostly.
You haven't batted outside the subcontinent so far. Do you think the real test for you will be the upcoming tour to South Africa?
There is a big gap between an average player and a world-class player. A world-class player can adapt himself to any condition within no time. I haven't played outside the subcontinent so far in my career, so I am yet to face a tough bowler. The South Africa series, without a doubt, will be my first real test. I am prepared to face the world-class bowlers in their backyard. They are the No. 1 team, have the best fast bowlers, and I am desperate to face them.
After success in limited-overs cricket, do you think you are ready for Test cricket?
Test cricket is what every player dreams about. I have done well in limited-overs cricket so far, and I'm ready for the Test challenge. As a batsman, adapting to a lengthy format isn't a big thing. I have all the strokes and am working on my defence to make it more sound. Test cricket requires a lot of mental strength and fitness. I can't claim to have achieved these but I am improving.
In India, where conditions are never easy, my target was to stay at the crease throughout the 50 overs. It tested my temperament and fitness, but when you have settled, you start enjoying it. Now I can easily shift gears to Test cricket.
Pakistan's opening slots have been unsettled since Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail retired. Do you think you can serve Pakistan for long in that role?
I don't rate myself that high at the moment. There is plenty to learn and it's an ongoing process. I know people have started comparing me to some former great batsmen, but they have to be patient and give me some time. To be compared with the likes of Saeed Anwar and Aamer Sohail is huge. It takes time to reach that level. I have just reclaimed my place in the side and want to concentrate on strengthening my position.
I have played with various openers, but we are yet to find a permanent one in all forms of the game. But whether it's Ahmed Shahzad, Kamran Akmal or Mohammad Hafeez, I am comfortable with all of them. We have opened at the domestic level. What is important is to know your plan. As an opener my role is clear: to score runs. The objective is to help my team, and the style is to play hard.
People say you are a safe batsman at the top, and one with sound technique when compared to most batsmen at the domestic level. How do you see yourself?
I have learnt the value of my wicket and I am afraid of losing it. You might have observed that I normally don't walk down the track for runs. Instead, I play my shots while standing inside the crease.
It didn't come naturally. I mastered it to reduce my chances of getting out. If you walk down the track, you give the bowler a chance to get you out. It can sometimes help to unsettle a bowler's line and length, but you could also get trapped. So as an opener, I think I have all the control to execute my shots by manipulating myself within the crease.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent