July 4, 2011

'I'm always available for Pakistan'

It's been four years since Azhar Mahmood last played for his country. Now a county pro, he still rues the missed chances and the mismanagement of his national career

The quaint St Lawrence Ground in Canterbury is a pretty picture despite the construction girders hugging the half-finished stands. The sight and smell of sand and cement haven't deterred loyal patrons from compiling their scoresheets while absorbing every ball. Others lie in deck chairs on the grass embankments, soaking in the joys of the sunny yet windy April afternoon. It's a scene far removed from the urban jungle of Islamabad, but Azhar Mahmood, Kent's Pakistan professional, is at home.

It's the penultimate day of Kent's County Championship match against Gloucestershire - Mahmood's first four-day game of the season. He has just returned from stints as a studio analyst for Sky Sports and ITV for the World Cup and the IPL respectively.

His run-up and pace are down by a few yards, but he is still effective, taking 4 for 56. He also looks far less menacing than in his days as a street-fighting allrounder in a sun hat, sporting a moustache.

Mahmood sips his tea while keeping an eye on Kent's chase of 291 as he recounts his stop-start career with Pakistan and his life as a county pro. Would it be factually incorrect to label him a "former Pakistan player"? Is Azhar Mahmood a spent force in international cricket?

"I'm always available for Pakistan. I haven't retired yet," he says with a chuckle. "On March 17 I qualified for England as well. But there's nothing like playing for your home country.

"A lot of people have been asking me if I want to play for England. It's like a bubble in the air, if the opportunity comes up I will take it."

Turn the clock back four years to the day, probably the gloomiest in Pakistan's cricket history, when they were ejected out of the World Cup by Ireland. Mahmood had the misfortune of bowling the delivery that sealed Pakistan's fate. Their coach, Bob Woolmer, died tragically that night. Mahmood didn't know it then but his Pakistan career was to take a nose dive. It was his last international to date.

Now, married to a British-Pakistani, Mahmood's options have increased. He joined Surrey in 2002, thanks to his Pakistan team-mate Saqlain Mushtaq, who was their overseas player at the time. Six seasons later Mahmood signed for Kent. It was quite a transition, going from a power-packed Surrey unit to struggling Kent, now relegated in the County Championship.

"In Surrey there was competition for places, as we had Saqlain, Graham Thorpe, Alec Stewart," he says. "Adam Hollioake [the Surrey captain] and Wasim bhai [Akram] are the best captains I've played under. Surrey is like a big company, but Adam made sure we gelled well. Kent is a much smaller club, and has more of a family atmosphere."

The talk shifts to Pakistan. Did success come too soon for Mahmood? His CV boasts a century on Test debut: one hundred of three in his first five Tests against South Africa - no mean feat considering they had Allan Donald and Shaun Pollock in the side. Mahmood's 132 in Durban in 1997-98 was ranked at No. 8 in Wisden's Top 10 Batting Performances of all time list (compiled in 2001). Wisden wrote: "Even more impressive, for a batsman two days short of his 23rd birthday, was the way he protected the tail."

That was the last time he passed 50 in a Test, though. He stayed on for a bit as a vital member of the one-day team, forming a deadly all-round partnership with Abdul Razzaq, which helped Pakistan reach the final of the 1999 World Cup. For reasons known only to his supposed betters, he was dropped from the Test side after the summer of 2001, and his one-day appearances became sporadic.

Mahmood says Pakistan's frequent captaincy changes led to poor man-management. "After Imran bhai [Khan], no other allrounder has performed like Razzaq and myself," he says. "Each captain has his own way of thinking. Some captains had more trust in Razzaq, some trusted me more. When you keep changing captains, you can't settle."

He looks back at one conversation with regret. "In 2000, Gen Tauqir Zia [the PCB chairman then] took me aside and said, 'You're the next Pakistan captain.' I said, 'No, make Waqar [Younis] the captain'."

Why did he hold back? "I was too young then," he says. "That was the biggest mistake I made in my life.

"The captaincy wasn't offered for a long term. I saw no point having it for one tour alone. It's in the culture in India and Pakistan where seniors wonder why the captaincy is given to the youngsters and not them. I thought it would disturb my cricket. That's why I said no.

"When Waqar became captain, I got injured. They couldn't drop Shoaib Akhtar. Wasim was too good to be dropped, Razzaq was playing well. They had to play four seamers and one spinner. Who could they have dropped?

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. No Pakistan captain since Imran has been able to balance the soaring highs and torturous lows that come with the job. Mahmood believes he was a victim of lack of communication and clarity from his bosses, but he has learned to be philosophical about it since. "I believe in God and destiny," he says. "I was meant to play 143 ODIs and 21 Tests.

"Players and the board should be careful of people who approach you pretending to be friendly. Give them the autograph and stop at that"

"It was tough missing so much cricket for Pakistan. People said, 'He's not fit, he has put on weight.' It was just a media thing. I've played county cricket for nine years and I've proved my fitness.

"In the few chances I got for Pakistan, I wasn't given the new ball. I was batting at No. 6 or below. It's tough when you have only the last three or four overs to bat. I'm not a selfish player. I don't think of taking a single to get to the non-striker's end at the end of the over. If I have 10 balls I try to get minimum 10 runs."

A half-chance of a comeback came his way last year, when he captained Kent, ironically against the touring Pakistanis. Waqar, the Pakistan coach, was impressed with Mahmood's fitness and hinted at a recall to the one-day side. But nothing came of it.

It was, of course, Pakistan's Summer of Shame, when the spot-fixing scandal blew up. Mahmood chooses not to debate the legitimacy of the spot-fixing allegations, but says the Pakistan board isn't paying enough attention to teaching its players life skills. "The PCB needs to educate them. Over here we have the PCA, who look after us on various issues - anti-doping, spot-fixing etc. Players and the board should be careful of people who approach you, pretending to be friendly. Give them the autograph and stop at that."

Mahmood says his middle-class upbringing has made him what he is today. "I play card games with team-mates, but being a Muslim, I just play for enjoyment and not for money. I come across as a gentleman. That's how I've earned my respect from players."

Marriage has changed his perspectives on life and career. He chuckles when he recounts that his wife, Ebba, had no clue who he was when she met him during the 1999 World Cup. They were married four years later, and now have a five-year-old daughter. Having lived out of suitcases for a while, they came to settle in Surrey.

It is on Ebba's insistence that Mahmood spends few months playing domestic cricket in Pakistan, for the Islamabad Leopards. Family is his top priority, and he has no regrets about having played a season in the unrecognised Indian Cricket League. He was not contracted with Pakistan at the time, which meant he wasn't jeopardising his career, unlike many others. He doesn't foresee a problem with Kent if he bags an IPL contract either, since he's only contracted as a four-day player.

"Mentally I am relaxed now. I only have to play 35 days per season, so I have more time to train. Whenever I get a chance to play four-dayers, I'm hungry."

The shadows lengthen and bad light curtails play. Mahmood has a friendly chat with one of the stewards outside the dining room. I can see what he meant by the "family atmosphere" in Kent.

He offers me a lift in his SUV. I politely decline. He continues his journey to Worcester Park, where his young family waits for him.