August 2, 2012

'People expect more from me now'

Legspinner turned top-order batsman Azhar Ali talks about becoming dependable and adapting to limited-overs cricket

You transformed yourself from a legspinner to a top-order batsman. Do you think that has worked out?
Perhaps as a legspin bowler I could not have reached this far because my bowling wasn't effective enough to excel. It's not like I wasn't putting in all the required efforts to be a better bowler, but opportunities were limited. I played national Under-15 and Under-19 as a specialist legspinner but it didn't work and that was frustrating.

When you invest most of your time in cricket and the outcome isn't what you were hoping for, there is obviously a problem and you have to have to figure it out honestly. Sitting out, watching the team play without me, was painful, so I decided to be a batting allrounder, and my department, KRL [Khan Research Laboratories], supported me.

I have no regrets. It was the right decision at the right time. Otherwise my career might have finished years before, or I might have ended up as a mediocre cricketer playing domestic, or playing league cricket in England at the most.

How did you get into cricket? Did you have any heroes early on?
My family was very involved in cricket. My father and brothers were good athletes - they played good club cricket, so I was encouraged from the start. I can't say if I had heroes as such, but my idol is Inzamam-ul-Haq. I always admired him and grew up watching him a lot, though that does not mean I followed him. Ultimately you develop your own style. Apart from Inzamam, I love watching [Jacques] Kallis.

You have played plenty of Test cricket. Have you started developing a sense of responsibility and a sense of being ready to play a lead role for the team?
When you represent your country it's always important to have a sense of responsibility. If you are in the XI it means you are important and there to play your part, but it's true the burden was less and the level of expectation was not so high in my first year. It has increased now. When you keep performing well, the expectations start to rise.

Before me, Inzamam and Mohammad Yousuf were the batsmen the team depended on a lot. I can't match the class of such great players but I try to guide the team in tough situations and play my part.

You were part of the Pakistan tour to England in 2010, which ended with the spot-fixing fiasco. How did you cope?
It wasn't easy, especially because it was my debut tour. I had to concentrate hard and make myself understand that it's cricket and nothing else. It was hard but I focused on my game because I was out there to prove myself and it was my chance, so I had to keep myself away from controversy and do what I was chosen for.

As a player you travel to different countries and have to gain the trust of the people, but it became so hard in that scenario - because you start thinking about what people are thinking about you. It distracts you. Sometime you have to bear the hostile crowd, who say anything. But for me, I am always concerned about my name and about the country.

What does representing your country mean to you?
When I was young I looked at representing Pakistan as one of the greatest things. I remember in my club cricket days, anyone who had even played one Test had such a lot of respect. They were stars. I used to imagine a Test cricketer as being someone from another world. For me, playing for Pakistan is a prestigious honour, and once you have done it, you are different from the rest of the population.

You have played against every team except India. Do you think your CV is incomplete without playing India?
At the moment I am very confident. I think I am in form to score runs against any team. Playing against India is always testing because of the added pressure, but for me it's more about scoring runs no matter who the opposition is. There are always high feelings when you perform against India. It will be an important time for me and I am ready to face their bowlers.

"When I was young I looked at representing Pakistan as one of the greatest things. I remember in my club cricket days, anyone who had even played one Test had such a lot of respect. They were stars. I used to imagine a Test cricketer as being someone from another world"

With your batting temperament, which is more suited to Test cricket, do you think you can ever make it into the limited-overs side permanently?
I am not sure about T20 cricket but I recently played an ODI series against Sri Lanka and was the best batsman. I won't say that I have settled in limited-overs cricket but that performance was a confidence booster. Critics might point out that my strike rate doesn't match this form of the game but one-day cricket has changed with the new ball from both sides and the Powerplays. You need to have a couple of batsmen in the side who can play sensibly to survive and pull the team along to play the 50 overs. I know I have to improve and make adjustments and change the tone of my game. I am trying to improvise and practising playing big shots to match the format.

What has been your most memorable innings? Or do you feel it is yet to come?
Though I scored 157 against England in Dubai, the innings of 68 runs off 195 balls in the second Test in Abu Dhabi was my best knock - mainly because it involved intense pressure. Our four experienced top-order batsmen were out and the team was behind. But I and Asad [Shafiq] fought hard and scored enough runs for our bowlers to defend. That was an innings in which I felt real pressure, and it gave me the confidence that I can play a lead role to guide my team from any tough situation.

What goals have you set for yourself?
My short-term target is to be ranked as a top Test batsman as soon as possible, and in the long run I would like to score at least 7000 runs in Test cricket. It would be great if my name goes down in history as a successful Test batsman.

Observers say you have a problem against the short ball. What have you done so far to deal with it?
Since I turned from a bowler into a batsman, earlier I had a limited number of shots with which to score runs. I relied on two or three shots, but now the range has increased with every game I play. I normally don't attack but once I get settled in, I do go in for a pull or two, but only if it is necessary - otherwise I prefer to let it pass.

I wait for the bowler to bowl to my strengths. My KRL team-mates Mohammad Wasim and Ali Naqvi taught me the importance of patience in building an innings. In international cricket, bowlers are more disciplined in their line and length, so you have to wait and know your strengths.

Pakistan are to travel to South Africa next year to play three Test matches. It will be your first tour of South Africa - where Pakistan have never won a Test series.
It will be a healthy challenge. South Africa is one of the countries I wish to play in and perform well against. Countries like England, Australia and South Africa are the places where your performance is recognised and highlighted. South Africa are currently the best side, with challenging fast bowlers, especially in their home conditions. So it's something I am focusing on.

Shoaib Akhtar, your former team-mate at KRL, has said that you were the best fielder in the team, but we haven't seen that side of your game in international cricket. Have you lost the spark while concentrating on batting?
It is perhaps because of the change of priority. Since I chose to transform into a batsman I have been focusing on batting. But yes, I used to be a very quick fielder. I have been working on it again for many months. If I am not placed at point and around covers, it is because we have some good fielders for those positions (Laughs). But I am brave enough to stand at short leg when nobody is ready to take that spot.

Like many in Pakistan cricket, you have chosen the game over higher education. Why is that?
I was in grade eight when I was first selected for Pakistan Under-15 and then for Under-17 and so on, so I was never able to stick with my studies. But my father gave me all the necessary education at home, and the rest I have gained from the exposure of travelling worldwide. I was enjoying my studies but I don't miss them because I have the basic education I need to interact with people successfully. Communication was never an issue for me at any level. Education for me is about how much exposure you have to gain to live a good and sensible life. You must understand the difference between good and bad, so this is also an education, which is more important for me as a professional cricketer. This is the basic education that actually makes you a good person and an ambassador for your country.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent