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'My performances reflect why I've had a stop-start career'

Shan Masood cuts Getty Images

You have played ten Tests so far. What's your assessment of your career?
I don't think I am satisfied with what I have achieved so far. My career has been stop-start, but I can make as many excuses as I like. A good player fights and gets out of adverse circumstances. Fine, I never got more than two Tests at a stretch, but it was up to me the way I got the start. I feel there were small mistakes I could have mended. That 40 I got against New Zealand could have been a fifty. The 75 against South Africa could have been converted into a century - a hundred on debut would have been a different story. At Old Trafford I was feeling my best and was unbeaten at 30. The next morning started well with two boundaries, but then I played a loose shot.

Had all those 30s, 40s and 70s been converted, it would be a different record - two fifties and two hundreds. I could have been at ease. If you have two hundreds and six fifties in your first nine matches, it could have made a big difference.

Even if I had scored 40s regularly, I might have been in a different position. I am working hard now and want to regain my place. It's not just about scoring runs in domestic cricket but being a better and more reliable batsman for Pakistan.

Your century in Pallekele in July 2015, after coming into the side for the third Test, had every ingredient that selectors look for in a batsman. But then you got dropped after playing the first two Tests against England in October that year.
I don't want to make excuses. My performances are the true reflection of why I have had an inconsistent selection. That Pallekele Test I was playing after a gap of seven months, and it went well only because I had toured Sri Lanka with the A team before the national team went there. Even when I got only 13 in the first innings, I felt good. And then in the second innings, I got a chance to rectify my mistakes and it went well.

But then there was a gap of three months before the next series against England. I didn't really get any serious games to compete. I felt that even luck wasn't with me during those freakish dismissals. Once, [in the first innings in Abu Dhabi] the ball went onto the stumps after hitting the helmet. Then [in the second innings] the bottom edge skidded onto the stumps.

In the next game, I think I played a quality innings, scoring a fifty in the first session. It was a tough pitch to bat on, but I held on and scored 54 at a strike rate of 60 or so. If not for a lapse in concentration after lunch, I could have put pressure to play the third Test. But naturally Azhar Ali, the main opener, was set to return and I was not only dropped from the playing XI but also sent back home.

I felt bad that I had played an extraordinary innings for Pakistan and now all of a sudden I was out. I pushed myself in domestic cricket to score runs. I think I was overthinking the whole thing and that's why I wasn't able to score in domestic cricket as well. If after Pallekele I had got an opportunity in a week or so, I could have scored more heavily because I had that momentum with me.

How tough was it for you to adapt to Pakistan's cricketing culture after spending six years living and playing in the UK?
It's not like if you are educated then you are automatically intelligent. In my upbringing, I was taught to treat people on merit. My family achieved everything starting off as a middle-class family.

See, it's already not normal in our society for someone coming from a privileged background to take up cricket professionally. So it was my responsibility to adapt in every dressing room I go to, from junior level to national level. At the age of 13, I came from a very well protected environment to a different environment and interacted with a different set of players who came from different backgrounds. I was taking a break from school for the Under-15 trials, which was a completely different environment for me. But my education and upbringing helped me adapt.

Your father is part of the PCB governing body and you come from an influential background. Did this help you in your cricket career?
People do say things like I am in the national team because of my influential background, but it's not true. I never asked for shortcut and neither did my family. My path, if you follow it, started from youth cricket to now. I never got a head start through a jump. If I have strong backing, why have I been dropped and why has my career been so stop-start?

Do you think it's added pressure on you because you not only have to prove that you are a good batsman but you also have to prove that you have been selected without undue recommendation?
It discouraged me at the start of my career, but I have to shut these things out and focus on my cricket. When I look back, I see I worked hard to make it to the top. It's painful to be called "sifarshi" [one who comes with a bureaucratic recommendation] because it's not right. I should be judged on my cricket and as a cricketer.

Where do you think it went wrong for you? Was it being dominated by James Anderson last summer in England?
I was playing Anderson just as a bowler who is the No. 1 bowler in the world. Like Dale Steyn troubled Mohammad Hafeez, Josh Hazlewood had Hashim Amla, Anderson had the world's best batsmen in Virat Kohli and Sachin Tendulkar. You have to accept it and move on. If you look closely at the modes of dismissal, you can easily say that some of them actually went in favour of Anderson, especially in the UAE.

Misbah-ul-Haq said dropping you was to protect your career.
For me, Misbah was an exemplary role model. But I would say that the Anderson thing wouldn't be fixed by dropping me. There was one solution: that I go back and score runs and do not get out against Anderson. I respect that Misbah bhai said that my career was to be protected because I was very young, but I had set my heart on playing the Birmingham Test because I was not defeated inside and I wanted to score.

How did you adapt your game - you played school cricket in England and then went to first-class cricket in Pakistan.
If you look at the evolution of my career, I was very limited. I had two or three strokes, which actually helped because your discipline is good that way. That is what I learnt in England. But when I came to Pakistan, I had to increase my range to stay relevant in domestic cricket. I tried to score fast and went extreme with that. There were innings where I scored 97 off 99 balls in a four-day match. I pushed myself hard to remodel my game, but then I realised that it has to be a slow process and that I have to find a middle ground. So now I have not only enhanced my range of shots but have also become more productive. You have to be selective and mark your best scoring areas. I have finally found a mode where I feel comfortable. It might not be English anymore, but there are components I extracted from there, like discipline.

I am working on learning to cut, trying to play with soft hands, rotating the strike. We in Pakistan either score in the first gear or sixth gear. The thing I learned from England is rotation. Sometimes it feels boring that they are scoring singles, but it's a good symbol of a good batsman who knows how to drive a single. In Test cricket you have to learn it because the fielders are mainly at the back and there are a lot of scoring opportunities. In Pallekele, I remember I hit a boundary at 62 and then at 96 I hit a six. In between, I didn't hit a boundary but kept rotating the strike.

Why aren't you playing other formats? You are being tagged as a long-form batsman.
I took a significant step last year and started scoring runs in the one-day format as well. To break a perception, I need to be doing something extraordinary. This tag will fade away when I have runs under my belt. I believe I can do it, otherwise I couldn't be playing the format. What I am looking at is how I can be a better cricketer. Things will happen on their own when I start scoring runs.

Do you believe you are talented or that it's all about hard work?
I don't think I am talented. In fact, I don't believe in the word talent. All the sportsmen I have followed in my career, I see no substitute for hard work. I grew up watching players like Younis Khan and Misbah-ul-Haq, who are the best examples of those who made themselves purely through hard work.

I work on my fitness, my health, my mental strength and the time and work I put in the nets. Virat Kohli, yes, talent was there, but if you ask him, it all comes down to work ethic and the amount of hard work he put in to become the best batsman.