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'All I want to do is bat'

How have you dealt with the recognition that has come after your batting feats?
It feels great. However, the expectations and the pressure build up at a high rate; but that's the way it works at this level and the best way to deal with it is to work hard. Life definitely has changed after those centuries against India and Australia. And I thank God for the recognition I am getting today.

Are you religious?
Of course, we are Muslims and we believe in Allah. We do whatever Islam says and we try to be what we are supposed to be. Religion is the complete code of life and we follow its guiding principles.

Have you got over the duck on your ODI debut [in the ICC Champions Trophy, 2004, against West Indies]?
It just takes one ball to get any batsman - a Viv Richards or a small fish like me. Yes, I will never forget that moment. I was so depressed and disappointed.

How did you get into cricket?
Cricket comes as a natural passion to me. Nobody taught me from a book that there is a game called cricket and it's played like this. When I was growing up only cricket caught my attention. And then playing in the streets, and playing at home, breaking mirrors and tube-lights - that was the build-up.

How much of a part did mohalla cricket play in your game?
Initially I wasn't allowed to play because I was too young; then when I finally started playing I kept batting without getting out. So they put down a condition that if I wanted to play I had to bat last. My aim always was to carry on batting and to play freely. That's what I still want to do.

Has your last name been a topic of jokes?
I've been fortunate enough not to have heard even one about it so far.

What's the last cricket book you read?
I got this book as a gift, called Portraits of the Game, by Shyam Bhatia. I am not much of a reader. Growing up, I would always pick up books that had scorecards and records of past players and games. By reading about the experience of cricketers, one feels motivated to go as far as they did, but one has to walk in to get either a zero or a hundred. I would say cricket is 99 per cent hard work and one per cent natural talent.

What have been your most memorable cricket moments so far?
There are two: the first one was the century I got against India in the BCCI Platinum Jubilee one-dayer at Eden Gardens in 2004, which helped us win. And the second was performing well against Australia in Australia.

We saw you play your shots even as you closed in on your hundred in the Sydney Test. Was that a conscious effort?
In the Boxing Day Test in Melbourne I got out on 70 in the first innings. Before getting out I defended and defended well, but they bowled such a good line. The conditions were not like they are on subcontinent wickets, where we play can our shots with the feet nowhere near the bat, and the Australians took advantage of that weakness. So I decided that I would go for my shots if the ball was there to be hit. And at the SCG, I did just that. And I learnt one thing: if you play against Australia, it's better to go at them than to depend on their mistakes because they don't make many. So when Shane Warne bowled a loose delivery, I pulled it. It was mistimed but fortunately it fell just short of Glenn McGrath. I was so relieved that he had not caught it, and celebrated wildly.

Any Australian kudos that you remember?
Adam Gilchrist wrote in his newspaper column that my innings showed that I was on my way to filling in the shoes of someone like Saeed Anwar. That was a very big compliment for me because Anwar was a great, great player and he was my idol along with Aamer Sohail.

You said about your dismissal in the first innings of the Mohali Test that "your feet got stuck in the toilet". What did that mean?
That's just a phrase we use. There are times when we play a shot and our feet are not in position or we get stuck. The hand-eye coordination is there, but the body is stiff and the legs don't support you. At such times Bob Woolmer will call out: "Where are your feet? In the toilet?"

Youngsters like Michael Clarke and Kevin Pietersen have straightaway hit the big time in their first season. What do you think as a rookie yourself?
They have been brought up in a different environment with different facilities and back-up to support them. Their options are vast, while in the subcontinent the case is different.

You saw Clarke during the series in Australia. What did you think of him?
The one thing about him was his fielding. Rarely would he not hit the stumps when there was a chance. Then there was his aggressive batting style. So those are things that I observed and told myself that I could work more on.

Any mistakes you've made?
I've made a lot of mistakes. Obviously, it's not a school ... koi kaan nahin kheenchega yahan (Nobody will twist your ears). I've to learn by myself and occasionally knock on the doors of seniors and learn from them.