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'If I go through a session without scoring a run, that's a win for me'

"It all feels like a dream, but I'm quite enjoying the feeling of riding the wave" Simon Cooper / ¬© PA Photos/Getty Images

When two Test matches start almost simultaneously this Thursday - New Zealand v England and Australia v Pakistan - all three of the leading run scorers in the County Championship this season will be present.

No. 1 on that list, Dom Sibley, is set to open the batting for England, while third-ranked Marnus Labuschagne will slot into Australia's middle order. But the man in second place will be on the grassy banks at Mount Maunganui, watching as a fan.

Hassan Azad stormed to the top of the Division Two run-scoring charts this year while on a summer contract at the country's bottom club.

"If Leicestershire hadn't offered me a trial, I'd be somewhere in an industrial plant in Aberdeen," he laughs. "It all feels like a dream. I'm not sure when that will stop, but I'm quite enjoying the feeling of riding the wave. I'm just trying to keep doing the same things over and over."

Azad lived in Mastung - a town near Quetta - until he was six, before shifting to Karachi, where his youth career took off. He was soon playing age-group cricket for Pakistan, featuring in an Under-15 side alongside Babar Azam, Usman Qadir and Mohammad Nawaz, but a combination of the turbulent political climate and a clash between the cricketing schedule and his academic timetable meant that a move soon followed.

"I had to choose one thing or the other, and my mum didn't want me to have to make that decision at 15 years old. My parents had been wanting to move over for a while," Azad says. "We had some land that got occupied, and the conditions in the country weren't great at the time. There wasn't a lot of security.

The first time they moved, they went to London for a month, but ended up coming back because there were no jobs going. Second time round, his mother found herself one in Mansfield, in King's Mill Hospital.

"The move was really good for me. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself playing cricket in Pakistan. I made it to the U-15s team quite early, and hadn't quite kicked on the way I'd wanted to. Moving to the UK made me realise that there's more to life than just cricket - it broadened my perspective a little bit."

"I'm good at focusing on the next ball in the present moment. I don't get caught up in trying to be too perfect"

Before leaving, Azad emailed Nottinghamshire to let them know a Pakistan U-15 batsman was about to move to the area. Three days after arriving in the UK, he had scored 60 in a club game umpired by the manager of the county's U-17 side, and he was netting with the academy the day after. "It moved quite quickly," he says.

But life at the Notts academy was not plain sailing. "I had a few disappointments," Azad says. "I was always putting myself under a lot of pressure, and I was never quite where I wanted to be. I never felt like I scored enough runs." Of the county's decision to release him, he says, "I understood why it happened, but it did leave me with a lot of questions to answer as to what I wanted to do next and where I wanted to go."

The answer turned out to be Loughborough, as part of the university's Marylebone Cricket Club University programme, where he studied for an integrated masters degree in chemical engineering. While cricket remained at the forefront of what he did, Azad also found himself pouring time into the degree. "It was an ambitious degree. I wanted to do well in it, so I wasn't going to give less than everything. In the end it was a fascinating subject."

His placement year comprised six months in Hobart at a quarry and a concrete plant, and six months in a cement factory in the UK. He graduated with a first this summer.

At the same time, his cricket was thriving under the watchful eye of former Leicestershire batsman Russell Cobb, his head coach at MCCU.

"I can't speak highly enough of the MCCU programme," Azad says. "It transformed me as a cricketer. It gave me the tools to figure out my own game, without having the pressure of having someone watching over me, and being accountable to a higher body.

"[Cobb] didn't put any pressure on us, but the environment cultivated a culture of ambition and hard work. We pushed each other, and that worked really well - it really helped me in my game."

The opportunity to play against counties in early-season first-class fixtures proved invaluable. Towards the end of his first year, Azad made a backs-to-the-wall 99 from 237 balls against the county he had just been released by, whose attack included Jake Ball, Luke Fletcher, Harry Gurney and Samit Patel.

"That was the first time I believed I could play professional cricket. I was just sort of going through the programme, trying to do my best and trying to make it to the 1st team. It felt important to try and play a first-class game, just to tick it off - to be able to say I'm a first-class cricketer.

"Those first-class games are a lot about self-discovery as well. If you haven't been brought up in an academy, odds are that you haven't played long-format red-ball cricket, and it's a completely different beast to playing 50 overs on a Saturday - being able to bat for three sessions, and then turning up the next day trying to recreate the same mindset is a completely different challenge.

As reported by ESPNcricinfo, games between universities and counties are likely to lose first-class status after next season, but the reason Azad holds serious concerns about the MCCU programme's future is the move towards more white-ball games at the expense of long-form cricket.

"Especially for a batsman - you need the opportunity to be able to score large volumes of runs," he explains. "Unless you're an opening batsman, or a top-four batsman, a one-day game doesn't do that for you. I've done a lot of my self-discovery in long-format cricket playing in the uni games. If I didn't have those games, I don't know if I'd be able to take that into my career now."

"It felt like something you'd write a novel about or watch in a film. Everything conspired to make it unforgettable. I don't think I'll ever forget it as long as I live" Azad on Leicestershire's surprise win in their first Championship game this season

Azad's penultimate year as a student was the start of his breakthrough into the professional game. In a three-day game against Leicestershire, he made 48 off 144 balls opening the batting, and was eventually the seventh man out. His resolute defence impressed Paul Nixon and Dips Patel enough for him to be offered a trial, and he ended the university season in style with 306 unbeaten runs spanning a 50-over game and a two-day fixture against Oxford MCCU.

In his first game for Leicestershire's 2nds, he made 179 not out off 122 balls in a successful 50-over run chase of 399 against a Kent side boasting three first-team bowlers, and after playing the rest of the season with them, he was told the club would offer him a deal as soon as their financial position allowed.

This year was a poor one for Leicestershire, but though they finished bottom of Division Two, there were several memorable moments for Azad.

By picking him as their No. 3 in the first Championship game of the season, Nixon and captain Paul Horton gave him an early boost of confidence - "I didn't just feel like I was filling in" - and Leicestershire started the season with a surprise seven-wicket win against Sussex at Hove. Azad fell early to Ollie Robinson - who he labels the hardest bowler to face in the division - in the first innings, but fought his way to 59 from 173 balls in the fourth.

"It felt like something you'd write a novel about or watch in a film," he says. "The circumstances under which we won it - coming from behind, managing to grind out two sessions under fading light in early April in freezing conditions… it was just surreal. Everything conspired to make it unforgettable. I don't think I'll ever forget it as long as I live."

A series of painstaking innings followed - he batted six and a half hours in the match for 90 runs in a defeat to Derbyshire, and for 156 balls to make a second-innings 39 against Lancashire - but it was not until a home game against Gloucestershire in June that his first Championship hundred arrived. He followed that up with another in the second innings. It kicked off a purple patch of 865 runs in the final eight Championship games, at an average of 66.53.

The most eye-catching thing about Azad's record for the season is his longevity at the crease: he faced 30% more balls than any other Division Two batsman, and ended the season with a strike rate of 41.57, lower than any other of the division's top 25 run scorers.

The secret? "I enjoy the challenge of staying at the crease," Azad says. "I'm good at focusing on the next ball in the present moment. I don't get caught up in trying to be too perfect.

"If I inside-edge one through square leg and get one, I'm quite happy with that. I don't need to time it perfectly through the covers or down the ground - I'm happy with runs wherever they come. I get a buzz out of doing it. If I go through a session without scoring a run, that's a win for me - I'm not feeling scratchy or wondering where the next run's coming from.

"I try to switch off between balls. I try and think as little as possible. I use a few different techniques - I sometimes sing a tune to myself while I'm batting. Anything with a nice catchy beat that I can hum along to myself - I've had Kings of Leon, and [for] my first hundreds against Gloucestershire, it was "Pink + White" by Frank Ocean.

"But it's just anything to take me away from thinking about what could happen, or what's gone on previously. The main thing for me is trying to take the consequences away from being dismissed and remove the fear of getting out."

After earning a year's extension at Leicestershire, Azad is not resting on his laurels over the winter. He is playing club cricket in New Zealand and looking to improve against the short ball - to develop a plan to get off strike rather than just ducking underneath bouncers - to improve his athleticism, "getting quicker off my feet", and to rotate and use his feet against spin. He hopes to break into the white-ball teams next year, and reassures those who fear he will lose his judgement outside off stump that he has played plenty of 50-over games for Loughborough and in 2nd-team cricket in the past.

Clearly he has benefited from making his professional breakthrough late. He recalls a chat with Bilal Shafayat, a former club team-mate and a player once described by the Daily Telegraph as "the most naturally talented English batsman since David Gower".

"He told me about how he came into the first-class game, having been the Next Big Thing coming through the U-19s, coming into the 1st team at 16 or 17, and just expecting things to keep going the way they were. When they didn't, he didn't quite know what to do.

"Hopefully, having been released once already, I'll be able to cope if and when things don't go the way I might want them to. Perspective is the most important thing. As long as I can stay in a space where cricket's not the ultimate thing for me, I think that is the best way for me personally to move forward. Other people might need to be cricket, cricket, cricket, and think about cricket all the time to motivate themselves, but for me personally I think I perform better when I'm not thinking about that."

An article in the Independent that listed Azad at No. 3 in a potential England XI for the 2021-22 Ashes tour "didn't even register" with him, given the speed of his rise.

"It doesn't really matter what people say might happen" he says. "I wasn't expecting to be a professional cricketer about 15 months ago. I have lots of friends in the game but a lot of my friends are in other areas too. Hopefully being in that environment, where people don't know about cricket at all, will help me to stay grounded. I'll just keep enjoying playing and see what happens."