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Interviews

Saim Ayub: 'I'm happy I failed early. Now I know what standards I have to reach'

The Pakistan top-order batter talks about his Test debut, the BPL, and what he needs to become an established international player

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
09-Feb-2024
Saim Ayub: "I could play a bit. I enhanced my mentality about 90%. The other 10%, I worked on my skills"  •  Durdanto Dhaka

Saim Ayub: "I could play a bit. I enhanced my mentality about 90%. The other 10%, I worked on my skills"  •  Durdanto Dhaka

On a crisp Monday morning, Saim Ayub spoke of what he has to do to be a successful international cricketer. A soft-spoken 21-year-old, who seems to be in a bit of a pickle with his batting form, Ayub talked of the importance of the mental aspect of the game.
We sat in the reception of the academy building at the Shere Bangla National Stadium in Dhaka. Ayub is playing for Durdanto Dhaka, and when we met, he had only scored 65 runs over three BPL knocks. He added 12 runs in his two remaining innings, finishing on a batting average of 15.40 for the tournament.
He didn't bring great form into the BPL. Ayub had scores of 0 and 33 in his only Test appearance, against Australia, followed by 39 runs in four T20Is against New Zealand.
That didn't stop Mohammad Rizwan, the far more established Pakistan cricketer, who plays for Comilla Victorians in the BPL, from lavishing praise on Ayub, predicting that he would be the next big thing in Pakistan cricket.
"These leagues always help young players," Rizwan said in a press briefing before a Comilla match the day I met Ayub. "We believe that Saim Ayub is the next superstar from Pakistan. If he goes to CPL or plays the BPL, he will be used to those conditions [and] get confidence from here, [read situations] well. If he learns from here, it is fantastic. He can apply it in the Pakistan team as well."
Ayub himself would demur. He certainly doesn't think he is the next big thing in Pakistan right now - or anywhere close to being it. He just wants to get it right, and soon, for Pakistan.
"All I know is that I have a lot left to do at the international level," Ayub says. "I have a lot to learn. I need to improve my game a lot, which will help me dominate. I am working on those things.
"I learned a lot from failures. Top cricketers told me that you learn more from failures than you learn from success. I am happy that I got failures in my early stage. Now I know what standards I have to reach. If I had early success, I wouldn't improve in those important areas."
For the Test debut in Sydney, Ayub says he didn't quite expect to play after missing the first two matches of the series. Now that the debut is out of the way, he has much to ponder.
"One and a half years ago, I was watching [the Pakistan team] on TV. I never thought I would play with them so soon. Especially in Tests - I didn't think it would happen. I had only played 14 first-class matches up till then. I thought I might need a few years to get into the Test team. I thought I'd be working on my technique and mentality.
"By Allah's grace, I got into the team. The Test cap is the most valuable thing to me. I was very excited about it. They suddenly told me. I was surprised. I was ready mentally. I was really happy.
"The debut doesn't happen again, so you have to now look past it. You have to dominate international cricket. There are no more excuses. You have to do it," he says.
To that end, he has been widening his range of shots. There was a pick-up off the hips against Matt Henry that went for six - a no-look pull shot over fine leg in the Eden Park T20I.
"[A range of shots] is needed in modern cricket. If there are eight zones in the field, I want to be able to hit the ball in all of them. There's so much analysis in the game these days that you have to stay ahead of it. I want to prepare myself that way.
Ayub says that playing Test cricket is his main goal, which he believes will help him as a limited-overs cricketer.
"I have the same level of interest in all three formats. I love Tests as much as I love playing T20Is and ODIs. I want to play all three formats. Legends play all three formats. Your white-ball game becomes slightly easier when you play red-ball cricket.
At the start of his career too, he was slightly rushed into action. After his time in the Under-19s, the PSL came calling in 2021. It wasn't quite an auspicious start: he got 114 runs in seven innings.
"When I first played PSL, I hadn't played any domestic T20s. I didn't play the U-19 World Cup due to injury, so I went directly from U-19 cricket to PSL. It is a big jump. PSL level is almost like international cricket. I would have got some idea about T20s if I had played some domestic [T20] matches. It was three-day and one-day cricket in our U-19 level," he said.
Ayub was starstruck by the big-name players in the PSL. He realised quickly that he needed to change his mindset to do well at that level. "I couldn't believe I was playing in the PSL, especially when someone like Chris Gayle batted at the other end. I didn't know what to do. It took me a bit of time to adapt.
"At 18 or 19, you can change and adapt quite easily. When you turn 25 or 28, changing something in your skill set becomes difficult. You have to make that change early. It is the mentality that needs enhancement.
"It wasn't that I totally changed my batting. I enhanced some of my skills. I had a bit of skills to work with. I did strike a few fours and sixes in that PSL. I could play a bit. But I didn't have the mindset about how to think, how to play. My coaches helped me get that focus. Basically I enhanced my mentality about 90%. The other 10%, I worked on my skills," he says.
Ayub says playing the first two seasons of the PSL gave him a better understanding of what playing at the highest level of cricket involves.
"You can say that PSL lets you play with similar level of cricketers. You have overseas players as well. You get to practise how to handle pressure. When you get used to it in the PSL, you know what you may be facing at the international level.
"Otherwise, cricket-wise it is similar [to the lower levels]. Bowlers and conditions are almost similar. If a bowler is bowling at 150-plus kph [in domestic cricket], he won't bowl at 160kph at the highest level. It is almost the same, except for handling the pressure," he says.
Although under pressure for his lean batting patch, Ayub has come across as a well-rounded individual. This is his second season in the BPL. He also played in the CPL last year - hitting the winning runs in the final - and is looking to learn from these experiences: not just how to be a better cricketer but to understand and communicate with all kinds of cricketers.
"For me, going around the world to play cricket, I want to experience different conditions, people, situations, grounds. To play in new places, [under] new coaches and meeting new people. It gives new challenges to win matches in different scenarios. It also develops my personality to know how to communicate with people from England, Australia, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, India and West Indies. I am very interested in all this, which will allow me to grow.
"I like it when people give me love. I was like them, so I shouldn't forget where I have come from. I never will.
"I don't use my social media. Someone else manages my account. I don't have social media on my phone. I don't use it. I am done with it. I don't like it," he says.
Ayub will find as he goes along that social media is unavoidable. He will find out that on-field pressure sometimes gets mixed up with off-field drama. And that that is not confined to Pakistan cricket alone.
Rizwan may have billed him as the next superstar, but it's not an assessment Ayub shares. Still, he is at a point where he is assured about his talent. Now it is up to him to convert it to big runs.
It all starts from zero, even for the biggest cricketers. Saim Ayub can give it a try too.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84