Sohaib Maqsood: 'If I start on the top, you will see a big fat strike rate'

The Multan Sultans batter talks about his preference for batting in the top order, and how, despite a series of injuries, he couldn't bring himself to give up cricket

Sohaib Maqsood: "I am not a hard hitter of the ball; I am a timer. To time the ball well, the condition of the ball matters"  •  Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Sohaib Maqsood: "I am not a hard hitter of the ball; I am a timer. To time the ball well, the condition of the ball matters"  •  Asif Hassan/AFP/Getty Images

Since the start of 2020, Sohaib Maqsood has the highest T20 strike rate among Pakistan batters and is ninth on the global list (among those with a minimum of 500 runs and 20 innings). It has been a period of transformation for the 34-year-old middle-order batter who was striking at 125.79 previously.
Ahead of playing the 2021 PSL final for the Multan Sultans against Peshawar Zalmi, Maqsood, the third-highest run scorer in the tournament, spoke about how he developed his game after his career nearly ended in 2016.
Multan Sultans are playing the PSL final for the first time. How has the journey been for everyone in the camp?
The best part about Andy Flower's coaching style is that he never allows negativity to come close to the team. Otherwise, with the sort of performances we gave in Karachi [losing four out of five games], it would have been very easy for any coach to come and shout [at the players], but he doesn't work like that.
When we came here to Abu Dhabi, 90% of our team thought we are here to play a few games and go back. But credit to him and our skipper [Mohammad Rizwan]. He [Flower] calls us champions even when we lose games. He calls us champions in training sessions, in the dressing room. Sometimes we used to laugh, saying we are more losers than champions, but he had that self-belief.
After one victory here, we started to get our belief back and take one game at a time. We never thought we will end up in the top two. Not only did we make it to the qualifier, but it was remarkable how we won it so comfortably.
I think in the final, the pressure will be more on Zalmi than us. They are playing their fourth final and they have lost the final twice already. It's a kind of pressure to not lose a third final in a row.
What have you done to evolve your white-ball game in the last year?
I have been consistent in domestic cricket for the last two years, but the turnaround came only in the PSL for a reason. I always said that I am a top-order batsman but I never got an opportunity in the PSL to bat higher until this [second] leg in Abu Dhabi. I was playing at Nos. 5 and 6 or sometimes at four. Even in the first leg, in Karachi, I was playing at Nos. 4 or 5, so my performance was irregular.
In Abu Dhabi I got to bat at No. 3 and all I did was to bat exactly as I do in domestic cricket. At the same time, form also matters. There is hard work behind [my performances] and it came with my entire focus on white-ball cricket, so it's paying off well.
Who did you have to persuade to make you play at No. 3?
I didn't convince anyone and I didn't talk to the captain or management. Shahid [Afridi] bhai [a senior team-mate at the Sultans] asked me why I don't win games here [in the PSL] as I do in domestic cricket. I told him that I play in the top order there. Against Quetta [Gladiators in Karachi] we required 100 in seven overs [91 off eight overs] and I got out and was disheartened. I went straight to Shahid bhai and asked him to talk to the management to make me play higher up. [I said] I can assure you I can win the game for the team. Unfortunately, the PSL was postponed, but I am sure he spoke with them.
When we got to Abu Dhabi, I don't know who but I feel it was Abdur Rehman [the Southern Punjab head coach] who put the idea in Andy's mind that it's best to use me in the top order. They gave me an opportunity to open in a practice match against Peshawar Zalmi and I scored 88 off some 42 balls, so I think that is where it started.
When I play in the top order, my shot selection is far better than while playing in the lower order. The ball is new and hard, and I am not a hard hitter of the ball; I am a timer. I do play in the air, but I make sure I time the ball well enough for a six. To time the ball well, the condition of the ball matters.
I know there is one factor lacking in my game - I'm losing my wicket in the 15th or 16th over. I know I should work on my hard hitting and slogging. Only then can you convert your 80s and 90s into hundreds.
You said you are focusing on white-ball cricket. Does that mean you aren't playing any red-ball cricket?
I took a break from red-ball cricket last year and didn't play any first-class cricket. We all know that red-ball cricket is tougher than white-ball. The red ball used to consume 80% of my time in practice and it asks a lot of you, so when I took a break, I worked on diversifying myself as a white-ball player. If you look at my 2020 and 2021 performances, I have more shots now, especially the one where I hit fast bowlers for six over cover. I used to struggle with the bouncer off a new ball, so I fixed that by working on playing it over fine leg by using the pace of the ball.
Adding a couple of shots basically expanded my game, making me a better player in the shorter format. So with my entire focus on white-ball cricket, I have become clearer about what I want now. I don't have to think about going back from one format to the other. But I also want to insist that form does play a part. If you have the form, things naturally fall your way. Good form gives you freedom and it reflects in your strike rate as well.
There was a time I have been stuck on a strike rate of around 120-130. That was mainly because I used to bat lower in the order and was playing more first-class cricket. When I play in the powerplay, I am a brisk starter, but when I bat only later in the innings, my pace is relatively slower. I know what I am capable of. If I start on the top, you will see a big fat strike rate.
Have you done any work on the mental side of your game?
I was always a fast batsman but had a few weaknesses. I am clearer now and 80-90% aware of what plans the opposition will have for me, so I have a counterattack and I prepare for that. I won't tell you, but I know exactly what Peshawar Zalmi will plan against me.
How do you learn this sort of game awareness?
When you have played a lot of cricket, you hear things, talk cricket with different coaches, and you process all that information and break it down in your mind. That information becomes a part of your instincts. You not only work on your game but in your mind, you practise against every possible bowler.
In terms of Zalmi, I have played for them previously and their bowling attack is largely Pakistani - we play with and against each other all year. Since I was with Zalmi for three-four years, I know their coaching unit and their players. Maybe that is why I have a big average [67.66 from four innings] against them (laughs).
You have had your fair share of injuries. How are you working to keep yourself fit?
I have suffered nearly every injury other than to my knee. In 2011 I had a ligament rupture in the ankle. I couldn't play for almost two years. I also had a long history of a back injury. But the worst came when I was at the peak of my career, at the end of 2014, when I picked up a wrist injury that broke the hamate bone in my hand. It was a career-threatening injury. I played the 2015 World Cup with the injury and had surgery after. I feel that injury set my career back the most.
How did you bounce back from it?
My family and friends know there was a time when I might have quit cricket. I had other career opportunities as I have a good educational background, but cricket was something I thought I could not live without, so I had to push myself. It was actually not about playing for Pakistan. It was [just] about playing cricket.
I know if I am not playing cricket, I might not enjoy anything in life. If I had left cricket because of the injuries and was working in some other profession, I'd still be playing club cricket at least, because it's my life and I can't live without it.
Did you come close to quitting elite cricket?
I can't complain about the lack of opportunities in my career, either with the national team or in domestic cricket - I always got a chance. Even in the PSL, despite bad performances, I was still selected for the next edition. Obviously there were a few good performances to back my selection.
It was just injuries that made me think of quitting. You can't do much about injuries, especially when you pick them up when you are doing well. In Under-19, I was a star and then my back injury made me sit out for nearly one and half years. That was frustrating. The injuries were hindering my progress and every step forward I took, I was coming backwards all over again.
You know cricketers in Pakistan mostly come from lower-middle-class families. It's rare that they come from the elite class. So it's very important for a cricketer to have some [alternative] career when you are 20-22 in case anything goes wrong in your cricketing career. With this mind, I thought I should go to England to study or work.
At some point, after recovering from my wrist injury, I felt helpless. My game was changed and I wasn't the player I used to be. No power, no shots, and I felt embarrassed playing cricket because I was not able to do the things I wanted to. Then I thought I should do something else, but there was a voice in my head that I can't do anything else, so I just had to carry on and keep believing.
I learned some hard lessons. In fact, I would like to tell every young player that I wish I can go back and train harder and look after myself better as far as my fitness is concerned. If I could have taken care of my fitness, my international career would have been a lot better than it is.
Were you the type of player who relied on natural ability instead of focusing on your fitness?
When I was around 17, I was not a natural athlete. I was a chubby kid and never a quick runner either. Sometimes a player will tell me that when they were 16, they used to fly [around the field], but I can't say that. When I was 17, I was 110kgs. But when you are over 30, you have to take care of your body. If you can't train, you can't play. I still give myself some credit, because with so many career-threatening injuries and surgeries, I still had belief.
You are totally right that I used to believe in my natural ability more than hard work. I believed I was naturally blessed, and despite the laziness and avoiding training, I still carried on playing and had a reasonable career.
Do you have any ambitions of playing for Pakistan again?
Obviously, if you are playing cricket, your dream is to play for the country. I am 34 now but I still think I can contribute in the T20 format. There are a couple of World Cups coming up in a year and a half. I am in good form and have the belief that if the opportunity comes my way, I will grab it. I know there are a few people who whine about not being selected, but I am not that kind of a guy.
I think if people are doing well in the national team, that also needs to be considered. I know whenever I score runs, people start talking about putting me in the team to fill in the No. 5 or 6 spots, but I am afraid if I play [in those positions], I won't be able to deliver much. I know you have to bat for your country wherever you are asked to, but I believe if I bat in the top order, that's where I can do better for the country.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent