Azam Khan: 'Rashid Latif is my favourite Pakistani wicketkeeper'
The son of former Pakistan captain Moin Khan talks about dealing with nepotism and taking Shahid Afridi to the cleaners
Until a few years ago, Azam Khan was plying his trade in America from Texas to Arizona, playing cricket in competitions such as the Dallas Premier League. Ridiculed for his weight and widely seen as a nepotism selection when he first appeared in the PSL for Quetta Gladiators, the franchise coached by his father Moin Khan - Azam has since steadily climbed the totem pole of T20 stardom.
He moved from Gladiators to two-time champions Islamabad United this year in a high-profile trade and currently boasts the third-highest strike rate for a Pakistani player this season. He has played in the Caribbean Premier League and the Sri Lankan Premier League and, as of last year, has also played for Pakistan.
Here, he talks to ESPNcricinfo about the intense criticism that first came his way, taking Shahid Afridi to the cleaners, and how his father isn't even his favourite Pakistan wicketkeeper.
When did you really feel you were good enough to belong at this highest level?
I had the idea after playing Under-19 cricket. Some performances went very well, and when I was named in the Pakistan U-19 side, I thought I really had a shot of representing Pakistan. When I played the PSL 5, I had some really good performances and those performances were highlighted. The National T20 Cup was a good platform, where I had some good games down the order, too. Especially my best performance - against Northern - where I scored 88. From there, my career received a boost, and I began to get calls from international leagues. Playing those and performing gave me the idea that if I'm playing against the world's best bowlers, I can play international cricket.
You played cricket in the US. Talk about what you did there, and your experiences, and the standard of cricket in America.
I started in Dallas. There was this league called the Dallas Premier League, and a guy called Faisal Akhtar whose team I played in. He supported me a lot and I played a lot of cricket in America. I began to get a lot of offers in America, but I wasn't really interested in American cricket. My future lay with Pakistan, I felt, so I took cricket seriously here, playing the U-19 and U-16 levels.
I played there four-five years ago. If I look at it now, cricket has improved there a lot. A lot of players who shifted there weren't getting opportunities from their countries of origin. So they tried their luck in US cricket, and they got offered good jobs there because of cricket. A lot of players who weren't getting opportunities in Pakistan and India have gone there too, as well as from the other Test playing countries. It's a good sign for them that they're going to play there and support their families, and it's a good initiative from USA cricket, too. Gradually, their cricket is improving.
How did the opportunity with Quetta Gladiators in 2019 come about?
I played Ramzan cricket. I used to play for Omar Associates, the Nadeem Omar-owned team [also the Quetta Gladiators owner]. I did well there. Our club manager (also named Azam Khan) told me I was being selected for the PSL. That was tremendously exciting.
You copped plenty of criticism then, for your weight, and accusations of nepotism.
All that affected me mentally because when people don't know you and criticise you, you don't like it. But it's about availing the opportunity you get. For me, it's not about answering critics, but performing well and turning critics into fans. You know fitness is very necessary in today's day and age. If you want a longer career, fitness is your priority. I will always try to improve my fitness and achieve my goals. I always believe there's room for improvement [regarding fitness].
What goes into working on your fitness?
I need to lose weight without losing muscle mass, because that's important for a power hitter. So that requires specific training I need to do. My work is ongoing and I'm happy. It's a delicate balance losing weight without losing power. That can go wrong, yes. There were players in the past who lost weight and didn't perform well. That remains in the back of your mind. It's a process; you can't lose 30 kgs in one month. It's a slow process that requires time.
How did the trade from Quetta Gladiators to Islamabad United come about?
I had been speaking to Shadab [Khan] a lot in the past month or so; he wanted me in the side. We talked about that a lot, with Nadeem uncle [Nadeem Omar, the owner of Quetta Gladiators] too. It was a tough decision leaving Quetta because they had given me the first opportunity in the PSL. I'd been playing for them for the past three-four years. But I wasn't getting enough chances to perform behind the stumps, and it was Islamabad who gave me the opportunity to play with the gloves on. I'm enjoying that a lot.
It's a new franchise, which is always exciting. It's tough mentally, because you know you don't have the same support network you have in your old franchise. I initially used to worry about losing my spot in the side if I didn't perform. But hats off to the Islamabad United management, the way Azhar Mahmood and the others have helped me. They told me to go out there and play my heart out. Once the management gives you confidence, you give your 100% in the ground.
So you take wicketkeeping quite seriously then.
Wicketkeeping is like a second chance in the game. Even if you don't perform with the bat, or even if you score 20-30 good runs and take two or three catches behind the stumps your work is done. The wicketkeeper is the backbone of the team. It plays a very crucial role, be it the T20 side, the Test side or ODI cricket. I rate wicketkeepers very highly. In the past lots of wicketkeepers became legends. I want to take wicketkeeping seriously and play with the gloves.
What's your view on the data/analytics revolution in T20 cricket?
There are lots of good discussions around data at IU. If we play at 100% of our potential, we can even score 250; we scored at least nearly 200 in each of the first three games. We have great batting depth, and I've been given the role of finisher, which I'm really enjoying.
The guys here motivate you to improve every day. Hassan Cheema [Islamabad United strategy manager] has helped me a lot in this aspect, and Rehan [ul Haq, general manager] motivates you to think you can do just about anything. The discussions are lots of fun. There are some critics, too, but I like that because the people who tell me my flaws to my face, they think something of me. I like that a lot. They're quite real, and they tell me my mistakes frankly. I have their support and I consider myself lucky to work with them.
Is your role here at Islamabad different to your role in Quetta?
Here, my role is such that we know we're going to score above 150 even if we play poorly. We only have one mode, which is to go hard. If we execute our plans, the other team is under pressure. If you look at our last two matches, we won one in 15.5 overs, and the other by 40 runs.
What's special about our team is they always take the positive option. They know if the ball's in their arc, they will go for it. We're not afraid to lose. You either win or you learn; we don't use the word "lose". It's a great initiative by Islamabad United that they've given us the opportunity to play with such a free mind, and now that's reaping results.
You've only faced 23 balls in the powerplay in your T20 career. Do you want to bat up the order more in T20 cricket?
I sometimes think about what might be if I play in the powerplay. I've scored around six fifties down the order where I play at No. 5 or 6. I think if I get the opportunity higher up the order I'd like to avail that too. I'd also like to score a T20 hundred, which generally only happens if you're batting in the top four. You know that's a different kind of fun. But I love to face the new ball, because you have an opportunity to score big runs. You have 20 overs on the board, and if it's your day, you can do anything.
How was it smashing Shahid Afridi for 38 runs in 10 balls?
I always say Shahid bhai is one of the biggest superstars in world cricket, and he's the biggest star in Pakistan. It was a dream to play against him, which God helped me realise. It was a lot of fun to have that interesting battle with him. He is one of the best power hitters Pakistan has ever seen. Watching him motivated me because, boy, look at some of the sixes he hit - he played with a free mind which I liked a lot, and playing against him was an honour for me.
Talk about your time with the Pakistan side. Do you think you've got a good chance of breaking back in?
I had a very good experience with the Pakistan side. The charm of representing Pakistan is such that no T20 league can match it. Once you're representing your country, 220 million people in Pakistan have their eyes on you. Their hopes are pinned on you. Playing international cricket was a huge confidence booster because it made me realise I could play for Pakistan. That made me feel very happy.
There's a lot of tough competition in my role, the way Asif [Ali] bhai is performing these days in T20 cricket, and Iftikhar [Ahmed] bhai who's enjoyed a comeback into the national side because of his supreme form in the National T20. There should be healthy competition and a professional rivalry, where you watch someone score runs and want to score more than them. That professional rivalry comes in handy for the side. In the end, you're playing for Pakistan, and when you're in the ground, you're one unit.
Last year was a dip for you, both in terms of average and strike rate. What happened there?
I didn't play with much situational awareness beforehand. But when [last year] I started to try and read a situation, I had difficulty adapting and playing accordingly. Once I played a full first-class season last year, I understood some things a bit more, like when a bowler's in his zone in the middle of a good spell, you just have to try and see him off. You'll get opportunities for runs.
I applied that in the PSL last year, and I enjoyed that. As for the strike rate, you can't control it. Sometimes you'll have good days, and other times bad days. If you score 20 50s in 100 games, you've done nothing in 80% of matches. In cricket, you'll have more bad days than good days. In 365 days, cricket will keep you happy for 65 days and upset the other 300. But the joy of those 65 days only a player can understand. Of course, I try and do well every day, but every day isn't the same. Players keep having bad patches, but the way you overcome them is up to you.
"I watched dad a lot. I watched his international matches from the stadium and learned a lot with him. I still have many discussions with him, but I always tell my dad I used to follow Rashid Latif. I'd say Rashid Latif is my favourite Pakistani wicketkeeper."Azam Khan
You had a good Quaid-e-Azam season. How was that experience for you?
Yeah, I enjoyed it, especially the batting. When in the field there's a partnership going, the morale can go down. That's natural. You can't stay mentally alert 24 hours a day. It's all about the intensity with which you play. There's some mental fatigue in first-class cricket when a long 200-250-run partnership is struck. You know when you're not getting wickets, there's a lot of frustration in the dressing room.
But I thoroughly enjoyed it because I knew if the other team got runs, then I'll get runs too. It's a challenge when the fast bowlers are bowling bouncers and a spell is going on, you need to know when to leave the ball. If you play good cricket, you'll get runs. The first-class season was very successful; I scored over 500 runs. I scored three fifties and a hundred. They were vital innings and it was good fun to play them because those innings showed situational awareness.
So you're open to playing first-class cricket again?
Yes, because I know it's good for my game. I'd love to. In first-class cricket, you'll see four-five slips. You think there's a huge gap somewhere, and that if it was white-ball cricket, you'd hit such great boundaries. But red-ball is a completely different format. Sometimes you have to leave balls straight at you and assess conditions much more thoroughly. That's a tough challenge; that's why it's called Test cricket or first-class cricket. That's when your mental ability comes to the fore, and you understand how deep you're in and how well you can play.
What do you need to do to make this year's T20 World Cup squad?
I need to improve my fitness. After the PSL, I'll have time to work on it, because the next National T20 will take place in September/October. I have a good four to five months. I know I have to work on myself during that time. Even if somebody wants to spoon-feed me, it won't happen unless I want to do that work myself.
How's the PSL compared to other T20 leagues?
Pakistan has the best bowling line-up in T20 cricket, if you look at the way Shaheen [Shah Afridi] and Haris [Rauf] are performing. In the PSL, every team seems to have three-four bowlers who bowl at 140-plus. It's just a normal thing for Pakistan cricket. We know we have two-three such bowlers who can easily click above 140. I've played other leagues too, but in Pakistan, the bowling is quite smart. Pakistani bowlers have been really dominant in world cricket, and bowl tactically. I think the PSL has the best bowling.
Other than your dad, who did you look up to?
Ricky Ponting was one of my favourites. I watched him a lot and tried to copy his style. I watched dad a lot. I watched his international matches from the stadium and learned a lot with him. I still have many discussions with him, but I always tell my dad I used to follow Rashid Latif. The stories I've heard about his wicketkeeping and how smooth he was have left an impression. I'd say Rashid Latif is my favourite Pakistani wicketkeeper.
Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000