We all see the greens on the pitch, we all love them. No introduction needed here. An interview with Azhar Ali, our international cricket team player! Interview by Marium Munir, an intern at Ideas Evolved.
1. Tell us about how you ended up in cricket, what has been your inspiration? Tell us about your journey into the world of cricket up till now.
Cricket was in our family. I didn’t choose it, it has always been in me since I was a child. I grew up seeing my brother play. Getting up and going straight to the grounds was our routine. I started playing at a very early age. When I was 9, I was playing with the senior players already. They have been very nice to me. I played for the cricket team in the year 2000. Eventually I made it to the under-17 and then the under-19 players. I had a gap of six years when I didn’t play for the team. Those were the hardest years of my life. As a bowler, I wasn’t doing very well. Then I decided to switch to being a batsman. Fortunately, it worked out for me. After three years of practice, I started playing for the matches with the team.
2. Your father has been an athlete as well; the winner of the marathon race. Tell us about the role he has played as a father, in inspiring you to sports.
He’s been an inspiration for all of us. He’s hard working in anything he would choose to do. He was hard working as a professor, he was very hard working as an athlete. He’s very disciplined. Although he has always tried for us to inherit that from him, I don’t think I can ever be as disciplined as him. His fitness is still in a very good shape. I hope for it to continue to stay this way. He has supported me in the most difficult times. When I wasn’t confident if I could play for Pakistan’s cricket team, if I would ever make it, he believed I could. That kept me going.
I am married with two kids. They do want me home all the time, my kids especially. It is upsetting when I can’t be with them at special occasions. But I always tell them that all the other fathers leave the house in the morning and come back at night whereas when I’m home from the tours, I stay there all the time for as long as I’m free. I love the time I spend with them. They are very understanding.
4. We all know that every Pakistani is passionate about cricket. During the World Cup, the streets got quieter than ever because everyone had to watch the match on the big screen. Everyone got a day off whether it be from offices or universities. How do you feel about those millions of expectations that people have with the team? How hard does it get with the public when our team loses a match?
As much as the excitement of the people thrills us, we also have our subconscious always telling us, “What if we lose this one?” The thought that the entire nation is praying for us, expecting from us to bring the trophies and medals to our land, does boost up our spirits. At the same time, the pressure starts building, too. It’s very difficult when you lose a match, an important one especially. All the support is overwhelming but at the same time, your integrity is questioned. It doesn’t feel good when that happens. Not only for ourselves, we feel that way for the entire team. You go there, you try and sometimes you don’t make it. That happens, too. On the other hand, when we see the thousands of people waiting for us on the airport even after we lose a match, that is the most moving moment. It feels great to be loved this way. Most of the fans are very supportive.
5. If you were given a million dollars, how would you spend it?
Really? Okay, I would give most of the money away to the charity. But I’ll save a good part for my living. Honestly, such things never happen.
6. In the Sri Lanka series, you equaled your career-best score of 157 runs on a rain-hit day and shared a record of 287-run partnership for the second wicket with Mohammad Hafeez. It is the highest wicket stand by any team against Sri Lanka. What has been the key to such boosted spirits and success?
We actually lost the first match. We didn’t do very well and that was a lot of pressure. Hafeez and I always wanted to perform big together. When we started, we decided on concentrating on small sessions. We weren’t thinking about high runs at that time. We were only concentrating on runs per half an hour. That kept us going, we kept on batting. We pushed every other thought out of our heads, the rain, the runs. Our focus was only the half an hour sessions. And we made it just like that, before we knew it.
We all have nicknames. When you live in a family, there are jokes on you that always tag along, you have names that you carry for the rest of your lives. I wouldn’t say about the nickname but there’s this joke on me. Whenever I’m on the pitch, batting and a ball is thrown, they say I’m like a bottle of coca cola, on its verge of popping open. They always have that teasing grin on their faces while I’m batting, and they keep on nodding, waiting for me to whiplash the ball.
8. Do you guys take any energizers before the match?
Playing for Pakistan is an inspiration enough. The inspiration itself is our energizer. We only take pain killers. Other medicines are not permitted.
9. Does Ramadan impinge on your practice routine? How hard does it get?
It’s definitely not easy. I love fasting while practicing. But we obviously change our routine into a more comfortable one. We usually come to the grounds at 5p.m now. We do our routine warm ups and practice a little. After the iftar, we do the training. Most of our training is in the evening then.
10. Any special rules that our team has, that works for you as the key to win a match?
The only real rule before a match is that we have to be back in our rooms early. We can’t stay out or stay up late. It’s not that keep on watching you until you sleep. But it’s not like other routine days either when we can stay out.
11. What are your thoughts about having the captaincy?
I don’t think about it just as yet. My only focus at the moment is to improve my performance, to make a mark on the grounds. And I think when the captaincy comes, it just comes to you. You don’t have to run for it. Cricket is a funny game. One day you perform good and you’re at the heights. The other day you score low and all of sudden you are down the charts. Sometimes your integrity is questioned. I think that is our major concern, our performance.
12. Do you have any superstitions for a lucky day or a lucky match, like most of the sportsmen do?
We all follow superstitions, especially when it comes to sports. We’d use the same bat until it goes into pieces. We don’t mind if it has gone bad, we would play with it until we really can’t. If I’m using a bat I score runs with, I would use it until it’s not in the shape of being used anymore. Most of the times I wear the same glove in one tour until it wears out. It’s just the way we feel comfortable on the pitch. Although we do realize it’s not the bat or the glove that is playing the game. But then again, with all the pressure, we need our magic charms. We need our comfort zone to stand our grounds.
13. Share with us the funniest incident that has happened with the team?
The funniest, I can’t tell. But here’s one. It was funny as well as scary. While we were on this tour to New Zealand, I, Asad Shafiq and Khurram went out for dinner. The sunset there is around 10 p.m. That’s the time we were walking the streets when we saw a car coming. It was about 50 meters away. There were two very huge dogs in the backseat. We were looking at the dogs, admiring their huge size when all of a sudden, the car started speeding in our direction. We were just about to enter the restaurant when the car stopped right in front of us. A man got out. At first I gladly thought he must be a fan until I saw the expression on his face. He then shouted, “Why are you looking at my girl?” We didn’t even realize there was a girl in the front seat. The he started swearing! That got me really angry. I was about to say something to him when Asad Shafiq started laughing and waved “Hiii” to his girl. That was all it took for that man to threaten us. He told us he’d see us down there in the town. Then he left. From the restaurant back to the hotel, every car that passed by, we thought it was him or his friends he must be gathering to bully us! Then we thought about the running possibilities, but none of us was in appropriate shoes for that. Later on, he did really come back without the girl. He sped his car towards us, swore and flipped us off. We still laugh about it all the time. Just that it was scary when it happened.
14. Who are you closest to in the team and who according to you is the most supportive one?
I am closest to Asad Shafiq. We always hang out together on the tours. We’re together all the time. I’m also very close Saeed Ajmal. The captain Misbah-ul-Haq is very supportive and Hafeez, too as a senior player has always been supportive.
15. All the matches have their own distinct pressure. Which match can you recall where you were the most pressurized?
I think it was the time when we were in Abu Dhabi, playing against England. We were losing by a few runs. We had already lost 4 wickets with low runs. I and Asad Shafiq were sharing the partnership. I think that was one of my career-best scores. All the pressure made me want to win the match even more.
16. Who would be your favorite personality?
Dr. Israr Ahmad. His words changed me, they touched my heart. I used to listen to him in my difficult times, since my teens. I really miss him. I wish he was still alive.
17. Out of all the countries you have been to, which one do you like the most?
If we talk about natural beauty, I’d say New Zealand. The place where I have enjoyed playing the most is Australia and UAE. Australia has an amazing atmosphere for cricket. UAE has excellent grounds and you could never get bored in Dubai.
18. Lastly, what advice would you like to give to the young boys who want to join cricket and what would be your message for your fans out there?
For all those who want to join cricket, I’d only say that don’t look for shortcuts. Don’t ask people to get you into the cricket team. Work hard enough so that the person himself should say “This guy should be in the team.” Once you get into cricket through someone else and not your own hard work, you will have to carry that along for the rest of your life. It would only push you down. For the fans out there, I’d only ask for their support. Support our team, trust us. It’s your support that makes us perform.