Considered by many suitable for just Test cricket, Azhar Ali's appointment as Pakistan ODI captain in March of this year surprised many fans and experts alike. However, to his immense credit, Azhar has led the team from the front taking his team to two ODI series victories so far. In the process he also became the quickest Asian and Pakistani batsman to 1000 ODI runs, and has also established himself as a key member of the team with an average of 50.22 in twenty-five ODI matches.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, thirty-year old Azhar Ali spoke on a variety of topics including his personal satisfaction at leading the Pakistan ODI side as well as on his own performances, the reasons behind Pakistan's fall in the ODI rankings, playing in Test matches under the captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq and also looked forward to the Test series against England.
By Saj Sadiq (27th August, 2015)
PakPassion.net : According to many you aren’t a limited overs batsmen. It must feel good to prove a few people wrong?
Azhar Ali : I’m grateful to the Almighty that my comeback in the one-day team has gone well. It’s not easy being out of the team and all you can do is to work hard and hope that you get another chance to prove yourself. I have always believed in myself and have always maintained that I can play limited overs cricket at the highest level. I’m delighted with my form in one-day cricket for Pakistan and I hope that I can continue this run for as long as possible.
PakPassion.net : You were ignored for the 2015 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand and there was barely a whimper from fans or media about your omission. When you received a recall to the Pakistan One-Day team, you must have felt as if you had a point to prove?
Azhar Ali : It’s correct that here hasn’t been a lot of support for my inclusion in the one-day side from the public or the media. I was averaging over forty in one-day cricket but still there wasn’t much support or mentions for my inclusion in the fifty over format after I was dropped. However I had that ambition to prove people wrong and to show people that I am capable of performing well in limited overs cricket. I never gave up hope and just kept working hard and ensuring that when the call came I was ready.
PakPassion.net : You appear to be a different player these days in the One-Day format, compared with what we all saw in the early part of your One-Day career?
Azhar Ali : My role has changed. Previously in the One-Day team my role was different and it was a case of ensuring that we didn’t succumb to the two new balls. I think it’s taken a bit of time for teams around the world to work out their plans against the two new white balls, but now we’ve settled down with this rule change. My strike-rate wasn’t as high as it is now, but it wasn’t too far off the players I was playing alongside. In the early stages of your career your overall strike rate is going to fluctuate a lot and it’s tricky in the early stages of your career to go out there all guns blazing and have a high strike rate. My time away from the Pakistan One-Day side worked in my favour as it gave me an opportunity to assess my batting in fifty over cricket and formulate a different approach. The time out of the Pakistan One-Day team actually turned out to be a blessing for me.
PakPassion.net : It was a surprise to some that you opted to open the batting in One-Day cricket. Was that a decision that was forced upon you or something you decided yourself?
Azhar Ali : It was my decision to open the innings and it was a decision that was backed by the team management and coaching staff. Prior to my recall I opened for my domestic team in the Pentangular One-Day cup and that went well. I really enjoyed opening the innings and we managed to chase down a couple of 300 plus scores and that really boosted my confidence. After performing well in domestic cricket as a limited overs opener, I thought why not try this in international cricket also and ensure that I went into the Pakistan One-Day team with the same positive approach. Thankfully the decision has worked and that is something that is very pleasing.
PakPassion.net : You are leading from the front in terms of your batting position and your approach in the Pakistan One-Day team. Is that a goal you had set yourself?
Azhar Ali : Absolutely. When I was appointed captain I wanted to impose an attacking brand of cricket and that meant that as captain I needed to ensure that the attacking philosophy came from me. I demanded that all my players played positive cricket and as captain I needed to ensure that I also bought into that philosophy. All of the players have been given license to play positive cricket unless of course the situation demands for some stability and patience. I believe the captain has to set the tone for the team’s style of play and ensure that he is indeed leading from the front and ensuring that he is playing the way he wants his team to play, and not just talking about a brand of cricket and not playing that way himself.
PakPassion.net : Breaking the record for the quickest Asian and Pakistani batsman to 1000 ODI runs is quite an achievement. You must be delighted about that record?
Azhar Ali : Yes I’m overjoyed at breaking that record, particularly as many people didn’t see me as a limited overs batsman and only thought of me as a Test cricketer. It’s a fantastic achievement for me and a great honour for me to hold this record now.
PakPassion.net : How difficult has the transition been from not being in the Pakistan One-Day team and then suddenly being appointed captain?
Azhar Ali : It definitely helped that I had captained some of my international team mates in domestic cricket and had played alongside some of them. I think as a captain you need to have the skill of handling pressure and that is something I feel I have learnt quickly in domestic cricket. However the reality is that when you are leading an international team it’s much tougher and the levels of pressure are intense and of course expectations are high. When I was appointed as captain there was double the amount of pressure on me as I was making a comeback to the One-Day team but in addition I was the new captain. Captaining Pakistan is a tough job whether you are a new captain or whether you are someone who has played international cricket for many years, but I’m pleased that so far things have gone quite well and the boys have really supported me.
PakPassion.net : Recently the energy levels and the standard of fielding has really been impressive from Pakistan. Is this something that you as captain wanted to see improving?
Azhar Ali : Yes that is true. But it’s not just me who wanted to see an improvement in this area of our cricket and it’s something that collectively we all wanted to see improving, particularly our Head Coach Waqar Younis. The younger players who have been introduced to the team have really provided a lot of energy in the field and the senior players are also no slouches when it comes to fitness levels and fielding. In the last series there was a noticeable improvement in our fielding and that as I say, has been a collective effort. There is an extra zest in the fielding practice sessions and the boys seem to be enjoying their fielding now which is great to see. To be a good fielding side consistently is really important and it’s something that we are all striving to achieve. We are enjoying our fielding and I hope that this energy and passion in the field will continue.
PakPassion.net : Pakistan’s One-Day ranking is currently eight and prior to that it was nine. I’m sure you’ll agree that’s not good enough. Why do you think Pakistan finds itself in such a poor position in the rankings?
Azhar Ali : Obviously we had a very poor 2014 where we didn’t win a single One-Day series. The Bangladesh series of course didn’t go well. It was disappointing to slump to ninth. The rankings don’t lie and the fact is that we have not been good enough and our performance in One-Day cricket in 2014 was below par.
PakPassion.net : Why do you think the performances haven’t been good enough? Was it down to a defensive approach, the tactics or something else?
Azhar Ali : I think we were caught out a bit by the change of rules and our approach was perhaps slightly outdated. One-Day cricket has changed and the approach of teams has changed and perhaps we didn’t change our approach quickly enough. Another major reason has been the loss of Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez as bowlers in One Day Internationals. Not having those two available to bowl was very difficult and any team would have struggled without two of their best bowlers.
I don’t think the mindset was defensive but our plan generally was to score 250 to 260 and then let Saeed Ajmal and Mohammad Hafeez control matters for us with the ball. Generally they would be able to restrict the opposition and that game plan worked well for us.
PakPassion.net : Do you agree that the pace bowling department in the limited overs format has shown signs of weakness?
Azhar Ali : I was happy with the batting and fielding in Sri Lanka but I feel there is room for improvement in every area of our game in the fifty over format. We’ve been hit hard when it comes to injuries in our pace bowling department recently and that has had an effect. I think once we have all of our pace bowlers back and available our pace bowling will improve and it will be strengthened also. But yes I agree, there is definitely improvement required from our pace bowlers.
PakPassion.net : The last time England played Pakistan in the UAE, the Test series ended in a whitewash. Are you confident that the same result can be achieved this time around?
Azhar Ali : What happened last time around is history. It’s a series between two strong teams and I think it will be a hard-fought series. I’m confident that we can play some good cricket and I think we are in a good position to defeat England again. However at the end of the day we will have to perform well and at our best to win against England. I think in those conditions if we play to our strengths and at our best then we can defeat England once again in the Test series.
PakPassion.net : England have a lot of new faces this time around. Have any of their new players impressed you?
Azhar Ali : Their whole team is in good form and they’ll come into the Pakistan series on a high after winning the Ashes. Joe Root looks an exceptional talent and the batsmen have been backed up by their bowling attack, particularly some new faces like Mark Wood in their bowling line-up. They are a talented team who are performing well, but conditions will be different for them in the UAE and we aim to utilise the conditions to our advantage.
PakPassion.net : You are being groomed as Pakistan’s next Test captain. How do you see that challenge and what do you feel you have learnt from the current captain Misbah-ul-Haq?
Azhar Ali : I’ve played under Misbah’s captaincy now for five years and it’s been an excellent learning curve for me. I’m particularly impressed with Misbah’s calmness under pressure and that is something that I hope to emulate. I hope to continue to learn from him as long as he continues to play for Pakistan and I hope and pray that he does indeed continue to remain fit and play for Pakistan for as long as possible and to carry on captaining the team. When the time comes for Misbah to retire, I hope that I can take on the challenge of captaining Pakistan in Test cricket and do a good job for the team.