Fans favourite Azhar Mahmood has returned to the tranquillity of the St Lawrence Ground after an eye-opening stint with the Kings XI Punjab in the IPL. Some impressive performances in India proved he is still one of the finest t20 players on show. Now back in his adopted home of Kent, the veteran all-rounder has set his sights on a profitable season with the county.
The 37 year-old was a late arrival for Adam Gilchrist’s side due to visa issues, but, once he became available, he was immediately installed as the team’s premier all-rounder. 186 runs at a strike rate of nearly 131 and, perhaps even more impressively, 14 wickets at an average of 23.50 impressed the passionate Indian crowds as his franchise just missed out on a play-off place. It was an experience that the big-hitting batsman clearly savoured.
How was the IPL?
I loved it. It was a good experience. As a side, we did okay. We didn’t qualify for the play-offs but it was an enjoyable experience and we played some good cricket. I enjoyed it with the Kings XI Punjab. I played some ICL cricket, earlier in my career, but the chance to go to the Indian Premier League was too good to turn down. The fans are fanatical and really got behind us. It was a great opportunity.
What was the experience like?
Playing cricket in India is always enjoyable and gives you such a great feeling. The locals offer super hospitality, are crazy about the game and people come to watch in such great numbers. We got a great response from the supporters and everyone in India. It was a good experience.
Now back in Canterbury, Azhar didn’t waste any time checking out his Kent colleagues and saw them brush aside Leicestershire last week in the LV= County Championship. With so many new faces in the Kent side, it gave the Pakistani a chance to check out the new blood and he witnessed the quality of Michael Powell at first-hand after seeing the former Glamorgan batsman score his second century of the summer. Azhar, despite being most willing to return to the IPL in the future, is itching to get going again in county cricket.
Would you like to do it again?
I loved it and would certainly do it again. I’ve put in lots of practice, playing for Kent and gave it my all after getting the opportunity. I was happy to go and was pleased with my performances. I am now looking forward to getting back into the county season.
Are you pleased to be back with Kent?
Definitely. I went to see the boys last week (during the win over Leicestershire) and was there when Michael Powell got his hundred. The boys are doing really well. I’m back now and hopefully I can continue my performances from last season and carry-on what I did at the IPL.
With the FL t20 tournament just around the corner, the right-arm seam bowler is quick to highlight the benefits of a successful competition for the Spitfires with a place in the Champions League available at the end of it. Azhar is confident Kent have the ability to compete and wants to go a step further than last year.
What are your aims for the rest of this season?
Things have gone very well for me since the end of last season. I went and played for the Auckland Aces (in New Zealand) and we won the tournament there. I then went to Bangladesh with Stevo and won with the Dhaka Gladiators. Sadly we didn’t get to go the Champions League with Kings XI Punjab but I’m just hoping to win as many games as possible and get a crack at playing Champions League cricket. We definitely have a chance. We were so close last year. Let’s not forget that we got 200 in the quarter finals but still lost the game. I know you can’t read too much into that but we have a good, balanced side this year and have got a great chance.
In the domestic t20 tournament last year Azhar was at his destructive best. Batting at number three, he amassed 485 at an average of 40.41 including his maiden T20 ton off 57 balls against Gloucestershire at Beckenham. Things are going well for a man who has 21 Test match appearances to his name, and Azhar is quick to praise a close friend of his.
You seem to be getting better with age, would you agree?
I guess you could say that. It gets tougher as you get older but I have been working hard with my friend, Tahmoor Khan. He is a performance enhancing coach and I have been with him for the last year-and-a-half. I played under-19 cricket with him for Pakistan. He has now got a scholarship from the ECB and is looking to help many cricketers. I am really enjoying working with him and he has really helped me; both with my fitness and giving me advice on how to relax and cope with the mental strains and tough situations.
Are you enjoying your career as much now as when you started out?
Yes, I am. I love the game – I think you can see that in my performances – and that’s why I keep playing. I want to carry on for as long as possible. All the time I’m enjoying it, I will keep playing.
Azhar is understandably very proud to have represented his country with such distinction over the years. To add to his Test caps, the wily limited-overs performer has played 143 ODIs for Pakistan and has never officially retired from the international scene. Despite making himself available for selection, Azhar admits the chances of a recall are slim but he is still proud of his achievements.
How pleasing has your cricketing journey been?
It’s been a real rollercoaster; I’ve had lots of highs and some lows. The biggest high was playing for Pakistan for 11 years. Representing my country was a great honour for me. I played in three World Cups and was in the same team with some cricket legends – people like Waqar Younis and Inzamam-ul-Haq. They were such great players and it was an honour to be with them.
You’ve now starred in the IPL, can you force your way back into the Pakistan side?
A lot of people keep asking me if I am coming back. I have never said no because if the opportunity did come to me then I would have to look seriously at it. I’m 37 now so it’s a much tougher decision to make than if I was say 25. I have to look after my family too; I’ve maybe got another two or three years of my cricketing life and I want to make the right decision and really enjoy it. I have performed very well in the last five years and not got the chance. Maybe now I need to move on.
A lot has changed since Azhar last played for Kent. Former West Indies captain Jimmy Adams has taken up the Head Coach role, experienced seamers Mark Davies and Charlie Shreck have boosted the bowling resources and Powell, Brendan Nash and Ben Harmison have added a backbone to the middle-order. The all-rounder has been impressed with the start his new team-mates have made and is looking forward to working closely with the new Coach.
The Club has recruited wisely over the winter months. What do you make of the new additions?
We have signed some good players and they all seem to be performing well. We have only lost one game and Charlie and Mark are both bowling well. If these guys keep performing, and we all keep chipping in, then we have a much better chance of going to the Champions League.
How are you enjoying working with Jimmy Adams?
Jimmy is a nice guy. I have never played under his coaching (prior to working together, here at Kent) but I have met him a few times over the years and we have played against each other. He is doing a good job and I hope that he can continue to mark his mark and help us achieve success.
Despite his advancing years, Azhar is still able to perform at the very highest level. His quality certainly adds an extra dimension to the Kent side and while he is still able to make a difference on the field, the St Lawrence Ground favourite isn’t looking much further than carrying on with the game he loves.
I’m sure you still have lots of cricket in you but have you thought of life when you finish playing?
I haven’t decided yet. Maybe, with my cricketing ability, I can go into coaching but it’s still up in the air. I’m really enjoying things at the moment. If I continue to keep playing at a high level then I feel I can go on for another three or four more years.
Photo: Sarah Ansell SarahCanterbury.com