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Cricket news - Asad and I understand how important our performances will be: Azhar Ali
"Misbah bhai, Younis bhai, Mushy bhai, Waqar bhai have spent a lot of time with us and their method is to empower us."
This tour of England is a life-coming-full-circle moment for Azhar Ali. It was 2010, a tour that saw some real fine cricket, but one that in times to come was only to be remembered for the spot-fixing scandal that saw Pakistan cricket sink to some of its saddest depths. Azhar - the then 25-year-old - would've been happy to avoid every bit of the spotlight. It was a tough initiation into Test cricket, with just two fifties in twelve innings, four of them against Australia in a "home" series in England.
"I learnt how to take on a challenge. It was my first tour and they were one of the top two sides. I felt that I had played very tough cricket, and from here I have to get ahead. I got a belief and felt that if I can challenge myself and do well here, then I could do it in other places as well," he said of that tour on Tuesday (August 4).
"There will be ups and downs, the whole tour was a learning experience for me. There were a couple of senior players on that tour whose guidance helped me a lot. Because sometimes as a young player, you might think of giving up or self-doubt starts to creep in."
He comes over as captain this time, flanked by Misbah-ul-Haq, Waqar Younis and Younis Khan, three individuals who took it upon their shoulders to resurrect Pakistani cricket since the horrors of that summer. And Azhar's basking in the knowledge.
"There are two types of people. Even some of those who have played cricket, feel that whatever they think is only right and try to impose their thoughts on others. Luckily, the players that have come for us - Misbah bhai, Younis bhai, Mushy bhai, Waqar bhai - they have spent a lot of time with us and their method is to empower us," he insists.
"They give preference to what you think and encourage that. Mostly, the thoughts are not too different about the conditions and all. I feel comfortable as a captain about getting the right guidance as well as freedom. And the amount of cricket they've played, the coaching staff does not want to enforce anything which is very good and that's what happens in good environments. So as a captain, I'm very comfortable
"It's been very helpful that they're working with us now because they've seen our cricket and they know how and when and where each player performs. If anyone ever struggles, they can guide them very well. It's important for any player that when he is going through a rough patch the people around him understand him and his game. Both of them have a very good idea about all of us, and that's very beneficial."
What's the top-order batting strategy then? With Imam-ul-Haq back and being named in the 16-man squad, was Pakistan thinking of a three-opener strategy effectively pushing Azhar down to four, and Babar Azam to five? Well, Azhar's willing to commit here.
"See we won our last Test match in Pindi and in that winning combination, Abid (Ali) and Shan (Masood) played there. They're performing, they're doing a very good job. Imam too has been doing well and putting in a lot of hard work, and has done well in these practice matches also. He's playing really well but unfortunately, only two openers can play, and we'll continue with the existing pair."
With the rest of the strategies though, he's keeping his cards close to his chest. Two spinners? A possible Sohail Khan inclusion, who's done really well in the warm-up matches?
"Can't disclose that", is what he says to what he plans to do at the toss, given Pakistan's conundrum after having seen the West Indies battered in the last two Tests after opting to bowl first, but then realizing their own seam bowlers' potential to use the early morning fresh pitch juice.
"Test cricket is such a game that you can't take any department lightly - batting bowling or fielding. You'll have to be on top of your game especially to beat a team like England. Before coming here, everyone was thinking that fast bowlers would play the main role. But as we've seen in the West Indies series, and with back-to-back matches being played on the same ground, the role of the spinners will also be key. We believe if we put runs on the board, we have enough resources to win the Test match.
"The role of Yasir is definitely key, when we win Test matches his role has been big. And like I said, with back-to-back matches being played on the same ground, the spinners role will be key."
It's no secret that Pakistan are a severely under-par travelling team. But, for some reason, they find a way to surprise in and against England, having been unbeaten in a series against them since the 2010 one. This time though, unlike the last two tours when it was predominantly dry and sunny, it's a wet summer that awaits. Azhar refuses to buy into that narrative of his batsmen probably struggling this time around.
"Here you can't do much about the weather. You can get a sunny day in August, July or even September. As a batsman, it's everyone's wish that it will be sunny and batting will be a little easier. But whatever the weather or conditions, we will try as a batting unit to take up the challenge and play out the tough periods. I remember in the Lord's Test when we played our first innings, the lights were on throughout. But we played in that and scored 300-plus runs. So it's not that we can't play, but when it's challenging as a batsman you have to take it."
He has his own demons to fight. In 24 innings in England, he averages just 29.68 and since his first series, has fallen seven times to James Anderson and six times to Stuart Broad. Also, his form of late hasn't been the best. If that century he scored against Sri Lanka at Karachi is taken away, he's gone 14 innings without even a fifty. What's also worrying for Pakistan's cause is that the other senior pro, Asad Shafiq, is on a dry run of his own. But Azhar's willing to acknowledge his.
"No, what you've pointed out is absolutely right about the form. You'll have to accept what's right. The Tests you've listed out - I've not performed consistently and as a top-order batsman I'm not happy about it. I've worked hard throughout for that and will continue to do. This is an important series for Pakistan with the World Test Championship happening. All the players' performances are important but yes as senior players - both Asad and I - understand how important our performances will be for Pakistan."
Pakistan would need their runs. Desperately.
The first Test of the three-match series starts at Old Trafford in Manchester on Wednesday (August 5).
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