Azhar Mahmood comes across as a humble and reticent man, but under the calm demeanour there lies a spirited sportsman, one who expects nothing but discipline and character from his charges.
Mahmood is currently on tour in England as bowling coach for Pakistan, a position he has held for just under two years. No stranger to British shores, he successfully played county cricket for Surrey and Kent. He also married there in 2003 and, with a young family, is having to juggle his time between continents as well as commitments.
Amer Malik caught up with the former all-rounder at Lord’s, a day before the first Test match between England and Pakistan that saw the visitors take an emphatic nine-wicket victory.
Q: You’ve been in the role for just under two years. How did you find the transition from player to Pakistan bowling coach?
A: It’s a challenge – and as you know I enjoy all types of new challenges. This role came to light at the same time as I was still player-coach for Surrey. For me it was too much of an opportunity to not be a part of.
I felt that when Pakistan gave me my opportunity, it was time for me to be on the other side of the fence, so to speak.
With the cricket knowledge that I have gained from my travels across the globe (playing in almost every T20 league), I felt it was the right time to impart that knowledge to the next generation of Pakistan cricket players, thus hoping this will enable them to face different situations within the game – in all conditions.
As player-coach, I was able to help the side while on the field. Now we plan and try to implement it off the field, and hopefully execute it on the pitch.
When you started, what challenges were you facing in regards to the bowling problems that the side was having?
There were different issues I had to deal with. One of the first I encountered was that Wahab Riaz was bowling a lot of no balls. We noticed when he strived for extra pace, his delivery stride would extend, we had to eliminate this and managed to shorten this, now he is consistent in his run-up and stride.
There were different challenges for each bowler. Hasan Ali had just started when I came in, he then became the No 1 bowler in ODIs, and, if you notice, our extras graph has substantially decreased.
I have worked with the guys to help them build positive mindsets within themselves, helping them work on different deliveries for different situations, assessing the pitches and grounds we are playing at, where to bowl these variations.
When I joined, some bowlers were happy with just taking three to four wickets, not going for a five-for – this is mainly due to the role they played in domestic cricket, which dictated such a mindset, and unhelpful domestic pitches.
You have played alongside some of the greats of the game, such as Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Saqlain Mushtaq. Do any of the current incumbents wearing the colours of Pakistan have the potential to reach those heights?
These past greats, they played under the likes of Imran Khan and Javed Miandad. The current guys don’t have enough role models in the team.
During the 90s era, we had an abundance of talent, it was a luxury that we don’t necessarily have now.
Though that’s not to say that we don’t have the talent, and definitely have potential with the likes of Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali, Mohammed Abbas, Imam ul-Haq and Faheem Ashraf. They need nurturing to achieve those goals as well as relevant opportunities to play and perform in all formats. Lastly adapting to, and learning how to react to certain match situations.
Another relatively new player is Mohammad Abbas who took nine wickets in the inaugural Test versus Ireland. It was also good to see Amir also chipped in. Do you think – along with Hasan Ali – these three will spearhead Pakistan’s attack for the next five years?
Most definitely, and fortunately Pakistan has always been blessed with fast bowlers – literally coming out of every nook and cranny. We have Wahab, who is still a genuinely raw fast bowler – at times one-dimensional, but effective when it reverses, and he still has a promising future for us.
Usman Shinwari, Shaheen Shah Afridi, who was a revelation in the U19 World Cup along with (Muhammad) Musa, not forgetting Rumman Raees, Junaid Khan, we’ve a good battery of bowlers. So in that regard we have an armoury which we can utilise when and where it is required.
Having observed Amir since his comeback, there is talk among cricket observers that he isn’t swinging the ball as much as before his lay-off. Is there a reason for this?
First of all, Amir has returned from a long lay-off – in which he played no cricket or even trained. For him to come back and play all three formats is an achievement in itself. His body is tired, hardly having rested since his return, we shouldn’t forget he is human after all.
With all the ODIs being played, naturally his length will be shorter, and in Tests length should be fuller. If you noticed in the Test match versus Ireland his length was much fuller – with pace, making him more effective, that’s what we encourage him to do.
England play 10-12 Test matches in a year, whereas we only play five to six, so don’t have the luxury of having to adjust to each format quite so easily. In last year’s Champions Trophy, you saw he was bowling fuller, obtaining swing, and hence taking three vital wickets in the final. We advise all our seamers to bowl full to encourage swing, especially here in England.
In the past Pakistan has had bowlers of raw pace such as Shoaib Akhtar, Waqar, Imran Khan, Mohammad Zahid, and of late Wahab. It now seems the supply line is diminishing. Why?
That is a good question… the answer lies with the wickets that we play on back home. Nowadays, we mostly play on seaming wickets using the Gray (-Nicolls) balls, which tend to move around, hence encouraging bowlers to swing and seam it instead of trying to bowl with pace.
If we produced more flat wickets, it would enable us to encourage pace, also allowing the bowler to have more than one or two spells maximum.
And these type of wickets restrict any upcoming spin bowlers, because they don’t get too many opportunities on these seaming wickets. In my opinion, they are not producing enough sporting wickets. If they do, it will only be beneficial for Pakistan cricket.
There has always been a stigma attached to being associated with Pakistan – in any capacity – but what difficulties have you faced in your capacity as both player and those of a coach. Which was the easier aspect for you?
Being a Pakistan coach is hard, as there is always more expectations on you than, for example, a foreign coach such as Grant Flower. You will never hear his name pop up if there is a batting issue, but if it is a bowling issue, than you will hear my name being bandied about. Our bowling has always been our strength, hence the emphasis when it comes to criticism. I don’t mind it as long as it’s justified.
As a player there will always be expectations, after all you’re representing your country.
Check back for part two of the interview tomorrow, as Mahmood focuses on the tour in England