Azhar Mahmood's Tour de Cricket

KXIP all-rounder’s journey has been full of hiccups, but he is still living his dream

Chennai 29 April 2012
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Azhar Mahmood took that step in 2003 when he left his motherland, Pakistan, to play county cricket in England. It has now brought him to the Indian Premier League where he dons the Kings XI Punjab’s shade of red. Born in Rawalpindi, Mahmood now calls Mohali his home. He talked us through his journey from Punjab to Punjab with a thousand miles in between.

“It’s been a long journey,” he said. “A roller coaster ride and I have no complaints. I’m now playing in the IPL and playing competitive cricket around the world,” Mahmood told in an exclusive chat.

The big decision

Mahmood recalls the time when he was faced with the choice between his country and cricket. He says,
“The move to county wasn’t a tough decision to make.”

“I was in and out of the Pakistan side since 2003. I would be picked for one tournament and then be dropped despite doing well. It was very frustrating. When Saqlain Mushtaq asked me if I wanted to play in the county, I played for a month. Next year, I got into a five-year contract with Surrey.”

The divine plan

For someone who began his international career with three Test centuries against South Africa, it was fair to end up aggrieved and bitter over the premature departure. But Mahmood chose the path of positivity. He oozed belief when he spoke of his career as a plan made for him by the supreme power above.

“When I joined Surrey, they allowed two overseas players in a county side. In 2008, immediately after I got my nationality changed, they brought out a rule of having only one overseas player. I spoke to Rob Key of Kent who said he was keen to have me in the side. I believe God has promised you your living and he worked things around to help me in every way. I’m not playing international cricket, but my life has been very good.”

A learning ground

For a player from the subcontinent to play in English conditions among foreigners is a challenge. For this gritty all-rounder from Pakistan, it emerged as a new avenue to hone his cricketing skills and grow as a person.

“The conditions there are very different from Asia. I learned so many things there, including how to play swing bowling better. I understand the game much better now and my temperament has improved. In this game, you learn something each and every day. Playing with players from different countries and cultures teaches you a lot about the game and life in general."

IPL calling

After 17 years of first-class cricket, Mahmood embraced the Twenty20 format in 2011. He played pivotal roles in taking the Auckland Aces (HRV Cup, New Zealand) and the Dhaka Gladiators (Bangladesh Premier League) to Twenty20 titles in the 2011-12 season. These performances led him to his final destination – the Indian Premier League.

“After international cricket, IPL is the biggest cricket tournament in the world. It features all world-class players and every cricketer wants to be a part of such tournament. I had put my name forward for the IPL last year but missed out due to lack of good performance. This season, I batted at No.3 for Kent, Auckland and Dhaka and got enough opportunities to score runs. I applied again, and now I’m really glad to be a part of the IPL and KXIP.”

A thumping arrival

The easiest way to settle into a new team is by proving your worth on the field and earning the respect of your teammates. Mahmood did just that on his IPL debut. Against a big team like RCB, he smashed a 14-ball 33. Three matches later, he’s looked upon in the KXIP dressing room as a senior and valuable player.

“When I joined the squad, every single player welcomed me with open arms. There are a lot of Punjabi-speaking players, and I being a Punjabi myself helped me gel within the team well. I was a bit nervous ahead of the first game against KKR, but I didn’t play that game. Whenever you go to a new tournament and a new team, you feel a little conscious. But when I got a game, I played naturally. There was no pressure. I knew everyone was behind me. There were a lot of messages from the IPL and from England as well. That was a boost.”

The rendezvous with India

Cricketers are revered in India. No wonder, they love coming here. Mahmood had tasted the stardom when he toured here with the Pakistan team. He says nothing has changed since then.

“I remember coming to play cricket in India for the first time in 1997. Before that tour, I played four or five ODIs and no one knew me in Pakistan. On that tour, I once went shopping in Hyderabad. When I came out of the shop after 10 minutes, the road was totally blocked. There was a huge mob wanting my autograph and photos. There was so much love and support and it hasn’t changed after all these years. The Indians love the game and the cricketers, irrespective of which country they come from.”

Here’s a cricketer who values every opportunity he gets to go on the field; who acknowledges how lucky he is to play the sport he loves. He hasn’t got anything easy and he’s prepared to work hard each day. At the age of 37, Azhar Mahmood is exploring new cricketing avenues, and a successful IPL 2012 is his goal now.
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