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Azhar Mahmood – The star performer

On a typical hot and humid Sunday at Subrata Roy Sahara stadium, the old warhorse and the emperor of t/20 cricket, Azhar Mahmood, left the batsmen from Pune Warriors clueless with his bagful of tracks. The fascinating story wasn’t just about two wickets that he took, but the way he baited and teased the batsmen to entrap them into making mistakes made for great viewing. In many ways, the wily old fox’s bowling prowess is comparable to the technicality and the filigree craftsmanship involved in fine ornamental work.

While facing up to Mahmood with a bagful of well-oiled tricks, the batsmen know, they can’t even allow for a minor slip in their concentration. The Punjab’s think-tank have made an astute move by plumping for Azhar Mahmood, as unlike many other glittering million dollar stars, Azhar Mahmood is worth every penny that Punjab’s team has spent on him.

At the age of 38, Azhar Mahmood has matured as a cricketer. He is no more the wiry 22 year old Azhar, who took the cricketing world by storm with three hundreds against the marauding South Africans. During the cricketing season of 97-98, he pummelled the much-vaunted South African pace attack with glorious flourishes of swivel pulls, dashing cuts, thundering drives; sometimes played on one knee, and by bouncing on his toes with an extravagant back-lift to loft South African quicks straight down the ground.

Azhar Mahmood’s breathtaking display of counter-attacking innings at Durban in 97-98, came at a time when the South Africans were smelling blood. But Azhar Mahmood’s houdini act changed the scenario drastically. He stitched crucial partnerships with the lower-order, and made a sparkling century. The superb display of batsmanship made one feel whether his bat was manicured so thoroughly that there wasn’t an edge on it. Azhar’s coup de main just took the wind out of South Africa’s sails, and Pakistan eked out a victory from jaws of defeat. In his younger days, his game was built on live by the sword and die by the sword approach.

Since Azhar Mahmood’s eye-catching hundreds against South Africa, his career has never taken off in the international arena. In Azhar’s first 8 tests, he averaged 77.28 with 3 hundreds to his name. In his next 13 tests, his meagre returns of 359 runs at 15.6 just doesn’t do justice to his potential. Those occasional sparks of brilliance were invariably offset with him gifting his wicket away on a platter, and disappointing Pakistan’s hysterical fans.

Even with a ball in hand, Azhar Mahmood struggled to make an impression. He did well against the Windies at Rawalpindi in 97-98. In England at Lord’s in ’01, he pitched it up in favourable conditions, and was duly rewarded with four wickets. In the crucial test at Hobart in 99-00 with his brand of swing bowling, he dealt a couple of vital blows. It took a magnificent partnership between Langer and Gilchrist to steer Australia through choppy waters, and take them to a famous win. A few good performances though, just can’t mask the fact that he averaged over 35 as a bowler. In spite of Azhar Mahmood’s game being well suited to One-Day cricket, even in that format, he couldn’t make it big.

Pakistan’s cricket board also has to take a fair share of the blame for treating Azhar Mahmood shabbily. Azhar Mahmood was rarely ever given a decent run in the side. A case in point being, the last time he played for Pakistan in the 2007 World Cup, he was given just one opportunity to come good against Ireland, but he failed in that match. As Pakistan suffered an ignominious exit in the first round of the 2007 World Cup, he was made the scapegoat for it, and was shown the exit door.

The high-impact player from Pakistan wasn’t deterred one bit by all those setbacks. By plying his trade in county cricket for more than a decade with Surrey and Kent, he has honed his skills, and has become a better cricketer. Nowadays, he comes across as a mentally relaxed cricketer. In 2011,  he led Kent’s county batting averages, and took 23 wickets at the cost of just  23.73. He single-handedly took Kent to the quarterfinal of friends life t/20 in ’11. Even his fielding skills were very good in that tournament.

Azhar Mahmood has now added a few more strings to his bow. There was a time, when Azhar played too many flashy shots. These days, he knows the importance of rotation of strike, and his defence has improved by leaps and bounds. Here is a cricketer who has smoothed out some of the rough edges, and knows his game inside-out.

With so many leagues mushrooming around the world, Azhar Mahmood is a hot property. In the last few years, he has turned out for various teams like Auckland Aces, Kent, Wayamba United, Cape Cobras, Sydney Thunders, Barisal Burners and for Kings XI Punjab.

If in the 6th edition of IPL, Kings XI Punjab have to do well, they need their talismanic all-rounder Azhar Mahmood to deliver the goods. They have started their campaign against a listless Pune Warriors India side on a good note. But when up against the big guns of IPL like Mumbai Indians and Chennai Super Kings, they may find themselves on a sticky wicket, and that is when they will look up to their star performer Azhar Mahmood to launch a rescue mission. With the kind of experience and the wealth of knowledge he has garnered by playing all over the globe, Mahmood can also be a mentor by supplementing the youthful exuberance in the Punjab set up. In short, he is the fulcrum of Punjab’s line-up.

Azhar Mahmood in every sense is a sui generis, as even at the age of 38, he is as fit as a fiddle.  Azhar who is now a British citizen still says, he is open to playing for Pakistan, if needed. The sad part is that when Pakistan’s selectors mull over selecting the squad, there don’t seem to be any takers for Azhar Mahmood.