Aamer Sohail

'Reverse-swing has hampered Pakistan cricket'

The fiery former Pakistan batsman on opening, straight-talking, and a chat with Ian Botham

Interview by Sidharth Monga

'At times you can't be politically correct; if you try, you won't be able to make sense' Sidharth Monga

I was not a serious cricketer before college. Once, I was playing a house tournament in college and the captain saw me play. I had scored quite a few runs and had a few wickets. He asked why I was not playing for them. I said, "I am doing my pre-engineering and I don't have the time. I have to take practicals and everything." He literally followed me around, insisting I play. So I played one tournament, and then I went for the Lahore Under-19 trials and was picked. That's when I thought, "If I got picked, there must be something good about my cricket."

The name of the game is the same. Even in Twenty20, if you are a technically correct batsman you have more opportunities to manoeuvre the bowling rather than if you play expansive shots. Twenty20 teams are realising that it's not just wham-bam. There has to be thinking involved. You might succeed without it in one or two games, but eventually you will get figured out.

The attitude and aggression I used to use in my cricket, are the two things I miss the most. I can't use them anymore.

Wasim Raja was my captain at Lahore and he asked me to open. When I hesitated, he said, "Do it. Pakistan won't be needing middle-order batsmen in the next four or five years. There is Saleem Malik, there is Javed Miandad; it will be hard for you to get in. Start opening the innings, you will play for Pakistan."

There is nothing wrong with the religiosity in the Pakistan team; that's their personal choice. As long as they are delivering 100% on the ground, they can do whatever they want to.

I was very lucky to have Saeed Anwar and Ramiz Raja as opening partners. We developed a good understanding because we became good friends.

Ultimately reverse-swing hasn't helped Pakistan cricket at all. How many new-ball bowlers have you seen who are very good? Reverse-swing has helped Pakistan achieve things temporarily, but when you look at it in the long term, it has actually hampered Pakistan cricket. You are not getting good new-ball bowlers. If you are not getting good new-ball bowlers in your first-class structure or club cricket or at the top level, how do you actually think of getting good openers?

Courtney Walsh and Glenn McGrath were the most difficult bowlers to open against. They were fantastic. They had that immaculate line and length, and at the same time they could bowl at pace and do something with the ball. Playing against them you always had to be concentrating hard, you had to show good technique. Otherwise it was difficult to survive against them.

If you have a solid defence and an awareness of where your off stump is, you can always work on improving as an opener.

Saeed and I used to spend a lot of time together. We had this passion for buying music systems. We used to buy the latest stuff in the market, enjoy music together; train together, play squash together. That friendship off the field was a great help, and that relationship is still there.

From Wasim Raja I learned how to deal with youngsters: how to actually sit down and talk to them, how to instill confidence in them. From him I learned that it is an obligation for a cricketer to pass on what he has learned.

Prior to the World Cup in 1992, 18 or 19 probables went to Australia. For three weeks I never got a hit, even in the nets. I was tagging along. One day I came back to the dressing room after a workout and I was told I was playing the next day in place of Saleem Malik, who had got injured. I played that game and made a few runs. I was batting along with Imran [Khan], hitting the ball nicely towards the covers, and he said to me: "It seems like you have been playing in Australia for a long time." That gave me a lot of confidence. Finally, after the warm-up matches, I was at the hotel reception one day when Imran came and said, "You are playing the World Cup." Just like that. "The way you have been batting, I will play you in all ten games, and if you score nine ducks, I will still play you in the final." I can't forget that.

As an opener, you also had to consider the mindset of the players to follow. If Nos. 3 and 4 were in good form, we would attack from the beginning; if they were struggling, we tried to be cautious. At times, if we thought the rest of the batsmen were nervous and the pitch difficult, just to ease the pressure we deliberately used to take the attack to the bowlers. Different mindsets had to come out for different games.

My favourite innings came in Perth in the World Cup. We had not been getting the right results in the tournament, and it was a crunch game, against Australia. Imran said, "I'm banking on you. Not many batsmen have been successful playing at Perth - not only Pakistani batsmen but from all over. But I think you have the talent." I got 76 runs, and when I got out he was the next man in. He waited for me to cross the boundary and he patted me on the back and then entered the ground. I really enjoyed that.

I was at the hotel reception when Imran came and said, "You are playing the World Cup." Just like that. "The way you have been batting, I will play you in all ten games, and if you score nine ducks, I will still play you in the final." I can't forget that

My opening partners and I, we used to discuss cricket, we used to discuss oppositions, and we were open and honest about it. " I might struggle against this bowler. Can you face him for some time?" We used to look at the other batsman for technical deficiencies. After the innings, or sometimes during an innings, we used to say: "Okay, you are not moving this foot well and you have to be careful."

I was never a temperamental person. I just played my cricket with passion and aggression - people may have taken it wrongly. Everybody loses his temper once in a while; it's the same with me.

Imran, Miandad and Malik really knew their cricket, and they were exceptional captains. I didn't play a lot of cricket with Imran but he was the sort of person who knew how to manage people, how to get the best out of them. Miandad was a great help technically, and tactically it was Miandad who used to really help Imran. But the guy I really enjoyed playing under was Malik.

I was not surprised when Saeed started to drift away from cricket and towards religion. He always had that element in him; it was just a matter of time. Whatever it is, he was a great servant of Pakistan. He was the most talented opener I had ever seen. Some strokes he used to play used to mesmerise me.

This game has given me so much, and I respect it. If there is something wrong going on with it, you have to make your point. At times you can't be politically correct; if you try, you won't be able to make sense. At times you need to be vocal, and I was.

Navjot Singh Sidhu and Venkatesh Prasad are still good friends.

It was disappointing to read in Ian Botham's book that he said wouldn't even send his mother-in-law to Pakistan. A person like Ian Botham should realise what we were going through. When they came over in 1978, martial law was on, there were security problems, and England had a completely different culture. When I met him in 1996, I went up to him and said, "Sorry, if you take offence, but after reading the book I felt hurt. I really didn't like that coming from a person like you." He shook my hand and said, "I have something to tell you as well. Okay, fine, I respect the difference in culture. We have a culture where we go to pubs, we have the night life, this and that... We respect that is not on in Pakistan, but cricket should not be dull. The pitches should be sporting, we should at least have fun somewhere." That point was taken, and I think that that was a fair point and should be heard.

Sidharth Monga is a staff writer at Cricinfo