"A player told me, 'Rizwan this is that stage where you don't just have fame, but you have izzat'"
"A player told me, 'Rizwan this is that stage where you don't just have fame, but you have izzat'"
From nearly giving up on his T20 career to being named ICC Men's T20I Cricketer of the year, the Pakistan wicketkeeper-batter looks back at his remarkable 2021
This time last year, Mohammad Rizwan was averaging 22 in T20Is at a strike rate of 108. And those numbers were as high as that because of his most recent innings at the time, of 89, against New Zealand at the end of 2020. Turns out that 89 changed his career. He is now the foremost T20 opener in the game, the first man to score over 2000 T20 runs in a calendar year, leading Multan Sultans to the PSL title and Pakistan to the semi-final of the T20 World Cup, winning numerous awards.
Here, Rizwan talks about that innings, his partnership with Babar Azam and captaining Multan.
What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about your last year?
The whole year? I think it was how I wasn't playing [T20s] before. My T20 career looked finished to me at the time.
Before 2021 I was mostly on the bench, I didn't get that many opportunities and when I did, it was at No. 6 or 7. Then the [2020-21] New Zealand series happened , the first match didn't go that well and neither did the second one. I remember speaking to Iftikhar [Ahmed] before the third game and I said to him, "This is the last T20 match of my career."
You must always believe, of course, that you have some strengths as a player in which you don't lose faith. And I had this faith that if Allah got me to that point, then he would take care of me.
"People had been making fun of me. I wasn't that aware of it, but I knew it was there, people calling me 'Bradman' or 'Sir Rizwan' mockingly. But that moment really changed it for me" Rizwan on an elderly fan waiting at an airport to meet him
But you thought that might be it for you in the T20 side if you didn't score?
I haven't said this in any interview before, but I really did. I wasn't playing for my PSL franchise [Karachi Kings] at the time. I played in the National T20 tournament and Misbah [ul-Haq, then coach] gave me a chance after that, but there's a difference between the National T20 and international cricket. Already people were saying things like, "You are not international material" behind my back.
Then I got this chance in New Zealand. The plan was always for me to open in that series. In the nets, I was opening. In the National T20 Cup, Misbah had said to me, "You open here." And for wicketkeepers in T20, you know, it's not that big a role. You maybe get 20-25 balls that come to you as a keeper, if that much. So Misbah said, "If we use you as an opener, maybe it'll benefit the team."
Before 2020 you opened only eight times in 75 T20 innings. Why did you think you could open?
Yeah, and those eight times was all one tournament, for SNGPL. But I was confident. I had batted at five or six, seven, eight, even at nine, so I just thought that opening will work. There will be swing, there will be the new ball, but I can manage that pressure. It was a challenge and I've always been ready to take challenges on. It was either that or my T20 career would finish.
Waqar bhai [Waqar Younis, when he was coach in 2016] had also said to me once to look at the one-down position. The spot is empty and the team needs someone. I was run out in that match and dropped later that year but this was a challenge: either my career would be done, or it wouldn't. And opening in New Zealand is not easy, with the swing, the new ball, their bowlers who are so good…
You struggled a bit during the start of that innings in the third T20I in New Zealand too.
You know, in all three of those games, I was still confident. In all three, we lost wickets in the circle early on because there was swing and there was bounce, the ball was hitting our fingers. But I was hitting shots, they were getting through. A four here, a six there… I wasn't feeling down on my batting.
Rizwan was named Multan Sultans captain for the 2021 PSL season, and led them to their first tournament title
Rizwan was named Multan Sultans captain for the 2021 PSL season, and led them to their first tournament title © PSL
I hit a few boundaries in the first match, then in the second I hit a few drives and cuts too. They were good boundaries, so I drew some confidence from that. I was defending well. Tim Southee, as you know, is one of the world's leading bowlers, and I could manage him. I got out but I felt like I could control this.
Then in the final game, [Trent] Boult was back too but I went in thinking, "If I get a ball, I have to capitalise, I can't leave it." I hit Boult for fours off the first two balls he bowled [Rizwan hit Boult for a two and a four off the first and fifth balls of the first over], one over point, and I was intent on being positive right throughout, to not fear.
You've won several awards, including the ICC's T20I Cricketer of the Year. Have you been able to reflect on what you did in 2021?
If I wanted an opportunity to have some time to enjoy or really celebrate, then I would have wanted it for the Multan win in the last PSL. If I wanted to really enjoy a moment, with my people, with friends, with the team, it was that PSL.
The PCB award [for Most Valuable Cricketer of the Year] was big and I thought that I'd like to win it but didn't think it would happen so quickly. The ICC awards I hadn't even thought about being nominated for them, let alone winning. I was really surprised by those. It's been in the news, I've been doing interviews, so it's hit home a bit.
And what is it that has hit home?
You know… I know that this is the adulation of the public, but I haven't fully grasped the depth of it. I can't get my head around the fact that people know me to a degree where, if I walk into a mohalla, a kid will say, "Look, there's Rizwan."
"I just thought that opening will work in New Zealand. There will be swing, there will be the new ball, but I can manage that pressure. It was either that or my T20 career would finish here"
We were at an airport coming back from Bangladesh [in November 2021]. I was sitting with Shaheen Shah Afridi. He said, there's one elderly gent there, he's been waiting for you for ages. I asked why. He said, "He wanted to take a picture with you." He was quite elderly, so I went to him and we took the pictures and after it he gave me this really tight hug. The hairs on my arm stood up. A player came to me and told me, "Rizwan this is that stage where you don't just have fame, but you have izzat [respect]." That guy had been waiting for me. The entire Pakistan team was there, with some really big names, and he said he'd been waiting for me.
Until then it hadn't hit me. Until now people had been making fun of me. I wasn't that aware of it but I knew it was there, people calling me "Bradman" or "Sir Rizwan" mockingly. But that moment really changed it for me.
That, and then coming to Karachi airport recently, one little girl saw me and shouted, "Ey, Rizwan!", so I opened my arms and she came running to hug me. And she started crying. Then I felt like, "Wow, what has Allah made me into now? What's he made me do to deserve this?"
Do those feel like stronger moments because you've been cooped up in bubbles all year?
It could be. When we were playing the T20 World Cup a lot of people before the India game were like, "Yaar, tomorrow is the India game, the biggest game", and so on. I was saying to them, "It's just another match, I'm not feeling different. This is a normal game." But I swear what I felt after that game, I can't ever describe that reception. Maybe because it was my first game against India or my first game at a World Cup, but the love and adulation that we got, we're still feeling that. I remember in an interview before the game, somebody said, "You're a star, but if you perform tomorrow, there's a spot free to become a superstar." I was just like, "Please, just hope that Pakistan wins."
So if you ask me how I'm feeling now? Strange. I can't get over the fact that kids are recognising me, older people, families are recognising me and wanting pictures.
What is your favourite innings from last year?
You know the one I will always remember is the Australia one in the semi-final. The most difficult bowler I've ever faced, Josh Hazlewood, was playing. I find him difficult. And then the pitch itself, the conditions, these were things going against us. Batting was tough and I was fighting hard. I was there after being in the ICU but that was a different challenge.
More than the India one? Or the hundred against South Africa?
You know, people will say that the innings against India was my best, but I know which one was the toughest. What I was fighting to play that innings, against myself, the bowlers - Australia's bowling is always strong. The ball was getting stuck in the pitch and they were dropping it right on those spots too. I was trying to do things that I couldn't, so I fought through it. And at the end I started connecting, which is what I'd been waiting for. That's why it stands out.
The challenge gets you going right? On your Test debut you hooked and got out, even though you had been told not to. You switched domestic teams despite advice not to, you took up cricket against your father's wishes.
I don't know about anything else, but right from the beginning I have not been a follower. If somebody wears clothes like this, I won't wear it just because they're wearing it. Even my wedding, I had it arranged for such dates that might seem strange to others. My engagement, I did it on Eid. You know a lot of people might do it on chaand raat [the eve of Eid]. People were like, we have to do so many things on Eid day, but I still pushed ahead with it.
I always wanted to do - and still do - stuff that nobody else does or can do. I often tell my wife that I want to do what nobody else is doing, because if somebody's done it then that's just ordinary.
Your partnership with Babar has stood out this year. Six hundred-plus stands, four over 150. What works between you two?
The difficult thing was that there were questions around both of us at the start. That we don't play hard enough during the powerplay. But with Babar, the most important thing is our running between the wickets. The stands we've made have been built on the running, so that when we're not hitting boundaries, we're still running six, seven runs per over easily. That comes from our understanding. There have been a couple of run-outs but we have blind trust in each other. That's the most important thing.
"I look at the boundary that I want to target more than which bowler. Often grounds will have short boundaries on one side, longer on the other, the wind will blow in a certain direction, so I take that on board more"
We assess conditions and the pitch and what it demands. If it's a 200 pitch, we aim for that, if it's 150 pitch we aim for that. That's probably why we've been so successful, because we've assessed conditions well when we get out there.
The blind trust you talk about - doesn't that take time?
It comes down to trusting the fitness of the partner. If you have that trust, if you have a player on strike who you think will not take a quick single, you won't be confident. You won't have that trust. Fitness is the most important thing, because you play a shot at a certain angle and you need to be confident that at that angle, the partner can take this single. At a different angle, you need to know he won't.
If I say yes at that angle, then the partner will immediately set off, without needing to check or hesitate. They know I will not turn around after saying yes. It's not like Babar and I have practised in the nets together often before this. And this is just last year. We didn't really talk that much before it or play together. He was at No. 4, I was lower order.
But we just started, we talked a couple of times and it took off. We said that even if we have a couple of run-outs, it's not a big deal, we can work through it, but that the running has to be important.
There's often concern over this partnership, that one of you needs to go harder in the powerplay.
Yeah, you can have those thoughts, that either of us can move down, but it's the captain's decision. And the captain is the opener himself. If the captain is on the pitch, he is assessing the pitch, the conditions, the ground, whether this is a 170 ground, where in the powerplay you'll get maximum 40-45 - you won't get 70-80 here. If it is a 200 pitch, sure, you can aim for 60-70. But our strength in T20s is that we don't lose wickets in the powerplay and that our bowlers take wickets in the powerplay.
In sync: "The stands Babar and I have made have been built on the running. There have been a couple of run-outs but we have blind trust in each other"
© ICC/Getty Images
In sync: "The stands Babar and I have made have been built on the running. There have been a couple of run-outs but we have blind trust in each other" © ICC/Getty Images
We haven't paid too much attention to the outside noise, though. According to that, at one time, neither of us were good players.
And the success you've had helps.
Yeah, we've had so many big partnerships. We've chased down 200, had a 150 partnership off of which we made 200.
You have to look at the demands of the pitches. When we went to the West Indies before the World Cup, pitches there were the 120-128 type. In Bangladesh we were struggling to chase 128. It depends heavily on what the pitch is like. That's what we assess out there. What kind of pitch, what's a good score on it, what's a par score? There are areas we can improve, of course, no question. Our average in the powerplay is 43-44, so we want to move that to 48-49, even 50.
Tell us about the pasliyon waala shot, the pull-flick from right off the ribs, that you play. It has come to define you.
It feels like a gift from Allah. Pat Cummins hit me just above the ribs in a Test in Australia, near my heart. I left the ball and it just struck me on the chest, the bat fell out of my hands on impact. Then I thought, I can bear the pain of a ball like this but maybe I need to develop a shot to play because Australia is the kind of place where if you have a shot like that, it makes life easier.
It didn't happen overnight. Gradually I was practising it to short balls and figured out that I could use it in T20s as well. The tough bit is to judge the right length to hit it. If it's going to be head height, then it's difficult to keep it down or safe. If it is a little lower then you have more options.
The length is the key, but [also] things like it being a new ball. I hit Bhuvneshwar Kumar [in the World Cup] for one as well, which was a little more difficult because he bowled an outswinger - and he swings it. I had to adjust to that line and movement, then the length… to pick that, adjust and time it, it isn't always easy to play.
"I'm lucky I've made some runs in the last year, I've achieved a few things. But we need to remember I'm basically a wicketkeeper-batsman"
That has come as part of an expansion of your T20 shots, right?
Absolutely. You have to, at this level. Mansoor Rana [team manager] says to us, "If a player comes to the Pakistan team and stops there, doesn't take his own level up higher, they don't find a new ball or a new shot, then they'll slip back down again." You get here, you have to improve, yes, but also create new things to not only survive but also get better.
When do you get the time to work on things like this when touring schedules are so packed?
The thing is, you already have a base of shots. On tour, for example, you know the flick to leg is a strong shot for you. So you experiment on that shot with small changes. You create shots that are near enough in nature to it. If I walk down a little, I can play with a slightly straighter bat and go over wide mid-on rather than square.
On tour you can't do something drastic, like if that flick to leg is strong but suddenly you start trying to hit those balls over cover. There's no time. What you end up doing is tweaking things. A different angle, a slightly different stance. You start using the crease more, you develop your shuffle a bit more, you refine your movements. These are small things but with big impact, and it's not easy to do.
Is there one shot that stands out to you from the last year?
I don't remember the bowler but I hit this one shot off a ball on off-stump that I stepped to a side and hit over mid-off, nearly went for six. Actually first I hit [Tabraiz] Shamsi over extra cover for a four and then in the same game, I hit this left-arm fast bowler [Beuran Hendricks] over mid-off after moving away a little bit.
How much of a role does data and analytics play in your game?
What I give importance to is the ground we're playing on. What were previous matches like there, how did the pitch play, how big are the boundaries, what way does the wind blow - that's what I look at.
"If I try to become a more stylish batsman, that might actually affect my keeping. I need different movements, to dive around more, to crouch more, and that affects the way I bat"
Michael Steele / © ICC/Getty Images
"If I try to become a more stylish batsman, that might actually affect my keeping. I need different movements, to dive around more, to crouch more, and that affects the way I bat" Michael Steele / © ICC/Getty Images
What data does is give you a good idea of something. One bowler will not always bowl the same kind of delivery all the time. For example, one day a bowler who bowls outswing naturally will not be able to get that, and he might not swing it out at all that day. He might go straight or he might even get inswing. Then what do you do?
Of course, I do watch videos of players to pick up little things, especially for new players. Tim Southee, the whole world knows how he bowls. But if a new guy has come in, then I'd like to see a video of what he does. That does help, for sure. It helps for things like spotting how the ball is released and how it swings, changes of pace and the grips for that. Like, when someone bowls a back-of-hand release it's good to see how they set up for it.
Do you look at match-ups a lot?
It's simple - I look at the boundary that I want to target more than which bowler. Often grounds will have short boundaries on one side, longer on the other, the wind will blow in a certain direction, so I take that on board more. Obviously you look at the pitch as well, so a lower-bounce surface, like Sharjah, you look at how you'll pick up certain fast bowlers. But you target boundaries more.
We sometimes forget about the pitch when we look at data. For example, if a leggie has taken 20 wickets in ten games, you have to see where he took them, right? Like in Bangladesh, he's going to give away nine-ten runs in four overs and get lots of wickets because they dominate there. Suddenly he is in Australia and the ball doesn't turn there. Then he can go for 40-45 runs there. That's why assessing the pitch is way more important than anything else.
One of the things that has stood out in this run is how often you bat deep into a T20 innings. In 2021 you batted till the death in 14 innings - only Babar did that more, with 15, but your strike rate there is well over 200.
Some things are demanded of you from the captain and coach. In internationals, our aim was that one of us two should bat till the end. But my batting style is a bit different. The first thing actually, the difference between Babar and I, is that I'm a wicketkeeper-batsman. That is the most important thing.
If Babar bats for four hours as part of practice, then I bat for two hours and for two hours I work on my keeping. That naturally makes a difference.
If I try to become a more stylish player, a different kind of batsman, that might actually affect my keeping. I may not be able to do certain things that I do now. In keeping, you need flexibility. Stylish players, according to me, are always more static, they need more balance because their game is based on that.
I need different movements, I need to dive around more, need to crouch more, and that affects the way I bat. I'm lucky I've made some runs in the last year, I've achieved a few things, but we need to remember I'm basically a wicketkeeper-batsman.
Obviously I've done a bit of work on my power-hitting at the death. Before the T20 World Cup, [Mohammad] Hafeez bhai had given me a few drills to work on. Shahid [Afridi] bhai had given me a few tips too. Ramiz Raja, when he was a commentator, spoke to me about T20 batting. This was the year before last, 2020.
Shahid bhai said, "Keep your head very still when you're about to face." Ramiz bhai said, "Look at the way you use your hands for power, your legs for the base and balance." Hafeez bhai also helped with keeping my stance and my balance, and with decision-making about shots. Like, which shots will get you what kind of results, and how to generate more power in certain shots.
"The most difficult thing in life and in captaincy is when you come to a point where you have to make a decision with all honesty and good intentions that can still lead you to difficulty"
How have you found captaincy?
As a wicketkeeper, there are some things that are more difficult but some advantages too. Like if you want to change a plan suddenly, you go to a bowler, discuss it, you're coming back, that's pushing you on time. But I have this habit. With any bowler I don't go to them until they've been hit for a couple of boundaries. Before that I don't go to them.
Why? Because I first want the bowlers to do what they are planning and we try to execute that plan as best we can. But if he gets hit for two boundaries, then I'll go to him and say, "Okay, this is my plan, let's try this now."
It's not like I'm soft. When I need to be hard, I am.
What have you found most difficult about it?
The most difficult thing in life and in captaincy is when you come to a point where you have to make a decision with all honesty and good intentions that can still lead you to difficulty. If you stand by your intentions, by your honesty there, that is difficult but you leave it to Allah and he sees it through the rest.
Multan were using coded signals from the dugout to players on the field last year at the PSL. How did you cope with those?
You know, in one match I was looking for the codes from the dugout through the entire game and I couldn't find them. So I did my own thing. I swear, the game ended and I asked where the codes were! Management said, "Right there", and I was looking somewhere else for them.
Sometimes, the codes are there to disturb the batsman. The code is like a suggestion from the coach, what he is thinking. It's not necessary that I go with it. There's that flexibility that I use it if I feel it's needed. That's why I am saying that there have been a few games where I have gone through without using those codes. So much is happening that you don't look outside the field.
Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo
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