Interview by Rvel Zahid
Meet one of the most dynamic leg-spinners from Pakistan who has been toiling in domestic cricket from the last 10 years, the Karachi King's ace leg-spinner—Usama Mir. The Sialkot-born protege found a mentor in the shape of quintessential T20 player Shoaib Malik in the days when Sialkot Stallions used to dominate the domestic scene. Usama touched on the art of leg-spin, how he first developed an interest in the game and his account of the gruelling back injury in 2016 and the lengthy process of recovery and rehabilitation. The tall leggie is heartbroken on the postponement of current PSL season and he can't wait to make a mark for himself in the knockout games once the season resumes as he intends to take all the opportunities to stake a claim for a place in the national side. These days he is enjoying Punjabi movies, doing the workout at home and trying to keep himself busy in the lockdown.
Has it been frustrating for you to not get an opportunity yet to break into Pakistan team considering how you have been toiling away for years in domestic cricket?
As a cricketer, like everyone else, my ultimate dream is to represent Pakistan. After managing to be the best bowler in the National T20 Cup, I got a chance in Pakistan Super League (PSL) and I performed well there but unfortunately, I got an untimely injury after that. However, I didn't lose my focus and worked hard. I got picked in other leagues too but my main goal is to get selected in the national team and I am going to try to perform to the best of my ability in the upcoming tournaments.
When did you first decide to take up leg-spin?
There is a story behind it. My elder brother Saad Mir, who is two years older than me, was also very interested in cricket and we both used to play on the rooftop and then at night in the lounge which wasn't too spacious. We decided to bowl spin and Saad taught me how to grip the ball and bowl (leg) spin. I got the ball to turn and we were both surprised. I used to watch Shane Warne and copy him—he is my ideal. My action is nowhere near close to him but I followed him.
Zahid Fazal, who really impressed Imran Khan and played in the 1992 World Cup, saw me in trials. He appreciated my talent and suggested me to join Amir Waseem Cricket Academy. Since then I have been bowling leg-spin and Amir Bhai worked a lot with me and helped me with my action.
What has PSL done for you? How effective is the platform in promoting young talent and also how would you compare your experience in PSL with other leagues?
PSL is important for every player as we get a chance to showcase our skills on the big stage. Everybody knows this is the best platform because if you perform well then you could go on to represent the country. In a way, it kind of fast-tracks you to the international level. I have played in other leagues too but PSL is the most competitive mainly due to the local players who are really good as compared to other leagues. The quality of cricket is very high if we compare it to Bangladesh Premier League (BPL), Global T20 Canada (GT20) and Caribbean Premier League (CPL). CPL is also good but PSL, because of our very competitive bowlers, I feel it's the best of the lot.
Shoaib Malik hails from Sialkot which is your hometown too and you both played for Sialkot Stallions. When did you first meet him and what has been his influence in your journey as a professional cricketer?
I met Shoaib Malik in 2010 in my academy, we used to play for the same club and still do. He worked with Amir Bhai so when Shoaib Bhai saw me bowling for the first time, he was impressed and then we met after one year and he saw my bowling and lauded me a lot. He said if I don't get a chance to represent Pakistan then it would be a pity. He has really supported me a lot throughout my career. When he picked me in Sialkot Stallions, not many felt that I was ready for the challenge because I was very young but Shoaib Malik supported me and Bilal Asif and got us in the side with quite a lot of difficulty. Before the tournament, he said there were not many bowlers like me so he advised me to feel free and express myself on the field and in the end, we were champions in the domestic cup and I was the best bowler so I must say his support has been instrumental and he has been like an elder brother. I keenly follow him and he is an inspiration to me. I try to emulate him both on and off the field. He is a blessing for Sialkot and he supports all youngsters, seniors and shares his experiences so his backing is always with us. Whatever cricket we have played, he has a big role in it and it won't be wrong to say that he has lifted cricket in Sialkot.
You only got three games in this year's PSL and unfortunately couldn't pick any wicket but your spells were economical. Were you looking forward to the knockout games and perhaps saving your best performance for the playoffs?
Yes, the way captain and coach gave me the plan, I was trying to stick to those plans. I got a match almost after three years and when I finally got a game, I was slightly nervous but my aim is always to implement the plans and if wickets come, brilliant. The coronavirus created uncertainty and suddenly we had to play without the crowds and it felt like I was playing in a piece of empty land in a mohalla (neighbourhood). As a sportsman, if you are playing in front of a crowd, you feel a 'good' pressure and that exhilaration can only come with the crowd's presence otherwise you feel like it's a practice match.
I played the first match against Lahore Qalandars in a packed house and I was so pumped up because the atmosphere was superb and when you perform in such conditions, you feel awesome. In the next game, we were playing without the crowd and even though the match was broadcasted so (not having crowd) it's not an excuse (for ordinary performance). I tried my best but if I compare the first game with the last two, I really enjoyed the first one and I hope PSL resumes soon. Whenever the playoffs take place, I will give my best and whatever plans I get from Dean Jones and the captain, I will work on them and I will try to get wickets.
Usama Mir alongside Chadwick Walton ©Usama Mir
What has been the role of your family in your career?
Throughout my career, my family has supported me a lot. My brother, father, mother; they have all prayed for me. When I started my cricket, they supported me financially, bought me the kits. I just can't describe in words how much my family has supported me and whatever cricket I have played I couldn't have played it without my family's support and the unconditional backing is what matters the most. I have a lot of stuff in my mind. I mean there are so many little things but I can't describe in words how instrumental my family's support has been for me throughout these years.
How are you coping with all this coronavirus situation and how are you keeping yourself fit in this lockdown?
Yes, this whole situation, every cricketer, in-fact every sportsperson is worried. After PSL, I haven't been able to bowl with a proper ball and I have been practising with a tennis ball on my terrace which doesn't feel the same at all. It is becoming a challenge to keep fit but I try to engage myself in different activities. Thanks to my trainer who has been very helpful in this whole situation. The trainer has been very cooperative; he has been sending me videos but then again you don't get the same satisfaction which you obtain by practising at the grounds where you do your proper training.
Other than that, sometimes at home when you are bored, you end up eating something unhealthy. It is tough to keep ourselves fit and healthy but I try my best to do whatever I can to keep fit. I pray that we get rid of this pandemic as soon as possible and as a cricketer, I hope normality resumes and we go back to the grounds and bring the raunkain (festivity) back.
What was the rehabilitation and recovery process like after the gruelling back injury in 2016?
Yes, back in 2016 I had a back injury and I was in a lot of bother due to the compression of the sciatic nerve. I wasn't able to get up from bed for like seven months and I underwent a major rehab at National Cricket Academy but my condition didn't improve much. Dr Asad assisted me a lot but then he had to go with the Pakistan team for Zimbabwe tour. From thereon, my problem got a bit worse and then I met Dr Zaf. My injury deteriorated and I got an appointment with the surgeon who told me I needed surgery. After the surgery, I underwent rehab with Dr Zaf, physio Edd helped me a lot and T J Salih worked with me. All these people helped me a lot in the recovery process.
Just after 45 days of my surgery, I played PSL and emerged as the second-highest wicket-taker overall and was the number one spinner of that season. You can imagine from my performance that how hard (medical team) worked with me and the effort I put in to come out of that exhausting injury. I went for the emerging teams Asia Cup right after the PSL in Bangladesh and performed there too. A person who cannot even walk for like 7-8 months and was on bed rest and just had surgery and not to mention leg-spin can't be bowled effectively even if you miss it for like two days. Leg-spin is not an easy job because you need great accuracy. I picked the ball after a long gap and was playing PSL straight away. It was a tough time but I would like to give all my credit to Dr Zaf and others because they supported me and not only me but a lot of cricketers have been helped by his dedication so hats off to him.
Who do you like to hang out with and have fun among local and overseas players?
I am always trying to make friends and I have a good camaraderie with Ravi Bopara since the first season. He has supported me immensely and shares his useful insights on the game with me. Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle, Kumar Sangakkara are great to talk to and I try to learn from them because they have vast experience as they travel all around the world and they are legends. Colin Ingram is a wonderful guy too and he always used to sit next to me on the bus, we had many discussions where we talked about our cultures and a lot of other stuff. Lendl Simmons is a friend too, he was my teammate in the BPL and he is like a brother. This year I had a lot of fun with Chadwick Walton, Chris Jordan and Ali Khan. Whenever they were bored, they used to call me and all the foreign players were really kind and they supported all youngsters, shared their experiences. Among local players, Bilawal Bhatti, Ali Khan, Irfan Junior and Arish Ali Khan are my best buddies. To be honest, after the second PSL, I have tried to change my approach—especially off the field. Watching Sangakkara's utter professionalism and discipline inspired me a lot and I try to emulate him.
Oh, and I almost forgot to mention Saif Badar (chuckles), he is one of my great friends!
Is it true that when you started playing cricket, you wanted to become an all-rounder but later on shifted your focus entirely on bowling?
No, I always wanted to become a leg-spinner but yes at school, I used to play as a batsman and in tape-ball cricket as well. However, when I started playing cricket at the academy, I wanted to become a bowler. Having said that, when I batted well in a few matches, I got applauded by my coach and I developed an interest in batting. People told me I can hit the ball well and so I used to hear keenly whatever coaches use to say to the batsmen and that's how I learned to bat. I would like to express myself as a batsman and I am waiting for the proper chance so I can deliver the goods as an all-rounder.
Is leg-spin a difficult art to master? What are the key elements of becoming an effective leg spinner?
As a leg-spinner, if you have proper command and control on leg-spin then you are the most difficult bowler in the world. For instance, Shane Warne was a master of leg-spin and he didn't even have to use the googly too often. Yes, (Shane) used to bowl the flipper but he got the most number of wickets by bowling leg-spin. He said it himself too that if you can master the leg-spin then you are lethal. Thus, I am of the view that first, you should become a proper leg-spinner and then go for the other variations. However, these days, bowlers are not bowling the leg-spin properly and we are going for other varieties but if we master leg-spin and even if we don't have a perfect control on the flipper, googly, or top-spinner, we will succeed. Nowadays, leg-spinner is highly sought after by teams and in T20 cricket batsmen are looking to target long-on and midwicket boundary and going for the switch hit where leg-spinners come into play because they get the ball to turn away from the body. Therefore, get the leg-spin right and I am saying that because wherever you go, you can perform well. Once you gain command over it through proper action and develop an ability to pitch the ball in the right area so then you can become a proper leg-spinner. It's an art, the more you work on it and practice, the better you will become.
Should one use the googly sparingly and keep it as the surprise delivery?
Look, according to me, I try to use the wrong un' according to the plan on the match day and particular situation. For instance, against Ben Dunk, I made my mind that I will bowl him the wrong un's outside the off stump. The usage of googly varies but you can use it as the surprise delivery. If you keep pursuing with just leg spin on the same length and float up a googly out of nowhere, then you can certainly take the batsman by surprise. In T20 cricket, after every few deliveries, you should try to mix it up but in the longer format, you need to be patient and after bowling three-four overs with leg-spin then you may toss up a change-up delivery. The mindset is different in both versions of the game: in T20 cricket I usually bowl the wrong un' to the left-handers because it's a wicket-taking delivery and can also lead to build up of dots.
Do you think your bowling is suited to Test cricket or are you only focusing on limited-overs cricket at the moment?
Definitely, like any other player, I want to thrive in every format but yes I do enjoy T20 cricket and One-day cricket more. I am working hard and trying to improve my bowling so that I can make a name for myself in red-ball cricket and four-day cricket so let's hope for the best and, god willing, I will perform in longer format too.
Is flipper a tough delivery to bowl? Also, do you think top-spinner can be useful in getting batters trapped lbw?
Flipper is a difficult bowl to execute and also to play. You might have watched how Imran Tahir bowls the flipper, it's a very effective bowl but you need a lot of skill and a good grip. That said, top-spin isn't very effective as compared to other deliveries in white-ball cricket. Basically, when you have set the fielding positions with the red ball - slip, point and leg slip - and when the batsman defends the ball with bat and pad, that's where topspin is effective because it bounces more than normal delivery - which usually hits the middle of the bat - but with the top-spin, you have got a chance to hit the stickers or handle and get the ball deflected towards silly point or leg slip. Also, I usually don't topspin the ball because with my height 6 ft 4, I don't feel the need to become an expert of this variation.
Which mode of dismissal do you like the most?
The delivery that gets me a wicket is my favourite (laughs). I haven't really thought about it but yes when you get a wicket with proper leg-spin and get the batsman to nick through to the slips or get a caught behind, that's a pretty pleasing sight. If there is an unplayable googly that traps the batsman lbw, that's nice too. Even a flipper that isn't picked by the batsman and gets him lbw or if it hits the stumps is a special sight. On every ball, you have an ideal dismissal in mind.
What has been the most prized wicket that you have taken so far?
I remember how I dismissed Kevin Pieterson, who is one of my favourite batsmen, in the PSL in the slips. It was a top leg-spin delivery. Andre Russell's wicket on my PSL debut and Shahid Afridi's wicket, in particular, are most memorable for me.
Does T20 limit the options of leg-spinners, I mean do you focus on getting the ball to flight, give it some air, or do you look to contain runs and keep it simple?
Leg-spinner is an effective bowler in T20 cricket because he gets the ball to turn away which creates an awkward angle. If a leg-spinner is in good form, bowling with a nice rhythm and landing the ball in the right areas, so no matter which pitch is it, whichever format, leg-spinner becomes the most difficult bowler to negotiate and there is a higher chance to pick up wickets. Thus, as a leg-spinner, I would recommend sticking to your basics, bowl at the right spot and you would definitely create problems for the batsman. If you try too hard to pick up wickets, you may leak a lot of runs. I always try to contain the batsman and play my normal game. Also, I think with the small boundaries in T20 cricket, you can't afford to give the ball a lot of flight so you have to bowl on a low trajectory and bowl on a tight line and length and wait for the batsman to make the error and try to induce a mistake.
Do you set your own field or the captain does it for you or is it done with a mutual consultation? Do you recall any incident when there wasn't an agreement on field placing with your captain?
I think most captains give freedom to the bowler to set their own fields. I have played a lot of cricket under the captaincy of Shoaib Malik. I always set my own fielding but if it doesn't work then Shoaib Bhai used to take over. I think good captains first allow the bowler to set their own fielding and implement their bowling plans but in case things don't go bowlers' way then captains help out. They discuss and give us their plans so this is how it works.
What would be your tactics against Steve Smith and how will you get him out?
In GT20, I was in Steve Smith's team and I bowled him in the nets and practice sessions. The thing is that against these quality batsmen, the margin of error is minimal and you have to be very accurate against them because they are waiting to pounce on an error. Therefore, accuracy is crucial and you have to bowl in the same area consistently. Don't take them (top-flight batsmen) lightly and suppose if you are bowling a normal batsman then even if you bowl four deliveries on one length and the remaining two not really on target, then you might get away with it but that doesn't happen against quality batsmen such as Steve because they make sure to punish the bad deliveries so you got to bowl with a lot of patience.
What are your favourite pastimes and considering the whole staying indoors instructions from the government, how are you keeping yourselves busy at home?
Usually, I like to hang out with my friends but yes due to Corona I am at my home and I play different games. I do my workout at home and at night I like to watch movies. I am watching a lot of Punjabi movies, comedy is my favourite genre. Diljit Dosanjh is my favourite actor and he is a brilliant singer too. Moreover, Amrinder Gill is also pretty cool. I can't wait for the movie 'Chal Mera Putt' to be released and in Bollywood, I really liked the movie Kabir Singh and Shahid Kapoor's terrific acting. Mostly I watch Punjabi movies; they are funny and the songs are really good. Guru Randhawa is a fabulous singer.