Interview by Rvel Zahid
Aizaz Cheema, a workhorse speedster and former Pakistan paceman retired from the longer format at the end of last Quaid-e-Azam trophy season. Aizaz made his international debut against Zimbabwe in 2011 and impressed right away. The 40-year old quick is famously remembered for his last over heroics in the Asia Cup 2012 final against Bangladesh where he defended only nine runs and was undoubtedly the unsung hero in that memorable victory.
After toiling for many years in the domestic cricket and maintaining consistent performances, he finally earned a call-up to the national side in 2011 when he was 31 and he made an impact with this brisk pace and quick-arm skiddy action.
Aizaz played seven Tests, 14 ODIs and five T20Is for Pakistan. He holds the record of second-best performance by a Test debutant for Pakistan after Mohammad Zahid as he took eight wickets against Zimbabwe and was the chief tormenter in that game but his career didn't take off as he would have imagined.
"Bowling the last over in Asia Cup final and defending nine runs, winning the cup for Pakistan after 12 years is one of my sweetest memories. Getting my test cap against Zimbabwe and taking eight wickets in a match, which is the second-best Test debut performance for Pakistan after Mohammad Zahid was another great moment. Thereafter, my debut one-day series against Zimbabwe where I took eight wickets in the three-match ODI series and four of them came in the third ODI where I was declared man of the match award is also a sweet memory," said Aizaz while sharing the high-points of his international career.
The Sargodha-born quick is particularly effective at death overs and he often maintained calmness and composure in the crunch moments whether it's the Pakistan Super League 2016 season in the playoff against Peshawar Zalmi or the prime example of Asia Cup final. Aizaz feels having different variations up his sleeve and reading the batsman's mind helped him hold his nerve in the big moments.
"In 2016 for Quetta Gladiators I got the last over in the playoff against Peshawar Zalmi in 2016 and I defended eight runs amid conditions where the outfield was very wet and it was difficult to grip the ball because of the dew. Whenever I get an opportunity to bowl at the death, I try to keep the batsman guessing about what bowl I am going to bowl next so I keep varying it. I would throw in a slow ball, bouncer or a yorker and so mixing it up helped me perform well at the death," remarked Aizaz.
Despite an impressive domestic record, Aizaz's inconsistent performances at the international level led him to fall down the pecking order rather quickly but he feels he could have definitely done better if he got a consistent run and more chances.
"The one year I played, I took 51 wickets but obviously if I got more chances then I would have tried to perform even better than (what I managed) but overall I am satisfied with my career. Thanks to God, I have 572 wickets in 140 first-class matches in my 19-year-career so I am content with my career.
"It's a job of a sportsman to keep fighting and I always had that fighting spirit when I got out of the team. I worked hard to make a comeback and it reflected in my domestic performances. My efforts prolonged my career and I have maintained a strict fitness regime and put a lot of focus on fitness which I believe is very important," Aizaz added.
Aizaz is still going strong at 40; he picked up a fifer against Sindh in Pakistan's top domestic tournament last year and he has no plans to quit from the limited-overs format. The soft-spoken ex-Pakistan bowler appreciated the tremendous guard of honour that he got at the completion of the QeA trophy final last year and he now eyes a coaching career in the years to come. He has already completed ECB’s Level 2 Coaching qualification and PCB's level 2 coaching qualification and has served as a mentor for Central Punjab side.
"I am looking forward to taking part in the One-Day tournament organised by PCB because I took the retirement after the Quaid-e-Azam trophy final (2019) and I got a great guard of honour after I announced my retirement. Now I am trying to focus on some other aspect such as coaching or any other field," Aizaz told Cricingif.
With the promulgation of new domestic structure and a myriad of changes introduced in domestic cricket, players have mixed reactions about the overhauling. Aizaz likes the introduction of Kookaburra balls in domestic tournaments as quite naturally he feels this will allow the bowlers to adapt faster to international cricket. However, he is concerned about the 160 players who have been shown the door as a result of the reduction in the number of domestic sides.
"Cricket quality has improved a lot (after the changes in domestic cricket structure) and it's more competitive but a lot of cricketers who weren't named in the teams should be adjusted by the board and the board is working on this matter and they are trying to involve the left out players this year. I had a great experience with Kookaburra ball, it's used in international cricket as well so it's a laudable decision from PCB to use it in domestic cricket as well because it's good for the young bowlers as when they will transition to international cricket then they won't have much difficulty because they would be used to it and my experience has been superb with Kookaburra."
T20 leagues have been mushrooming from the time when Indian Premier League first started sending shockwaves across the cricket world. 'Champions League' was introduced in 2008 and perhaps the concept will be reintroduced if the leagues keep on increasing. Lahore Lions made it to the main draw of the competition in 2014 and Aizaz's performance was fantastic as he was on a hattrick thrice in the event and darted many thunderbolts.
"It was a phenomenal experience for me to play in the Champions League Twenty20. Teams from many countries competed in India and before Lahore Lions, Faislabad Wolves and Sialkot Stallions competed in the qualifying round as well but they didn't progress (to the main round) but Lahore Lions qualified by winning two out of three games and we won against Mumbai Indians and like you said I was on a hat-trick against Kolkata Knight Riders, Southern Express and Mumbai Indians. I really enjoyed that tour and my name was in the best eleven that was announced at the end of the tournament and it was a great honour for me, the whole experience was wonderful."
Aizaz went on to talk about the essentials of fast bowling and his own journey and how he developed an interest in the most popular sport in Pakistan. Being an ardent cricket fan, he followed the legends of the game and has vivid memories of the historic 1992 World Cup that inspired a generation of cricketers, including Aizaz.
"Line and length are the most crucial parts but I think if you have pace and some variety like if you know three or four variations, then that's good for you; you then have a chance to flourish in all formats. Fast bowling is a natural talent but if you are working on your game and with proper coaching, you can certainly increase your pace.
"I always had a natural ability and I used to throw the ball a long way. I remember when in third or fourth grade I started playing cricket with a tennis ball and even at that age, I used to bowl quite fast (among my friends). In the 1992 World Cup, that I saw on television, really piqued my interest in the game and I would say I always had that natural skill to bowl fast and never paid much attention to batting."
Many fast bowlers aren't too thrilled about the usually unkempt wickets in Pakistan and there is not a lot of purchase and assistance but Aizaz doesn't have any major qualms about the conduciveness of pitches to fast bowling. He believes with the right skill-set one can find ways to succeed on any track.
"About the pitches, it depends on the weather and also on the amount of grass which helps pacers but if it's totally flat then it doesn't (help) but it's like that all around the world. It's a mixed bag. You can see these days in One-day and T20 cricket, there are pure batting wickets but this is how it has always been. In test cricket, sometimes we get a good bowling strip but usually, there are batting wickets. As a bowler, you ought to bowl with as much variety as possible on flat wickets so you can stop the run flow and there are chances to pick wickets too."