Saturday, February 26, 2011

Interview with Inzamam-ul-haq

Interview with Inzamam-ul-haq

Cricket: Inzamam-ul-Haq tells Donald McRae he is confident of repeating his success from last winter on his final tour of England.

"If you don't mind," Inzamam-ul-Haq says politely, "I think it is much better if we find a nice place to sit down. Somewhere in the shade where we can just relax." As we amble over to a tranquil spot under a leafy tree, the famously languid and comfortably proportioned Pakistan cricket captain casts a leisurely eye over his team-mates toiling away in the nets on a steamy afternoon.

"They work and we sit and talk nicely," Inzamam murmurs approvingly, as he settles down on a bench with the look of a man sinking into his favorite armchair. "I have done my work for the day," the 36-year-old says of a laid-back fielding session and a spell in the nets, where he spent as much time bowling innocuous spin as he did wielding a bat with the kind of indolent brilliance that has characterized a career spanning 109 Tests at an imposing average of 51.34.

Even at his most low-key and languorous, the brief sight of Inzamam practicing his batting is a rare treat for, with his remarkable eye and fluid technique, he appears to have a ridiculous amount of time to play each ball before swatting it away elegantly into the meshed fence.

"I only do it for a short time, nice and slow," Inzamam says sagely. "When we start the first Test against England [this Thursday at Lord's] I try for another long innings. Today it is more important to prepare quietly."

Out of that quietness, however, emerges an unusually expansive Inzamam, who was such a decisive performer when the two countries met last winter. In Pakistan's convincing 2-0 series victory, Inzamam scored 431 runs in five innings at an average of 107.75. His lowest score was 53 and he hit a century in each innings of the second Test - to equal and then break Javed Miandad's previous Pakistan record of 23 Test centuries.

"This was the sweet moment," he says with almost coltish enthusiasm. "Miandad is a big player and so for me it is wonderful. I would even say it is unreal - but thanks to Allah. To score two centuries in one match is something I had never done before. And each has something special. With the first I come up to Miandad's record and then in the second innings I go past to 24 centuries. I was so happy you would not believe it."

Inzamam has since scored his 25th century, against India. He also led Pakistan to series victories at home against the Indians and away in Sri Lanka. England, meanwhile, are in the midst of an injury-riddled slump. "This summer England has not had such good results," Inzamam agrees, "but Sri Lanka performed very well against them. England struggle because of injuries and they are definitely missing Michael Vaughan. The combination they had for the Ashes is broken. When they had Simon Jones and Vaughan in the side they had some good combinations in batting and bowling."

In an effort to avoid sounding excessively confident, particularly with Andrew Flintoff also absent this week, Inzamam opts for some dutiful diplomacy. "England is still a good side and, at home, they are difficult to beat. And Kevin Pietersen is a very dangerous player. When he is at the crease it is hard to stop him scoring quick runs. I also think they played some good cricket in Pakistan. In all the Tests they were good for maybe four days. It is just on the fifth day they crumble."

Inzamam highlights Islamic unity as a significant force in Pakistan's increased consistency under his captaincy (the Hindu leg-spinner Danish Kaneria is the only exception). "Like every Muslim we pray five times a day and this helps our spirit. If we have a problem we discuss it when we get together to pray."

But Bob Woolmer, as coach, surely also exerts a profound influence. In a similar way to his handling of a South Africa side crammed with born-again Christians in the 1990s, Woolmer brings a light touch to such earnest faith. "Bob has come from the outside, but he is very good for us. My personal opinion is that the relationship between a coach and his team should be relaxed and friendly. This is important, because if a player is feeling uncomfortable, then it will be easy for him to go talk personally to the coach and be open. Bob feels the same, and so the boys are very comfortable."

Inzamam laughs when reminded of Woolmer's revelation that, after he had discovered to his horror that Pakistan were by far the most unfit team he had coached, his burly skipper suggested a new work ethic should only be implemented gradually. "Let's do everything slowly," Inzamam pleaded.

"I don't mean to tell Bob what to do," he says now, "but he takes it well, because he's a very good human being. He understands us and so he does not try to change us in one day. He also makes us think about our diet, even though we all love Pakistani food - especially the curries. We now know that during a series we cannot eat any curry. We have to go for pasta and light food, because if you eat heavy curries it's not so easy to perform."

And yet it is reassuring to hear that Inzamam is not about to resume the misguided diet which almost ruined his career in 2003. "I never do that again," he promises while patting his stomach gently. "Just before the World Cup I work harder than I ever did. I lose a lot of weight - 17 kilograms!" He shudders. "Can you believe it? It was too much. I didn't score any runs without those 17 kilograms. And that's when I got dropped from the Test team. It hurt me so much that I say I'm not willing to play again. But after three months I realize that I'm only 33 and have many years ahead of me. So I decide to come back.

"Then we play Bangladesh in Multan Inzamam's home town and we are in big trouble. Everybody is praying when I get to the crease. The pressure on me is really hot. But I always do quite well when the pressure is big and I play one of my greatest innings. It's not like my 329 against New Zealand, it's only 138, but those runs are maybe the most important of my career."

Beneath the surface of this story, a more tangled pain lurks. For years Inzamam brooded while his weight and apparent lethargy were ridiculed. In 1997, in a match against India in Toronto, he even attacked a spectator who called him a mota aaloo (fat potato). If it has long been a delight to hail Inzi as the perfectly rounded riposte to the grinding professionalism of modern sport, his comic image as the slowest runner between wickets in Test cricket has unsettled a shy man whose talent is as subtle as it is sumptuous. "Those jokes hurt me - especially in the past. It is not easy when people laugh at you. I don't mind positive criticism, but when it is negative and personal it is quite hard. But I feel more relaxed now."

Inzamam has also discovered a kind of serenity in captaincy - even if the task of leading Pakistan is one of the toughest in world cricket.

"It is difficult because we have 150 million critics in Pakistan and whenever we play a series there are maybe five TV channels that cover the cricket. And each channel has five big experts telling us where we are going wrong. I try to ignore them, because I know that if you are winning then you enjoy the captaincy. And that's what happening, thanks to Allah. I get more confidence and happiness leading this team."

Fourteen summers ago, in 1992, at a time when he never even dreamed of captaining his country, Inzamam made his Test debut in England. "It was at Edgbaston and I was very nervous. I was only 22 and now I'm the old man. So it's very special to be back in England because everything start for me here. In between a lot of good things have happened, with some big scores and tremendous matches. I feel it a lot now, because I am sure this will be my last tour of England. I thought about it for two months before we come here. Even when I was playing in the back garden with Ibtisam [his seven-year-old son] I was looking forward to England."

Inzamam, a father of three with a four-year-old daughter and another son aged one, rocks with laughter when asked to relive those sunlit afternoons. Did he have to pretend to be Freddie Flintoff while Ibtisam crafted an imaginary match-winning innings for Pakistan?

"We played lots of matches. He loves batting and I did a lot of bowling. He is very good and the first thing you notice is that he bats left-handed. I bat right-handed but bowl left-handed. So he scores many runs against me."

And what happened when Inzy himself was given a chance at the crease? "I score a few," he grins, "but sometimes he gets me out."

That feat proved to be desperately difficult for England in Pakistan. With the big man in such a jocular mood, and watched by his family on tour, England may be subject to more hefty pain in the coming weeks. The giant shadow of Inzamam should stretch "nice and slow" across the rest of a fading English summer.