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Stay back, play it late – the Azhar advice that changed Younis’s game

Wisden India logo Wisden India 16-08-2016

After picking up the Man of the Match award for his double-century that set up Pakistan’s series-drawing victory over England at The Oval on Sunday (August 14), Younis Khan told Michael Atherton that he owed his 218 to Mohammad Azharuddin, the former India captain.

© AFP Photo

“I received a call before the game from India, from Mohammad Azharuddin, and he talked about my batting, (told me to) stay in the crease,” revealed Younis. Azhar’s advice, and Younis’s adaptability, paid off handsomely as the batsman surged to a monumental sixth Test double-ton, allowing Pakistan to open up a 214-run first-innings lead and eventually round off a 10-wicket win with more than a day to spare. This, after he had hopped and jumped and struggled his way to scores of 31, 4, 1, 28, 33 and 25 in the six knocks preceding the most influential batting performance of the series.

“Younis is a good friend of mine, I keep meeting him often in Dubai especially,” Azhar told Wisden India of the origin of their telephonic conversation. “To be honest, it pained me to watch him bat the way he had been in the first three Tests. I felt he was too good a batsman to be batting in that fashion, and to be getting out in the manner in which he was. So I decided to speak to him before the final Test. It was nice of him to hear me out, and adapt in such a short period of time. The result speaks for itself. Ideally, it is the job of the coach to point out such things but I wasn’t sure if that was happening. I felt really bad for him, so I said let me just call and speak to him myself.”

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Azhar’s suggestion to bat inside the crease stemmed from experience and straightforward logic. “A lot of people stand outside the crease in a bid to counter swing,” pointed out Azhar. “I am not sure that is the right way to go. For one thing, when you stand outside the crease, you reduce the distance between yourself and the ball, so the ball comes quicker on to you. For another, you are playing the ball when it is still swinging, which maximises the chances of getting beaten or nicking off.

“When you are inside the crease, conversely, you have a little more time before the ball reaches you, and more often than not, the ball has finished swinging by the time the bat makes contact with it. I know it is almost fashionable to stand outside and meet the ball early, but from experience, I can state that that doesn’t necessarily work because then you are vulnerable to both pace and swing.”

Azhar, of course, has a volume of work on which to base his reasoning. He had four wonderful seasons with Derbyshire in the English County Championship in the early 1990s, making 2728 runs for them in 31 games at 54.56, inclusive of nine hundreds and 11 fifties, between 1991 and 1994. In 1991 alone, he amassed 2016 runs in 22 matches at a remarkable 59.29 – a fabulous achievement in any era and particularly at a time when the top bowlers in the world all plied their wares on the county circuit – with seven centuries and 11 further scores between 50 and 99. He had by then lit up India’s 1990 tour of England with a mesmeric 121 at Lord’s – off 111 deliveries with 22 fours – in an innings that is spoken of more glowingly than Graham Gooch’s 333 and 123, and followed that up with an equally luminous 179 in a tall-scoring draw at Old Trafford in the following game.

“International cricket is all about adjusting to challenges and adapting to conditions,” went on Azhar. “When things aren’t going your way, you need to think why that is happening. This is the day and age of intense analysis through use of video technology; bowlers come armed with specific game plans for specific batsmen, and as a batsman, you must have your own plans to negate their designs.

“You can’t stay static and stagnant in your thinking and your approach because then you will be a sitting duck. That’s the point I tried to make with Younis. Even during our conversation, I got the sense that he had quickly cottoned on to what I was saying. The later you play the ball, the more the chances of finding the gaps. There is no point going hard at the ball and hitting three great shots to the fielder for no runs. When you play the ball late, you give yourself a bigger window to find the gaps. The very good players hit, say, 16-17 boundaries on their way to a hundred, the hallmark of a very good player is to see the gaps and not the fielders. That’s what keeps the game moving forward and transfers the pressure on to the opposition.”

© Getty Image

Azhar pointed out that bowlers had wisened up to batsmen standing outside the crease to address swing bowling. “So when you go back, then you are forcing them to adapt and alter their lengths. By the time they start to alter their lengths, you are already say 30-40, and then you can kick on from there. That’s what we saw with Younis in this game. There was a marked difference in the manner in which he batted in this innings compared to the previous innings in the Test series, hats off to him for making the adjustment so brilliantly.

“You have to if you want to be successful,” shot back Azhar when asked how difficult it was to make a technical and tactical adjustment so late in one’s career, and towards the end of a series. “There is no substitute for performance, you can’t afford to take anything for granted, especially in modern-day competitive cricket.”

Perhaps there is a message in it for some of India’s batsmen too, who have had their problems against the swinging ball. Virat Kohli, the current Indian Test captain, had a fairly disastrous tour of England in 2014 when he made just 134 runs from 10 innings with a highest of 39, repeatedly caught behind the stumps driving away from his body. Kohli has since raised his batting to a different plane, with four centuries in one series in Australia alone as well as a maiden double-hundred in the ongoing series in the Caribbean, though his next visit to England for a Test tour will be followed with greater interest than before.

“There aren’t too many genuine swing bowlers in the world, and our players don’t therefore always have exposure to playing quality swing bowling, particularly in domestic cricket,” observed Azhar. “That explains why a young and inexperienced Sri Lankan attack bowled them out for 101 in Pune earlier this year in a Twenty20 International in conditions that generously encouraged swing bowling.”

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