Cricket: The new Imran makes his mark

Stephen Brenkley talks to the heir apparent to a great Pakistani tradition
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AT an age when many of his countrymen are being selected to appear in Test matches Azhar Mahmood played his first organised game of cricket. He was 16. This is getting on by any standards and in Pakistan, where the policy of if they are good enough they are old enough means they could field a team of players capped before their 18th birthday, it is positively antiquated.

Azhar, managing to repel the onset of years, has caught up quickly. He was 23 last week and marked the occasion by scoring his third century in only eight Tests. Since he is batting at number seven and is being picked primarily as a seam bowler he may yet have a future.

"I want to be the best all-rounder in the world, nothing else," he said last week after Pakistan's stirring victory by 29 runs in the Second Test against South Africa in Durban. This is a tour beset by controversy and apparent disarray, but the tourists are winning and Azhar seems calmness personified. "My hero as a boy was Imran Khan and the way he played inspired me to take up cricket. I would dearly like to bat and bowl as he did."

This is some ambition and Azhar mentioned it with a genuine sense of awe, loath to make the heady comparison. He may be aware of his deeds and his potential (he can recall in vivid detail all his performances) but he is thoroughly unassuming. It is in the middle where he flourishes, relishing the heat of battle.

"When I first started my international career it was something completely different and I felt a lot of pressure," he said. "I went to Toronto for some one-day matches with the Pakistan team. I performed well in one of the matches and it was then, that evening, I realised I liked playing in front of crowds and could play my own game."

Azhar, the son of a Rawalpindi shopkeeper, learned the game by playing in the street on dodgy surfaces. For years as he pretended to be Imran he bowled with a taped-up tennis ball. Given his chance, he rose steadily if unspectacularly through the ranks: Rawalpindi, United Bank, Pakistan Under-20s, the national one-day side.

Last summer he came on Pakistan A's tour to England. He prospered in the conditions, unperturbed by the seaming pitches. "The ball moved about all the time but I use the seam too as well as reverse swing and perhaps because I was knowing what to expect it also helped my batting." Maybe, too, all that practice on pitted roads helped him to harness the lateral movement, and he eventually finished 12th in the national bowling averages with 40 wickets at 20.72. He also scored 379 runs at 31.58.

And then, at last, back home in Rawalpindi in October, Test cricket. The immediate signs were - and remain - that it is a game he was born for. Pakistan were 206 for 6 when he went in against South Africa, his fellow debutant Ali Naqvi having made a century. Azhar made an unbeaten 128 and shared a record-equalling last-wicket partnership of 151 with Mushtaq Ahmed. He shared the new ball with Waqar Younis, took two wickets and then scored an unbeaten 50 in the second innings.

His place has been undisputed since, which is no mean feat itself in Pakistan selectorial circles. Although they surprisingly went down 1-0 to South Africa in that series they went on to humiliate West Indies 3- 0. Azhar recalls with immense pride the off-cutter which had Brian Lara lbw in the second innings of the First Test.

He is unfazed by reputation or the state of the match and is happy to do his captain's bidding. "I know I have not taken as many wickets as I might have done but I am keeping the ball straight and not giving the batsmen the chance to score runs. That is my job for the moment," he said.

But his batting has been unrestrained joy. On the present tour of South Africa he scored 136 in the First Test after Pakistan were 112 for 5. He followed this with a century in a provincial match and then in the Second Test came perhaps his finest hour. The side were again in trouble. He took on both Shaun Pollock, a fellow all-rounder with whom he has a healthy but marked rivalry, and Allan Donald, hooking the latter in front of square and also driving him straight back over his head. He scored 132 from 163 balls. Pakistan, with Wasim Akram now recalled, look settled once more.

"The boys are happy. It's a happy team," said Azhar. "I just want to play." And how.