"I will never give up on my dream to play for Pakistan" : Asif Zakir
A host of Pakistani players are currently in England to play in the various local leagues with the objective of improving skills and also to draw the attention of the national selectors to their abilities to play in alien conditions. Whilst participation in leagues is not considered equivalent to playing in First-Class or County Cricket, it is considered to be a fair indicator of a player’s potential for the future.
This seems to be the primary goal in 34-year-old Asif Zakir’s mind as he explained in an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, “There are quite a few advantages of playing club cricket for Pakistani cricketers in England and the most important is the experience one gains from batting on seaming tracks which is absolutely invaluable when playing back home. If you later come across a track in Pakistan where the ball is seaming, then this English experience will help you come to terms with those conditions with ease.”
Whilst participation in First-Class and County Cricket seem to grab most of the attention when it comes to judging a player’s ability to play and is mostly used as a standard for selection, the fact is that club cricket has a unique place in the development of cricketers around the world. There seems to be a general trend towards discounting any performances by players at the club level and this is a view that Asif is keen to refute, “I am not sure why anyone would look down upon club cricket but as far as I am concerned this is a very beneficial experience for me as a cricketer. One has to remember that only after playing good quality cricket at the club level can one move up to First-Class or County Cricket. It is rarely the case that a player starts playing higher levels of cricket straight away. Also, club cricket needs support from more senior players as that is the point at which youngsters get to interact and play alongside better quality players. That sort of contact helps the junior players improve their game and to go on to become good County or First-Class players in the future.”
Playing club cricket may have its advantages but like anything else in life, it is the quality and not the quantity which makes the ultimate difference and for Asif, the choice of playing for a team in the Lancashire League was an important one.
“This is my first stint in the Lancashire League where I am representing Burnley. I had heard a lot about the high quality and level of cricket in this league and had always wanted to play in this competition, so I feel very lucky that Burnley signed me up for this season. So far, I have played a few games, but it’s been a great experience as I have had a chance to play some good quality games which is really enjoyable.”
Whilst he is keen to do well at the club cricket level, Asif Zakir also has an excellent First-Class record to his name. In the 2016/2017 edition of the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy he scored 853 runs at an average of 85.3 and was the second highest run-getter in that competition. The 2017/2018 version of the tournament, however, did not bring such dividends for the Karachi born batsman due to factors which he explained.
“The 2016 season was an excellent one for myself where I scored 853 runs in 9 games in the Quaid-e-Azam trophy and was the second highest scorer in that tournament. The 2017 season, in contrast wasn’t that great for me as I could not score that many runs despite a strong effort from me. It is possible that the reason for my lacklustre performance in 2017 was due to the ball that was introduced by the PCB in domestic competition as it took me some time to get used to it. I am working on this weakness now and I am sure I will do better when I get a chance to play again in the next First-Class season.”
The year 2016 was also a highlight of Asif Zakir’s career so far for another reason apart from his splendid performances in First-Class cricket. He was selected as part of a fitness camp organised by the Pakistan Army for players who were later going to take part in the tour of England.
“That camp was an incredible experience. To be honest, we initially felt that we had been roped into something strange as we didn’t really want to be trained as soldiers! But as improvements started to show in our fitness, we began to really appreciate what was being done for us. In a matter of 3-4 days we had improved so much that we thought we had wings and could fly in the air so that camp was very beneficial.”
The elation of being part of this camp was quickly followed by some disappointing news for Asif as he was not included for the Pakistan Test squad bound for the now iconic series against England in 2016. Whilst this must have been a tough setback for Asif at that time, he redirected his energies towards a more positive direction, “I was very disappointed when my name was not mentioned for the England tour, but I decided to not give up and keep on working hard. I know that if not tomorrow, then my chance will come the day after and so on. My aim is to continue my efforts and God Willing, I feel I will get an opportunity in the future. I will never give up on my dream to play for Pakistan."
Pakistan domestic cricket has produced many top-quality players in the past, some of whom have gone on to become legends of the game but in recent times has also received some criticism for what are perceived to be low standards at that level of cricket. Whilst is' true that standards had fallen in the past, it appears that improvements are underway due to the attention by the PCB.
“To be honest, the standard of cricket in domestic is not the same as before and that is primarily due to the fact that the high-quality players prefer Twenty20 cricket as they get much more hype and rewards in the shorter format of the game. Having said that, the PCB is now taking steps to ensure that money is being put into the 4-Day game for its improvement. This is a change from what had been happening for the past 4 years where nothing special was being done about First-Class cricket. It appeared that any player could get a place in a First-Class team which was probably bringing the standard down. Thankfully, things are improving now, and the standard ok play and players has considerably improved in the First-Class game.”
The furore caused by the selection of some players for Pakistan’s Ireland and England bound Test squads who had featured prominently in the Pakistan Super League (PSL) seemed to indicate that the Twenty20 format tournament was being given more importance than First-Class cricket. This is a matter of concern for exponents of the 4-Day game such as Asif.
“There seems to be a focus on PSL at the moment and the reason is simply that this tournament has become very important to many people. It appears to be preferred by players as it gives them exposure and popularity. I am not denying that this is beneficial for Pakistan cricket, but I do feel that the condition of 4-Day cricket needs to be looked after as well for the good of our cricket.”
The attention of most followers of the traditional game are now focused towards the ongoing Test series between England and Pakistan. The largely inexperienced squad for the visitors had a narrow scrape during their one-off Test against Ireland and it is generally expected that they will find life difficult against the likes of James Anderson and Stuart Broad on their home-turf, but Asif feels that given the quality of batsmen in the Pakistan side, the result isn’t a foregone conclusion.
“The Pakistan Test squad isn’t totally devoid of experience. We have Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and also Haris Sohail who are all good players and then the Pakistan squad has batsmen like Imam-ul-Haq who has done well on this tour so far. The series will be tough for Pakistan, but I am sure that they will give a good account of themselves. This is undoubtedly a young side and we will miss the services of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan, but I firmly believe that batsmen like Asad Shafiq will step up and take responsibility for the side.”
Having come so close in 2016 to be included in the Pakistan Test side, Asif Zakir despite his age still harbours hopes of making it to the national side. Whilst the goal of representing Pakistan may take more effort, Asif’s commitment to the cause and his association with cricket is unwavering, “I am definitely looking ahead to playing for Pakistan one day. I am working very hard and I will make any effort needed to achieve the goal of representing my country. Regardless of any setbacks that I may have faced up to now or hurdles that I may face ahead, my future is totally centred around being a cricketer and that is all I am focused on at the moment,” he concluded.