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‘Playing a winning hand for Pakistan is an incredible high’

Boria Majumdar is a sports journalist and author
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In conversation with Shoaib Malik, Michael Clarke, Chris Gayle and David Warner
Open T20 World Cup conversation ~ III

In this, the third edition of Open Conversations, BORIA MAJUMDAR speaks to four of the biggest stars of the game—SHOAIB MALIK, MICHAEL CLARKE, CHRIS GAYLE and DAVID WARNER. One of them, Michael Clarke, is following the tournament from Australia; the others are playing for their respective countries in the current World T20

‘Playing a winning hand for Pakistan is an incredible high’

Q Shoaib, you are back to playing for Pakistan after a brief hiatus. You have done well so far. In the warm-up match against India, you played a winning hand from a near-impossible situation. Are you looking at making a comeback in all forms of the game?

Shoaib Malik: It’s definitely a high for any sportsman to play a winning hand for his country. My passion for all forms of the game is intact and I’m looking forward to playing and doing well in One-day cricket and Test cricket again. Walking out for Pakistan with my teammates, listening to the national anthem when it plays and doing well for the team are incomparable highs. I’d love to keep doing it for Pakistan.

Q Pakistan now has Dav Whatmore at the helm of affairs. He has done well with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in the past and comes with a good record. How have you found him so far?

SM: It is always good to have a person as experienced as Dav Whatmore as coach with his vast knowledge of conditions, particularly of the Subcontinent. As you rightly say, he has done very well as a coach in the past and has excelled in all formats of the game with teams he has been with. His technical skills are very good and I am looking forward to spending more time with him in the dressing room.

Q Pakistan won the World T20 in 2009 and then teams stopped touring your country for political reasons. How important is it for Pakistan cricket to do well in this World T20?

SM: Very important! There are a lot of expectations from our team and a strong performance would do a lot for Pakistan cricket. Winning a world championship will mean a lot to our fans back home and will be a great stimulus for national cricket.

Q We haven’t seen you bowl much in recent matches. Are you focusing only on batting?

SM: I’ve taken lots of wickets in domestic matches and look forward to bowling as and when my team needs my services. I started my international cricket as an off-spinner and later matured into an all-rounder. I would love to be among the wickets again in international matches, given the opportunity. I take my bowling as seriously as my batting and am ready to do duty for Pakistan whenever I am called upon to do so.

Q How have you managed to maintain your fitness, the key to your brilliant fielding?

SM: By God’s grace, I’m naturally fit but I also work very hard in the gym and on my fielding. Unless you are a good fielder these days, you will always find it difficult in the shorter format of the game. In fact, I’d say fielding today is as specialised a skill as batting and bowling, and it is extremely important that you are good on the field in tight situations. I take a lot of pride in my fielding and accord it utmost importance.

‘I’d back India, Australia and the West Indies to make the semis’

Q Now that the tournament has entered the Super 8 stage, which are the teams you are backing to make it to the semis?

Michael Clarke: You’ve bowled me a googly! It’s very hard to make predictions in the T20 format. But I’d say India, Australia and the West Indies have a good chance of making the last four. Sri Lanka and Pakistan are the other two teams you can never rule out in subcontinental conditions. Australia, for me, has the best opening T20 pair in the world in David Warner and Shane Watson. Both are proven match-winners and can single-handedly win games for us. With the pitches offering a bit of bounce, the bowling too is looking impressive. India, on the other hand, is banking on experience. You can never rule out match-winners like Sehwag, Gambhir, Dhoni, Raina and Virat. In this format, one of two players on their day can win you a game and India has a number of such players in their ranks. Yuvraj too is back, which is great news for India and indeed world cricket. With the spinners coming into play, it will be very difficult to stop India. West Indies is incredibly talented and with players like Gayle, Pollard, Bravo, Samuels, Narine, who are all very able T20 players, you have to agree they are one of the favourites. Hosts Sri Lanka and the talent-rich Pakistan, who both have all-round sides, can also go the distance.

Q Quite an analysis, that. Are you missing the action a little? I’m told you’re playing the Big Bash this year for Sydney Thunders? You also played the IPL last year for Pune Warriors. I looked up your record as T20 captain—12 wins in 13 outings is quite something.

MC: That’s good to hear, mate. Yes, I am playing the Big Bash. I left T20 to concentrate on my Test batting, to become a better Test match player. I am now confident of turning my complete attention back to this format and want to give my best in T20 cricket as well. I am confident, my game is suited to the format and I must confess I enjoyed playing the IPL last year. While we did not win many games for Pune, it was indeed a good experience and I am much looking forward to going back and playing the IPL again next year. I have enjoyed captaining in this format and would love to lead a side, given the opportunity.

Q You will also lead Australia in India for what will be a huge series for both teams in February-March next year.

MC: Absolutely. If you want to be remembered as a complete cricketer, you have to do well in Indian conditions. It is always a challenge to do well against India in India. I made my debut in India in 2004, and have loved going back to India and playing before passionate Indian fans. It is very important for us to stand up to the Indian challenge and give it our best. No doubt we will be tested, but that’s what Test cricket is all about. I am sure the fans will love to see two very good teams in action.

Q The India series earlier this year was in some ways about the resurgence of Michael Clarke—triple hundred, double hundred, you were in some form during the series.

MC: It was a fantastic series. I loved every moment of it. Most importantly, we played very well as a team and to win against a top quality side is always very satisfactory. But that series is in the past now; we have to look ahead and do well against India in India. It is an entirely different proposition and that’s what I now look forward to doing.

‘Virat is the next big thing in world cricket’

Q You continue to torment bowlers here in Sri Lanka. The Australians weren’t spared either. What’s the secret?

Chris Gayle: I just back my instincts. If the ball is in my zone, I hit it with power. In a T20 game, you need to hit big and long, and as an opener, it is my responsibility to get the team off to a quick start. It is also about confidence. You need to be confident of your abilities to keep hitting balls for six. I now have the confidence to do so in all conditions. More than anything, it helps set up the game for your team, which is a fantastic feeling for an opening batsman.

Q Will you credit the IPL for this transformation?

CG: You can certainly say that. I have absolutely enjoyed playing and dominating the IPL over the past couple of years. Doing well for RCB has been a matter of great personal pride, and I am disappointed we haven’t won the competition yet. We have a good team and I’d really like to do well next year as well. With players like Virat Kohli in the team, there is no reason why we can’t dominate the tournament in the coming years.

Q You singled out Virat Kohli. Do you think he is the most improved cricketer in the world in the past 12 months? He is now India’s batting mainstay in the 50 over format and is fast becoming a very good Test batsman as well.

CG: Virat is here to dominate world cricket. Make no mistake, he is the next big batting superstar from India. He is an exceptionally talented player and has already won the ICC award for the best ODI player of the year. He is fast making the Test stage his own, and I absolutely love him as a person. We do a lot of crap when we are not playing and it is fun to be with him. He is very difficult to get out when he is in prime form and no one except I can get him out cheap! (Laughs). But, seriously, Virat will be the premier batsman for India in the next few years, for sure.

Q Do you think the Indian bowling attack lacks bite in this edition of the World T 20 tournament? There is a lot of talk about the bowling being fragile.

CG: In T20 cricket, it is impossible for bowlers to be consistent. You will inevitably get hit on days, and it is impossible to keep bowling well day after day. I don’t think the Indians lack bowling firepower. Ashwin is the leader of the Indian attack at the moment and has been bowling exceptionally well over the past few months. Zaheer Khan is a very good bowler and you can never write off the Indian spinners in conditions like these.

Q Brand Chris Gayle is huge in India these days, thanks to the IPL. Do you have thoughts of settling down in India some day?

CG: Glad you asked that. Nothing can match Indian hospitality and Indian fans. They are just exceptional and their support is incomparable. I have loved my time in India and will keep going back to India to play the IPL and to play Tests and ODIs for the West Indies.

Q So, you now want to lead the West Indian batting in Test cricket as well?

CG: I sure do. I have scored two triple hundreds in Test cricket, and can tell you, it is a fantastic sensation. I am 33 now, and have a good few years of cricket left in me. In the time that remains, I want to do well in all formats of the game. That’s my ambition for the next 12 months—score as many runs as possible for the West Indies in all forms of the game.

‘Playing before Indian crowds a different high’

Q India versus Australia again in the Super 8 of the world cup... It has become one of world cricket’s marquee contests, hasn’t it?

David Warner: Absolutely. When two of the best teams meet and are watched by millions of fans back home in India and Australia, it has to be a contest people like to talk about and celebrate. We know how good the Indian team is; they humbled England in their last group match with the spinners coming to the party, and we need to be at our absolute best against them. It is going to be a real challenge for us and that’s what fans love to see. It will be a good contest for sure.

Q And personally you are bullying most bowlers. You plundered 22 runs off a Ravi Rampaul over. I still remember the Perth hundred you got against us in no time. Bowlers seem to be in awe of you.

DW: Thanks but it isn’t simple, believe me. These are some of the world’s best bowlers and to do well against them is a real morale boost. I like to back my abilities and do my best for Australia and play by instinct. If you can score big in the first six overs of a T20 game, the middle order has the cushion to control the innings from there. Batting at the top of the order means one has to strike at a good rate to set the match up and that’s what I try to do for Australia every time I go out to bat.

Q Experts say there is great dependence on you and Shane Watson at the top of the order. Getting the two of you out means the job is half done. Do you agree?

DW: Not at all. We have very good depth in batting with Mike and David Hussey, Cameron White and Matt Wade. In bowling too, we have the young Pat Cummins, an all-rounder like Dan Christian and the spin of Brad Hogg. This is a very good all-round team, and please don’t forget, we pride ourselves on being the best fielding team of the competition. So, this talk of overdependence on the two of us isn’t true at all.

Q Coming back to the Indians, do you think the Indian bowling is a bit thin? Especially with the faster bowlers—except Irfan Pathan—not firing so far in the tournament?

DW: I don’t quite agree. The other night, the Indian spinners just ripped through England. However, even before the spinners came into play, England were already two down. These are tired, much-used pitches and as the tournament goes on, they will become drier. That will mean Indian spinners like Ashwin and Harbhajan come into the game, big time. And Zaheer Khan is one of the best bowlers in the world; don’t ever count him out. I’d rather say on these pitches, which are turning drier by the day, India has a balanced bowling line-up.

Q Looking ahead, you will be coming to India in three months for what promises to be one of the most important Test series of recent times. Have you started thinking and planning for the series yet?

DW: First, let me tell you that playing in front of Indian fans is an altogether different high. I have played the IPL for Delhi and just loved every moment of it. They treat you like demigods and every boundary you hit is celebrated in a way you haven’t seen or experienced before. It is just fantastic to play in India and I am absolutely looking forward to the challenge. We had a great series at home against the Indians and were delighted to win 4-0, but we are aware that they will come hard at us at home. We will be exposed to some quality spin and have to be ready to take on the likes of Ojha and Ashwin in home conditions. It will be a cracker of a Test series for sure.

Q Captaincy ambitions?

DW: If it happens some day, mate, it will be terrific. I loved being Michael’s deputy in Dubai recently and being the Australian vice-captain is a dream come true. Michael is an inspiration in the dressing room and there’s a lot to learn from him. I just want to keep playing and doing well for Australia. If I ever get to captain the side, it will be one of the biggest moments of my career.