Aizaz Cheema was in the limelight in 2012 after his iconic performance in the final over of the Asia Cup where he successfully defended 8 runs against Bangladesh to give Pakistan victory by 2 runs. In total, Cheema played 26 times for his country, taking 51 wickets before he was effectively sidelined from the national side in 2012. His most telling contributions, however, came during his First-Class career which began in 2001 and ended in 2019, where he took 572 wickets at an average of exactly 20 which included 38 five-wicket hauls in an innings and 11 ten-wicket hauls in a match.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Cheema spoke about the highs and lows of his career, the disappointment of not having represented Pakistan since 2012, his views on the recent reforms by PCB to domestic cricket, his mentor role with Central Punjab and his aspirations to take on a role as a coach in the future.
By Amir Husain (28th January, 2020)
PakPassion.net: What would you class as the highlights of your career so far?
Aizaz Cheema: Without a doubt, the high points of my career have revolved around playing for Pakistan. My Test debut was against Zimbabwe in 2011 where I took 8 wickets which also happened to be the second-best debut figures for Pakistan, then in my debut ODI series against the same team, I took 8 wickets in 3 matches which, from what I understand, was the 2nd best debut in that format after Waqar Younis and Abdul Razzaq. Then my role in the famous two-run Asia Cup victory against Bangladesh in 2012, where I took 3 wickets in the final and bowled a brilliant last over was another memorable performance for me. I was also Man of the Match on three occasions in international games and also took 51 international wickets for my country which was a real honour for me and something I look back at with immense pride. When we speak of my performances in Twenty20 cricket, then it’s also important to mention my crucial role for Quetta Gladiators against Peshawar Zalmi in the first edition of the PSL where I defended 8 runs in the final over of the play-off. I was also part of the team of the tournament in the Champions League which was played in India in 2014/15 where I took 11 wickets in 6 games.
PakPassion.net: Any low points or moments that you regret?
Aizaz Cheema: I have always given my hundred percent, so I see no reason to feel bad about any aspect of my cricket. You can always have days in cricket when your performances are not the best, but I have always felt satisfied with my game. But, as a professional cricketer, one needs to take the highs with the lows and continue to work hard and that is how it’s been for me. Of course, being dropped from the Pakistan side after my contribution in the Asia Cup victory and also after performing so well in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophies during the last and current season was also a cause of disappointment for me, but I did not give up and have continued performing to the best of my abilities.
PakPassion.net: You represented Pakistan 26 times but surely you would have preferred to have played more for your country?
Aizaz Cheema: Yes, this was pretty disappointing for me as I felt that I should have played more international cricket. Since last representing Pakistan in 2012, I have continued to play domestic cricket and put in good performances, and I am currently the top wicket-taker in T20 cricket in Pakistan with 121 wickets to my name. What I am really pleased about is that I have kept myself in high spirits and my performances have been excellent since the time I was dropped from the Pakistan side. Recently, I was part of the Central Punjab team that won the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy and whilst I have retired from four-day cricket, I am still very much available for Limited-overs matches and am looking forward, if selected, to appearing for Central Punjab in the National One-Day tournament that will be played after the PSL.
PakPassion.net: Do you feel hard done by, for not being selected again for Pakistan since 2012?
Aizaz Cheema: What has happened is now in the past and there is no point delving into that. I have a clear conscience regarding the effort I put in and I am happy with myself in that regard. The performances I put in for Pakistan and also in domestic cricket are proof of my hard work and for that, I am grateful to the Almighty.
PakPassion.net: Have the changes in the domestic system resulted in a better standard of cricket in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy?
Aizaz Cheema: There is no doubt in my mind that the standard and quality of cricket has improved this year. The PCB has formed these provincial sides with players who have performed well in the past three years or so, which automatically raises the standard of cricket that is played in the tournament. On top of that, each player who has signed a contract with their domestic side has to appear for a fitness test every 2 months which puts a huge emphasis on fitness which wasn’t there before.
PakPassion.net: What changes in the domestic system are needed to make it even more effective?
Aizaz Cheema: I will advise anyone who is trying to judge the effectiveness of this change to our domestic system to allow 1-2 years as it can take that long to fix any issues that come about. Obviously, in any new system, there will be areas that will need further improvement and I am sure the PCB will look into making these changes for the next season. So, for example, I would expect the PCB to allow for the participation of more players and also improve the financial well-being of all players in the domestic system. I am hoping that PCB will make changes that will result in more players getting to play cricket and that the quality of the game in our country will keep on improving.
PakPassion.net: Do you feel that Pakistan cricket would have been in a better place if these reforms had been made, say 15 years ago?
Aizaz Cheema: There was very little focus on fitness in domestic cricket in the past which has now changed due to PCB’s reforms. In the current system, all cricketers regardless of playing Grade 1 or Grade 2 cricket need to appear for fitness tests every two months, where their stamina and strength is also checked. I believe we would have been seeing the benefits in Pakistan cricket if this sort of discipline had been put into place, say 15 years ago. But, as they say, it’s never too late for a good thing to be done. One hopes that this emphasis on fitness will continue to be a feature of our domestic cricket, resulting in good results in the future.
PakPassion.net: Do you think your habit of ‘speaking your mind’ hurt your chances when it came to representing Pakistan?
Aizaz Cheema: I believe the only time I spoke out was during a ceremony where I was named the best T20 bowler in Pakistan in 2014. At that point, I asked the selectors to pick me as I was skilled and fit enough for the job. This was due to the fact that despite performing so well and being recognized as the best T20 bowler, I was still not able to find a place in the Pakistan side. I have no regrets about saying that and nor did PCB find it offensive enough to issue me a show-cause notice, and I am sure most people agreed that I was simply speaking what was in my heart and nothing more.
PakPassion.net: Tell us a bit about the mentor role that you have been asked to do this season?
Aizaz Cheema: Being asked to take a mentor role by the PCB this season was a great honour for me. Whilst an official designation of a mentor was given to me this season, the fact is that due to my experience, I have been performing this role for the last 3-4 seasons for Lahore and PIA. Regardless of whether a formal role is given to me, it has been my aim to help and mentor all young fast-bowlers who have played or practiced with me. I am quite happy to share my experience with these bowlers on and off the field and this season especially, I got a lot of positive feedback for performing this role and I really enjoyed it. I am also taking coaching courses and if needed and asked to do, will be ready to work with the PCB in a similar role.
PakPassion.net: On that topic, can you tell us about your plans as regards to coaching?
Aizaz Cheema: In 2005, I completed ECB’s Level 2 Coaching qualification in England. Last year, I had the opportunity to complete PCB’s Level 2 Coaching qualification as well and now my plan is to complete the Level 3 qualification. The idea then is to look for opportunities at the club level in Pakistan or England so as to build a strong coaching profile for me, and if possible apply for any coaching opportunities at the PCB as well.
PakPassion.net: What’s your opinion on the current standards of fast-bowling in Pakistan?
Aizaz Cheema: I am really excited about the standards of fast-bowling in our country. What is very pleasing is to see this new group of young pacers such as Naseem Shah, Shaheen Shah Afridi, Usman Khan Shinwari, Haris Rauf and Mohammad Hasnain who are all capable of hitting speeds between 140KpH to 145KpH. The ability to bowl at a fast pace under any conditions is crucial in today’s game and with Waqar Younis as their coach, I am convinced that we will progress a lot faster in this aspect of the game.
PakPassion.net: The emergence of such young bowling talent must fill you with optimism for the future of Pakistan Test cricket?
Aizaz Cheema: I believe that we have lacked greatly in the area of fast-bowling, especially if you look back at our progress in Test cricket in the past 5-6 years. On top of that, the retirement of Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz from Test cricket has added another dimension to our problems. However, I am very encouraged by the emergence of these new young fast-bowlers as pace is very important in our sub-continental conditions and having good speed also helps bowlers extract reverse-swing as well. So, all these fast-bowlers have the right ingredients to make them effective in international cricket and one hopes that they will continue to improve under the guidance of Waqar Younis and help Pakistan win more games in the future.
PakPassion.net: Which young pacers in domestic cricket have caught your eye, who you feel can represent Pakistan in the future?
Aizaz Cheema: There are plenty of very talented fast-bowlers in domestic cricket who have impressed me, but I would like to specifically mention Ahmed Bashir from Lahore who was with Central Punjab side in Grade 1 this year and Mohammad Imran Randhawa who has played for Southern Punjab in their second XI but used to play for SNGPL before. Imran is a hard-working all-rounder who I feel is a great prospect for Pakistan. Apart from these two, we have Zia-ul-Haq, a left-armer who can swing the ball really well and Akif Javed, who performed well recently, played for Balochistan. So, we have a lot of excellent pacers ready to play top-level cricket. As we know, there is tough competition for the role of pace bowlers in the national side and the ability to bowl 140KpH does help in that. All in all, the future of fast-bowling in Pakistan is very bright.