DTG Interviews Haider Azhar

We sat down with Haider Azhar, the GM of Cricket Operations at Multan Sultans. We talk to him about his own experience at Multan Sultans, what he thinks of Ali Tareen’s vision for Cricket, their chances in this year’s PSL and much more!

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What has your journey with MS been like? What has the experience been like and what challenges have you faced in your role as general manager?

For me, it’s been like working for a new team in both years. We’ve had to set up everything from scratch in both years and it’s been challenging. To be honest with you, I came into the PSL management setup completely by accident. I was previously in the legal profession and had worked in it for almost 10 years. I have also worked as a sports anchor and an analyst. When the 6th franchise was up for sale last year, I was approached my multiple parties to work as a consultant. Once these successful parties won their bids, I reached out to them and told them that I can help them out. But naturally, I had other commitments at the time as well, so it got a bit delayed. They were still kind enough to give me this opportunity where I got to work with Wasim Akram. No matter how many challenges I faced, working with your childhood hero meant nothing was too difficult for me. Wasim bhai was an absolute gem of a person to work with. I learnt so much with him I could not have asked for a better induction in this setup. I was doing consultancy in the sports management field before, but it was very different to this role.

Before this stint at MS, my focus was primarily on my television shows and in fact, I had regular television gigs during the first two seasons of the PSL. I was also doing some other consultancies during this period. Not many people know this but there is one gentleman who pushed me to take on this job. He kept on trying to persuade me to do this since he thought I’d be good at this role. Cricket nerds have now come to know and love him recently, but I’ve always loved him, and his name is Rehan-ul-Haq. I was once asked to relocate to Karachi by the Multan Sultans owners but that was not possible for me because I had lots of other things going on in my life. It was Rehan who convinced me to go ahead and do it.

My journey has been fantastic so far. It has helped me a lot when it comes to working in leagues apart from the PSL as well and that’s been phenomenal for me.

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That’s a very interesting point regarding getting to work with your childhood hero, Wasim Akram. It’s a very surreal experience to work with people that you idolize. When you get to observe them up close and personal and see how they react to certain challenges then it gives you lots of perspective and teaches you many things across different aspects of life.

It changes you! For the first few months, I just didn’t want to take any wrong steps because he had entrusted me along with the owners to do my job. Wasim bhai also used to tell me to relax in the beginning! I must also credit the owners since they gave me a lot of freedom to work with.

It was a surreal experience. Often what happens is that as time goes on, your fanboy moment finishes once you spend enough time with your idol. This wasn’t the case with me and Wasim bhai. There has not been any cricketer who I’ve worked with who induces this fanboy moment inside of me. Whenever I meet Wasim bhai or speak to him, it’s a different thing altogether.

What do you think about Ali Tareen's vision for the team? He’s a very ambitious person who has grand plans for Multan Sultans as well as Cricket in South Punjab. He’s also talked about how he once recommended the PCB to hold 2 PSLs in a year. One PSL that we all know and love that Is held in February-March and another smaller PSL that is held later in the year which is hosted entirely in Pakistan. He suggested that only emerging players should play in that PSL and they should showcase their talent and potential to the public. What do you make of this idea and what are your thoughts about Ali Tareen as a leader.

It’s really fortunate for us that young people who can actually make a difference are now becoming a part of the sports infrastructure in Pakistan. Not just Cricket, but other sports as well. I will always hold all major Pakistani sports close to my heart. Not many people know this, but 2 years ago, Ali Tareen got the license for the Last Man Standing’s league in Pakistan. Ali at the time decided that he wanted to work on the sports infrastructure and development in Lodhran. He then bought a ground and maintained the ground and set it up. He then set up a Cricket academy there as well. All the franchises and leagues that perform talent hunts for players usually end up signing players who are already registered with some smaller clubs in the area. Rather than having a one-off talent hunt, he wanted to give them a proper competitive Cricketing environment and his main aim was to prepare a player from Lodhran to get ready to play First Class cricket. What Ali did was he ended up getting all 30 clubs in the Lodhran region onboard and divided the 30 clubs into 3 groups of 10 for relegation and promotion. Each team has 15 players and for 8 straight months, that meant that 450 players came to train and play on his ground everyday. They don’t just play Cricket there. Their stats are also recorded everyday. The PCB also noticed this and acknowledged that what Ali is doing is fantastic work. The end result of all this was that last year, there was a Lodhran all stars team that went to play the Last Man Standing World Cup and it was captained and mentored by Abdul Razzaq since they have a requirement to have a Test player in the squad. These kids, who could never have imagined that they would get to play with proper Cricketers, ended up representing the country. Once they came back, they got a hero’s welcome. This exact model is being replicated in Multan as well. Inshallah, by the end of this year, we will also roll out our leagues in Bahawalpur as well, so we are looking at potentially 1800 players. With this platform of Multan Sultans, we can start these leagues in any city that we want, but naturally our first focus is South Punjab. This is how Ali has been involved and the remarkable thing is that he was doing it before he was owner of Multan Sultans. He’s providing infrastructural sport to the society. Often is the case that these clubs are the place at which kids learn how to first tie their laces. Their contribution to the community is very significant, especially in smaller areas. Ali is now also planning on bringing some international coaches to Pakistan who can be utilized in specialized camps. His vision goes way beyond just the PSL. He is working very hard for the game development in this area.

Regarding your point about holding another PSL, it makes sense for franchises to hold more activities that the fans can enjoy throughout the year. It also makes more sense for the owners to hold more such events. One more thing that Ali is deeply interested in and passionate about is the Women’s league. It’s early days, but we have a long, concrete plan for the future. It’s very fun working with Ali because I know he is deeply passionate about all these things. Sometimes, I have to play the bad cop and tell him that we need to focus more on the immediate task at hand, but I don’t want to curb that enthusiasm and passion of his. Right now, we have a very capable and passionate team onboard that can execute all this.

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Steve Smith, who was one of the best Test batsmen in the world, is unavailable because of injury. How does it impact the team and what do you make of Andre Russell who has been brought in in place of Smith? What will Russell bring to the team? What about the controversy regarding how Dre was an IU player but wasn’t retained because of availability issues in the main draft?

In my eyes, Steve Smith is a top 3 batsman in the world in any format. Overall, if you look at his T20 stats, Steve Smith is as good in white ball Cricket as he is in red ball Cricket. We had defined a role for Smith in the team and were very excited because even though the PSL is held at a time when the present Australian players aren’t available, we were able to rope in a player who not only is a former Australian captain but is also very keen to get back into the Cricketing setup. In all likelihood, this was the only opportunity for Steve Smith to be part of the PSL for the next couple of years. Obviously, we are all heartbroken. Not just as a team, but as fans of PSL as well.

But, just think about this. We have Andre Russell! I couldn’t even imagine it. A lot of work has gone into bringing Andre Russel into our side. I am very close to Hassan Cheema and Rehan-ul-Haq. I know for a fact that not retaining Dre wasn’t an easy decision for them. The primary reason for that was because of availability issues. We had initially thought that Dre would be part of the ODI squad and T20 squad as well. It’s a World Cup year, so the Windies board would want all their players available. I don’t blame IU for letting go of him. On top of that, the sort of season Luke Ronchi was having in the last PSL, you could not let him go either. They were in a Catch-22 situation.

At the end of the day, your first consideration is about the availability of the player, and I respect that. That especially applies to a team that would get the 6th pick in every round. Those guys (Hassan and Rehan) also understand that this could be an opportunity for someone else as well. Last year, Quetta Gladiators got Jofra Archer in the replacement draft. These sorts of things happen often. We were very very lucky to get Russell. Getting Steve Smith was a statement for us and credit goes to Imran Ahmed Khan and Steve Smith’s entourage as well who made this happen. We were in talks every single day to see what his availability is like. We also need to understand that he had other commitments as well. There is a very strong likelihood that he gets picked for the T20 squad as well. He’ll have to travel a lot and would be away from family for a significant period of time. Regardless of all of this, we were still able to convince him and were grateful to him and his entourage for agreeing to come to the PSL. What’s done is done. The role that we wanted Smith to play can now be played by players such as Vince, Laurie Evans and Umar Siddique. We are happy that we were able to replace one platinum quality player with another platinum quality player.

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What do you think about the squad assembled for the tournament? Can you explain the strategy behind the draft picks? You have a good mix of experience and youth. What will the duo of Malik and Afridi bring to the table and what does a young, raw talent like Qais Ahmed provide to the team?

I want to give a disclaimer here. When the franchise went under under the previous management, the PCB asked me and Faisal Mirza to continue working as consultants on the PCBs behalf. Faisal and I were sort of like trustees to ensure that operations were fine till the new owners came onboard. We had created a panel in consultation with the PCB and that panel did the draft. Our main aim was to do the draft with credibility and merit. We wanted to select a team that was not only competitive, but also has depth in it and covered all areas.

Regarding Malik, I don’t think that there is anyone in Pakistan right now who has the sort of experience and form that Malik has enjoyed over the past 3 years or so. He is one of the best T20 players in the world and his performances are there for everyone to see.

Afridi has had sort of a resurgence lately. We’ve seen that in the T10 and the BPL as well. Both these guys have a great camaraderie between them and Shoaib was the one who insisted on picking Afridi. I think it’s a dream combo for us.

We were number two in the draft so that meant that we could let go of several of our players and then pick them back up. In terms of youth in the squad, we have 3 emerging players in our team and even a couple of our foreign players are under the age of 25. On the other hand, we also have 37-38 year olds who have also played the game a lot so we tried to strike a balance in this regard. Both of them are leaders in the dressing room. Both of them are leaders on the field and are proven winners.  

You won the rights for the Sixth Team. Any thoughts on why you decided to go for the same name instead of a new one?

The day Ali Tareen won the bid, he said in the press conference that barring legal issues, he himself would like to keep the name ‘Multan Sultans’. We did have conversations about coming up with a new identity. We had lots of serious conversations about it and our creative minds all sat down together to come up with a good concept. Ali had said that he had bought the team for the people of South Punjab and that he wants them to have a say in it. We then came up with the campaign where Ali asked the public to suggest names for the franchise. I personally preferred the name ‘Multan Sultans’ because I was part of the inception of Multan Sultans last year. Once Ali set up the poll, we got lots of feedback. All of us got really excited because it meant we could do so much with it. We thought about how we wanted to capture the essence of South Punjab through the name but also knew that the Twitter verse was not only South Punjab. We needed to go on the streets to conduct a survey of atleast 4000 people. When we went to do the survey, we had intentionally not put the name ‘Multan Sultans’ in the poll. We had just asked them to choose between Malangs and Bahadurs. Everyone chose one name or the other but they also asked, “Why change Sultans?”. People already liked the name and it had become part of our identity. It also resonated with lots of people.

To be honest, we were outvoted in the end. Ali and Taimoor Malik, who is our other owner, both wanted Multan Bahadurs. But in the end, we wanted the team to be for the people of South Punjab and we wanted to go with whatever they were saying. We had decided to release the logo and kit after we finalized the name of the franchise. We started to unveil this new identity afterwards since we weren’t sure what name we would end up going with.

It's very commendable that you guys made a conscious effort to listen to the public and then made a decision based off of that. 

Our tagline is “Junoob ki Pehchan” so we cannot be disingenuous with the people of South Punjab by not including them. Ali also wanted me to draft a player from South Punjab as our 21st player but my need was more fullfiled by someone in the mould of Hammad Azam. I told Ali that we would make a conscious effort to have more players from South Punjab from next year onwards. I acknowledge that we just have 1 player from the region and that is Mohammad Irfan.

How was the experience last year of being the new team in the PSL? When you’re a new team, you are presented with new scenarios and new challenges. The other teams had time to gel well together over the past couple seasons and get used to each other but you had to start from the beginning.

Having Wasim bhai in your corner changes everything. Our dressing room was one of the most comfortable dressing rooms ever because everyone clicked together so well. That’s all thanks to Wasim bhai who is a thorough professional.

The biggest challenge was primarily our draft. We felt that we did well overall in it. In terms of the actual tournament, I feel that we started off on an amazing note. Our schedule wasn’t ideal and it started taking a toll on our players, and we saw that in the tournament. Most of these guys played 5 games from 7 matches as well which definitely took its toll on them. I personally feel that if luck had gone on our side, and we had won just 1 more game out of the 7, then we would’ve made it to the knockouts. The actual tournament wasn’t that big of a challenge because Wasim bhai was there to guide me. I feel like we did a reasonable job in the draft and we had a very good squad. We covered all bases and it’s just unfortunate that we couldn’t make it to the knockouts.

What’s good about such experiences is that you learn from them and try to not repeat the same mistakes again, like most good teams do.

Yeah, you do learn from them. All of us here are professionals. It was a bit difficult for myself to move on. I would randomly call Nadeem Khan and talk to him about how we could’ve done things differently to make the outcome go in favor. I would often think about all the permutations of things that I could’ve done. Naturally, the captain and coach are the ones responsible for the playing XI. But I used to wonder what else I could’ve done in the draft stage regarding bringing on some other players as covers. It becomes a never-ending battle and you just have to move on at some point.
How far do you think Multan Sultans can go in this PSL? What are your strengths and weaknesses? In which department do you wish your team was team stronger?

How far do you think Multan Sultans can go in this PSL? What are your strengths and weaknesses? In which department do you wish your team was team stronger?

Regarding the expectations for this PSL, we are cautiously optimistic. During the last PSL, we were in a very bullish mood. We thought that we might be able to win the trophy in our very first tournament. This time around, we will take each game as it comes. We are very confident that we have all bases covered. There is not a single department where I’d say that we don’t have depth. There was a panel made for the team selection which was headed by Nadeem Khan and included Faisal Mirza, Shoaib Malik and Abdul Rehman, who is probably one of the best coaches in Pakistan. Our biggest finding in the off-season was him coming onboard as assistant manager. We were on the same page for all the picks. We are very comfortable with our picks. In the end, it all comes down to how things go on the field.

What can be done to eventually bring the whole PSL back to Pakistan? What can the franchises do and what can the PSL teams do to ensure that the whole PSL is held in Pakistan?

The PSL committee and the PSL franchises are on the same page regarding bringing back PSL to Pakistan. Hats off to the PSL in this regard because 2 years ago, they were able to organize the final in Pakistan. Just last year, they were able to organize 3 matches in Pakistan as well. This year, so many big players have given consent for traveling to Pakistan. AB de Villiers being in Pakistan is going to be huge. Barring availability issues and international callups, all our players are also ready to come to Pakistan, which is a huge deal. In the end, it’s all about the issue of availability. Whoever is available is ready to come.

Watching last year’s final in Karachi on television was an emotional and amazing experience for myself, even though I’m a diehard Lahori! Hassan Cheema often says that a whole generation has missed out on the experience of watching their national heroes play in front of them. It’s a huge thing to play the final in Pakistan and hats off to the PCB and franchises for pulling it off.

As for what can be done to bring all of the PSL to Pakistan, there’s still a long way to go. This year, we are having 8 matches in Pakistan and hopefully we have even more next year. I feel like it will take 2 more years to move all of it back to Pakistan. In the end, the PSL will be most enjoyable if it is held entirely in Pakistan. You have to keep lots of things in mind in order to pull it off. Security is one of the biggest factors and then comes the logistics behind it. Imran Ahmed Khan has already done a phenomenal job in roping in so many great players.

You’ve touched on it a bit before, but can you elaborate a bit more on how exactly do you intend on scouting for talent in the South of Punjab? Also, does the MS management have any plans to approach the Govt. Of Punjab in regard to the cricketing infrastructure and available facilities in the South of Punjab? Ali Tareen does have a lot of influence in that regard.

Lots of players that we identify and find are often affiliated with some clubs already. We want to work with these clubs by preparing grounds for them and maintaining pitches and nets for them. We want to provide them with better infrastructure, facilities and equipment. This is what is currently going on in Lodhran and Multan. By the end of the year, we can hopefully do the same in Bahawalpur and some other areas. We want to use the platform of Multan Sultans to start such programs in other cities as well. Our main focus for now, however, is to strengthen our fanbase in our own area. In the future, we want to conduct ourselves in such a manner that we grow a fanbase all over the world and not just South Punjab. That is our mantra and we want to attract players towards us by our performances and conduct on and off the field. You’d be surprised to know that until just last year, there wasn’t even a single First Class Cricketer from Lodhran. Ali Tareen wanted to fix that and just last year, we were able to get a player from Lodhran into the Multan region’s team. We are very happy with our work and we are on the right direction.

I think the government this time around still has some plans for investing more in the infrastructure for Cricket. To be honest with you, we haven’t reached out to anyone regarding any such assistance because we haven’t had the time yet. Ali and co. were awarded the franchise on the 20-21st of December. Since then, our focus has naturally been on strengthening our existing work and efforts, which includes the PSL. Ali, in all honesty, hasn’t felt the need to reach out to the government yet because we are very confident in our own infrastructure. But naturally, if you want to strengthen the Cricketing infrastructure then you do need the support of the government for that. We don’t want any cricketers to fall through the cracks. We want to give them the best possible opportunities and that can only happen with the help of the government.

Any final message that you would like to share with fans of Multan Sultans and Pakistani fans in general?

These are exciting times for us. To the fans of Multan Sultans and the people of South Punjab, I’d like to say that this is your own team. If our fans are in Dubai, then do come to watch our matches there. If they are in Lahore, then I insist them to come support us there as well as we play 1 game there. My primary message to our fans is to come and support your team.

To fans of other franchises, I hope that they come with their families and friends to watch the matches as well because at the end of the day, the PSL is for the fans of Cricket. The children need to experience what an entire generation has missed out on.

People are often quick to be skeptical about Pakistan Cricket. Personally, I am very hopeful. I think that we have a very bright future in Cricket and I hope that it continues. On a personal note, I hope that we will make our fans proud on the field and off the pitch. Our aim is to act as a reference point for our fans both on the field and off the field.  

Thank you so much for giving us your time. We at DTG wish you all the best for the PSL. It’s great to see that the PSL is at this stage of its life where all the franchises have been able to build huge fanbases and the brand image of each franchise keeps getting strengthened.

Definitely! People often think that if you belong to one franchise then there is some animosity between you and the other franchise. That is not true at all! The way Peshawar Zalmi has done work for their community and their foundation is phenomenal. The talent hunt program of Lahore Qalandars is there for everyone to see. Kudos to the Rana brothers for that. Islamabad United has given so many young players to the national team recently and that is there for everyone to see. Regarding Quetta Gladiators, people don’t often realize the contributions Nadeem Bhai and Omar Associates have made for Pakistan Cricket. Similarly, with Karachi Kings, they have taken the mantle of the biggest city in the country and have made their team every Karachiite’s team. Each and every one of them has done phenomenal work for the promotion of Cricket and for the promotion of their teams. Hats off to all of them.