Sunday, 21 April 2013

Azhar Mahmood - a welcome return?

Apologies for being a little bit slow off the mark on this one. I'm sure it escaped no one's attention that during the Somerset game the signing of Azhar Mahmood for this year's Twenty20 Cup was announced. Or should I say re-signing of Azhar Mahmood, since he played for us between 2002 and 2007.

My initial reaction to Azhar's signing was positive. He seems to tick all the boxes - he's a big hitting lower-middle order batsman, something that we've been missing for an awfully long time. He's a seam bowling allrounder who has a solid record of bowling in powerplays and at the death. He's also massively experienced - 171 matches puts him eighth on the all time list.

Furthermore, he's England-qualified, so he can take the field with Smith and Ponting. Azhar is undoubtedly one of those "x-factor" players capable of turning a single match in the space of an over or two with bat or ball, and I wouldn't be in the slightest bit surprised to see him do that for us. Finally, its prudent to have a bit of bowling cover should one or all of Meaker, Dernbach or Tremlett be called away on England duty.

So what's not to like about the return of a player who played such a big part in Surrey's early success in this format? I would just sound a note of caution on a few counts.

Firstly, he's 38. Now with age comes the aforementioned experience and experience is not something we'll be wanting for this season. It is feasible, if not perhaps all that likely, that all of Azhar (38), Ponting (39), Batty (35), Keedy (38), Solanki (36) and de Bruyn (37) could be considered for the T20 side. Certainly Mahmood, Ponting and Batty are all very likely to play a significant part in the campaign. The age profile of the Surrey squad is starting to look very odd indeed. Is so many creaking bodies such a good idea for the shortest format?

But so what, I hear you cry. We've fielded very young sides in the past and its got us nowhere near winning the thing, so this year's approach may well serve us better.

For argument's sake let's set aside the issue of age. This is, after all, the age of equality (or something like that). What about Azhar's recent T20 numbers? I thought I was going to find some very respectable figures but if we look at the current IPL, the South African T20 and last year's T20 Cup its not all that rosy. Including the game he's playing today, Azhar has snared eight IPL wickets in six games at a respectable run rate of 7. But his batting returns are poor, just 23 runs in five innings thus far. In last year's T20 Cup he took 10 wickets at 21 in eight games but again with the bat the numbers do not live up to the reputation - 110 runs at 13, and a strike rate below 100. His performance in South Africa was marginally better, 91 runs at 15 and a strike rate of 116, but still not what we've come to expect from him. Certainly some way below the average of 31 he managed for Surrey in his last stint at the club.

However even if you set aside his advancing years and his somewhat declining statistics there's the nagging feeling that he'll be taking the place of a younger man in the side. I'll always hold Azhar in very high regard for what he delivered for the club but given the players already on our books isn't it time we looked to the future again? What of Tom Jewell, given a contract extension at the end of 2012 but overlooked for the 37 year old Zander de Bruyn in the first Championship game, and now almost certainly squeezed out of the T20 side this year with Azhar's arrival. Dirk Nannes, all of 36 years old, played several games ahead of Stuart Meaker last season. I'd hate to see the same thing happen this time round.

Azhar may help us in progressing to the latter stages of this year's T20 but if we are genuinely looking to build a side to "dominate" English cricket in the future, are we going about it in the best way?

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