Azhar Ali says 'tremendous' Somerset can challenge for honours in all three county formats
'The main target has to be to win the County Championship, and that is something that I hope I can help Somerset achieve this time'
By Saj Sadiq - @Saj_PakPassion
Last Updated: 10/04/19 2:42pm
Former Pakistan skipper Azhar Ali believes Somerset possess "tremendous ability in all formats" but he is doubly determined to help the west country outfit claim their maiden County Championship title.
Azhar scored 402 runs at an average of 33.50 last summer, but couldn't drive Somerset past champions Surrey, with the county finishing runners-up for the second time in three years.
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The 34-year-old is available for the duration of both the Specsavers County Championship and the Royal London One-Day Cup, having retired from ODI cricket, and he told Saj Sadiq he has very clear goals for the coming months…
What brings you back to Somerset for another stint in county cricket?
Azhar: "The biggest thing for me is the opportunity to learn from team-mates, from opponents, and, also, it's another great chance to play high-quality cricket in unfamiliar conditions. In addition, it's a chance to share your experience and knowledge with your team-mates, so it's really a two-way learning exercise. On top of that, county cricket is a highly competitive form of cricket, and it's a chance to keep your practice levels up and fine-tune yourself in between international matches."
What are your targets with Somerset this season?
Azhar: "The main target has to be to win the County Championship, and that is something that I hope I can help Somerset achieve this time around. I've arrived early for the start of the season ahead to acclimatise, and I can't wait for the season to start. I think the Somerset squads are very strong in all three formats, and I believe we can challenge for honours in all three formats."
Do you think Somerset have the strength in depth?
Azhar: "Yes - it's superb. What I really feel is outstanding for our side, and a factor that could prove crucial, are the fitness levels of the squad. Some teams may be more suited to either white-ball cricket or red-ball cricket, but I honestly believe that this squad has tremendous ability in all formats. I don't see any weaknesses in the squad, and the competition for places and the skill level in all facets from what I have seen is excellent. We had a good season last time around and we were there or thereabouts, but I feel if we make some slight improvements, we could be challenging for the top position this year."
Critics feel that your knee injury will mean that you will never be the same batsmen you once were.
Azhar: "I don't think that is the case. With a knee injury, it will always flare up now and then, but I feel fine now and am raring to go again. Sometimes form can be related to fitness, but I'm happy with my recovery from injury. I thought I batted well in New Zealand and regained my form there, but then I struggled in South Africa, which was disappointing. But I'm here at Somerset and it's a good opportunity for me to keep working on my form and fitness during an international break."
With the World Cup around the corner, have you any regrets about retiring from ODI cricket?
Azhar: "No - I'm a firm believer that whatever happens, it happens for the best. Of course, you want to play as much as you can for your country, but when guys like Fakhar Zaman, Imam-ul-Haq, Abid Ali, and Shan Masood are performing and playing well, then they deserve to play in the World Cup ahead of me.
"In my case, when Fakhar and Imam were doing so well, I thought it was the right time to call it a day in the 50-over format, and at the same time rest myself for Test cricket. I think we should all back the likes of Fakhar and Imam, and wish them well at the World Cup. I think it's always best to retire with respect rather than being forced out. When you are playing Test cricket, you don't want to focus on making a comeback in other formats, so I made a clear-minded decision to concentrate only on Test cricket in future, and I am comfortable with this decision."
Pakistan stunned the cricketing world in 2017 to lift the Champions Trophy. Can they do the same this year at the World Cup?
Azhar: "I actually believe that Pakistan has a better chance to win the World Cup this time around than we did two years ago at the Champions Trophy. Back in 2017, nobody gave Pakistan a chance, but this time around people are mentioning Pakistan as potential winners of the World Cup. I think Pakistan has a very good chance, providing the team clicks. The combination for Pakistan is very good, but it's all about clicking and peaking at the right time, as we did in 2017. The World Cup this time around is a long tournament, so you have a bit of time to find your feet and peak.
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"Pakistan is strong in all areas, but the key will be getting a solid base from the top-order batsmen and getting runs on the board for the bowlers to work with. Pakistan's bowlers are always strong, and this time is no different. As we saw at the Champions Trophy, you can't write off Pakistan in any tournament. I'm very hopeful and think they will do well, as I think they have a stronger squad than they had at the 2017 Champions Trophy."
Who do you see as the main contenders for the World Cup?
Azhar: "I think India, Pakistan, Australia, and South Africa are the main challengers, although I don't think New Zealand should be written off, as they always tend to perform well at World Cups. I think the winner will come from one of these teams. But then this is cricket, and anything is possible, and whoever runs into form and peaks at the right time will come out as champions."
Every match of the 2019 ICC Cricket World Cup is live on Sky Sports Cricket in May, June and July. Find out more here.