The end was typical of Mohammad Hafeez’s Test career. A flash of brilliance followed by a string of underwhelming performances. A reassuring hundred on his Test comeback against the Australians and then just two scores in double digits (highest 20) for the next eight innings. After a duck in the first innings in the decider against the Kiwis, the 38-year-old announced his retirement from Test cricket.
There was no fairytale ending for the Professor as he was dismissed cheaply for eight in the second innings, done in by a moving delivery from Tim Southee. "I was planning to retire from Tests for the last few weeks and my decision was not based on my recent form. I had already sounded the Pakistan Cricket Board about my plans to retire from Tests. I felt the time was ripe for me to make an exit from the Test arena and give the youngsters in the team an opportunity to settle down," says Hafeez in an exclusive interview with Firstpost. "It was my aim to make an exit gracefully while still playing Test cricket rather being forced out of the team. I have not timed my retirement to avoid facing the likes of Dale Steyn and Kagiso Rabada on pacy tracks of South Africa where Pakistan will travel next. I will face these bowlers in one-dayers and T20s because I will continue to play white ball cricket."
Hafeez had been in good form in the recent T20 matches in the UAE and was named the Man of the Series against New Zealand. "I wanted to be completely focussed - both mentally and physically — to take on the rigours of limited overs cricket — without being weighed down by the pressures of Test cricket." Hafeez was one of the stars of the Champions Trophy title triumph against India last year where he hit a blistering half century and is already eyeing the World Cup next year to be staged in England. “The World Cup is definitely on my mind and if you see the history of Pakistan cricket, we have always done well in England — be it the 2009 ICC World T20 where we won or the Champions Trophy last year."
But things were looking bleak for the former Pakistan T20 captain in September this year.
It was the onset of autumn in Lahore. Just like the trees around Lahore which were beginning to shed their old leaves and bracing themselves for a new beginning, Pakistan cricket was looking to make a fresh start. The old guards like Mohammad Hafeez and Azhar Ali, who were the stars of the Champions Trophy triumph a year ago, did not find a place in the Asia Cup squad. And when the Test squad for the series against Australia was initially announced, Hafeez was left out. The writing was clear on the wall that he did not figure in the scheme of things for the Pakistan think tank. "After I was dropped from the Asia Cup team, I was planning to hang my boots from all forms of the game. I was 37 years old then and I had nothing more to prove. I had spoken to my family, including my wife, and a couple of my close friends and had made up my mind. But then Shoaib Akhtar called me and had a long chat with me. He told me to hang on and not take a hasty decision. Even my wife asked me to wait before calling it quits."
The eternal comeback man of Pakistan cricket had a change of heart and went back to playing domestic cricket. A double hundred in a first-class game and his impressive showing with ball convinced the Pakistan selectors to recall him. Though not part of the initial 17 member Test squad against Australia, he was a last-minute inclusion to the tour party to the UAE. The Australians had a number of left-handers in the side against whom Hafeez as an off-spinner could come in handy.
Opening the innings in Dubai against a quality bowling line-up of the Australians which featured Mitchell Starc and Nathan Lyon, Hafeez slammed a solid hundred. Making a comeback into the Test side after two years, the right-handed opener showed no rustiness. Pakistan, looking to redeem themselves after the Asia Cup debacle, recalled Hafeez for the T20s and the ODIs. While he continued to blossom in the limited overs formats, the runs dried up in Tests forcing him to finally walk into the sunset in Abu Dhabi after the third Test against New Zealand.
The senior most member of the Test squad, Hafeez made his Test debut in 2003, finished with 3,652 runs from 55 Tests at an average of 37. Hafeez had a decent start to his Test career when he made his debut against Bangladesh in 2003 scoring a half-century in his maiden Test match and followed it up with a century in the next. "Pakistan cricket was undergoing a rebuilding phase after the exits of Saeed Anwar, Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis. There was a lot of pressure on young guns like us to deliver.
"Between 2003 and 2010 when I made a comeback, I just played 11 Tests. I had no one to blame but myself for not making the most of the opportunities. I think I was mentally fragile and was always looking for excuses. If I had a decent run during this phase of my career, I could have played 100 Tests by now. Luckily after being dropped in 2007, I worked really hard on my game at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore and made a comeback in 2010."
Hafeez was finally able to cement his place in the national side under Misbah-ul-Haq’s captaincy who took over the reign after the match-fixing scandal. Hafeez was an important member of Misbah’s victorious side that had stunned the then world number one Test side England 3-0. Along with some useful contributions with the bat, he would prove very effective with the ball troubling the left-handers including Alastair Cook and Andrew Strauss.
"In my 15 years of Test career, my most satisfying knock will be my 151 against England in Sharjah during 2015 where I had to counter the reverse swing of Jimmy Anderson and Stuart Broad. Even Adil Rashid was bowling well. It was an effort that truly tested my skills as a batsman. My knock helped Pakistan win the Test match and clinch the series 2-0,".
Hafeez rates Virat Kohli very highly and believes the Indian captain is on course to rewrite many of the batting records. "When I look at the current batsmen in the international arena, I do not think anyone can come close to Kohli. He is head and shoulders above the rest in terms of ability to score runs. He is technically superior and mentally very strong,".
Pakistan’s next one-day series is against the formidable South Africa. Hafeez will be hoping he can rekindle his vintage magic both with the ball and the bat to seal his spot for the World Cup next year.