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Revival like baby steps... Special status needed, says Ramiz Raja

A TELEGRAPH EXCLUSIVE

Bangalore: Ramiz Raja, a former Pakistan captain, spoke to The Telegraph on Monday evening, soon after arriving from Mumbai.

The following are excerpts

Q You were the Board’s CEO when bilateral cricket got revived in 2003-04. How do you view the latest revival?

A It’s like baby steps... Indo-Pak cricket deserves a special status, on the lines of the Ashes... That’s needed and the bilateral series should be there on the ICC’s calendar. Having said that, any series, be it in India or in Pakistan, is a welcome step. I expect a lot from this tour, featuring T20 Internationals and ODIs.

But this is too short a tour by Pakistan...

I’d prefer five Tests and five ODIs or, at least, three Tests and as many ODIs.

Don’t the cricketers end up being under more pressure, as they’re expected to double up as diplomats?

Yeah... They’ve got to understand that the mechanics change completely when they’re pitted against each other in the Indian and Pakistani colours. At the end of the day, they’ve got to be ambassadors both for their countries and the game. I accept there’s more pressure and more responsibility.

Expectations are just too high

Of course. But it’s an opportunity to quickly become a hero... I’d tell the players that there’s no bigger stage to perform than in a series against India. I suppose that holds true for your players too... Bilateral performances count for a lot and are remembered for long.

Quite a few cricketers lacking in experience will be seen over the next fortnight. What are you thoughts on the eve of the tour-opening T20 International?

They’ll feel the pressure... But limited overs cricket also frees you as a player... You can take risks and won’t get hanged if things don’t come off. You can’t, for example, be crucified for getting out cheaply in T20.

Pakistan’s T20 captain Mohammed Hafeez has said that he’d like his men to express themselves and to try and play without pressure...

Hafeez’s comments should release the pressure his players must be facing... Reduce the nerve-factor... Captains have to manage the pressure bit sensibly and Hafeez seems to be on track. Whether it’s the T20 format or the 50-over game, you’ve got to be expressive and explosive.

The Pakistani cricketers, I assume, have an advantage... They have more of the natural flair. What’s your take?

Absolutely. By nature we’re designed to be players (most suited) for limited overs cricket.

Veteran Shahid Afridi has been picked for the two T20 Internationals only. Would you have selected him for the ODIs as well?

The impression I have is that, initially, Afridi didn’t want to play the 50-over game... He’s an asset and a great marketing tool for Pakistan cricket... Whether he delivers or not, his presence makes the opposition sweat, he pressurises the opposition. Yet, I recognise that Afridi has to hit form with the bat. If he doesn’t, then the balance of the team goes for a toss... He’s slotted as an all-rounder and, so, has to contribute with both bat and ball. If I was Hafeez, I’d ask Afridi to score 20 off 10 balls and to concede no more than 20 in his quota of four overs.

Is there an issue with Afridi, who is in his 17th year as a Pakistan cricketer?

I suppose Afridi has lost some of his confidence. It seems he’s taken it upon himself to deliver only with the ball, forgetting that he’s got a role with the bat too. Of course, Afridi is under pressure, for every Pakistani expects him to always be the match-winner.

Who could make the biggest difference for Pakistan?

Saeed Ajmal. He’s a wicket-taker and the Indians don’t appear to play him well. However, if dew is a big factor, then I’m not sure how he’ll go.

Because of dew, Pakistan would look to chase...

They should... India have a powerful batting line-up, but there’s no go-to bowler right now. No Harbhajan Singh, no Zaheer Khan either.

Who could make the biggest headlines for India?

Yuvraj Singh, Virat Kohli.

How is Hafeez handling the T20 captaincy?

Hafeez has defined roles and given a brief to each player... That has made it easier for them... Hafeez is calm and holds his place in the team, which is important. He can and will improve, though... He’s learning and isn’t a finished article as yet.

Are you happy with the split captaincy, with Misbah-ul Haq leading in Tests and ODIs?

It’s fine with me... It has worked well, shown that Pakistan can live with two captains. Earlier, it often used to be difficult for one captain to run the show. Not so now... It shows that the team environment is healthy. That there’s discipline.

With defeats even at home, Mahendra Singh Dhoni is under so much pressure. Do you support the call for his removal?

No... First, have a credible, exciting alternative... Kohli’s an option, but not immediately. At 24, he’s still young. People must remember that a captain is only as good as his team. Dhoni has to identify talent and persist with the ones who have the potential to serve India well. He’s lost some players of very high quality, that’s a reality.

Did Sachin Tendulkar’s retirement from ODIs surprise you?

It didn’t... Sachin is set to continue in Test cricket, but it will be tough staying in form... It’s tough if you’re playing in only one format. Not that Sachin doesn’t have the skill, but he’ll soon be 40... Age, therefore, is going to be a factor.

Many see T20 as nothing more than a form of entertainment. What do you have to say?

Look, T20 has gone beyond the hit-and-giggle stage... You have T20 specialists, spinners weren’t supposed to be a force, but they are now... You do plot and you do have a strategy. There’s definitely science involved.

The final one... Is there a favourite for the T20s and the ODIs?

(Grins) India are battle-hardened, playing till the other day... Pakistan, on the other hand, haven’t played international cricket after the World T20... Hafeez’s men could be a bit rusty... For the first match, at least, I’d say India are the favourites... Could even be in both formats.