Playing cricket in empty stadiums will be ‘strange’ – Imam-ul-Haq


Pakistan opener Imam-ul-Haq is sceptical of playing international cricket without fans at venues, terming it “strange”. He believed it would see much of cricket’s charm lost, particularly if the T20 World Cup, scheduled to begin in October in Australia, was played in empty stadiums. Imam is the first Pakistan player to express cautious opposition to the idea of playing without fans present, after Test captain Azhar Ali was guardedly supportive of it last week.

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“I feel cricket without crowds is strange,” Imam said during a video press conference. “If the World T20 happens, I’d like to see crowds at the tournament. There is a charm to full houses for the players, and the whole dynamic and atmosphere changes when crowds are present. Ultimately it is a decision for the ICC and the respective boards, and I’m sure they’ll take players into consultation before they decide. We’ve all heard that the World T20 may be postponed, but let’s hope for the best and hope the situation improves in the next month or so. We need to take into account player and crowd safety, too.”

Imam also supported the idea of improving mental health access to athletes in Pakistan, something brought into sharp relief with curbs on people’s movements and orders to stay at home implemented around the world. The reduced opportunities for outdoor exercise and confinement to indoor spaces may not be ideal for mental health, but Imam believed making it a priority at all times would lead to, among other benefits, improved results on the cricket field.

“Mental health is a very important aspect,” Imam said. “Even in cricket, if you fail two or three times, there is a lot of mental strain on you. People wonder if you’re past it or whether you will ever regain your form.

“We had a coach come over to work on our mental health [Taimur Ali Khan] before the World Cup, and he worked with all of the players. We need to work on this aspect as much as possible. If a player is mentally strong, they can handle pressure on the field much better, too. The board is working to improve upon this side of things, but I think we could do a lot more.”

The coronavirus pandemic, which has shut down cricket, and nearly all sporting activity throughout the world, has meant the Future Tours Programme (FTP) and the cricket schedule for the rest of the year has been thrown into disarray. Several tours and series have been called off or postponed, including England’s Test series in Sri Lanka, as well as India’s ODI series at home against South Africa. There is no clarity on the status of the T20 World Cup either. So far, only one international match, the first ODI between Australia and New Zealand, has been held to a closed stadium, with the three-match series called off after that.

The pandemic-induced lockdown has allowed Imam to take stock of a career that may still be in its very early stages. While the left-hander is among the more prominent names in the Pakistan set-up, his struggles with form have put him out of the Test side. Abid Ali’s explosive start to his Test and ODI career has now resulted in increased competition at the top of the order. Imam welcomed the challenge, but admitted the axing from the Test side in Australia hurt him.

“I am a Pakistani cricketer, and every cricketer wants to play in all three formats,” he said. “You learn from your experiences, and that’s true of me as much as everyone else. My responsibility and focus is to do my best. I played only one Test match in Australia, after which I was dropped because I didn’t perform in two innings [scored 2 and 0]. I was obviously upset, as I believed I’d get another chance in Pakistan.

“But you don’t always get what you want. I performed in ODI cricket to start off but that doesn’t mean I’m going to start off the same way in Test cricket, too. And when things don’t go the way you wish, all you need to do is work harder. I’m still part of the Test squad, and while I might not be in the XI, I’m just as happy and proud to serve as 12th man as I am as opener. When I get a chance, I’ll try and take it. I haven’t played 35-40 Tests; I’ve only played 11, and all of them out of Pakistan. But I learnt from them and tried to iron out the mistakes I made. I thought about my mindset, and tried to replicate the mindset I have in ODIs in Test cricket.

“I’ve been playing for two to three years because I can handle pressure. Because if you’re a Pakistan cricketer and can’t handle pressure, I don’t think you can be too successful. As for media pressure, I’ve had that throughout my career, and sometimes it has annoyed me, at others it has made me laugh. I just try and channel any criticism into motivation for self-improvement, because I think that’s the most constructive thing I can do.”

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