KARACHI: In modern-day cricket it is hard to imagine any player having to sit out six years to reclaim spot in the national squad. But that is exactly what Usman Salahuddin has experienced as he prepares to embark on the Test tour of the West Indies later on Saturday.

In 2011, Usman — still uncapped at the highest level — had endured a dreadful Pakistan debut on the Caribbean soil in the last two games of the One-day International rubber which the Shahid Afridi-led tourists won 3-2. The right-handed batsman was promptly discarded and had been out of reckoning since.

But a run of consistent domestic seasons — average of 47.29 and 19 centuries from 92 appearances — has again put the 26-year-old Usman on the fringe of international cricket.

In an exclusive interview with Dawn, the eloquent Usman chose to erase his previous trip to the West Indies out of memory while expressing a great desire to vindicate the selectors’ faith in his ability this time.

“This comeback is worth waiting for because I had never lost hope and continued to perform consistently in domestic competitions. My Pakistan debut didn’t go well. But frankly speaking, I’ve forgotten what happened on the 2011 tour [of the West Indies when he mustered just 13 runs] after scoring 1,197 first-class runs back home,” Usman recalls. “I remember being run out on debut [at Bridgetown] while batting at No 7 in bid for quick runs and then being dubiously adjudged LBW to [Devendra] Bishoo in the final game. I was bitterly disappointed for a while but decided not to think much for my own good.”

“I vowed myself that Insha’Allah I’ll get another chance to prove my worth in the Pakistan team and grab the opportunity with both hands. I also know it won’t be that easy to transfer my domestic form into international cricket but that’s the challenge I will relish. Test cricket is the hardest test of any player’s skills. But I feel now my time is just round the corner to justify the selectors’ faith.”

Usman revealed that it were sheer hard work and determination which forced the selectors to take notice of him for this tour.

“In fact there were times I was scoring heavily but surprisingly I wasn’t enjoying or got satisfied with my goals. In the [2011-12] domestic season after that West Indies tour, I scored 1,401 runs [in 13 matches with seven centuries] but I felt something in my game was missing,” Usman narrates. “I felt the need to improve the skill level. The biggest hurdle was playing swing and seam bowling against good sides. My footwork was all over the place while facing the pace bowlers and a number of times I either nicked the balls behind to got bowled and leg-before.

“However, I kept searching for improvement. Here, I owe a lot to the coaches at the National Cricket Academy [NCA] who helped greatly in turning around my career. Both Mansoor Rana and Ali Zia were simply brilliant in this regard.

“They kept saying I’ll be playing for Pakistan if I eradicated the mistakes. Day in and day out, we worked in tandem. Now I feel the balance [at the crease] is just about perfect and my stance more organised. Their guidance paid off and both are delighted at my progress,” Usman points out proudly. “You see, one needs to have good teachers and they are really the two people I will always say are chiefly responsible for my growth as cricketer.”

His father and former Pakistan Under-19 batsman Salahuddin Rana was also instrumental in reviving Usman’s fortunes.

“Yeah, my father has not just been my greatest inspiration but also biggest critic since his philosophy is to make me realize that I’m someone who should be playing Test cricket because it was one dream of his playing days that didn’t come true after representing Pakistan Under-19 in the 1970s during the time Javed Miandad also led the side,” Usman said. “Father played alongside future Test players such as Miandad, Mudassar Nazar, Qasim Umar, Anwer Khan, and Farrukh Zaman in a Youth ‘Test’ match against Sri Lanka in Colombo.”

A product of Government College Lahore, Usman said the marked improvement in his technique is due to playing league cricket in England. “In 2015 I played for Moddarshall club in Stoke where I had an average season but in 2016, I scored over 1,000 runs for Newcastle City Cricket Club and that changed my destiny.

“I have no hesitation in saying that I enjoyed the last domestic season. For the first time, I was really relishing the challenges on hand. I managed 843 runs for National Bank and also scored well in the national one-day tournaments for my bank and Lahore Whites.”

Usman further stated he holds Virat Kohli in high esteem and considers the Indian captain as a role model even though he deeply respects retiring Pakistan veterans Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan as well as Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed.

“Obviously, Kohli is probably not only a role model for me but countless people out there. I hugely admire the way he goes about the task in front of him. His fitness, insatiable hunger for runs and focus are some of the virtues that I really love,” Usman says coyly. “But I also have my heroes here as well. Misbah and Younis will be gone after the West Indies series and we’ll definitely feel a massive vacuum in the side. For years, these two stalwarts have been tremendous inspiration for the younger players and we should all do everything possible to give them a perfect sendoff they’ll never forget.

“During the brief camp in Lahore, I had the privilege of interacting with them and Younis, in particular, was very kind enough to give me excellent advice when I approached him. Misbah too boosted my confidence. Azhar and Asad were also wonderful while I like the way Sarfraz plays the game, daring and fearless. I would be lucky if I could match the enthusiasm and intensity of their approach to cricket.”

Published in Dawn, April 9th, 2017