Good signs for Steelbacks as Azharullah finds his golden touch

BACK IN THE SWING - Mohammad Azharullah celebrates a wicket in last Friday's defeat to Birmingham Bears

BACK IN THE SWING - Mohammad Azharullah celebrates a wicket in last Friday's defeat to Birmingham Bears

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If last season clouded the memory slightly, then last Friday night was a sharp reminder.

Mohammad Azharullah’s display in the final-ball defeat to Birmingham Bears inspired flashbacks to 2013: the season when the sun shone on Burewala-born bowler.

Back then, the right-arm fast-medium bowler regularly blitzed batting line-ups for fun.

He was crowned Northants’ best player in the T20, with his 27 wickets in the competition helping the county to glory.

He was miles ahead of the next best bowler in the competition and played a leading role in big wins against sides with bigger budgets.

It was a fairytale story for a player who had emerged from a lengthy grounding in league cricket.

And it made Azharullah one of the most feared bowlers on the county circuit in the 20-over format.

But last season, the hype didn’t help him as batsmen steeled themselves and stopped him being as effective.

The wickets dried up and the 31-year-old didn’t make the cut in the first game of this season’s competition, at Durham.

But with Ollie Stone out injured, Azharullah came back with a bang against the Bears.

He took three wickets that almost salvaged a win for the Steelbacks, who looked to be slipping to a sizeable defeat before the away side started to get a bit nervy.

And the signs were good for Northants because they know that if they can get the 2013 version of Azharullah back, they can start to win games in this season’s scrap.

“I got dropped for the last game because I didn’t do well last year so it was good to get some wickets and some confidence,” Azharullah said.

“Obviously last year didn’t go according to plan, but I’ll work hard, keep going and get myself where I was in 2013.”

And skipper Alex Wakely was delighted to see one of his main men hitting his straps again.

“Azhar was brilliant,” said Wakely. “It was a very difficult decision to leave him out of the first game and he’s come back and shown he’s going nowhere.

“It was a really good effort from him.

“It’s been difficult for Azhar and it’s one of the things I hate about captaincy: having to drop anyone.

“It was a tough decision because in 2013 he was our best bowler.

“I wasn’t involved last year (due to injury), but he didn’t perform the way he did in 2013 and we couldn’t really leave Ollie Stone out at the time because he was bowling so well.

“Now he’s proved he should be back in the team, he’s set himself there and he’s a massive asset for us in all forms of cricket.”

Azharullah almost bowled William Porterfield with the final ball of last week’s five-wicket defeat, which would have secured a tie.

As it was, the ball went through wicketkeeper Adam Rossington, who came up to the stumps, and flew away for four byes that won the Bears the game.

But it didn’t affect the view of Azharullah’s performance and he will now be expecting to start against Worcestershire on Friday night.

“It makes selection very tough, but that’s what we want,” said Ripley.

“Azhar had a fantastic 2013, but last year he didn’t quite manage to perform at that level.

“He responded really well last Friday and he’s a fine one-day bowler.

“The fact he wasn’t in our side at Durham wasn’t so much about anything he’s short of, it’s more about the quality we’ve got.

“We’ve got competition for places and it bodes well for the campaign.”

Steelbacks take on Worcestershire Rapids at the County Ground on Friday night (start 6.30pm).