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Azhar bowled over by love

Northants Steelbacks' Pakistan-born seamer Muhammad Azhar Ullah is set to complete an unlikely journey to Friends Life t20 finals day after putting love before cricket to earn his break in the county game.

The 29-year-old gave up a possible chance to represent Pakistan three years ago, instead moving to England permanently to live with wife Emma - who he met while playing in the Bradford Cricket League.

Emma was the club scorer at Pudsey Congs and they were married in 2009 at a time when Azhar was on the radar of the Pakistan selectors.

The right-armer toured Bangladesh the previous year with Pakistan's academy side and had helped his domestic team to the four-day and 50-over titles.

Yet following a brief stint playing back home following his wedding, Azhar decided his life was in England.

Three years on and after completing his residency to qualify as a non-overseas player, Azhar returned to first-class ranks when Northamptonshire signed him amid little fuss earlier this year.

It has proved an astute piece of business as he has become the surprise package of this year's Twenty20 competition - taking a tournament-best 24 wickets at an average of 11.37 - to help the Steelbacks to only their second-ever finals day at Edgbaston tomorrow.

With Northamptonshire also well placed to win promotion to the LV= County Championship's top flight, it is unsurprising that Azhar believes he made the right decision to follow his heart.

"It was a long three years but it has all paid off," he told Press Association Sport.

"Emma was the main reason (for moving to England). I married her in 2009 and then I went back to play for two months in Pakistan.

"I played eight first-class games and took 35 wickets. There were four months left and I thought 'I can't keeping going back, I have to give time to my wife'.

"So I had to start this process of qualifying for county cricket.

"In January 2010 I decided I would take the time off first-class cricket and get myself ready for county cricket.

"I sacrificed my years of cricket and I have come in here and done well and I am really happy with that."

Azhar has since become a fans favourite at Wantage Road but claims he always suspected he would be a success.

"I knew I would do well," he said.

"I knew I would be a surprise package because people hadn't seen me before. I didn't know I would be in the finals day but I always had the belief that I could do well."

He denies he has any regrets about leaving Pakistan.

"You can say (I gave up) international cricket because I was doing so well over the years in Pakistan and I was well in the international set-up," he said.

"I was in the Pakistan academy and went on tour in 2008 to Bangladesh and we played South Africa.

"I was in the fast bowling academy with Wasim Akram, but in 2009 because I did not play the full season I was not up for selection. I took a decision and moved on.

"The main thing I sacrificed was time with my family."

Azhar's young family in England is now the driving motivation behind his career - and he will have added incentive at Edgbaston as finals day coincides with his daughter Aisha's second birthday.

"We have one lovely daughter called Aisha who will be two on finals day. I want to win a medal for her," he said.

"You always need motivation in life. She will be there."

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