CRICKET: TRUE CALLING?

Updated August 25, 2019

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Misbah, all padded up and ready
Misbah, all padded up and ready

Pakistan’s off-and-on obse­ssion with foreign coaches came to an abrupt end with the unanticipated departure of Mickey Arthur and company. The national cricket board decided not to renew the contracts of the Perth-based South African as well as those of batting coach Grant Flower and trainer Grant Luden. Also falling victim to the crossfire was the son of the soil Azhar Mahmood, who was the senior side’s bowling coach.

The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB), perhaps intentionally, has given an indication of its intentions by naming the assiduous Misbah-ul-Haq as the camp commandant of a pre-season training camp that swung into action on Aug 20. In the meantime, they are advertising for a new set of coaches as they embark into the future under another newly-amended constitution. But that could simply be a camouflage, given the mindset of the current PCB hierarchy to indulge in adventures based on ambitious plans. At the end of the day, the instructions of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the 1992 World Cup-winning captain who also happens to be the cricket board’s powerful patron-in-chief, will probably count for more.

Strong signals are coming from the board’s headquarters at the Gaddafi Stadium that the current board feels the previous approach of relying on foreigners as part of the support staff has rarely made Pakistan a force to challenge the best teams consistently. Richard Pybus, Bob Woolmer, Geoff Lawson and Dav Whatmore had all served in the years gone by as Pakistan’s head coach, with mixed results, before Arthur came into the picture.      

What is often forgotten, however, is that in between these foreign stints, the Pakistan team was also managed by our own stalwarts such as Intikhab Alam, Mushtaq Mohammad, Javed Miandad, Moin Khan and Waqar Younis. These local heroes were often thrown into the deep end before they too met their Waterloo, with some of them exiting in rather controversial circumstances.

The gentleman of the gentlemen’s game, Misbah-ul-Haq, is being rumoured as the next big appointment in Pakistan cricket — in the dual role of chief selector and head coach. How would he fare?

Of the stints by Pakistan’s own, there was only one appointment that could claim resounding success, at least at the Test level. Mohsin Hasan Khan — one of the most stylish batsmen to don the green cap — guided Pakistan to three consecutive series triumphs, including the historic whitewash of England in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in early 2012. But brought in as a stopgap arrangement, Mohsin — who actually relinquished his status of chief selector to become the head coach — also had to step aside since the PCB had made up its mind to bring in a qualified coach in the shape of the Sri Lanka-born former Australian batsman Whatmore.

The curriculum vitae of Misbah — the country’s most successful Test captain with a record 26 victories — is impressive enough to merit a position of great proportions in the new set-up now said to be envisaged by the PCB. As captain he played a massive role to redeem Pakistan’s image that had been catastrophically tarnished because of the sordid spot-fixing saga at Lord’s nine years ago.

Changing mentors for the sake of the betterment of Pakistan cricket is certainly not a bad idea. But in our culture, the biggest thorn has always been the clash of egos and the spate of dogfights that follow and which sadly never seem to end. The opportunistic leg-pulling of men in power is a common occurrence in our cricketing culture. The latest example is before us: despite his success at the T20 level and at the ICC Champions Trophy two years ago, it was the failure to make the knock-out phase of the recent ICC World Cup that resulted in Arthur’s swift fall from grace.

However, in Misbah, the PCB may have one man who has the capacity to carry Pakistan in the right direction as the first selector-cum-head coach, if that is the appropriate description of the rumoured newly-coined position. Ideally, it would be better to change the nomenclature to ‘team director’. In the world of football, across the world, the focal person is the manager whose primary task is to double up not just as a selector but also as the coach. The football manager is held primarily responsible for the team’s performance. If the team does exceptionally well, it is the manager who receives credit, and it is the manager who often becomes vulnerable when it doesn’t.

In Misbah, the PCB may have one man who has the capacity to carry Pakistan in the right direction as the first selector-cum-head coach, if that is the appropriate description of the rumoured newly-coined position.

The biggest challenge for Misbah, if he agrees to accept such an offer, will be to attenuate the whole lot who had been his biggest detractors when he was playing international cricket. His laidback leadership was often criticised for its lack of aggression. Given his phlegmatic virtues as a human being, Misbah drew heavy criticism for being too defensive with his customary safety-first methodology. Knowing Misbah from the days when he was just trying his luck in the domestic mainstream, he had a mentality of playing-safe as a tactical ploy. But as he demonstrated during his playing days, he’s also got ample capacity to soak up the pressure that is bound to come with the job, chiefly because of his family upbringing. That MBA degree in Human Resource Management might also not be a bad tool in his repertoire.  

The major advantage which could make the task somewhat easier for him is the unique insight he enjoys about the modern-day norms of the game. A late bloomer as a cricketer, Misbah only made his entry into the first-class arena at the ripe age of 26, but was very much actively involved as a player until March 13 of this year. His final appearance came in the Pakistan Super League fixture for Peshawar Zalmi against Quetta Gladiators in Karachi. The last time he played at the first-class level was during the drawn Quaid-e-Azam Trophy final last December, when he skippered Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited versus eventual champions Habib Bank Limited at the UBL Sports Complex in Karachi. Even then he proved his real value as probably the fittest cricketer ever seen in this country, incredibly scoring 91 and 44 not out, only six months shy of his 45th birthday.

Another key element which further brightens the possibility of Misbah being as successful in the dual management role as when he was the Pakistan captain is that he is well-equipped to call the shots — provided he doesn’t succumb to the hidden pressures from various quarters — given his camaraderie with the players. A majority of them not only were nurtured under his captaincy but also grew in stature under his tutelage. For example, the likes of Azhar Ali, Asad Shafiq, Sarfraz Ahmed, Wahab Riaz, Mohammad Amir and Yasir Shah, all matured one-by-one into top-class performers during the time Misbah led Pakistan.

There are also distinct similarities between Misbah and the other most-admired skipper Imran — who surely must have given the seal of approval to this unprecedented yet-to-be realised concept. Both have ancestral roots from the paternal side in Mianwali since they both hail from the Niazi tribe and had distinguished themselves not only as players, but also respected Pakistan captains with a deep passion for fair play.

Success in modern-day cricket largely depends on the man-management skills of team leaders, whether they are the captain or the head coach. The real test comes when the times are really tough and the usual blame games erupt between the stakeholders after almost every series or tournament. The common phenomenon we noticed was that whenever Pakistan won, selectors wrapped themselves with credit. But the loss of a match (or series) — particularly when a World Cup is on — often meant it being labelled a national crisis with the barrel of critics’ guns pointed firmly in the direction of the team management, ie the captain and the head coach.

Misbah, at least, has a cool head on his shoulders because he has been through many a critical phase during his tenure as Pakistan captain. He is well aware of the simple philosophy that standing alone all by himself would be a recipe for disaster. He would need like-minded former stars in the support staff to make the mission impossible work. One man Misbah would definitely be eyeing is his most-trusted lieutenant Younis Khan as the batting coach. Younis was the driving force of the Test line-up in Misbah’s time, and who scored 18 of his 34 centuries under Misbah’s leadership on his way to a Pakistan record tally of 10,099 runs at the highest level.

Given their mutual respect — they ended their illustrious playing careers together after overseeing a historic maiden series win in the Caribbean 27 months ago — there is no doubt that only Misbah has the uncanny magic to coax a strictly private individual such as Younis into launching a new career for Pakistan’s sake.

We can only keep our fingers crossed.

The writer is a member of staff

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 25th, 2019