Shan Masood was destined to captain Pakistan some day. He had the proper upbringing, exemplary demeanour, the right attitude, the proper education and the much needed vision. But his Pakistan career was blighted by in-and-out-of-the-team syndrome, so common in Pakistan cricket. Then, whatever chances he got, showed inconsistencies. Good scores came few and far between.

But those who learn from their mistakes survive. Irish novelist and short story writer Samuel Barclay Beckett once wrote, “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail Again. Fail better.” This should be the motto for sportspersons, because failures provide lessons. Shan has progressed by learning from his failures.

In the aftermath of Pakistan’s disappointing World Cup 2023 campaign, changes were imminent, although not as a knee-jerk reaction. As was expected, Shaheen Shah Afridi was given the Twenty20 international captaincy. But eyebrows were raised when Shan was announced as the captain for Tests. Some even called it an attempt to make Shan a “sacrificial lamb”, as most expected Pakistan to face another whitewash Down Under. The common opinion was that the new team director Mohammad Hafeez and Shan would have to bear the consequences.

Pakistan did suffer another whitewash in the Tests, going down 3-0, but proved more competitive than any of the previous teams that had toured Australian shores. Had luck favoured Pakistan, they could have returned 2-1 winners — the first time a Pakistan team would have won a Test series in Australia. But despite it not coming about, the Shan-led team earned praise. “Three cheers for Pakistan’s unexpected fighters,” was the banner headline in the Sydney Morning Herald at the conclusion of the series.

Although it ended up whitewashed by Australia, the Pakistan Test cricket team were far more competitive Down Under than the final results indicated. And the new captain Shan Masood received ample praise for his handling of things. Eos caught up with him to get his views on the series and the future…

Besides the competitiveness of the Pakistan team, Shan’s discipline, articulate nature, his praising the MCG ground staff for a sporting pitch and, last but not the least, presenting the retiring David Warner a “signed Babar Azam shirt” as a gift, won many hearts. “Take a bow: Pakistan captain’s speech after the Test defeat is pure class,” was how news.com.au summed up the new skipper’s approach.

The common traits of captaincy skills are mostly away from the scene. The way he handled and backed a superstar in Babar Azam, who has had a drought of big runs, dealt with the Sarfaraz vs Rizwan conundrum, and showed grace in defeats, were all remarkable.

The proper handling of the players, knowing their utility, backing them in adversity, taking bold decisions — both pre-match and in playing something by ear. Shan seems to have most of them and, although new to the responsibility, he alluded to a transformation in Pakistan’s style of play in the longer format.

Eos spoke to Shan to get his version of the Australia tour, about the positives from the series, the way forward for the Pakistan Test team…

Q: Before you started the tour was there a premonition that, since Pakistan have never won a series Down Under and the last Test was won in 1995, this tour would also not go well…

Shan: The series in my opinion was bittersweet, a lot of things we can take forward with us but, in the end, it’s the scoreboard that everyone looks at and judges you by. Personally, I always look at the bigger picture, and I think if we take the positives with us and learn from our mistakes, then we will have a great run as a Test team.

Australia has been a tough touring place not just for Pakistan but a lot of other teams as well. From our camp we did not have that in mind [fears of losing]. Our focus was on how we can improve as a Test team in the long run.

Q: Why did we put down so many catches in Australia? Are we that bad a catching side or we do not have a culture of fielding at our domestic level, which has become the bane?

Shan: One thing I always believe in is that fielding is one skill that is in the individual’s full control and I feel, as a team, we need to aim for higher standards and really push ourselves to be a world class fielding team. But dropped catches happen and at no point can I fault the effort of the players on the tour.

Q: How did the team rally around Abdullah Shafique after his crucial dropped catches?

Shan: We were all behind him. Fielding in the slips isn’t an easy chore. And people must understand the time and effort the slip fielders put in practice. Dropped catches are part and parcel of the game and, unfortunately, Abdullah had to deal with a bad streak, which can dent one’s confidence. I really believe in him and feel he is one of the best around in that fielding position.

Q: How can we beat Australia in Australia?

Shan: I think we should’ve beaten Australia in Australia. I think we found the way in the second and third Tests, but didn’t finish the games off, and certainly didn’t win in the crucial moments, which we have to learn to do.

Q: Your Test career has been marred by a lack of chances, playing a few and then being left out. So when the captaincy was offered, what were your top priorities?

Shan: My priorities as Test captain are solely focused on how to make us a really successful team. It involves an identity, team culture, standards and the brand of cricket that defines Pakistan Cricket, which the coming generations can inherit.

Q: You are new to captaincy but, as a first experience, do you think you justified the responsibility with runs and decisions on the tour?

Shan: I feel very disappointed at the starts I got and not cashing in on them. In terms of decisions and the way I wanted to play and the team to play, I’m satisfied that we are heading in the right direction.

Q: Did your stint at Yorkshire and leading teams at the domestic level in Pakistan help you?

Shan: Of course, any experience of captaincy can only aid you. I’ve been very lucky in terms of the captaincy exposure and help I’ve got from support staff along the way.

Q: Is changing the style of play — like Pakistan seemed to have done in Australia with swift scoring — the way forward?

Shan: I like how England has shown how things can be done in a different way. That’s a life lesson in disguise — just because something is done one way doesn’t mean it’s the right or only way. I want us to be a team that plays attractive and fearless cricket that wins us games of cricket.

Q: Was it difficult to team up with a Team Director [Mohammad Hafeez] who had played with you and some of the other players not so long ago?

Shan: Not at all, his [Hafeez’s] vision and approach to the game is something to be admired and he has Pakistan cricket at the top of his priorities.

Q: Was it difficult to captain a side that had former skippers like Sarfaraz, Babar and Rizwan? How did you go about it and how often did you consult them?

Shan: Actually it was easier, as it helps to draw ideas from players who have the experience of captaincy.

Q: Pakistan will be hosting Bangladesh and England later this year. What changes — in style and squads — you would like to have?

Shan: It’s too early to say but we want to build on the good work we’ve done in Australia.

Q: In the Sydney Test, post-match, you said to David Warner, “see you in the PSL [Pakistan Super League].” Is he willing to come and play our league?

Shan: It would be great to have him and other great players of the world to play in our PSL. He will have more time after his Test retirement and I certainly hope he comes to Pakistan again.

The writer is a senior cricket analyst.
X: @hashmi_shahid

Published in Dawn, EOS, February 11th, 2024

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