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June 1, 2018

How Pakistan turned from a fielding joke to one of the best


June 1, 2018


LONDON: On Saturday afternoon at Lord’s, Joe Root played a beautiful square cut into the ground. Fielding at backward point, Imam-ul-Haq dived to intercept the ball with his outstretched arms, and grabbed the ball cleanly. In a split-second of athleticism, four runs became none, prompting the other fielders to run to give Imam a high five, writes foreign media.

It was a microcosm of the transformation in Pakistan’s fielding. Imam, like all of Pakistan’s young players, is dynamic in the field; rewind 15 years, and his uncle, the brilliant batsman Inzamam, would reach down to field balls with the air of a man rather insulted at being asked to do so.

After an England Test defeat as abject as Lord’s, fingers have inevitably been pointed at Twenty20 — for England’s shoddy shot selection, the marginalisation of the County Championship, and probably the inclement May weather too. But ask Pakistan about the impact of T20, and their answer will be very different: the shortest format has greatly improved the standards of Pakistani fielding.

To understand the roots of Pakistan’s brilliant fielding performance at Lord’s —they did not drop a single catch and, until a couple of pieces of poor ground fielding on the third evening, barely missed a ball either — it is necessary to understand the impact that the Pakistan Super League has had on cricket in the country.

Pakistan cricket’s nine-year exile cost the board about $200 million, because of the extra costs of playing their home matches in the UAE instead and the loss of ticket revenue. For the next generation, it has also deprived them of the opportunities of learning from foreign coaches, as few have been willing to stay in Pakistan for long.

The PSL, launched in 2016, changed all this. For one month a year in the UAE, Pakistan’s best young players play alongside leading international stars, under the supervision of leading foreign coaches. A measure of this shift is that a higher proportion of catches are taken in the Pakistan Super League than Australia’s Big Bash.

Shadab Khan is both in keeping with the stereotypes of Pakistani cricket — he is a brilliant teenage leg-spinner, and also completely removed from them: he is a vivacious fielder too and, indeed, a genuinely three-dimensional player of the ilk that Pakistan have seldom produced. Shadab was known as a precocious fielder even before the PSL but the tournament honed his athleticism, just as it did for Imam and Faheem Ashraf.

When elevated to the national squad, these players sharpened their fielding and fitness methodically and meticulously. After Mickey Arthur was appointed head coach in 2016, he appointed the Australian Steve Rixon as fielding coach. “What we’ve done, again, is that uncompromising way we’ve worked with fielding and fitness standards,” Arthur explained before Lord’s.

Before his very first tour — the series in England in 2016 — the team trained with the army; the sight of Pakistan’s players doing press-ups on the Lord’s outfield two years ago was an acknowledgement of how this had helped. This time, as he has made the norm, Arthur oversaw a pre-series camp in Pakistan and, during the early tour matches and the Test in Ireland, honed the side’s slip fielding.

Asad Shafiq’s diving catch from second slip on the first day, to account for Jos Buttler, amounted to stunning vindication. Playing in Dubai, Arthur believes, has forced Pakistan to achieve new heights of fitness. “You get to Dubai and you get to 50, and it’s 40 degrees, you have guys throw their wickets away. Well now their fitness standards allow them to go on and get 80s and 100s.”

Arthur was not the first foreign coach to stress the importance of fielding. In many ways he shares many of the same qualities as Bob Woolmer, who also coached South Africa before doing the Pakistan job: the demeanour of an amiable uncle, a determination to improve Pakistan in their historical weaknesses without impinging upon their traditional strengths and his embrace of Pakistan as a country as well as a cricket team.

During his celebrated stint as Pakistan coach, from 2004 to 2007, Woolmer brought a new emphasis to fielding as a core skill, not merely a nice garnish on the side, introducing a rigour to fielding sessions.

Arthur is completing the revolution that Woolmer started. Since he took over as Pakistan coach, they have taken 80 percent of catches in Tests; only New Zealand and South Africa have been better. Pakistan have always been capable of out-batting and out-bowling opponents. Now, they routinely out-field them too.




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