Sri Lanka's tour will be as much a test for the coaches as it will be for the players
When Misbah-ul-Haq steps out into the field at Galle for the toss ahead of the opening Test against Sri Lanka, he will be aware that he is now the oldest player to captain Pakistan, is leading a young side in transition, has left behind his better fast men and is facing a side that has a legendary pair of batsmen still singing loudly through their swan song.
Reflecting on the lighter side he will also be missing his ‘professorial’ consultant, Hafeez, in the Tests. He will now not be constantly in his ear on the field, during practice, in the dressing room, on the coach, in his hotel room, during shopping and when picking the final eleven. I would have added ‘during a partnership’ but I think that is rare as he was almost always dismissed much before Misbah arrived in the middle.
This is also a litmus test of the new coaching team. Most in the spotlight will be Waqar Younis of course. His previous stint ended in acrimonious circumstances following a tiff with ODI skipper Shahid Afridi. Earlier, there had been the controversial exclusion of Shoaib Akhtar in the last stretch of the 2011 World Cup, including in the semi-final against India. Shoaib was so devastated that he quit cricket immediately after that and many blamed Waqar for his departure.
Some will recall that Shoaib Akhtar, with an 18-run first over to Tendulkar, was taken off and Shoaib felt humiliated. Waqar on his part felt he was one of those partly responsible for his failure in the 2003 World Cup where he led Pakistan and was subsequently sacked from all cricket after that colossal failure. He had some aggressive disagreements with Afridi also on that trip.
But neither of them will be in Sri Lanka questioning his judgments in the dressing room or staring into his decision with hands on hips and a sour face as far as the Test matches go. Afridi will be coming in for the ODI squad but Shoaib is long gone. Waqar would still dearly hope that he is somewhere on his honeymoon as Shoaib can be equally devastating as an expert on TV back home. Horror of horrors he may just get recruited into the commentary team. That means he’s physically around as well with his views reaching far beyond those of Waqar or teammates when he used to be in the team.
Shahid Afridi has also learned from his previous altercation with Waqar, when the former fast bowler was last head coach. Afridi is relatively---and I emphasise relatively--more constrained and is also aware that Misbah is possibly into his last year or two as an international cricketer and captain. If he shows more maturity in his relationships with his peers and coaches, as well as with the PCB management, he can safely carry the leadership till he himself rides into the sunset.
The second man in the spotlight will be the former Zimbabwean batsman, Grant Flower. This generation of followers has not seen him play I would think, or at least were too young to understand his skills or achievements if they saw him on TV. Grant carries the disadvantage of being linked to Zimbabwe who today is considered just above ordinary. But at the time he played Zimbabwe were a latent threat in just about every match and even reached the Super Sixes round of the 1999 World Cup. He has batted against top bowlers and often held his own since breaking into international cricket in the early 1990s.
After a near hundred in his very first Test, he took an unbeaten double century off the Pakistanis enabling Zimbabwe to beat them by an innings. In fact overall he had a Test average of over 40 against Pakistan with some three hundreds. Recall that overlapping his career was a Pakistani bowling attack that included Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Aaqib Javed, Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed and all at their peak in that period!
Grant would bat with determination, patience and application, once scoring a hundred in both innings of a Test match. This proves that he can guide the younger Pakistani batsman on several attributes needed to succeed at the top level. He has opened as well as batted in the middle order, has played the big tournaments and the best of bowlers. He therefore understands the mental requirements, of both Tests and ODIs, as he was a regular member of both throughout his career. Also as coach you don’t need to be a Miandad or Lara; in fact that becomes something of a disadvantage as you need to make the man improve according to his strengths and limitations. Possibly his one disadvantage is that he lacks substantial experience has not held any high profile jobs. If he doesn’t get the batsmen to improve, his usefulness will be questioned.
Foreign coaches have previously struggled to get through to our cricketers. But most of the Pakistani cricketers among the present lot are better communicators than those who played in the first decade of this century. In fact both Sohaib Maqsood and Shan Masood, travelling with this side, were immediately touted as future captains from their very first tours simply because they speak good English! If PCB would have had its way, Umar Amin would have been captaining one of the sides by now. It was only when he showed himself absolutely incapable of batting despite consistent chances that he was dropped with a heavy heart.
One of the coaches who will be having absolutely no such problems with those who struggle with English is Mushtaq Ahmed. What is further positive in his appointment is that he will surely help Saeed Ajmal overcome the grind he is being put under right now. Mushtaq often carried a lot of weight on his shoulders when he played for Sussex till some seven years back and his county captain would often just leave one end to him. It helps when the coach has been in a similar position and come out managing himself successfully.
Mushtaq also was the man behind Graeme Swann’s ascension as a top flight off spinner and Saeed Ajmal should know it’s never too late to learn, especially from a master like Mushy. What the former leg spinner also brings to the table is his stint with England as their spin coach. I think he was with them for some three years and must have absorbed much from England’s head coach Andy Flower and batting coach Graham Gooch, both of whom transformed the England side into a far more aggressive and better planned side than it was before they came in.
And yet it all depends on how seriously the younger Pakistani cricketers take their advice, especially someone like Umar Akmal who has won a reprieve into the Test side. Questions still abound about his impulsiveness in the longer format. Likewise Ahmed Shahzad and when it comes to the ODI series, Sharjeel Khan. Among bowlers the raw pacers will have to show more faith in what they are told to do. Can the coaches get through quickly as Australians comes at them soon? Tough ask. You could therefore say that this tour will be as much a test for the coaches as it will be for the players.