By Azhar Mahmood
This article was first published in www.pakpassion.net. We are republishing this piece with their permission.
In his latest blog for PakPassion.net, Azhar Mahmood writes about Pakistan’s stunning victory in the 2017 Champions Trophy, analyses Man of the Tournament Hasan Ali’s progress, expresses his delight at Junaid Khan’s impressive return to the Pakistan side, discusses Mohammad Amir’s crucial spell in the final against India and reflects on how he deals with criticism.
The feeling of pride after winning the Champions Trophy
There is no better feeling than knowing that we have won the ICC Champions Trophy or any major tournament for that matter. One can only praise the Almighty for His reward for our hard work before and during this tournament not only in our bowling but in the overall sense.
As a coach involved with the winning side, this is the best feeling one can have, but it gets better if we consider the fact that we won the final against our arch-rival India and lifted the Champions Trophy. We did so, at a time when no one gave us any chance of success. No one gave us any credit for the hard-work we put in as we prepared for this tournament and we were written-off after our defeat to India in the tournament opener.
Our improvement in all departments was phenomenal and whether it was batting, bowling or fielding we seemed to click at the right time to win the trophy. The improvement we saw was not only there in the way we turned around our fortunes during the Champions Trophy, but this was also there beforehand with our performances in the West Indies series where we showed great energy not only in ODIs but also in the Test matches as well.
It was a team effort at the Champions Trophy and especially pleasing if we consider the fact that this is a young team which helped us win. The lads represent the future for Pakistan but it was also great to see the seniors responding well. So, players like Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez responded really well to our objective of playing the brand of cricket which we now want to play.
Pakistan’s remarkable turnaround after disaster against India
We hear a lot of talk about our disastrous performance against India in the bowling department. But, to be fair to our bowlers, things were not that bad up until the 38th over of that game. Of course, they ended up getting 319/3 and then our batsmen succumbed to the pressure a bit with Shoaib Malik losing his wicket at a crucial phase of the match. To be honest, the performance wasn’t as bad as some may have made it look. The fact is that we dropped two crucial catches of Virat Kohli and Yuvraj Singh and two of our front-line bowlers developed injuries, which caused us to change our plans against the batsmen.
Poor Hasan Ali, with all his inexperience, had to carry the burden on his shoulders in the absence of our two senior bowlers and then Imad Wasim had to bowl the last over which cost him 23 runs. Yes, it appeared pretty horrendous but if you break it down, you will see that it was about India winning key moments which changed the whole scenario of the game.
Hasan Ali’s brilliant progress
Let me start by saying that the presence of Hasan Ali in the team is like a breath of fresh air. To me, he is a game-changer in the truest sense of the word. In fact, working with all the fast-bowlers was an amazing experience in the manner in which they all wanted to learn and improve themselves. But coming back to Hasan Ali, let me say that he is a match-winner and our go-to man at the moment. What I really love about Hasan is his attitude. He not only wants to do well for himself but he genuinely wants to do anything to help out his team as well. As a coach and a team-mate, that’s all you want from a young bowler. When we discussed the game with him, he would be talking about the ground dimensions and the pitch and those are such important factors for any bowler to understand. This is where Hasan is so good as apart from having all the skills that one can ask for from any fast-bowler, he also has a keen understanding of how and when to use those skills to get the maximum advantage. This is so important when you are bowling against good quality batsmen who have strong and weak areas in their game. With Hasan, it feels that he has the ability to out-think his opponents and is always one step ahead of the batsman.
Changing the mindsets of our fast-bowlers
From my point of view, apart from working on bowling skills, what I have also done with my association with Pakistan’s bowlers is to change their mindset and this is how. If you go back a few months, you will see that five-fors for Pakistan have always come from the spinners but not from the fast-bowlers. It appeared that it was fine to get 2-3 wickets as a fast-bowler for it to be considered a good performance which to me was nonsense. What I have told them is to beat their best performance in every game they play. That is the only goal they need to set for themselves. They need to compete with themselves and not worry about others. That is my advice to all bowlers and that is exactly what Hasan Ali does every time he goes out to bowl.
Wickets a must in middle-overs
There is a huge shift in thinking when it comes to bowling during the middle-overs period of the innings in ODIs. Gone are the days when you as a bowling unit could sit back and try and survive whilst going through the middle-overs with a view to contain the opposition. Nowadays, if there is a set batsman when the middle-overs arrive, he will take you to the cleaners if you cannot remove him, so taking wickets during that period is crucial. On top of that, you can reduce the run-rate by taking wickets which is what we did during this tournament and that was the key to our success. We were lucky in that we had some excellent wicket-taking options in the shape of Hasan Ali and Shadab Khan who could go hard at the opposition and take wickets in the middle overs and Junaid Khan, Rumman Raees and Mohammad Amir when they came back in their second spell were equally impressive and did not allow any freedom to the batsmen.
Junaid Khan’s impressive return
I was absolutely delighted to see Junaid Khan back in the team and performing well. The first time I saw him with the team was in Australia when he made a comeback for Pakistan. In the second ODI in Melbourne he took the wickets of David Warner and Usman Khawaja, but then he did not have good games after that. It was important that as coaching staff we made sure that he was given consistent chances to prove himself. He was having some issues with his action which was also effecting the speeds with which he was bowling. We he had to do some remedial work and now if you see in the Champions Trophy he touched 140+ KpH which was a big improvement. He bowled some quick bouncers as well as good slower deliveries during the tournament. Junaid knows what to do and he has the skills for the job as well as the fitness to go with it. We just need to give him the confidence he needs to perform on the field and we don’t need to come down hard on him if he has one bad game.
Consistency in selection is a must
The problem a lot of the time is the media who go into a frenzy when a bowler has a bad game which is not good. We need to back our guys and give the players a proper chance. And this not just true for Junaid but for any youngster; all of the deserving players need to be given ample chances to perform because that is how they become better and stronger players. If we look at all the other teams like South Africa, Australia and India, we will note that they tend to keep the same team composition for a while and give all their players enough chances to prove themselves. Pakistan does not have the luxury of the types of talents we used to have available for selection in the 1990s. What we now need to do is take the players who have come in and given them time and the confidence to grow into better players and perform at a higher level. We cannot elevate them to heroes one day and then turn them into ‘zeroes’ the next day. We need to change that type of mentality if we wish to progress further.
He is one bowler who has really impressed not just myself but all who have watched him play. I saw him for the first time at the PSL and I also worked with him during that tournament. Recently, during practice at The Oval the day before the final, I saw that he was not finishing his action and I asked him to work on that aspect. Once he made that adjustment, he was bowling a yard to two yards quicker. So, with his talent, just a small change like that could make a difference. He showed amazing strength of character when we put him in place of Mohammad Amir in the crucial game against England. He made his ODI debut in the semi-final where he showed good skills and bowled with a big-heart. That’s all we need and to be honest, we did not feel Amir’s absence that day as Rumman was as good as the bowler he had replaced. That’s exactly what we want as our bench-strength to be for the future so we can implement a good rotation policy. This allows us to not keep on playing the same players again and again and risking injury to them. This way we can give some rest to the players so that they can stay fit by replacing them with bowlers of similar quality.
Getting the fast-bowlers to focus and deliver each time
As I have stated before, I always insist that fast-bowlers finish their actions when bowling. And its not just Rumman who has this type of issue as other bowlers also suffer from this type of simple problem which can be fixed with ease. What we had seen in the past is that when bowlers came back for their second spell they were not concentrating but my advice to them was that whenever you comeback for the next spell, you bowl as if you are bowling for the first time in the game. Do not bowl a few loose deliveries and use that to warm-up to bowl better later as in modern-day cricket, good batsmen will not allow you that freedom as a bowler. That mentality needed to be changed right from the way we practice and I’m glad to see improvements in this area.
The return of Mohammad Amir
There is no doubt in my mind that Mohammad Amir is a big-match player. During the Champions Trophy, there was hardly any swing due to the cold weather at Cardiff and Edgbaston but Amir swung the ball at Cardiff and also at The Oval. I felt Amir seemed to be holding himself back so that he was only putting in 70% effort at times. I mentioned this to Amir before the final against India that he must go flat out and bowl the fastest he can. And we saw in that game in the way he was running in, in his body language that he was fired up and went in full throttle at the Indian batsmen. His spell, as we all saw, could only be described as a match-winning spell. He took wickets with the new ball and set the tone for the rest of the innings for all of the other to follow. Fakhar Zaman did that for us with the bat and Amir followed with the ball.
Watching this 18-year-old play as if he was playing a street game with his friends and not the most important game of the tournament is how in my view, the game should be played. Shadab Khan is able to do all that because he has confidence in his abilities. When you enjoy your cricket then you will put in performances like the way he bowled to Yuvraj Singh at The Oval. He was bowling as if he didn’t care who the batsman was in the same way we always teach the batsmen to play the ball and not worry about who is bowling it. It did not matter if the batsman was Yuvraj Singh or Virat Kohli for Shadab because once you start worrying about that, you as a bowler are in trouble.
The positive energy coming from the youngsters
We are lucky in the sense that we have some players like Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali and Fakhar Zaman. Each of them has talent but above all, they have a big heart. That is what the team needs and you would have seen the effect of that in the boost in morale and the lift the team got during the tournament. This is a great sign for Pakistan cricket and I am really pleased and happy about that as that is taking Pakistan cricket in the right direction. It is all because of these youngsters. They go the extra yard in training and they bring positive energy to the team; these guys make us strong. I am very pleased for these young guys as they make me proud as well. They listen to me and whilst I made plans for them, nothing would have been achieved if they had not executed those plans to perfection. At the end of the day, I can make plans but the responsibility for execution of those plans is with the players. As we have seen at the Champions Trophy, they have followed those plans and made me and the whole nation proud by doing so.
Criticism directed at me
I have said it before that the criticism from keyboard warriors and TV ‘experts’ has no effect on what I am here to achieve. They have no idea about the ground realities in terms of what is happening at any given time on the field. There are issues such as bowling with or against the wind, where the pitch is unhelpful and so on; the onlookers and experts have no idea what the bowlers are up against; they just sit on TV shows and say what they like.
I am doing my work with honesty and passing on my experience to these young guys and that is very pleasing to me. It does not matter what others say or do, as long as my bowlers are happy. That is all I care about and that is what makes me happy. I have said this before and I will reiterate that I am doing this job to make a difference. This is not about getting an easy salary as some have suggested; this should be clear to all. If all I wanted to do was to make money, then I would have been doing something else, but this is not at all about that. I work with the Pakistan bowlers due to my passion and for pride and to serve Pakistan and Pakistan cricket. I am sacrificing my family life as I am away from them for long periods but I am doing this for my country alone. This type of criticism about me really hurts but thankfully the people can now see the results of my efforts.