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By Amir Husain
Misbah-ul-Haq was appointed Pakistan Test captain in October 2010 and took over the One-Day International (ODI) captaincy seven months later. He took on the captain’s role after a period of turmoil for Pakistan cricket and his calm demeanour has ensured he has held on to the leadership of the Pakistan Test and ODI teams for over three years, a significant period of time given the limited shelf-lives of previous Pakistani captains.
After their recent historic run chase in the final Test against Sri Lanka when Misbah’s side chased down 302 in 57 overs to win, Pakistan have also experienced success in limited-overs cricket, beating Sri Lanka in the UAE. Misbah also led Pakistan to an ODI series victory against South Africa a few months ago, becoming the first Asian side to win a series in South Africa.
In 2012, he became the second Pakistan captain to lift the Asia Cup, with freshly-appointed coach Moin Khan, and the two will be hoping to unite again in the same tournament as Pakistan kicks off their Asia Cup campaign on Tuesday against Sri Lanka.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Misbah spoke about a number of topics including his approach to captaincy, the upcoming Asia Cup 2014, the epic Test run chase against Sri Lanka, former head coach Dav Whatmore’s tenure and Pakistan’s chances at the World Cup next year.
Excerpts from the interview:
PakPassion.net (PP): As a captain, what in your view is the best way to get the most out of your team? Do you believe that a rigorous disciplinary approach works better for a team like Pakistan?
Misbah-ul-Haq (MH): To be quite honest, in this day and age, it would be completely counter-productive to use a strict approach on your players. Instead, you have to work in a balanced manner with your players and build their confidence with a sensible approach. The captain has to share his experience with his players and also motivate them to perform better.
However, there are times when there is a need for a little bit of discipline and the captain should not be shy to exert his authority where needed. In summary, the captain has to gain respect and elicit full commitment from the players and this cannot be done with a strict disciplinarian approach with the Pakistan team.
PP: At times, you appear to be very frustrated seeing some players making the same mistakes time and time again. It must be difficult to control your anger at such times and yet also try and help the players sort out their recurring problems?
MH: Look, it’s very natural to feel frustrated and react in this manner when things aren’t going your way on the field, especially in the example you’ve mentioned. Frustration, as natural as it may be, does show but it’s not desirable and I try my best to suppress such feelings as it has a negative effect on team spirit.
At the end of the day, we are all professionals and we need to behave in such a manner on the field. All players are professionals and want to do their best and no one under-performs deliberately. If mistakes are made on the field then the captain, instead of getting frustrated, needs to help the players fix the problems and raise their morale as well – this is the only way forward.
There are various ways of rectifying mistakes that players make and usually the senior players help out in this way. This is not only true for the Pakistan team but for all teams in the world where, after the game or day’s play we sit down and discuss the day’s play, sometimes with the help of video analysis to try and find the cause of the problem.
PP: The Captain-Coach partnership is crucial for any team’s success, how would you rate your association with Dav Whatmore?
MH: It was an excellent partnership. We had a lot of frank and open discussions during team meetings and neither of us were ever shy to share our point of view with each other or to provide feedback on specific issues. We would then work on implementing any plans or recommendations we came up with.
In the time that Dav was with us, we endeavoured to take the team to new heights. Unfortunately, especially in Test matches, our performances were not that great or consistent. However, I still feel that we did win some significant limited overs series such as the one against India (2012-13) and the previous edition of the Asia Cup as well as the recent series against Sri Lanka (2013-14). All in all, we had some good performances and the experience of working with Dav was an excellent one for all of us.
PP: How unsettling for the players are the current spate of changes in the organisational structure of the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB)?
MH: In my personal opinion, these sorts of changes can happen in the background but the players just need to worry about their prime role which is to play cricket for Pakistan. The players have to be concerned about their performance which needs to improve from game to game. As a player, such distractions should be set aside as they are not in the control of the player and we should only focus on our performance on the field.
PP: Hypothetically speaking, if you were to be made chairman of the PCB today, what would be the three most important items that you would pay attention to?
MH: That’s a really tough question! In my view there is only one item that needs addressing immediately and that is the state of domestic cricket. It needs to be improved as much as possible. Specifically, we need to work on player development and on better opportunities and financial rewards for players. The more we pay attention to this aspect of our domestic cricket, the better it will be for the standing of Pakistan cricket in general. There is no doubt in my mind that this should be the one and only objective of the PCB leadership.
PP: Turning our attention to Pakistan’s recent Test victory against Sri Lanka in Sharjah, would you class that as the best day of your cricket career?
MH: Well, I would term this victory as one of the best days of cricket or even the best match I have ever played in. This was the type of victory that will remain with me for the rest of my life – something that I will never be able to forget! This was a very special situation. The fate of the series hinged on our run chase which was a record in itself. On top of that, the manner in which we executed the run chase to draw the series is something all the players cannot forget.
The other important factor was that after working with us for two years, this was Dav Whatmore’s last Test series as our Head Coach. We always wanted that an association like Dav’s with our team and Pakistan in general should end on a memorable note and that is what happened! This was another reason why we were all very pleased as was Dav with our victory.
PP: Out of curiosity, as the winning runs were scored, you gestured towards the dressing room, presumably referring to Dav. What was that all about?
MH: Yes very much so. This was a way to acknowledge Whatmore and yes the gesture was referring to Whatmore’s moustache! This was my way of attributing the victory to him and giving him a kind of recognition or a warm send off for all his help to our team.
PP: Still staying with the fantastic victory over Sri Lanka, Azhar Ali had come under enormous criticism before and even during that match for his below par performance. As a captain, did you feel vindicated for continuing to support Azhar, especially after his match winning innings?
MH: I rate Azhar Ali very highly and support him. Ever since his debut, he has provided so much stability to the Pakistani batting order and has always performed well. However, in the recent past, there have been one or two series which have not gone so well for him and which put a lot of pressure on him.
I am really happy that in his comeback game, he performed so well and proved himself again. There were a lot of critics who were saying that he would not survive long due to flaws in his technique and they had a lot of doubts about his suitability for Pakistan. However, he proved all of them wrong in this game and laid all doubts to rest and in my view Azhar is a truly talented player who can do a lot for Pakistan in the future.
PP: An often heard criticism directed at you as captain, is the issue of your hesitance to introduce youngsters to international cricket for Pakistan. How do you respond to that criticism?
MH: Regardless of the age of a player and whether he is experienced or not, the only considerations for selection are whether the player conforms to the requirements of the team, if he merits selection based upon his ability and, if he can perform well for Pakistan. Such a player deserves a chance to be selected and he should be backed by the team management. This is exactly the stance that we have taken and stuck to in the past three years or so.
There are many examples of the success of this policy, for instance there is Ahmed Shehzad, Sohaib Maqsood, Bilawal Bhatti and Anwar Ali to name a few. However, there are exceptions as in the case of Nasir Jamshed. We gave him plenty of chances and tried very hard to help him establish himself in the team. Unfortunately, he could not maintain his form and lost his place in the team. Umar Amin is another similar example who could not establish himself in the team despite many chances. As you can see, whether it’s the bowling or batting departments, we have given consistent chances to youngsters who are performing well now and can be of help to Pakistan in the future.
PP: Would you say that you have enough of a say in selection to be able to express your requirements and implement a selection policy that you prefer?
MH: The selection committee does take our input into consideration but the final decision is with them. We have pretty frank discussions with the selectors and it depends on whether we can convince them of our point of view or if they can change our minds. Ultimately, the decision is theirs but there is definitely a debate before that happens.
PP: Pakistan have been notoriously weak in their usage of the decision review system. Is this is a cause of concern and what steps are being taken to remedy this?
MH: That is true. Our record in asking for successful referrals is not very good. One can say that we are a little laid back in our approach on this matter. Sometimes, we are simply not concentrating on this aspect during the day’s play. What we need to do is to really improve our “game awareness” so as to use this option in an effective manner. You have ten seconds to make a decision and have to look at many things to get that right. You need presence of mind to take the review.
Although we do discuss this a lot amongst ourselves, what we really need to do to improve ourselves in this area is to include this aspect in our normal practice routines. So, for instance, when the wicket-keeper is on the field and if there is any such situation in practice where the ball hits the pads then we should also consider practicing for reviews to improve our judgment in this important aspect of the game.
PP: The much talked about ODI hundred remains an elusive target for you. How concerned are you about that and do you think about this when you go in to bat?
MH: Look, when it has to happen – it will happen! When I go into bat, I always concentrate on what the team needs at that time. Thinking about a hundred will not get you that century! But the fact is that I am scoring runs for the team and that’s what counts. Yes, I would like to have a century in one day cricket to my name and pray to the Almighty to grant me that honour which is an achievement in any form of cricket. However, as I said, the interest of the team comes first and as long as I am helping them win then that’s fine for me.
PP: Do you think Pakistan is well placed to put in a serious challenge for the ICC World Cup in 2015?
MH: I see no reason why we cannot win this tournament. The Pakistan team, historically speaking, has always been one that can achieve any goal. The current team has been performing excellently in the recent past where we have won against South Africa and India. The team has excelled when many people were not expecting it at all.
The fact is that our younger players are maturing into experienced players with our bowling line-up doing a fantastic job. Even our batting, especially the top order is starting to work very well. Ahmed Shehzad has made a big difference and then you also have the likes of Sohaib Maqsood who is scoring well too. So, I think our batting is in good shape. Our bowling attack is brilliant and can perform well in Australia and New Zealand in 2015.
PP: Mohammad Irfan’s injury must be a setback for Pakistan’s short term goals and also could be an issue in the future as well. How do you look at this situation?
MH: Obviously, Irfan is a very important player as he proved to us against South Africa and in other series as well. He is a major asset for the team and is a crucial part of our bowling attack. Having said that and even with Irfan’s absence the team is looking quite good and capable of winning series as we did recently against Sri Lanka. The other bowlers are also doing a great job for Pakistan and can pose a threat against any team.
We have proven world-class spin bowlers but our fast bowlers are also very good. There is no doubt that Irfan’s bowling gives us that extra edge on other bowling attacks in the world but let’s also not underestimate the rest of the fast bowlers, especially if we look ahead to the World Cup in Australia/New Zealand.
PP: Do you believe that non-participation in the Indian Premier League (IPL) is harmful for Pakistani cricketers in the professional sense or is that not an issue for you?
MH: When you play professional cricket in the IPL, you obviously get to learn a lot from that experience of playing with players from around the world. There is no doubt that you gain an advantage. Also, your exposure increases due to the worldwide audiences watching the games. But, we really don’t need to worry too much about it if we don’t have the opportunity to play in the IPL. The key thing for me is to concentrate on international cricket that you are playing and to improve yourself using the opportunities you are given and not worry about the tournaments you are missing out on.
PP: Given that most cricketers from Pakistan have retired under, what could only be described as, “undignified” circumstances, have you set yourself some goals before you leave the game?
MH: Yes, I do have some plans in my mind and I can only pray to the Almighty that He lets me achieve those plans and that I leave cricket with my head held high with some good performances under my belt.
PP: How would you react to recent reports in the media that you were instrumental in the exclusion of Younis Khan from the Asia Cup squad?
MH: Let me be clear that I have always respected and admired Younis Khan. He is a great team man and an asset to the team. As far as his exclusion from the Asia Cup squad is concerned, there are a few things to consider. The most important point is that this is a decision taken by the management keeping in mind the overall balance of the squad.
In recent times, we feel that we have had a settled batting order. So for example, Mohammad Hafeez has been playing well in the number 3 position and then you also have Sohaib Maqsood doing well at 4. Also, we have Ahmed Shehzad playing superbly as an opener and Sharjeel Khan who has come in recently. Whilst Sharjeel hasn’t performed that well in international cricket so far, he has shown some encouraging signs in domestic cricket and we have to persist with him.
Overall, our objective was to continue with the same combination in the Asia Cup. Younis Khan is always part of our setup and we will call upon him whenever we need him, whether it’s in the World Cup 2015 or in any of the series before that. Once again, I will say that the objective behind not including Younis Khan was to allow some consistency and stability to the batting order that has served us so well in the last two ODI series. Younis is, and will always remain one of the most important players for this team.
PP: Some of the Pakistani media seems to be very negative towards you – it appears that you can do nothing right! What message do you have for them?
MH: (Laughs) What can one say to them? All I will ask them to do is to support Pakistan and its team. This is the only way to promote cricket in Pakistan and to save it from destruction. If the media goes overboard in criticising Pakistani players to the extent that even good performances are sometimes portrayed as poor performances then the image of Pakistani cricket will suffer not only in Pakistan but worldwide as well. None of the younger players will ever look up to the Pakistan players as role models.
The media have a crucial role to play to transform Pakistani cricket and its cricketers into a better brand and a product. They can only do this if they show Pakistan cricket in a positive manner.
PP: Finally, does the “ghost” of Mohali (vs India, World Cup Semi Final 2011) still haunt you as a player? Have you moved on or is this still something you regret?
MH: There are no regrets when you know that you always try your best. You can sometimes be successful and sometimes not! Yes, you do feel sad that you were unable to achieve a specific goal. However, if you let these memories linger in your head, then you will never be able to move forward. Every day and every game is a new one and the past cannot be changed. The present and the future is what you need to worry about and make the effort to change that. This is my belief and I will always stand by that.
(Amir Husain is Senior Editor at PakPassion.net)
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