A former professional cricketer, Mohammad Haroon played First-class cricket in Pakistan before moving to England where he played the game at league level for over fifteen years. He was also the first Asian to gain a level 4 ECB coaching qualification and is now the Director of Cricket for Norway as well as Head Coach for the Norwegian men's and women's teams.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Haroon spoke about his role in the development of cricket in Norway, his hopes for the future of the game in the country, his association with Mohammad Asif and his belief that the Pakistan bowler is willing and extremely capable to resume his career for Pakistan.
By Amir Husain (20th December, 2016)
PakPassion.net : What is your role in Norway Cricket?
Mohammad Haroon : Currently, I hold the position of Director of Cricket for Norway. The overall development of cricket in the country comes under my remit. So, any structural changes as well as steps needed to improve cricket in the country are all being undertaken on my recommendations. In addition, I am the Head Coach for the men’s and women’s teams as well all the youth teams in Norway. I also run coaching courses to train all those interested in coaching as I am qualified to do so due to being an ICC tutor. This way, I am preparing a team of good coaches for Norway. My other aim is to create a structure for cricket in Norway which is sustainable and should not rely on one or two individuals to run it.
PakPassion.net : How do you rate the standard of the Norway Cricket team?
Mohammad Haroon : If you take away the top three European cricket sides, I would rate Norway amongst the top eight. We play in Division 1 of the ICC’s European Championship and as you may know, a lot of cricket is played in Europe and therefore competition is very tough. So, next year in June we are playing a tournament in this division which will include teams from Germany, Belgium, Sweden, Austria and France and it is my prediction that we will be able to win this tournament and qualify for the World Cricket League.
PakPassion.net : Is the standard of domestic cricket in Norway good enough to supply quality cricketers for the national team?
Mohammad Haroon : Until this year, our domestic cricket was based on the forty-over format which was played under batsman friendly conditions. The reason for that is we have matted pitches with a hard surface below that. Also, bowlers cannot wear spikes as the grounds are not suitable for that type of footwear. As a result, fast-bowlers are wary of slipping and therefore conditions are not bowler-friendly. So, this year I am bringing in some structural changes in which I am introducing the idea of bonus points for teams who dismiss opponents cheaply and in our top domestic division, I am making the games go up to forty-five overs and the idea is to increase that to the fully fifty-over format in the coming few years.
I do not think that the fitness levels in our top domestic cricketers is such that they can absorb an increase in the number of total overs in a match to fifty this year so we will need to give that some time. One more innovation which I have put in place is that the limit on overs which can be bowled has been increased to allow good bowlers to get a better chance of taking more wickets in a game and also present a stiff challenge to the batsmen.
PakPassion.net : Is the fact that cricket in Norway is just limited to expats a matter of concern for you?
Mohammad Haroon : While it is true that most players in the current Norway national team were born in foreign lands, it is also an encouraging fact that they have learnt their cricket in Norway. However, the previous group of players were also born outside Norway but had played in their countries of birth. In the current group of players, we have players of Pakistani, Indian, Sri Lankan and Australian origins but we are lacking ethnic Norwegians which is something we are working on. The move to promote cricket at a grassroots level is underway and we are introducing cricket at school level. All this will take some time to develop and what is heartening is that two schools have promoted cricket to a subject level in their curriculum and about six schools have taken the game on as part of their sports culture. I am, therefore, very hopeful that in the next few years we will have a good representation of local Norwegians in the national team.
PakPassion.net : How far can the Norway team go in the future in terms of challenging the top teams of the world? Do you have a time-frame in mind for this?
Mohammad Haroon : The new crop of youngsters that are coming up the ranks in Norwegian cricket, especially around eight who are now in the Under-19 squad, can in my view easily challenge the top teams of the world in the next eight or nine years. In this regard I have sent a few youngsters, eighteen and nineteen years of age, from Norway to England to play league cricket and they have excelled there. What I also plan is to send some youngsters to Australia, Pakistan and India to further develop their skills. So, all that is needed is for an environment for young talent to flourish in Norway and the results will be positive in the future.
PakPassion.net : How is cricket in Norway financed to allow the development of cricket there?
Mohammad Haroon : It is true that we get some financial help from the ICC but the Norway Cricket Board has the status of a federation in the country. What this means is that cricket is recognised as a proper sport and there is decent government funding for the game in the country.
PakPassion.net : Tell us about your role as a mentor for Mohammad Asif.
Mohammad Haroon : I was captain of the Sheikhupura Gymkhana Club for about eight years. Incidentally, this is the same club which has featured some big names like Aaqib Javed and Rana Naved as its main players before Asif came on to the scene and became a world-class bowler later. It was during my captaincy that Mohammad Asif began to play cricket at a serious level and to this day I recall the first time Asif came over to play cricket with us. I was not only Asif’s captain but also his coach and mentor who encouraged him to bowl. It's amazing to see how well Asif did in his career considering that he had never played cricket with a hard ball before he joined us at the club and started bowling.
PakPassion.net : Did Mohammad Asif impress you from the onset?
Mohammad Haroon : I am very confident about my ability to identify talent and I can tell you that I had no doubt in my mind that Asif would be one of Pakistan’s top bowling stars one day. Let me also mention that when Rana Naved first came to my Sheikhupura Gymkhana Club team, he was a batsman but under my captaincy he started to develop into an accomplished bowler as well. This is because, due to Aaqib Javed’s success from the same club, a culture of good fast-bowling had developed in our team. Aaqib was a role model for all our players and due to his influence, the club did produce good bowlers like Asif. So, in my mind, there was no doubt about Asif’s future in the Pakistan team.
PakPassion.net : Does Asif still have the ability and the will to play for Pakistan?
Mohammad Haroon : I know that he has the will to return to the Pakistan team as he has spoken to me on that subject several times in the recent past. He has been bowling well as we saw in the final in the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy. Let me say that in my mind, there is no other better new ball bowler than Asif in today’s cricket. And I am not saying that because Asif played for me in my club and I consider him like my brother. James Anderson and a few others are other good examples of excellent new ball bowlers but in my view, Asif can run rings around any batsman with the new ball in his hand. If you look at the Pakistan Test team’s recent successes, they have mainly been on turning tracks. The fact is that we are not getting wickets with the new ball. I was recently watching Pakistan’s bowling effort in New Zealand and on a beautiful bowling track we did not get too much success. I know that if Mohammad Asif would have been playing, Pakistan would have done well.
The quality which Asif’s bowling has is not to be found in other bowlers. He can bowl the new ball with so much control and swing it in an incredible manner. It does not matter if the batsman is a right-hander or a left-hander, Asif can trouble any type of batsman and this is a phenomenal talent to have. Asif is needed by Pakistan as he is a master with the new ball. I am convinced that he has a lot of international cricket left in him. If he can make a return in international cricket, he will be able to maintain his place in the team for a long time. This is because he is a hard-worker and driven by the type of competitive atmosphere there is in an international team, I believe Asif can serve Pakistan for a good four or five years. In terms of fitness, he has a very economical action and he doesn’t put too much effort in his run-up, nor does he carry too much wait. His natural physique is such that he does not seem to gain too much extra weight.
If he is able to impress the selectors then he will be back in the team and once again, batsmen the world-over will start fearing him and he will make them dance again with the new-ball.
PakPassion.net : How important is the role of a coach for an international player?
Mohammad Haroon : Coaching is not simply about skills enhancement, it is equally important to coach a person as well. The general perception that we find amongst cricket followers is that a coach can come in and improve a players’ batting or bowling in the blink of an eye. This is not realistic and does not happen. The best coach is one that is able to help a player remove his fears and doubts and brings self-belief in a player and also provides an environment in which a player can perform to his best capabilities.
A good coach works on helping a player discover his strengths and weaknesses. Let me also share this statistic about coaching which is from a survey in 2008 in English County Cricket. The question which was asked of English County professionals was that what influences your performance more; is it the coach or the captain? 97% of the players confirmed that their performance is influenced by the coach. For top level players, the coaching needs to be done at a one-to-one level where apart from skills enhancement, using knowledge of the player’s personality the coach can determine the best way to improve his performance. What that translates to in real life is that a player is then able to deliver as close to his abilities on the field. The coach's role comes in to help the player deliver as close to possible to his potential on the field. The coach can also be of great help to player in increasing the potential of a player.