Known for his excellent analytical and forthright views on cricket, Fazeer Mohammed is a Trinidadian commentator and journalist who has been covering West Indies cricket since 1987.
Currently on assignment to cover the West Indies tour of the UAE to play Pakistan, Fazeer spoke exclusively with PakPassion.net on a number of issues including his own background as a commentator, his run-in with Phil Simmons whilst on tour in Australia, Misbah-ul-Haq's achievements at the helm of Pakistan Test team, the decline of cricket in the West Indies and the suitability of Day/Night Test cricket.
By Amir Husain (22nd October, 2016)
PakPassion.net : We know of you as an accomplished cricket commentator but have you ever played cricket in any serious capacity?
Fazeer Mohammed : Yes, I have played a bit of club cricket in my young days. In fact I started my career as a left-arm orthodox spinner because my dad was also a left-arm orthodox spinner. I’m actually naturally right-handed but he taught me to bowl left arm-spin so I would bowl left-hand and field right-handed which would confuse everybody.
I got up to as good as playing one match at the national under-nineteen level for Trinidad but I wasn’t really good enough to go onto the higher levels of the game. So for me, to be in this environment to be doing television cricket commentary, to be rubbing shoulders with the likes of Sir Vivian Richards, Ramiz Raja and Waqar Younis and so many others in other parts of the world has been a rare privilege. Now I can imagine that because we are accustomed to television commentary environment to be dominated by outstanding former players, some people might ask a legitimate question about me such as who is this guy? What’s his reputation in the game? So I probably have to work a lot harder to provide different insights and different perspectives on the game which you may not necessarily get from a former player.
PakPassion.net : You got into some hot-water with West Indies coach Phil Simmons after criticizing the intensity of their practice, what was that about?
Fazeer Mohammed : Basically, this happened on the 2015/2016 tour of Australia. What happened was that I had observed the West Indies team practice and I compared that with the intensity of that done by the Australian side. The comment I made was that in the West Indies practice, there was a lack of intensity, there was a lack of real sense of purpose compared to the Australians and I said it was virtually chalk and cheese in terms of difference.
Phil Simmons, who is also from Trinidad and Tobago and who I played with at under-nineteen level, took real exception to that. Things came to a head during the Boxing Day Test match where I was working with ABC Radio, possibly because he got wind of what I had said before; he took exception to it and informed the ABC Radio producer that I was not allowed to do any more interviews with the West Indies players. I found that to be a very shortsighted and a narrow-minded thing to do because it’s almost like saying that you’re not prepared to accept any sort of criticism but I suppose, he felt it was unfair, he felt it was not true but that was his reaction.
The interview permission denial was eventually rescinded because obviously it created a bit of a controversy and it didn’t look good to have a coach banning someone or anyone from the media, especially a West Indian, so eventually that storm blew over but it didn’t leave a good impression on how Phil was managing that situation. It was a difficult time for the team as the West Indies were really struggling and losing badly. I thought he didn’t need to do that, but that’s the way he reacted.
PakPassion.net : Tell us why you took exception to the West Indies Board’s policy to not select Shivnarine Chanderpaul’s in the Test team?
Fazeer Mohammed : First of all let me state that my view on the game is that I am primarily here as a journalist; I am not as a former player. When I’m doing my job I’m not a West Indies supporter. However, when off the microphone and when I’m not writing, I am a West Indian wholeheartedly and I want the West Indies to do well desperately. As a journalist, it would be unprofessional of me to not say it as I see it and I think that is where it creates a lot of issues, sometimes with players. Some players respect that and they understand my point of view whilst others see my role as should be supporting the West Indies. In the case of Chanderpaul when he was removed from the team, I actually felt that his form suggested that his career was essentially over but the way it was done, it could have been done a lot better.
On this topic let me also add that there have been times where I’ve had reason to make comments that would’ve been either critical of a Brian Lara or anybody else and people tend to say that this is a brave thing you’ve done but I don’t see it that way. I don’t see bravery coming into it at all because the way I see it is that once I can be honest with myself in my assessment of an individual then even if I say that, well, Brian Lara is a brilliant batsman but a poor captain or Shivnarine Chanderpaul is a tremendous batsman but has not really been a match winner for the West Indies because of the way he bats and that sort of thing, I just think that is part of my job! It doesn’t have to be right, it doesn’t have to be wrong, it’s the way I see it.
PakPassion.net : Your thoughts on Misbah-ul-Haq who continues to lead Pakistan to glory despite his age.
Fazeer Mohammed : I think Misbah is a huge asset for Pakistan Cricket and from what little I know of Pakistan cricket, my understanding is that you need strong leaders. Look at the impact of someone like Imran Khan. There might be different people who have different opinions of Imran Khan but at the end of the day, in sport you aren’t necessarily there to be a nice guy, you’re there to get results. You can be the most amicable and amenable individual in the world but if your team is losing then something is wrong because you are there to make a difference on the field in any sport whether its football, cricket or whatever it is.
I think in Misbah you’ve got someone who seems totally at ease with himself, who seems to be in control of things and never seems to be too flustered and I think that brings a calming influence to the entire team. It allows individuals to be themselves but always with that knowledge that they have got that calm individual who is in charge of things. I think the bottom line is whether Pakistan is ranked number one, two or three in the world, it doesn’t matter. What is relevant is the fact that Pakistan have had to play all their Test Cricket away from home over the last seven years and they are at or near the top of world cricket at Test level which speaks volumes about his leadership ability.
PakPassion.net : Your impressions of the talent and promise of Babar Azam
Fazeer Mohammed : Obviously I’m very impressed. He’s got three consecutive One-Day hundreds and a sixty-nine in his first Test innings. Babar Azam, to me, looks a natural batsman. His whole appearance at the crease seems very comfortable. Of course the difficult times are going to be ahead and how he copes with that will be the challenge. It’s all well and good scoring tons of runs off mediocre bowling on flat pitches, but the questions are how’s he going to cope in Australia? How’s he going to cope in English conditions, how’s he going to cope in New Zealand and so on; that’s going to be the test.
So I think it’s always good to be guarded about not getting too carried away because there can be an unusual weight of expectations on a young player. I’m sure on PakPassion, people are already talking about how can he be compared to Javed Miandad or whether he is similar to Virat Kohli or is he going to be along the lines of a Joe Root or a Kane Williamson and so on.
He may well be or he could exceed those expectations or he could fall way short depending on how he copes with the pressures. He’s a young man and I think that’s why it harkens back to my views on Misbah-ul-Haq sort of mentoring presence, where’s he’s got to be able to guide these young players. My advice for the Pakistan fans as well is that you don’t want to put too much pressure, too much weight of expectation on young shoulders because that can actually have a negative impact. But then again you can only get excited when you see that sort of talent. He’s clearly someone for the future but that will only be dependent on whether or not he maintains that positive trajectory and focus.
PakPassion.net : Is the world of cricket ready to embrace Day/Night Tests as a regular feature?
Fazeer Mohammed : I think one of the reasons that the day night element was thought about was for bringing in crowds. Now in the UAE, it would appear that it hasn’t made a difference. However, I think if you’re going to go down the road of the Day/Night format with pink cricket balls then why not also consider if such Test Cricket should be played only in white clothing, why not colored clothing and using a white ball because, really, the game has always been evolving.
My real issue with Day/Night cricket is that it has to be uniform across the board so you cannot have a situation as seems to be the case where it is being said that the Ashes Tests are too important for you to be experimenting with pink ball cricket. From my understanding, every single Test match whether it is between Bangladesh or Zimbabwe or England versus Australia or Pakistan and the West Indies; it’s supposed to be all the same in Test Cricket. So if your rationale is that it is an experimental stage and we can’t risk an Ashes Test match I have a problem with that. I suppose all I ask for is uniformity when talking about such new changes.
As far as Day/Night cricket is concerned, it’s work in progress. There is criticism in the same way when One-Day cricket was introduced people condemned it, they said it was fast food cricket and it’s no good, when colored clothing and the white balls came into vogue during the Kerry Packer era in the 70’s people said that this is pajama cricket and it’s making a mockery of our pristine game! Look at how One-Day cricket is accepted today and look at how colored clothing is accepted with it.
PakPassion.net : Do you feel that the West Indies have not competed well on this tour and is this part of a larger problem of decline in their fortunes?
Fazeer Mohammed : After the three Twenty20 and the three ODI losses, I think most West Indians would have expected the first Test match to be wrapped up on day four including myself. That’s because the team looked completely out of it, they weren’t competitive at all.
What you are seeing here after the end of the Dubai Test is an inkling of what is possible in West Indies cricket and that is what is infuriating for West Indians and what is infuriating for so many non-West Indians who have admired West Indies cricket for so many decades. They are asking themselves how could a region that produced so many dominant teams and so many great players for so long be reduced to this?
I think there are a lot of issues tied in there. So we have administrative problems, players themselves maybe not be as focused as they should be when representing the West Indies and putting in the hard work because there is now a lot of money in the game because of Twenty20 and franchise cricket and so on. But even before Twenty20 cricket came onto the scene we were already on our way down the ladder. I don’t think it is a simple, one-off sort of answer. There’s no magic bullet which can resolve the situation as we have had serious administrative problems; there have been issues where the governors of the regions. There is no quick solution but I have to say that the way we performed in the first Test in Dubai was very encouraging.
PakPassion.net : So is it Twenty20 cricket which is killing Test cricket in the West Indies?
Fazeer Mohammed : It might be in the sense that since the advent of Twenty20s in 2003 and then the World Twenty20 tournaments and then the IPL in 2008, there are these huge lucrative opportunities for players from all over the world and especially from West Indies.
In the West Indies, you have a situation where our economies are so small you are talking about probably six to seven million people in so many different islands with different economies struggling and so on. It’s therefore impossible for our economies to sustain cricketers at the level that you will see in the other parts of the world. So, it’s only natural that for example Sunil Narine before he had even played a couple of Test matches, was offered $USD 700,000-800,000 by the Kolkata Knight Riders; how would you expect a young person to turn that down?
To be honest, the West Indies have been in decline since 1997 to the present time, that means even before the advent of Twenty20 cricket we were already in the doldrums so that speaks about a bigger issue about the management structure of West Indies cricket. We are still unreasonably insisting on levels of excellence on the field and off the field when the decline started some time ago as far back as 1997 which incidentally was the one and only time I was in Pakistan. As I recall, that was a West Indies team with Curtly Ambrose, Courtney Walsh, Ian Bishop, Jimmy Adams, Carl Hooper, Shivnarine Chanderpaul in which the West Indies lost the first two Tests by an innings and the third Test by 10 wickets.
So the decline had already started some time ago and there were a lot of issues tied into that. I suppose complacency would be a factor as well as the fact that we thought that because we’ve always produced these great players, we don’t have to do much and they’re just going to keep turning up. Now we’ve realized that it’s not that easy. So we’re paid heavily for complacency, poor management and there have been continuous battles between the players and the administrators; there’s a complete breakdown of trust between the players and the administrators at the player’s association level and the West Indies association level. Twenty20 cricket probably exacerbated the problem since the players are now saying that I can’t be bothered with all of this and I’m going to sign on and play Twenty20 cricket all over the world but to be fair, and I repeat, that our problem started long before that and what you can say is that essentially the West Indians and West Indies have been the architects of our own decline; we really can’t blame anybody else.
PakPassion.net : Can you shed some light on the extraordinary situation of Phil Simmons sacking just before the Pakistan series?
Fazeer Mohammed : It would be odd for you because for someone following Pakistan cricket, you would be asking yourself who does this, what sort of a management structure says you get rid of your coach even as the players are virtually packing their bags and boarding the plane but it happened last year when he was suspended just as the team were supposed to go to Sri Lanka! He had made some comments suggesting that there were outside influences on the selection process. Another instance was when the previous coach Otis Gibson who is now the England bowling coach was jettisoned just before the start of a home series against Bangladesh. So it’s a bit of a pattern that we have and it reflects poorly on the administration, because I don’t think anyone in the world in any business or management structure manual will tell you that you get rid of senior people just before a major assignment or just before a major business project. It makes no sense and that encapsulates one of the fundamental problems we’re having.
PakPassion.net : What are your memories of the trip to Pakistan in 1997?
Fazeer Mohammed : It was an amazing trip. Let me say that the opportunity to do cricket coverage in any part of the world for me is not a job and thankfully I’m being paid to do it. It’s sort of like the classic situation where you can enjoy what you’re doing. You wouldn’t have worked a day in your life because it doesn’t feel like work. During our trip to Pakistan, we were first in Peshawar and then in ‘Pindi and then went down to Karachi. The people in Pakistan were so warm and friendly and the ordinary people of Pakistan were so accommodating and so helpful. It was a tremendous experience and it’s something I always look back on with great fondness because twenty-four hours before the plane left to go to London and then onto Pakistan I was nowhere in the picture to be part of the commentary team. It just so happened that a couple of those selected for the commentary were unwell at the last minute and it turned out to be an opportunity of a life time for me.
PakPassion.net : Is the modern day game too batsman friendly?
Fazeer Mohammed : I think it is, even though you see a lot of Test matches finishing in four days and so on. Certainly on sub-continental tracks maybe it does well for economics, for television revenues for matches going five days but you’ve got a situation now where you want to see an even contest between bat and ball. I think at the moment, what you are seeing a lot is that batsmen dominating and I think that takes away from the spectacle as well but you also don’t want a situation where bowlers are dominating and matches are over in two and a half days or three days and so on. It’s about finding the right balance and I think at the moment it’s leaning too much towards batsmen friendly pitches and shorter boundaries. All of those elements provide entertainment but even in the Twenty20 format it gets boring, believe it or not, seeing six after six because as with anything else when it becomes too much of a glut it loses that sense of uniqueness and excitement. So I think it is about finding that right balance between bat and ball to present a much more even contest.