Former Pakistan batsman, Mudassar Nazar, recently finished his third stint with the Pakistan Cricket Board, as the Director of Academies at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore. His four-year tenure saw many improvements such as the re-establishment of the Under-13 program and also the emergence of some exciting new bowling and batting talents who are all set to serve Pakistan for many years to come.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Mudassar spoke in detail about the highlights of his latest tenure at the NCA, the emergence of Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah as top quality bowling talents, the continued lack of top-class playing facilities including High Performance Centers in Pakistan, why he is confident about Pakistan's Test future and his views on Babar Azam's incredible progress.
By Amir Husain (10th June, 2020)
PakPassion.net: Can you please shed some light on the circumstances of your departure from the National Cricket Academy?
Mudassar Nazar: When I joined the PCB in 2016 in my third stint, it was on a three-year contract and on the side, I had a role with Lahore Qalandars as an advisor. Then, in 2019 as my contract was coming to an end, Ehsan Mani and Wasim Khan offered me a one-year extension which I accepted. Subsequently, half-way through the latest contract, I came to the conclusion that I would not be interested in a further extension and I informed the PCB of my intentions, as it was only fair that I did that, and the contract eventually came to an end on 31st May.
PakPassion.net: How would you summarise your four years as director of the NCA in Lahore?
Mudassar Nazar: It would be a very difficult task to put in a few words the highlights of my time at the NCA but when I started the assignment, I was reporting to virtually two Chairmen, Shaharyar Khan and Najam Sethi who had their own distinctive styles of management which did make the job interesting. Shaharyar Khan left in 2017 and Najam Sethi assumed all powers but what did not change was the effort and difficulties needed to convince those in power about the technical requirements and development plans of the NCA. All in all, this tenure unlike my previous two stints at the NCA was a little more difficult as I almost had to start from scratch. This was because whilst the previous PCB Chairmen, Ijaz Butt and Zaka Ashraf, had not closed the academies down, but they were just about functioning in name only.
PakPassion.net: What were the challenges facing the PCB when you returned in 2016?
Mudassar Nazar: When I returned to Pakistan in 2016, I realised that things weren’t as good as I had been lead to believe. However, over a period of time, we opened high-performance centers in Multan and Karachi and learned to work with what we had as it became apparent that the board simply didn’t have the money for these ventures. Setting up more such centers would have been a goal that I would have wanted to achieve on my watch, but it was not to be. Whilst I was disappointed by this, I am impressed by the work being done near the Arbab Niaz Stadium on the High-Performance Center and it seems that this facility will be very impressive whenever it is ready. It’s being financed by the KPK government and will be made at a cost of PKR 135 crore, and when complete will be a state-of-the-art cricket academy with all the facilities that you can think of. These are exactly the kind of centers that I wanted to build around Pakistan and not having achieved that is my biggest regret as this was really the sole reason for my return to Pakistan.
PakPassion.net: How important, in your view, is it to develop more High-Performance Centers?
Mudassar Nazar: The PCB is aware of the importance of such facilities and they do talk about them, but they do cost money to not only build but to maintain as well. If we are looking at provincial bodies to help out then I am afraid it will be a long wait as they simply do not have the capabilities nor the finances to build such facilities. The only reason we see one coming soon in Peshawar is due to the help of the KPK government. So maybe that is the way forward where not only do the provincial governments get involved in the building of these centers, but they also look after the running costs which can amount to close to PKR 2-3 crore per year as this is what is needed to run the Under-13, Under-16 and Under-19 programs.
PakPassion.net: Were there any goals that you could not achieve during your latest tenure at the PCB?
Mudassar Nazar: When I returned to the ICC Cricket Academy in 2008, Shaharyar Khan was adamant that I should return to Pakistan. I told him that I would only return if PCB were willing to invest money as we did not have proper grounds and training centers where elite players could train. Given that we had 16 domestic teams, it stood to reason that we should also have 16 High-Performance centers. Shaharyar was insistent that the PCB was willing to put in the funds to fulfil these objectives and so I decided to return, as, to be honest, I was doing well in my role as Head Coach at the ICC Academy in Dubai, so there had to be something special on offer in the new assignment for me to consider this role.
PakPassion.net: Is the pathway to career progression for cricketers in remote areas or smaller cities lacking in the current setup in Pakistan?
Mudassar Nazar: Whilst there are well-established routes for the progress of cricketers from many parts of Pakistan, the remote areas are not that well served in this aspect. The PCB does have the Remote Areas program, and one or 2 cricketers have come through that program. Before I finished my tenure at the PCB, I was in discussions with officials for another center in KPK to be made in Swabi, as a very high percentage of cricketers are coming from KPK or are of Pathan ethnicity. Given the potential in that area, KPK alone should have 4-5 High-Performance Centers to cater for these kids who are coming through. Once such centers are in place, we could see a steady flow of players from that region into the top-levels of Pakistan cricket.
PakPassion.net: What other reasons brought you back to Pakistan in 2016?
Mudassar Nazar: Apart from the desire to set up High-Performance Centers, I was also concerned that the NCA was not being run in a satisfactory way and the other reason was to help out Lahore Qalandars. Unfortunately, Najam Sethi did not like me working with Lahore Qalandars and there seemed to be an uneasy relationship with the PCB due to that so that contract ended after a year.
PakPassion.net: What were the issues that you saw at the NCA when you started your tenure?
Mudassar Nazar: So, when I started this stint at the NCA, I could see that I was up against an extensive challenge if I were to make a difference. The damage done due to the manner in which things had been handled in the previous years was telling but then slowly over a period of time during my stint, things started to take shape for the better. We had the likes of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah, Mohammad Musa and Mohammad Hasnain develop into excellent bowlers, but the absence of good quality batsmen was an area of huge concern. Thankfully, all that has changed in recent times with the emergence of Rohail Nazir and Haider Ali who to me are real positives. This has made me believe that we were making some real progress as finally we were getting some good batsmen from the Under-19s coming through and I started to feel that there was some light at the end of the tunnel.
PakPassion.net: What do you feel were your main achievements during your tenure at the NCA?
Mudassar Nazar: I am very proud of how I have developed the Under-13s program. Going back to my second tenure at the NCA, this was something I was very keen on starting during that time and I wanted it to be linked to an education program for the youngsters also. Now all this would have cost a lot of money but then the PCB had the financial resources for this and thankfully they were willing to invest in this venture as they recognised the importance of education of youngsters. The fiasco at The Oval under Inzamam-ul-Haq’s leadership had opened the eyes of many to the importance of education and so it looked like the Under-13s program would be a comprehensive development for youngsters but when I finished my second stint in 2008, the whole program came to an end and it wasn’t touched again until I came back in 2016.
PakPassion.net: Why do you feel that the education aspect is so important for young cricketers?
Mudassar Nazar: The issue in Pakistan is that over 2.5 crore of our young cricketers don’t go to school which is a huge issue when we look at the overall grooming of our youngsters. The education aspect is crucial and it’s good to see that due attention is being paid to this aspect in the current Under-13 program. I am delighted to say that some of the youngsters coming through at the Under-13 level are absolutely incredible talents and to me, this is a matter of great satisfaction as I look back at my time at the NCA.
PakPassion.net: It seems that a lot of changes are being made by Wasim Khan; Are they all the right calls?
Mudassar Nazar: We at the NCA had very little interaction with Wasim Khan. For us, the main areas of concern were our programs which had been previously approved, so we had no real complaints regarding the management as such, as far as our work was concerned. Coming to the bigger topic of changes to the domestic system that were made last year, I feel the PCB now needs to support their decisions and let the provinces take care of the programs which should involve policies and actions to look after their players and coaches. Unfortunately, PCB has not been able to push that agenda through but to their credit, they are trying their best to achieve this behind the scenes. The biggest issue is that PCB need good sponsors to come on board so that they can implement their plans and other development programs, and hopefully, that will happen in the future.
PakPassion.net: What was your impression of the PCB’s financial health during your stint at the NCA?
Mudassar Nazar: I feel that things were a little tight financially for PCB last year and that situation has not changed. It’s the lack of sponsors which is a huge problem that the PCB has been facing for a while and the ensuing Covid-19 crisis is not likely to make things any easier for them. It is strange that Pakistan cricket is struggling to find sponsors as one would think that it should be an easy task for the PCB especially as cricket is the only major sport in the country, which is well supported as well. But for some reason, there seems to be no concept of sponsorship for the game in Pakistan.
No major sponsors want to come forward with the result that just Pepsi and an assortment of other minor players have been filling the slots for a long time. This is why I feel that PCB is faced with a huge challenge to finance domestic cricket and the domestic bodies, and if this wasn’t enough of a problem, the world has been hit by the Coronavirus Pandemic too. It’s difficult to see how this situation will play out for the PCB as just like other boards around the world, they are under enormous financial stress. And with such financial pressures, development programs will face cuts as the PCB will look to prioritise spending which will be damaging to the overall plans but it’s simply a matter of economics now.
PakPassion.net: Is the current domestic format, the best-suited one for Pakistan?
Mudassar Nazar: I always wanted 8 first and 8 second XI sides in a provincial-based set-up. This was because PCB up to last year had 16 sides and if they were shifting to a provincial set-up then my preference would have been to have the same number of sides, which is similar to the County set-up in England with a promotion and relegation system. However, Prime Minister Imran Khan wanted six sides of each type, so we ended up with that number. I don’t have a problem with that set-up and the cricket played this year was very competitive but we must understand, it’s not the number of sides or the cosmetics, but what lies underneath which is important and that is what will sustain this program.
If this system is to mirror the Australian model, then we must realise that Australia is a powerful cricketing nation due to many other reasons and not just because of the Sheffield Shield. Their clubs are well established and sponsored and it is easier to get that sponsorship because cricket is a major source of entertainment and matches are well attended. It is easier to attract members for clubs as people come there to eat and drink apart from watching cricket and this is something which would be very difficult to do in Pakistan. To find sponsors in Pakistan, you would need to have proper cricket grounds where club or city-based cricket can be played and that in itself is a huge challenge. Unfortunately, PCB is not able to attract sponsors and because they cannot just shut shop and move on, they will need to find money to finance cricket by whatever means they can think of.
PakPassion.net: Why is Pakistan not producing world-class batsmen?
Mudassar Nazar: I will put that down to simply one reason which is the lack of proper grounds in Pakistan. In contrast, India, has many more grounds which is why they are producing good batsmen at a fantastic rate. It’s not just grounds but they have good batting surfaces so a few of the players coming to the Indian team have double hundreds or even triple-hundreds to their name. In contrast in Pakistan, we have a lot of Twenty20 cricket because it’s much cheaper to hire a ground for a shorter period of time and this satisfies people’s need to play cricket and they move on. This is especially true for local academies who get kids to play a 3-hour game and feel their job is done
PakPassion.net: So what has changed over the years that has lead to the dearth of good batsmen?
Mudassar Nazar: In our days, school cricket consisted of 3-day games with full tournaments being played where we would play 3-5 such games. The same was the case for college and university games where more longer-format matches were played than today and the results, in terms of quality batsmen emerging from the system, were there for all to see. Coming back to the lack of grounds in Pakistan, the situation is so bad that you are lucky to have one proper ground in a district. In fact, some districts don’t even have their own cricket ground. This is exactly why we need to have a High-Performance Center in every region so that the cricketers can come and train there, 3-5 times a week, with matches being held at the weekend.
PakPassion.net: You had run-ins with Umar Akmal at the NCA early into his career. Where’s he gone wrong?
Mudassar Nazar: Umar Akmal was a difficult personality to deal with. Sometimes when you spoke with him, he seemed to be fine for a period of a few months and he would start delivering straight away, and then something would get triggered in his mind, which made it so difficult to deal with him. When he was at the NCA, he kept on slogging and getting out all the time and I told him to not come back. We kept him away from the academy for a few months, but when he came back, he scored 4-5 hundreds on the trot. From then on, he went on to play for Pakistan Under-19s and then had a great start for the national side. After that, things went haywire for him and he is where he is now. I feel really sad for him and I do feel that the only people who can help him now are himself or his immediate family.
PakPassion.net: You must be really impressed with Shaheen Shah Afridi’s progress?
Mudassar Nazar: I am unbelievably proud of our young pace bowlers, especially Shaheen Shah Afridi whom I have worked with from the Under-16 days in 2016. He was just coming through and not had that much experience and was physically weak. He was sharp but was spent after 2 overs and also had hamstring problems. Later, he was called up for the Pakistan T20I team but I wanted him to play the longer format of the game and I told Inzamam-ul-Haq who was the Chief Selector at that time. I was convinced that he was the type of bowler Pakistan needed for Tests, as they were short of bowlers in that format, and eventually, he did play in Tests. He is a lot stronger now and has started to bowl much quicker too.
PakPassion.net: Tell us about your impressions of Naseem Shah as you have spent time with him at the NCA as well?
Mudassar Nazar: Naseem Shah was another talented pacer we saw earlier in his career at the NCA but he had issues with his bowling action which was putting a lot of pressure on his back which he broke in three different places. So, we were tasked to nurse him through this recovery period and also fix the issues with his bowling action. We put him through a very strict regime that lasted about 9 months and I kept him right next to me at the NCA and made sure he followed instructions to the letter. At one stage we thought we had lost him but that boy worked very hard and was totally dedicated towards his own recovery. He had this self-belief and he came through. I hope he continues to grow, remain strong and performs well. If he continues to play cricket, he will achieve big things for Pakistan as that is the kind of potential he has. But I am not the only one who backed him, as Andy Roberts also saw him at an earlier stage in Karachi and felt that Naseem had something special about him.
PakPassion.net: Are you confident that the likes of Shaheen Shah Afridi, Naseem Shah and Mohammad Hasnain have the skills to achieve great things for Pakistan?
Mudassar Nazar: Let me say something about the talent we have in Pakistan when it comes to pace-bowling. Amongst the net bowlers we use at the NCA, there are some incredible talents who can bowl close to 88 to 90MpH which is amazing and sometimes I wonder, given the facilities we have in the country, where are they coming from? We had this same phenomenon of these unknown fast-bowlers springing out of every corner of the country in the late 90s but then the supply-line dried-up. Thankfully, the situation has improved in the last 2 years and we have a lot of fast-bowlers who are bowling above the 85MpH mark with the potential to go well beyond 90 MpH.
Even bowlers like Shaheen are bound to pick up another yard and Naseem for sure has the potential to pick up another couple of yards. Mohammad Hasnain was another promising talent who came to us in the NCA but he broke his ankle and we nursed him for about 9 months at the academy and he has shown a lot of promise. He can also increase his pace now as his run-up has improved as he was over-striding before. When that happens, you don’t have much control over your delivery and the speed is also affected. I recall that Waqar Younis had the same issue at the start of his career but he improved so I am very happy that Hasnain is now in good hands as he has found a coach who had this problem himself. I am also glad to say that I have seen a lot of talent in the younger players and one Under-13 boy, whose name I will not mention as he is still young, literally bowls like Shahid Afridi and is an opening batsman who plays some proper batting shots and I am sure will be someone very special in the future.
PakPassion.net: Why is Pakistan struggling to become a force in Test cricket?
Mudassar Nazar: When it comes to our bowling, Pakistan has the ability to bowl out the very best batting line-ups in the world but it’s simply a question of getting enough runs on the board. Having said that, I am very hopeful about the strength of our batting as we have the likes of Shan Masood, Babar Azam and the captain himself, Azhar Ali as well as some youngsters who are all capable of scoring runs. In Imam-ul-Haq we have an excellent batsman also who has a technique best suited for Tests but seems to be getting more runs in ODIs than in Tests which is a mystery to me. All in all, I am very optimistic about our future in Tests, especially if our bowling keeps on improving.
PakPassion.net: What do you make of Babar Azam's progress and how far do you think he can go?
Mudassar Nazar: Pakistan supporters dearly need a hero they can believe in and I feel that Babar Azam has all the capabilities to make them happy. For some strange reason, many keep on comparing him to Virat Kohli which is nonsense because right now, the only comparison of Kohli is with the likes of Sachin Tendulkar. Babar will continue to grow and become a great himself, but it will take time. The advent of Covid-19 caused a break in cricket otherwise, he was starting to deliver really well in Test cricket too. I believe he is working hard to improve himself further as there was a time when he was a little suspect outside the off-stump and would frequently get caught in the slips or be caught behind. But as his game stands now, he has the confidence to take on any bowling attack as he did against Dale Steyn who has fantastic outswing, and Babar was in complete command against him. He has already got a Test hundred in Australia and should he get another in England later this summer then he would be all set to move to greater heights in future.
PakPassion.net: Will the pressure of T20I and ODI captaincy prove too much to handle for Babar Azam?
Mudassar Nazar: It depends on the individual as we have seen with many top-class cricketers. Captaincy can inspire cricketers to become better players as was the case in Graeme Smith’s case who became something else when he became captain. Babar is a tough character and he has captained sides before, as he did when he was captain for the Under-16s and also the Under-19s. So, captaincy is not something new for him. Obviously, captaining the national team comes with its own challenges and hazards, especially when we talk about Pakistan but let’s hope he will get accustomed to that as well. However, if we find that captaincy doesn’t work for him like it didn’t for Kapil Dev or Ian Botham, the PCB can always take away the captaincy from him and that shouldn’t be big deal for Babar.