Writing in his exclusive blog for PakPassion.net, Pakistan bowling coach Azhar Mahmood discusses the failure of Pakistan bowling attack during the recently concluded tour of New Zealand and Australia, suggests what needs to be done to remedy those issues and looks forward to his coaching stint with Karachi Kings under Mickey Arthur.
By Azhar Mahmood (5th February, 2017)
Inadequate preparation for the tour of New Zealand and Australia
There is no doubt in my mind that the tour of New Zealand and Australia was a tough one. The series came almost immediately after our poor performance in Sharjah against the West Indies and in my view, we did not spend enough time to prepare in the same manner as we did for the tour of England in the summer of 2016.
For that tour, we had arrived early and had held a camp in England prior to start of the series but we did not spend that much time preparing for the tours of New Zealand and Australia. Such tours always require careful preparation as the pitches and weather conditions are totally alien to us. If you take the Test series against New Zealand as an example, you will see that our first practice game in New Zealand was washed out and all we could do, instead, was some indoor training which does nothing to get you ready for seaming pitches which is what we encountered. We simply could not prepare ourselves for the Test series without a practice game and in such short time, especially when a lot of training sessions were abandoned due to the weather.
The failure of Pakistan bowlers to perform
Understandably, our bowlers have faced a lot of criticism from the media and fans about their failure to perform in New Zealand and Australia. What people need to understand is that whilst we are happy to label our current bowling line-up as one of the best in the world, the fact is that we have only dominated in home conditions where our spinners have ruled the roost. The bowling conditions in New Zealand and Australia were totally different as we saw in the Brisbane Test where Yasir Shah found himself ineffective and under pressure whilst the fast-bowlers were not able to take the wickets that we wanted. And that remained the problem throughout the series where we took just thirty-three of the available sixty wickets. You cannot expect to win a Test series when you are unable to take wickets.
The main reason why we could not take wickets was that our length was short and we also bowled wide. Making changes to fix issues like that requires time with the bowlers and honestly speaking this was not possible during the tour which a lot of people for some reason find hard to understand. Having said that we worked pretty hard where and when we could on this aspect with pitch-maps and any other useful information to improve on our length along the way. But there is only so much you can do when your four-man pace attack does not take wickets. Once again, let me say that our bowlers did bowl well but for some reason we just could not create the pressure on the batsmen that we needed to in order to win games. Sometimes, Wahab would fail to deliver or sometimes another would not step up which is not affordable in a four-man bowling attack. This was very unfortunate as you cannot have a situation, where the starting two bowlers bowl well and then the third and fourth ones come in and leak runs.
Consistency in bowling remains a constant problem
There is a lot of work which needs to be done with both Wahab and Amir in terms of their no-ball issues. If we look at Amir, he bowled twelve no-balls between the Sharjah and Christchurch Test matches. We then worked on that and since that time, he bowled only two no-balls for the rest of the New Zealand and Australia tour. Wahab’s situation is even worse as he has bowled close to hundred no-balls in the past six or seven months. He has some issues with his run-up as his delivery stride increases when he bowls an effort delivery. But we have been working on this problem and we could see the results in the last One-Day in Australia where he bowled with pace and did not bowl a no-ball at all.
It brings us back to the same thing I have said before which is the fact that you need time to work on such problems which is not easy due to the workload and the back-to-back nature of games. I understand that people want instant results but what cannot happen is that if a bowler bowls a few no-balls in a Test match, we as coaches get busy with the bowler straightaway and fix the issue immediately; it simply does not work that way.
The other issue with the bowlers is that some of them, such as Wahab, play all three formats of the game which can be problematic as the length needs to be a little shorter in the Limited Overs games, otherwise the batsmen hit you with ease. In contrast, because Mohammad Amir has played regular Test cricket in recent times, the length of his deliveries got better and better during the Test series in Australia and he also got some swing as well. In Wahab's defence, let me say that he also bowled well in patches but there is definitively work to be done and as a bowling coach I can say that he is slowly improving.
I understand the frustration of many but we also have to note that there are shortcomings with bowlers which should have been picked up and fixed in First-class cricket and are not easy to pick and remedy at this level and especially during the tour. Junaid Khan for example, came in for the ODI series and bowled without an issue but then started to mysteriously have a no-ball problem from the next game. Unfortunately, I cannot go on to the field and physically restrain his foot from crossing the line; if a bowler suddenly starts to bowl no-balls then it’s not possible for me to provide an instant fix and control things from the outside.
At the end of the day, the solution to such problems really lies with the bowlers themselves and is a by-product of their own discipline. I intend to speak to Inzamam-ul-Haq about this issue and see how the situation can be managed in the future such that the bowlers are monitored in the academies for no-ball problems.
The root of bowling problems lies in Domestic cricket
I can tell you exactly where our problems in the bowling department are emanating from. Let’s take the example of First-class games being played in Islamabad as part of our domestic season. Firstly, the pitches are very soft and on top of that we use the Grays balls. Innings hardly last a full day and the fast-bowlers don’t get to bowl more than twelve to thirteen overs in the day. Even then the bowlers in these games are seen to be struggling in the second and third spells as they are unable to keep up the tempo. In a Test match, where the fast-bowlers may have to bowl over twenty overs in a day, our bowlers are not able to deliver. This is the reason we are not producing genuine fast-bowlers anymore; what we are good at producing now are medium-pacers who can only get you so far.
And this is not only a Pakistan problem. In my conversations in Australia, I came to know that even the Australians were having such problem in Shield cricket until they started to make flatter pitches so that the batsmen could bat longer and the bowlers could get longer spells. This one big reason is why the majority of their bowlers were bowling at the 140KpH+ mark without fail, whilst we were struggling to get to those speeds on a consistent basis.
Fielding lapses let our bowlers down
I will also add in defense of our bowlers that whilst it is their job to bowl well but then once they bowl that delivery, it is up to the fielders to stop the ball, create chances and to simply catch the ball when chances are offered. We will always play catch-up or lag behind If we continue to make silly mistakes on such big tours.
The Australian team we encountered were as good as any we played against in previous tours
I have heard a lot of comments which seem to imply that the Australia team we played against on this tour was somehow less able than the ones from the past. How can people say that? Australia have a solid domestic system behind them and yes, they may have players who are good only in the shorter format but each of them is a match-winner. We may not have been as good as our own 1999 team but the youngsters we took learnt a lot from the team and even for me, this was a great learning experience which hopefully I can put to good use in the future.
The media fabrication of disunity in the team is not needed
I am surprised to hear such rumours and let me lay them to rest by stating that there were absolutely no issues between players. They got on nicely and the tour went through smoothly. The atmosphere in the squad was similar to what one would see in a family. Unfortunately, when the team is not winning people start to talk and make-up non-existent issues but I can tell you that there is no truth in such rumours.
Pressure on Azhar Ali as ODI Captain
I think this is pretty obvious that he will have pressure due to the results. He is not a natural captain but he would have learnt tremendously from the experience of this very tough tour. At the end of the day, whether he remains captain or not will be the decision of the PCB. In my view, he captained well in the first ODI against Australia but then unfortunately he got injured and that probably affected him also. It is pretty apparent to me that if your bowlers are taking wickets then you can deploy more attacking fields. If catches are being dropped and half-chances not taken or new ones not being created by fielders, then the captain and the bowler are pretty helpless in those situations. Sometimes it’s easy to sit outside and come up with advice about what should have been done on the field, but only those on the ground can be the true judge of the difficulties they are encountering.
The positives from our batsmen were very encouraging
In the Test series against Australia, I was really impressed by how Asad Shafiq played that fantastic innings against tough odds in Brisbane and the way Sarfraz continued to score runs in uphill conditions. And then who can forget the magnificent double-hundred by Azhar Ali in Melbourne, something no one had done in the past for Pakistan in Australia. Unfortunately for the team, Misbah-ul-Haq’s below par form did not give them the strong basis they needed and in the final analysis, that could well have been the reason for Pakistan battings' overall low performance on the tour.
Misbah-ul-Haq’s future with the Pakistan team
Obviously, the final decision as to what he will do in the future rests squarely with Misbah. We all know that he has done wonders for Pakistan cricket and he remains a good player. One bad series does not somehow takeaway the fact that he is Pakistan’s best player, in my view.
The experience of working with Mickey Arthur was truly amazing
This was a fantastic experience for me as I learnt a lot from him on the recent tours. Grant Flower and Steve Rixon and Mickey all form a great combination which is important as Mickey wants to improve the quality of Pakistan cricket. This is obviously the same aim as I have and I hope to work with them to discuss what needs to be done after PSL and before we embark on the tour of the West Indies. Hopefully we can work together and learn from our mistakes and move forward as this is not rocket-science. Every team goes through some low stages and moves forward after learning from their experience. As we all know, we aren’t the first team from Pakistan or any other part of the world which has had problems performing in Australia. To Mickey and I, fitness is the single most important factor in succeeding in such tough tours and that is not an area you can compromise on. Apart from fitness, our mental preparation should be top-notch and we really cannot make the same mistakes in all aspects of the game over and over again and expect to get good results.
Looking forward to working with the Karachi Kings in the PSL 2017
This is something I am really looking forward to, especially as I will get to work with Mickey Arthur again. I am pleased to see some familiar faces from the Pakistan squad in this team in addition to some highly-experienced names such as Kumar Sangakkara, Chris Gayle and Mahela Jayawardene. With Sanga, I have had the honour of sharing the same dressing room for Surrey in the past and Chris Gayle was my team-mate with the Sydney Thunder in the BBL. So I have great relations with these big players and in general the Karachi Kings team combination looks superb. We have an excellent combination of local and big-name international players and I am hoping we can do better this year at the PSL. There were some murmurs of dressing room discontent last year but then such rumors will always surface when the team doesn’t do well and hopefully that will all change this year.