Writing in his exclusive blog for PakPassion.net, Azhar Mahmood shares his views on the impressive group of youngsters whom he supervised in the recently concluded camp for the West Indies tour, explains the importance of fitness as a key criteria for selection in the Pakistan team, his expectations from Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz to win more games for Pakistan and pays tribute to the late Bob Woolmer.
By Azhar Mahmood (24th Match, 2017)
Impressed with the youngsters at the camp for the West Indies tour
Let me start by saying that I was totally impressed by the attitude of the youngsters in the recently concluded camp. The energy in their outlook was amazing but to be honest, I had already seen the same attitude from them in the PSL so this wasn't a complete surprise to me. Some of the youngsters that really stood out for me for their enthusiasm and skills were Imam-ul-Haq, Amad Butt, Hussain Talat, Shadab Khan, Mohammad Abbas and Ghulam Mudassar. Even Mickey Arthur was very pleased and pleasantly surprised with what we saw in terms of young talent. Whilst it is a great sign to see such talent coming up, the message for all to see during the camp was that regardless of how good you may be, there will not be any compromise on the important aspect of fitness. The requirements for being part of the Pakistan dressing room were made clear to all the young guys and I am glad that they have understood what is needed from them in this regard.
Fitness concerns for Umar Akmal but no doubts about his ability
It was unfortunate that Umar was unable to pass fitness tests and was subsequently discarded. But make no mistake, there are no question marks on his abilities as a fine batsman. It may seem like a trivial matter but fitness is key in today’s game. This aspect of the game helps in fielding as you save runs and is also crucial in running between the wickets as it helps you score more runs.
If you compare our team’s fitness levels with those of South Africa and Australia, then you will realize that due to this factor we are forty to fifty runs behind even before the first ball is bowled in any game we play. To put it in simpler terms, where for us there is a double to be made whilst batting, the Australians will make three runs and so on. On the field, where there should really be one run, they are able to score two with ease. This was quite apparent in our tour of Australia and it is plainly obvious that we lag behind the top teams of the world in this area. The grounds were bigger there but we were constantly giving away twenty runs in the field and scoring less in running between the wickets when batting. And then the extras we conceded did not help our situation either. If we are able to get just about 280 runs and the other team is scoring 310 with ease, then we know we have problem. The difference between both teams is clearly the standards of fitness which plays a huge role in helping you perform better under pressure.
I wouldn’t say that the fitness tests in our camp were that difficult but the message was clear to all including Umar Akmal that if you aren’t fit, you will not be selected. Unlike in the past, there will be no compromise on fitness and this should really be clear to all players, especially those who aren’t new to the international scene.
Mohammad Amir’s and Wahab Riaz’s inability to win games for Pakistan
There were some eyebrows raised due to Sarfraz’s comments about Amir and Wahab having to raise their game and start winning games for Pakistan and I have to say, Sarfraz only said this for a very good reason. What he probably referred to by the term “winning matches” was the fact that these bowlers needed to take five-wicket hauls to make a difference to the game's outcome. In a sense, getting two or three wickets and not a 5fer is like a batsman getting out in the 90s. And this is exactly what I discussed with both these bowlers where I spoke about the difference between an ordinary and a match-winning performance. So, Sarfraz as a captain and I as bowling coach would always want these bowlers to win games for us by taking as many wickets as possible. It is no secret that our bowlers were exposed during the tours of New Zealand and Australia where they just could not win matches for us. Now it is up to both Amir and Wahab to take this criticism positively and improve their performances to become match-winners.
A great opportunity to win a Test series and improve our ODI ranking in the West Indies
There is absolutely no doubt that Pakistan will soon have a great opportunity to win a Test series in the West Indies for the first time in history. What it comes down to now is for us to play our best cricket and grab this chance with both hands. And it’s not just the Test series but even the One-Day games which are crucial for our qualification for the World Cup that need our attention. Whether it is Tests, ODIs or Twenty20s, our fitness standards need to be kept as high as possible. We are already eighth in the ODI rankings and that is as low as one can imagine and it is up to us to see how we can improve and go forward. As a team, Pakistan have to show the commitment and determination backed up by talent and good fitness if we are to compete with the top teams of the world.
Good blend of experience and youth in the Pakistan squad
I am glad to see that the Pakistan squad for the LOI games has an excellent mixture of young and old faces. If we talk about experienced players than the example of Kamran Akmal is very important. He has consistently been putting in outstanding performances for the last two to three years in domestic cricket. His performance has been noticed by the selectors and he has been awarded with a chance to represent the country. To the critics of squad selection for the West Indies tour I say that this is Pakistan’s team and not someone’s personal favourites team. Simply speaking, anyone who does well will be deservedly included and given a chance. The fact that you are senior or junior is of no consequence as long as either has solid performances to back their selection and it is here where we must all praise the selectors for their decisions.
Bob Woolmer had an exceptional eye for talent
Bob Woolmer was extremely passionate about the game of cricket and for me his tenth death anniversary has a special relevance as I was part of the Pakistan squad at the time of his death. He remained dedicated to the game of cricket to his last days but apart from his love of cricket, he was simply an exceptional human being as well. No words can really express the appreciation for Bob as he was the one who was completely dedicated to whichever team he was looking after and always worked hard to see them successful. His passing away was not only a shock to us but to the whole community of cricket. He had genuine love for the Pakistan team in his heart. He was very positive about my return to cricket when he joined as coach as he had seen me score a Test hundred against South Africa and he was also a great judge of a player’s potential. His eye for talent was exceptional and it would not be an exaggeration for me to say that he was on one of the best coaches I have ever had the honour to work with.