In his latest blog for PakPassion.net, former Pakistan all-rounder and Bowling Coach Azhar Mahmood writes about the challenges facing Najam Sethi as he takes over the running of the PCB, the lack of back-up and bench strength for Pakistan, the reasons for Pakistan's loss to England in the Test series, Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi's suitability to play Tests and why he feels Pakistan's spin bowlers can help Pakistan win the upcoming Test series against New Zealand.
By Azhar Mahmood (25 December 2022)
Tough road ahead for Najam Sethi
First of all, I wish Mr. Sethi well in his new role as the Chairman of the Cricket Committee. Based on what I have heard so far, it appears that plans are afoot to discard the current 6-team structure and to revert to some form of regional and departmental system in domestic cricket. My view is simply that whatever system is chosen, it needs to be tailored to enhance our domestic cricket without losing sight of improvements in international cricket which as we have seen in recent times has suffered a lot. Mr. Sethi has prior experience of running the PCB and hopefully he will do what is needed for the betterment of our cricket.
Change for the sake of it is counterproductive
One problem that we have seen in the past whenever a PCB administration takes charge is that there seems to be no consideration given to the work done by the previous incumbents and changes are made almost for the sake of it. If a system has been running for a short time, there is no point completely discarding it and starting from scratch. Changes need to have a meaning to them and the next person taking over should look to work with the existing setup and change it after taking all relevant points into consideration instead of scrapping them instantly. A company’s personnel can change but policies should not be discarded at the drop of a hat. There needs to be continuity in the way PCB policies are changed otherwise our cricket will suffer immensely.
Lack of backups and bench strength for Pakistan in all formats is worrying
One of the challenges that Mr. Sethi will face, and this is a concern that I had expressed in a recent meeting with the former PCB Chairman Ramiz Raja, was about what I deemed to be a crisis for Pakistan cricket which was the lack of backups and proper bench strength for our international side.
We seem to have an unrealistic reliance on one or two big name players with the hope that they will pull us through regardless of what opposition or match situation we face. My suggestion for whoever is running the PCB is to look at our junior players, and good examples could be ones who did well in the recently concluded Pakistan Junior League (PJL) or who have done well in other recent junior competitions and to work on their skills throughout the year so that they can form the Pakistan side’s bench strength. For that to happen, call them to the NHPC for special camps, expose them to the best coaches we can hire and see how they develop. My point is, that instead of just choosing 16 or 18 players for one series, work on a cohort of 30-35 players throughout the year to have them ready to support the national side as and when needed.
Pakistan Shaheen’s or Pakistan Under-23 tours a necessity to build on backups
I feel that an Under-23 side for example can be prepared which would have regular tours to England or Australia so that we have a bunch of players with relevant experience to be used as needed. Or you can decide to have the Shaheen’s (Pakistan A) touring alongside the senior side to achieve the same effect. In this way, you will have a good replacement for Babar Azam or Shaheen Shah Afridi instead of asking some player who hasn’t done this role to step in, and then hope all works out for us. If you don’t do that then you will constantly be in a position like we are now where we even don’t have a ready-made replacement for Azhar Ali after his retirement.
Good domestic performers are being wasted after the domestic season ends
The way I look at it, we have a very short domestic season where all our local tournaments are done and dusted in a space of close to 3 months. What do the players who took part in domestic cricket and have not been selected for international duty do for the remaining part of the year? Instead of those cricketers looking for opportunities to play in leagues around the world, why not bring them into the NHPC under the guidance of top-level coaches and set targets of improvement for them for the rest of the year? Let’s work on the mental, technical and the physical fitness aspects of the game for all these top performers
Youngsters earning money by playing the Pakistan Junior League (PJL) is not a bad thing
I am hearing that the new PCB Administration has reservations about the PJL and don’t consider it good use of resources. Of course, they are entitled to their view but my take on this is simple. There seems to be some concerns about paying so much money to youngsters and whilst there could be some players who would take that money and think their work is done, there will be many more who will see this as an incentive to perform even better in the future and to become better cricketers as they now understand their earning power based upon performances. This is exactly why I feel PJL is an excellent idea that Ramiz Raja implemented, and it should be persisted with.
There is nothing wrong with paying these youngsters well because the game has moved on and by rewarding them via this tournament, a lot of financial insecurity which leads to players taking the wrong route to financial gain will be eliminated. They can play cricket without worrying about how they would pay for their living expenses or how they would support their families. We have seen in the IPL that players who are rewarded well, regardless of whether they play for India or not, step-up and improve their game. In the same way, participation in PJL can be shown to the youngsters as first step towards a good career in cricket where if they put their head down, they can continue to earn better and also have a good chance to play for the country as well.
Credit to England for their excellent approach to Test cricket
Whilst we were all shocked by the 0-3 whitewash England inflicted on Pakistan in the Test series, one must give due credit to Ben Stokes’s side for the way they played their cricket. They set the tone from the first day of the Test series and whilst other teams could well have played for a draw and moved on, but they went ahead and created the conditions to win the 1st Test which is simply incredible.
Pakistan’s selection for the series against England was mind-boggling
We lost the Test series against England by a 0-3 margin and whilst the margin was an embarrassing one, it would be wrong to say that along the way, we did not have opportunities to take matters in our own hands, but we failed to do so. What it boils down to is the fact that we simply didn’t have the right backups for the players who were injured or not performing well during this series. We could, of course, have brought Hassan Ali who for some inexplicable reason was dropped from the Test side based upon what I feel were unsatisfactory white-ball results. He was not brought back when we needed a pacer in place of Shaheen Shah Afridi even after though he has performed well since his comeback. The old issue of dropping a good player based upon one bad series seems to not go away and the same applies to the mysterious absence of Yasir Shah during the series against England.
Failure to take advantage of home-conditions cost us dearly against England
There is no secret in the fact that every side takes advantage of their home conditions when playing visiting teams. The way we chose our squad, we could not take advantage of pace or spin bowling because we just didn’t have the right resources for that. Of course, there were a few exceptions such as Abrar Ahmed who took 17 wickets or Saud Shakeel with 346 runs to his name. But that was it. We went into this series thinking that England will come to Pakistan and will be blown away without any planning from our end which was obviously not the case.
Babar Azam is a young captain who is learning but he has no backup
A lot of blame for the loss has been directed towards Babar Azam but the fact is that he is still learning, and he supported the batting line-up as much as he could as did a few others including Imam-ul-Haq, but the problem remains the same which I have mentioned above that there is no back-up or replacement for these players. The only way for this to happen as it was done in my time as Bowling Coach when we called top performers from domestic cricket for a week or so and put them through their paces to see how they would survive in international cricket and what improvements were needed from them. In that batch we got players like Mohammad Abbas and Mir Hamza. The same needs to be done now by calling such top-performers to the NHPC and get them looked at by our top coaches. Which brings me to another issue – We simply don’t have good coaches at the NHPC now as the more experienced ones, such as Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed are not available.
No new fast-bowling talent has emerged for a while now
Shaheen Shah Afridi and Naseem Shah were players that we had brought to the fore in our time at the PCB and it saddens me to see that no other proper talent has come through which tells me that there has been a breakdown in this important aspect of talent discovery and management. Not bringing in new talent means that our bench strength is weak which is important as it ensures that the current players do not take things easy. From the management’s point of view with good bench strength, they can look to rest players even when there are any doubts about fitness instead of unduly pushing them to perform due to lack of backup.
How can we criticize pitches when England bowlers did so well on them?
There was a lot of criticism about our pitches, but the fact is that Pakistani pitches have always behaved in this way. England bowlers bowled on the same pitches where their bowlers like Mark Wood, James Anderson and Jack Leach took wickets, sometimes after bowling long spells. Contrast that with our fast bowlers who hardly took wickets on the same flat pitches.
Mohammad Abbas and Yasir Shah exclusions and other selection decisions point to mistakes by the Chief Selector
I do wonder why an experienced bowler like Mohammad Abbas who has done so well in county cricket was discarded and sidelined by the Chief Selector? What did we gain by that when we needed all the experience we could get for the series against England. To be honest, the issues with consistency had started earlier where we didn’t take an all-rounder like Faheem Ashraf to the T20 World Cup. We refused to pick Yasir Shah for the home series and then we saw how easily England picked Zahid Mahmood and played some outrageous shots against him. He was swept and reverse-swept despite bowling decently but the fact is that he was up against a tough batting line-up, and we needed our best spinner to face them. The inability to select the right players for the right format has hurt us in the past and will continue do to do so in the future. We have all the talent in the world, but we just don’t know to use that talent and that is something even Nasser Hussain has told me whenever I have spoken to him about this issue.
Pakistan team management needs to look after the workloads for Naseem Shah and Shaheen Shah Afridi
Naseem Shah played county cricket this year and has really improved a lot. Even in the T20 World Cup, his line and length were very good. His issue is that he is in a phase of his life where injuries will keep on happening as the body is still getting used to the stresses of fast bowling. Muscles are still developing and there is growth, and all this can result in injuries. The fact is that most fast bowlers are prone to injuries during the ages of 19 and 25 and a lot of times that is down to inexperience where the bowler doesn’t realize how best to train in order to ensure that they remain injury free. Both Naseem and Shaheen Shah Afridi are well suited to play Test cricket and can continue playing in the white-ball formats as well. The real question is for the team management to ensure that they manage the workloads on both these bowlers and look after them so that they can serve Pakistan for a long time.
We continue to discard players after just one or 2 bad series
We have decided to drop Faheem Ashraf and Mohammad Ali from the squad for this series. Faheem was not utilized at all and then dropped whilst Mohammad Ali was brought in with great fanfare because he was a proper red-ball cricketer who could bowl long spells and had been successful in domestic cricket, but he now finds himself sidelined. I fail to understand all this. In the first instance, why select him for this level and if you do bring him in, then allow him more chances to perform and find his feet in international cricket. How is he expected to gain experience when you don’t play him in games?
Pakistan spin-attack should be able to tame New Zealand in the upcoming Test series
You need to take 20 wickets to win a Test match and for that we need to look at our bowling attack and create pitches for the New Zealand series which will suit our strong point which currently happens to be spin bowling, especially with the inclusion of Abrar Ahmed. New Zealand batters are not that strong against spin as England were so a good spin attack along with help from the pitch should see Pakistan come out on top in this series.