PAKISTAN TOUR OF SOUTH AFRICA, 2018-19
“I am trying to put the team together with the skillsets to win all around the world” © Getty
On the back of a series defeat to New Zealand in the UAE, Pakistan’s consistent batting collapses and failures to capitalise on the opportunities in South Africa seem to have amplified their worries. Across two Tests, Pakistan have made a change in the opening pair, which is the case on almost every away tour, and there has been a dressing room leak about a head coach’s outburst on senior players.
Pakistan’s nine-run defeat against South Africa at Cape Town was their fifth loss in the last 10 Tests – stretching back to their first Test in 2018 – and it shattered hopes of securing first series win in the country. Mickey Arthur, Pakistan’s head coach, spoke to Cricbuzz about the current state of Pakistan cricket.
There were a lot controversies surrounding the dressing room environment when you came to Cape Town. (Is the team) heading to Johannesburg as a much happier unit after the resilience that the players have shown?
Exactly, right! We have shown a lot of resilience and in some cases we were very good. It must be noted that we came to Cape Town as a happy lot. We are a very professional team and pride ourselves on excellent performance. We certainly had some discussion surrounding Centurion and after that it was buried. We only thought about winning the next match.
In the midst of Pakistan’s batting rut, do you think that the tour of South Africa came at the wrong time?
I think we want to keep testing ourselves as a batting unit. There are some young batsmen making their way in the game who are going to be very, very good going forward. I’d be lying if I say it hasn’t been a massive test for them here, in South Africa.
We now seem to be getting our mojo on these wickets. In the second innings, we batted very nicely. If we perhaps could’ve gotten one-two games against quality oppositions [prior to the Test series] in these conditions, it would’ve been fantastic. We came here right out of the UAE, which is not an excuse. But, getting games would’ve been great.
Previously, Pakistan used to collapse in the second innings. For that deterioration of pitch or the scoreboard pressure was blamed. But now, they are collapsing in the first innings and that too on the first day of Tests. Why is it happening?
I think we have to be mindful of the conditions here in South Africa. I think they are the most difficult conditions for any batsmen in the world to bat. There has been a lot of grass and there has been a lot of bounce and we have batted first twice in as many matches against the world’s best bowling unit. They have attacked us mercilessly and given us no room to get away. We have genuinely been bowled out by a very good bowling unit.
But, we cannot blame the conditions in the UAE. We have got to get more consistent with our batting unit, which I believe is growing. It will get better. We have got some very good youngsters who we need to develop. And, of course, Asad Shafiq and Azhar Ali. We need them to tick on and develop the younger players by taking the senior players’ role.
Azhar Ali hasn’t been getting runs on this tour. How much of a problem is that?
When a quality batsman is not scoring runs, it is a concern. Azhar is working very hard and batting very well in the nets. He was unfortunate to get one that stayed low in the second innings. But, I am confident in his ability. And, I am confident that he will get us big runs. I regard him highly and that’s why I have always said that when he is playing well, he is right up there amongst the top 10 batsmen in world cricket.
Certainly, he needs some runs. But, I am not worried because I know he is going to get them soon.
Both Azhar and Shafiq haven’t really been what they were expected to be. Since the Misbah-Younis retirements, the two haven’t scored runs when Pakistan have needed them to. What are your thoughts on this?
I just know that they are quality players. I know they have Test runs and they have scored runs in all conditions. I am confident that they can replicate them and they will score the runs that we need from them when the chips are down. I’ll back them.
What was the reason behind sending Fakhar Zaman at number six in the second innings of the second Test?
We tried to get Fakhar in when the ball was a little bit older so he can try to dominate right from the start. He had been surprised by the pace and bounce in the earlier innings. So we were trying to give Fakhar an opportunity to change the game for us.
Sarfraz Ahmed seemed disappointed on the lack of application from the fast-bowlers in terms of bowling quick. Do you think that the Pakistan pacers were not quick enough?
We have tried to manage our bowlers through a tough workload. I think the runs that South Africa got on that wicket were too many and our bowlers would be the first ones to say that. But, I certainly can’t fault their attitude and will to get the game done for us.
The South African bowlers have been bowling incredibly quick and they keep coming at you. That’s what we have tried to done with our bowlers. And, the reason that we have been on a fitness run is that our bowlers can be fitter and stronger and have the same impact in the comeback spells as they have in their first spells. This is still work in progress for us.
Yasir Shah has been persisted with because he can rip apart the South African lineup in the last two days. But with the matches not going that far, will you consider playing Fahim Ashraf ahead of him at Johannesburg?
We sit with two different strategies. One is to play four bowlers – which we have done. That means we play six batsmen. And, Yasir Shah would come into play in the latter stages. The trick is to take the game in the last two days which has not happened.
If we go with the five bowlers – which is a strategy I really, really like in these conditions – it would give us two allrounders and three out-and-out pacers. For that to work, we need Shadab [Khan] at seven. And, he has come back to full fitness now. So, his return gives us this option for the Wanderers.
The thinking was that if we go with five bowlers’ strategy with Faheem Ashraf at seven, it would possibly be one batting position too hard for him at this point in time. We are working with Faheem to make him the seam-bowling allrounder we are looking for. We work every day on his batting to make him better. At the moment, we feel he is a number eight batsman. But, in time, he can develop into that number seven batsman.
I loathe going to Test cricket without a spinner. South Africa would have loved to throw the ball to [Keshav] Maharaj at some point in the second innings to change pace and tempo. We saw with Yasir when he bowled on day two, there were a couple of balls that started spinning. And at that time we were only into the second day.
We will have to look at the wicket when we get there. If everything’s equal at Johannesburg, I’d like to go with the five bowlers’ strategy. Because, Shadab and Faheem combine as the sixth batsman and it gives us five out-and-out bowlers – which is a luxury we needed at Cape Town.
So if you decide to go with the five bowlers’ strategy at Johannesburg, who’d you pick: Yasir Shah or Shadab Khan?
It will be Shadab because he is a genuine allrounder. It allows us, like we did at Lord’s [last year], to have him at seven, Faheem at eight, and then three bowlers, which can be any of the quicks or even Yasir Shah if the we think the pitch is going to turn. It gives us that flexibility.
But, it is only in conditions like this. Because in the UAE, Yasir Shah is a gun. He is one of the world’s best spinners. His ability is not in question at all. In these conditions, we are just trying to give players the right amount of workload.
There was a lot of excitement about Mohammad Abbas returning to action in the Cape Town Test but he hasn’t lived up to the expectations. Is that a worry for you?
We have got to understand that he was coming back after a fairly long layoff due to an injury. So, we had planned and strategized to get Mohammad Abbas back. We had planned his workload during which we got him fit, we go him strong and kept building his workload. He is fit enough, he is strong enough. But, he hasn’t had the desired match practice yet.
We had held him back [at Centurion] because he was 80 percent fit at that time. I wanted him to be rather a hundred percent fit and get the right amount of workload into him before we played him in a game.
Mohammad Amir made his return this series but hasn’t been at his menacing best…
In his last five Test matches, Mohammad Amir has 20 wickets. He has got four-fers in both first innings on the tour so far. He is getting better and better. But, yes. We will like him to bowl at that pace again. But, at the end of the day he has been fairly economical for us and has taken wickets.
The series has settled in South Africa’s favour. But, every match here matters as the Asian sides have handful of victories. What is your honest estimation about Pakistan’s chances of staging a win at the Wanderers?
Chances are very good.
I think we created enough chances to win at Centurion that’s why I was so frustrated there. At 100 for 1, we were an hour away from dominating that Test match. When I say dominating, I mean giving ourselves a realistic chance of winning. Had we set a 250-run target, our bowlers would have bowled them out. So that for me has been the frustration, we not taking the opportunities when they present themselves.
But, I will be brutally honest. I am looking towards the Test Championship which starts for us in September. I am trying to put the team together with the skillsets to win all around the world.
Do you think there’s a need of exposing the players to sports psychologists after their continuous failures to grab the opportunities?
I certainly feel that way and I have made recommendation. Once, Waseem Khan [the newly appointed Managing Director of the Pakistan Cricket Board] comes in, we will sit down and talk about it. Because, it can’t keep happening. This was the frustration for me at Centurion, it was so close for us to win. And against New Zealand twice in Abu Dhabi.