Mushtaq Ahmed was regarded as more than a worthy successor to the role of Pakistan's main leg-spinner after the departure of Abdul Qadir. He debuted for Pakistan in March 1989 and went on to play fifty-two Test matches and one-hundred and forty-four ODIs taking three-hundred and forty-six wickets by the time he played his last international game in October 2003.
In an interview with PakPassion.net, Mushtaq spoke on a variety of topics including his current coaching role at the NCA in Lahore, his experience of working with Head Coach Mickey Arthur, what Yasir Shah can do to improve his bowling, comparisons between the ECB and PCB set-ups, his impressions of Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali and looked forward to Pakistan's tour of Australia.
By Amir Husain (5th December, 2016)
PakPassion.net : Tell us about your current role at the National Cricket Academy including what you wish to achieve in this position?
Mushtaq Ahmed : I am the Head Coach at the NCA. Apart from the obvious aspect of coaching players, it is also my job to interact with the local coaches and to supervise various training programs that we run in the country on behalf of the PCB. I was recently at an Under-16 camp and now I am conducting an Under-19 camp in Multan. So, I am heavily involved in looking at helping at the grass-roots level all the way up to the NCA. The other important aspect of my work is that I act as a bridge between the national selection committee and the PCB in the sense that I advise both sides on talent and skills of players.
It is the wish of every coach to be able to ply his trade at the national level. By the Almighty’s grace, I was on England’s coaching staff from 2008 to 2014 and have recently completed my tenure with the Pakistan team as well. However, over the last year or so, I was being told by many people that cricket was dying in Pakistan. I had no idea why they were saying this but I wanted to look at this problem at the grass-roots level and see how I can help there. What got me really interested in this job was my involvement in an Under-16 camp which lasted three days. I really enjoyed working on the technical and tactical aspects of the game. The whole idea of helping youngsters in terms of their bowling and in looking at their leadership skills appealed to me.
I also liked the idea of guiding the domestic coaches and players about behaviours and expectations from international players such that when they play for the Pakistan team, they aren’t just good players but excellent ambassadors for the country as well. This is why it is my intention that whatever playing and coaching experience I have gained from my days with the Pakistan and England teams, I am able to impart that to others in Pakistan. I have been involved in special spinner camps and am in constant touch with the selection committee as well about players. The work I am doing may not be highlighted in the media or give me exposure but the inner joy and satisfaction one gets from achieving something like this is just incredible. If you are satisfied with what you are doing and have the passion to do your job, then that also reflects in the quality of skills that you transfer to the people you are coaching which is crucial.
PakPassion.net : What was it like working with Mickey Arthur during your time with the Pakistan team?
Mushtaq Ahmed : He is a wonderful person. We worked together during the tour of England but even before that, we had an opportunity to work together during the Pakistan Super League. He is a very experienced coach and understands the game well. From what I see, I expect him to do very well for Pakistan in the future. He is very forthright in his opinions which is a quality if used judiciously can be very beneficial for any coach.
PakPassion.net : You also had a stint with the ECB and the England cricket team; Can you tell us about that experience?
Mushtaq Ahmed : It was an excellent experience working with the ECB. It is true that one never stops learning even after years of playing and coaching so what I picked up from my experience with the ECB was the value of a good work ethic. What was also pleasing was that during my six-year stint with the England team, they moved from the fifth position in Tests to the number one ranking. Similarly, in the shorter formats of the game, their rankings improved and they also won the World Twenty20 title in 2010. So, overall I am very pleased about what I learnt and equally proud of what I delivered during my tenure with the England cricket team.
We must also remember that I also had the honour of being the first Asian member of coaching staff for the England team. This in my view, played a big role in establishing trust in the abilities of Asian coaches which showed itself in the recent association of former players like Saqlain Mushtaq and Mahela Jayawardene with the England team. I suppose what I am trying to convey is the fact that I am proud of setting the standard for coaches from our part of the world so that they are accepted by the ECB for such assignments.
What they saw in me was someone knowledgeable and who could make a difference in turning around the fortunes of their team in making them the top team in the world. I advised them on bowling spin as well as batting against quality spinners, and also helped them to understand and play reverse swing. Prominent players like Kevin Pietersen and Joe Root have publicly acknowledged my assistance in this regard which is satisfying for me. During England’s memorable tour of India in 2012 in which they defeated India in the Test series, my role was mentioned in a television documentary as well. It showed how by reading the wicket correctly, I helped England bowlers bowl at the right speed and explained to them about variations which would work, and the field settings needed for individual players.
PakPassion.net : From your experience, what can the PCB learn from the way things are run by the ECB?
Mushtaq Ahmed : Let’s be clear that we are talking about two different cultures here. One cannot abandon their own culture to blindly copy another. You can learn a lot from others but ultimately our strength lies in our own culture. Having said that, I am already implementing at the NCA some ideas that I picked up from my stint with the ECB such as discipline and the idea of taking responsibility or non-reliance on others which is something missing in our players.
In addition, the idea of a sound work ethic and non-interference in the jobs of others are all concepts which I have picked from my stint with the ECB. Obviously one can always incorporate such qualities into our Pakistani culture but there is one thing that we as Pakistanis are good at and should not compromise on is our inventiveness. We don’t hesitate in experimentation and this our strength. So, we must do the basics right but also not let go of our ability to experiment and be innovative. As I tell the Under-16 players, if your basics are strong then your chances of failure are very low; you cannot succeed with talent alone and some proper grounding is necessary as well.
PakPassion.net : You must be impressed with Yasir Shah’s progress so far and what further improvements can he do to become an even better bowler?
Mushtaq Ahmed : When I joined the Pakistan setup as a coach, we did not have a good spinner to select for our team. I asked Moin Khan who was the Chief Selector at that time to hold a camp where we could call in and find some new talent from the current domestic setup. This was a necessity as we were in trouble due to issues with Saeed Ajmal’s action and Pakistan was without the services of a specialist spinner.
In that camp, we saw Yasir's bowling and checked that his First-class statistics were good. However, where he had a problem was in the repeatability of his action and he was also unable to bowl from round the wicket. What I did like was his mindset and felt that with a little bit of help he could improve into a very good bowler. I spoke to Moin and Waqar Younis and they agreed with my judgement on this matter. I then spent six weeks with him on his action, taught him how to bowl round the wicket, explained the tactical aspects of bowling and showed him the right pace as well as how to spin the ball. Above all, as coach, you need to instil confidence in the bowler but a coach can only do that if he believes in himself. This is exactly the reason that within a week of training with me, Yasir had developed so much trust in me as his coach, he was even sharing personal issues with me. This was a great honour for me as that showed me that my relationship with the player was very close and such a bond helps both parties in the long run.
When we went to England this year, I was there to discuss each aspect of the bowling with Yasir and the results are there to see but make no mistake, the credit for his excellent result is his alone as he achieved it with his own hard work. Our relationship is an enduring one and even today, Yasir will call me when on tour to discuss aspects of his bowling or if he needs advice on any specific part of his bowling for example when he had problems gripping the pink ball during the Test against the West Indies.
In terms of improvement, the single most important thing he must concentrate on is to improve his googly. When I was involved in the team he was taking wickets with this ball. He then had a shoulder issue so we eased off on practice for that delivery. If he doesn’t work on his googly, then because he is well-known to the batsmen around the world, they will start to manage him effectively.
PakPassion.net : You must be extremely pleased to see that the art of leg-spin in Pakistan is very much alive with the emergence of bowlers like Yasir Shah, Usama Mir, Shahzaib Khan?
Mushtaq Ahmed : This is very pleasing for me as I am someone who loves this style of bowling. Let me tell you that recently we have tried to unearth more talent from what can only be described as “remote” areas of Pakistan. So, just from Mardan in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa alone, we have selected about twelve players which shows how much talent there is in every part of Pakistan. We intend to bring them to the NCA where I intend to train them myself.
Of course, we also have the talent of Mohammad Irfan, Shahzaib Khan as well as Usama Mir who is currently recovering from an injury. Incidentally, Usama played in the PSL and is highly talented in my view. But let me also tell you that we have at the Under-16 level some excellent leg-spinners who if developed correctly will be the future stars for Pakistan. It boils down to the true intentions of all involved. If the intentions are genuine then so much can be done and this is what we are seeing now with the emergence of these players.
PakPassion.net : Zulfiqar Babar did not enjoy much success in the recently concluded series against the West Indies. Given that he is already close to thirty-eight years of age, do you feel his international career is coming to an end?
Mushtaq Ahmed : Look it’s difficult to make any such predictions about a player based on age alone. The example of Misbah-ul-Haq who is still going strong at the age of forty-two is a good one to look at it in this case. Zulfiqar Babar has played an important role for Pakistan in the recent past and if he can keep himself fit then I see no reason why he cannot continue.
What is clear, though, is that the team management is looking to grow Mohammad Nawaz as there is a lack of an all-rounder who can take the slot of a sixth or seventh batsman. The balance of the team in Tests can become much better if such a player can be a left-arm spinner or a pace-bowler. We cannot continue playing with four specialist bowlers as it is impractical and whilst we can opt for two pace-bowlers and two spinners as the bowling attack, the fact is that you always need a fifth bowler who is an all-rounder to complement the specialists.
What happened in the recent series against the West Indies was that when both Zulfiqar and Nawaz were playing, none of them could be utilized fully as the captain was in two minds. If the idea was to help Nawaz grow, then ideally, he should have been the only left-arm spinner in the Test team that played the West Indies. He would have had a chance to bowl longer spells and would have taken wickets as well. It’s one thing to bowl four overs in a Twenty20 game and quite another in a Test match where you put in long spells which requires a different temperament. For a bowler to be able to bowl longer spells, it is important that he gets into the habit of bowling fifteen to twenty overs a day. The idea being that when the regular bowlers are tired, then the fifth bowler can put in those spells and pick a few wickets as well. On top of that, as a batsman, if the same player can go on to get fifty or sixty runs to help the team then he can go a long way in providing the perfect balance which is important for the squad.
PakPassion.net : Mohammad Asghar is an another up and coming bowler who has impressed one and all. Do you see a bright future for him for Pakistan?
Mushtaq Ahmed : He is an excellent bowler in my view and he did bowl very well in the Pakistan Super League. I feel that the only way to judge a player's temperament is to see how he performs in the longest format of the game. Some players are only good in the shorter formats of the game and Asghar in my view is one of them. However, he needs to play four-day cricket and learn to bowl longer spells. Once he has played a few seasons in domestic cricket then he will get used to taking wickets on different types of surfaces. He will get an idea of what pace to bowl on different wickets and above all, he will work out ways to trap a batsman and learn about field placings. These skills do not matter that much in Twenty20 cricket but are crucial in four-day cricket. Let me also say that if you can master the art of playing in four-day cricket then other forms of cricket become easy. By the way, this is the same message I convey to all spinners who I train; I want them to get used to bowling long spells so that they develop their overall bowling strengths.
PakPassion.net : You must also be following with pleasure the progress of England spinner Adil Rashid. What does he need to do to become a successful world-class spinner?
Mushtaq Ahmed : I have spent some time with Adil and I can tell you that when he came in to the England squad, he was very meek and shy. I developed an excellent understanding and a relationship which exists till today. We are still in touch with each other and although we could not discuss tactics during the series in England due to my position with the Pakistan team, the connection with Adil is very strong.
One must remember that for leg-spinners, the repeatability in their action is key to their progress. Those spinners who have repeatable actions can usually become established world-class names in one or two years. If the action has issues, then it can take a good few years before you can perform at the international level. In Adil’s case, his action had problems and that is why it has taken him some time to establish himself. What I always told him was that apart from the technical aspect of the action, a spinner should have a big heart. What I mean is that if you get disheartened after being hit for a few boundaries then you will not go too far as a spinner. While you may sometimes succeed due to your temperament, the fact is that your good technique will always protect you when you are under pressure. Despite previous issues with his action, Adil now has a lot of confidence in himself and I am hoping that he will continue to do well and serve England to the best of his abilities.
PakPassion.net : What do you feel Moeen Ali must do to become a top spinner?
Mushtaq Ahmed : Moeen needs to add more variation to his bowling. But if you ask me, his biggest strength is his religious faith. He simply doesn’t have the fear of failure which would create doubts in one’s mind as he knows he has a higher power looking after him. In terms of what he can do to improve his world standing, then it must be the addition of variation to his bowling. He must learn to vary the speed depending on the correct reading of the pitch and figure out the strengths and weakness of his opponents on the pitch. I don’t think he is too far off from achieving those goals as he does possess natural variation and can spin the ball. Once he does become the complete package then he will surely become one of the top all-rounders in the world.
PakPassion.net : How impressed are you with how well Ravichandran Ashwin has done and what makes him one of the best spinners in today’s game?
Mushtaq Ahmed : Ashwin’s progress is amazing and he is playing an important role for India, not only as a bowler but even as a batsman. He is equally effective from round and over the wicket and is making good use of the crease. On top of that he can literally “play” with the batsman, set fields to perfection and has great situation awareness. All these qualities make Ashwin a top-quality spinner and his results are there for all to see.
PakPassion.net : How do you see Pakistan faring in the upcoming series against Australia?
Mushtaq Ahmed : As part of the Pakistan team and its coaching staff, I must believe in our success in Australia. As we were embarking on the tour of England, I told Misbah-ul-Haq and the boys that the first thing they must do is to believe in themselves and be assured that they can win against any team. You cannot go in to a series without this belief. With this belief at the back of their minds as they look to play Australia, Pakistan will need to practice hard. Especially their batsmen will need to understand that they will get a lot of runs from horizontal shots like cuts and pulls. They must sort their technique against bouncers and learn to leave them correctly. Once we have done our basic preparation right, then there is no reason why we can’t give the home-side a hard time in Australia.