The news of Pakistan’s loss to Sri Lanka in the first Test match of the ongoing series being played in in the UAE shocked many a Pakistan supporter. The manner of the capitulation of the Pakistan batsmen seems to indicate a real issue with the ability to handle pressure situations due to the absence of Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan. However, what it also brought to light was the importance of good spin options in any Test team, as was ably demonstrated by Sri Lanka in Abu Dhabi.
A World Cup winner and a veteran of 52 Tests where he took 185 wickets, Mushtaq Ahmed holds the position of the Head Coach at the National Cricket Academy in Lahore where finding the right kind of specialist spinner for Pakistan to partner Yasir Shah is one of his prime goals, as he explained in an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net.
By Amir Husain (7th October, 2017)
“Let me start by saying that I am extremely happy with the options we have in terms of leg-spinners. We have 4 or 5 such spinners in mind of which Mohammad Irfan from FATA is doing really well at the moment and then we also have the example of Shadab Khan who has done wonders in Limited Overs cricket. However, Shadab has to learn to operate in 4-Day cricket where he can really develop himself into an effective weapon.”
The recent success of Rangana Herath against Pakistan's batsmen where he took 11-136 in his side’s fantastic victory is a stark reminder about the utility of a left-arm spinner which also seems to be a top priority for the Pakistan think-tank, “There is a lot of focus on finding a good left-arm spin bowler. We do have some excellent prospects in the shape of Mohammad Asghar and a few others as well. In terms of off-spinners in general, we have Bilal Asif who is currently included in the Test squad against Sri Lanka. Whilst a left-arm spinner is quite a special weapon to have, at the moment in the Under-16 and Under-19 levels, we are working hard to find and develop all types of off-spin bowlers as they are worth their weight in gold in Test cricket when it comes to bowling against left-hand-batsmen.”
The age-old quest for an all-rounder to give the Pakistan team the same ability as it did in the days of Imran Khan, Wasim Akram and Abdul Razzaq seems to have got no real results but Mushtaq believes that it’s a matter of time before the next viable candidate for this role will be revealed due to the work being done at the PCB in this regard.
“We are constantly looking to develop all-rounders as they are an integral part of any cricket team. Aamer Yamin and Faheem Ashraf are well known for their all-round skills but there are others such as Amad Butt on whom we are keeping an eye on in terms of performances as well as their fitness. The whole process of looking at young talent from spinners to middle-order batsmen, to all-rounders is something we at the NCA are keenly interested in. It is tiring work but something which gives us extreme joy and satisfaction.”
The 17-year-old fast-bowler Shaheen Shah Afridi has been creating a sensation amongst Pakistan fans as he continues to impress at the domestic level. In a recent Quaid-e-Azam match on behalf of KRL, Afridi took 8-39 which did shock a few, even someone as experienced as Mushtaq Ahmed could not hide his excitement.
“When I saw him for the first time in a camp I was so excited that I was jumping up and down and I told my coaches that this guy needed to be fast-tracked. We then worked with him on his fitness and also on some of the angles of his deliveries as well as showed him some ideas on how to use variations when bowling. He is a very smart kid and seems to have taken all that on board and is producing some excellent results. He now has a chance to shine in the BPL and once he has that experience under his belt, where he can express himself in the presence of some big players, and returns to Pakistan for the Under-19 level then I have no doubt that he will become a match-winner by himself. We would also like to wait about six months or so to see how he performs in domestic cricket before making any judgements about fast-tracking him to the senior team. We really want him to bowl with some consistency before we start thinking of playing him at the top-level. This coming season as well as the BPL are very important for Shaheen Shah. Even if he gets hit around for runs, there will be plenty to learn as we have seen in the case of Mustafizur Rahman who also did the hard yards in local leagues and is a big player now.”
The presence of talent amongst ranks of Pakistani youngsters has long been touted as the basis of hope for the future but the ground realities are a little different. As Head Coach of the NCA, Mushtaq Ahmed is painfully aware of the gap between expectations and actual performance on the field of play, “One can buy a bed, but you cannot buy sleep – this is the same for talent. We can teach them all the tricks in the book but we cannot bowl for them and this is where the true test of young talents comes into play. All we can do at the NCA is ensure that the player is match ready but then he is on his own. The same is true for the likes of Bilal Asif who is currently part of the Test squad. He impressed everyone at the camp which was held before the World XI visit and also in the pre-Test series camp. Now it is also up to the management to make sure that if a spinner like Bilal has the ability then they give him enough chances to show his abilities, to let him develop his self-confidence and not to discard him after one failure.”
The role of the NCA in refining talent is well known but to Mushtaq Ahmed its true value is the fact that it serves to act as a link between the selectors and the Head Coach of the national team which is essential for the working of the national team.
“The NCA helps to bridge the gap between the Pakistan selection committee and Mickey Arthur. This is an important link as Mickey will not know which player is match ready if an injury occurs during a tour or a series. We recently had an issue with the fitness of Yasir Shah and I was asked for a possible replacement and I recommended Mohammad Irfan. Many wondered why that was the case but we saw talent and skills in him based upon our assessment of his bowling. This is the type of vision we can provide to the team management. In addition, when players don’t do well, we bring them back to the NCA and see how we can fix their problems to allow them to regain their place in the team. And there are other important aspects of being a cricketer which we teach also such as how to read a pitch and how to set fields which are extremely important.”
Sarfaraz Ahmed’s debut as Test captain may not have gone as he would have liked but there is no denying that he has the potential and the vote of confidence from many quarters. His leadership skills and tenacity have seen Pakistan triumph in the Champions Trophy as well as against a strong World XI side, but it appears that he still has some learning to do in the Test format. To Mushtaq’s trained eyes as a spinner, Sarfaraz’s potential is not in question but his ability to learn and use his spin options will be severely tested in Test matches, “There is no doubt that Sarfaraz has any issues in the Limited-overs formats of the game as he has shown on many occasions in the past. Where he has a challenge is in Test matches when he will be faced with situations where a partnership will be taking the game away and he will have to change his tactics. An experienced Test captain knows when to attack and when to go on the defensive with his spinners and also what field to set for which batsman. As a captain, Sarfaraz also will need to develop the knack of helping his bowlers grow in confidence and I hope that Sarfaraz and Yasir Shah will develop a good understanding and a long-lasting partnership in the future as well”, he concluded.