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With Misbah gone, each format deserves its own coach

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THERE is an unwritten rule in Pakistan cricket: find a good man, give him too many jobs too soon, overburden him, and watch him crack. Since the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistan’s last major title, Sarfaraz Ahmed was the first to succumb. Wicket-keeper, batsman, captain in every format, Sarfaraz’s demise was as predictable as the PCB’s initial blind faith in his ability to juggle every ball.

Without learning that lesson, Misbah-ul-Haq persuaded the PCB that they should appoint him chairman of selectors and head coach in all three formats. We heard talk of Misbah’s many attributes, his recent leadership experience, and examples from other sports where coach and selector are the same person. The warnings were ignored, however, of how this formula didn’t work in cricket; of Misbah’s vast inexperience in international coaching.

Sarfaraz is now a fringe player. Misbah is gone as coach, having already given up his selection duties. Good men, with more to offer, essentially cast aside by the unwritten rule. And it doesn’t end there. The PCB flogs Shaheen Shah Afridi, its bowling jewel, in every game of every format — a stress fracture or other major injury waiting to happen. There is no game and time management either for Babar Azam or Mohammad Rizwan, always present and always carrying the pressure of every innings.

This is planning for the here and now, short-termism of the highest order. This isn’t a plan for long term success, or even a plan that serves the best interests of the players themselves or the country. It’s certainly a plan that needs urgent revision if Pakistan cricket is serious about becoming a consistent force again.

Misbah’s tenure as coach won’t be lamented. Pakistan were inconsistent, a middling team, struggling to find their feet. Misbah’s impact, as ever, was greatest in Test cricket, but Pakistan do not come away particularly stronger in many areas other than the middle order. Here Rizwan, Fawad Alam, and Faheem Ashraf offer some international credibility. But the batting order begins too often at number 4 with Babar, and Misbah’s solutions to open the batting have failed. His faith in Azhar Ali at number 3 has not been repaid.

Pakistan’s pace bowling, led by Afridi and stocked with potential, has grown under Misbah and bowling coach Waqar Younis, who has also resigned from his coaching duties. But the progress in pace bowling remains too reliant on Afridi, and has come with the sacrifice of Pakistan’s spin bowling, which is too often merely a support act.

In each format, the selection has been too static, with little squad rotation. In a succession of tours, with over-reliance on the same playing XI, we have learnt very little about Pakistan’s squad strength in international cricket. These are draining tours in the days of a pandemic that saps mental energy and, other than being a poor strategy, it seems ill advised to select a number of reserves for a tour and never play them.

As such, the coaching crisis lands at a bad time. A WorldT20 is imminent, and Pakistan’s team selection and game plan are far from settled. There is little time for a new coach to be appointed, and even then for that coach to employ his methods. But T20 remains an enigmatic format, and Pakistan still have just enough match winners to give them an outside chance.

When the Pakistan Cricket Board replaces Misbah, it should reflect on how he was overburdened, and how key players are overburdened now. Cricket’s core skills remain the same, but the finer techniques and strategies of each format are diverging. The answer, then, is not to put too much power or control in the hands of one man; or place too much burden on a few stellar players.

If the PCB wants to be innovative, why not accept that each format is a specialism of its own and appoint different coaching teams for each format? Such a system would require careful management by the PCB and selectors. It would probably make sense too to appoint a head coach who is in overall control but required to devolve day to day coaching duties to each specialist format coaching team. The job of the head coach would also include monitoring the workload of players and making sure that their playing time is better managed.

Pakistan experimented with making Misbah chief selector and coach in all formats. It is an experiment that unequivocally failed, and should not be tried again. But there is a radical alternative that does have a sound logical basis, an alternative that reflects the increasing super-specialisation within cricket, an alternative that might just provide the extra impetus that Pakistan cricket needs to help it challenge again at the top of the sport it wants to rule. Find several good men, give each of them a focused role, don’t overburden them, and watch them flourish.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2021

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