October 7, 2013

'Lack of exposure is hurting our domestic players'

Subash Jayaraman: Your first-class debut was when you were 24 and your Test debut was when you were 27. Considering how young players are when they come into the first-class system and national system in Pakistan, it was a pretty late start for you.

Misbah-ul-Haq: Actually, I was just playing cricket in Pakistan - it was mostly with tennis ball. I wasn't playing regional cricket with a cricket ball, and I really started very late. But I was in love with this game. I really enjoyed this game wherever I played. I was also busy with my studies. I started playing the regional games when I was in college. I moved after graduation to Faisalabad and played a little bit there. Then, finally when I came to Lahore for my post-graduation, I started playing cricket here - club cricket for service industries. I took it as a profession after my post-graduation. Right from the start, one thing was very clear, that I was really enjoying this game.

SJ: What kept you motivated to keep playing at that level?

MH: I love to play this game, and that was the main motivation for me to keep playing. At some stage, when I started playing the game [with] some of the national and international players at first-class level, I realised that I can also play at the top level. Then I started thinking on these lines and took it seriously. I worked hard and performed well at first-class level. Then it became a sort of challenge for me to prove myself at this level.

SJ: You have been Pakistan's captain for a while now. It has been a period of relative calm. If you look back, in the 1990s you had four to five captains within four to five years. So what is it like to be the captain of Pakistan? The fans in the subcontinent, especially in Pakistan, can be very demanding. The media can be very brutal. How do you manage the expectations of the fans and the media and your own expectations?

MH: Of course people demand a lot of things, cricket is the main sport in Pakistan and people are really emotional about that. When you perform well, they really appreciate that and love you. And whenever the team performs not up to their expectations, it could be the other way around. You need to understand these situations. And also the media, because the whole of the nation is like that.

And it can be reversed at any time. You need to work hard and try to meet their expectations. That is what I did in this case - really trying to just be with the team, try to perform well. There are times when you don't perform well and you have to just listen to everybody, because people will come hard at you

SJ: There is a question from a listener, Shoaib: you have this quiet, calm, mellow personality, yet I'm sure you are quite aware that there is this division - either people are very supportive of you or completely against you. That someone with your kind of personality generates that sort of feeling must be surprising for you.

MH: (Laughs) It's always like that. People sometimes say that I am reactive and I am not aggressive. But it is not how you pretend, it is how you act. It is not important that you must be aggressive towards your own team-mates or towards the opposition. I think it is your performance that's important. Whatever you do, if you are performing well, that shows how keen you are, how aggressive you are on the cricket field.

SJ: Outside of performances, how do you handle the personalities and the egos? For example, you may have players who are a little reserved, like Mohammad Hafeez, or someone that seems to have fun on the field, like Saeed Ajmal. Or someone like Afridi, who has a larger-than-life persona in the team.

MH: You need to accept everybody with their personalities. You don't want everybody to be like you. I just try to understand what they need. We know the weaknesses and strengths of everybody's personalities and we have to be with each other all the time and accept those. That is the key to make a team work. I really enjoy [my time] with everyone, I have no issues with somebody because it is their nature - you can't change it. Somebody is very light all the time, somebody is very serious all the time, somebody needs to speak all the time - you have to accept that.

SJ: You are one of the rare cricketers who has an MBA degree. To have any kind of college degree is quite rare among international cricketers. How much of that plays a role in how you handle the various people and your various tasks as a batsman, as a cricketer, and as a captain?

MH: I think it has really helped me. My education has helped me throughout my career. Assessing situations, assessing people, how to act and how to react. I studied a lot of subjects regarding human psyche, management, leadership that really helped me in every aspect of my life, not only in sports. So it is really helpful, especially while being captain of different teams and captain of Pakistan's team.

SJ:- It is said that a captain is only as good as the team he has. You may have all the ideas, you could be Imran Khan, but if you don't have good players you cannot succeed as a team. When it comes to the formation of the team, how much of a say do you have as a captain in picking the squad?

MH: It is really important for a captain to have a good team. I had a good team, it responded really well since I took the post in 2010. It is important that you have a good squad to win matches and series. Normally the selection committee listens to my requirements. I think at the end of the day we are all together, everybody unanimously decides on what we are going to do. Sometimes they respect your thoughts, they respect your suggestions, and sometimes you will have to listen to them because they also have some of their ideas. It is a mutual decision that we take, as a team.

SJ: The team has struggled in the last five or six months with its top-order batting. You are coming in with three wickets down and you and Younis Khan are basically rebuilding again. There is a question from another listener, Omair Siddiqui: have you noticed any drop in the quality of batsmen coming through the Pakistani first-class system? If you think so, why is that happening?

MH: There could be different reasons for that, but it is definitely happening. A lot of talented batsmen are coming through our system, but still when they come to the international scene, it seems like they lack something. Some of the basics are missing and that is why they struggle at the top level. They really take some time to settle down. I think we need to improve the quality of the competition of Pakistani domestic cricket. At the moment, I don't know what is happening, I have not played domestic cricket for the last two-three years. There is something that needs to be improved - maybe we could say the quality of competition, the facilities, and the kind of work we have to put into our domestic level.

The main thing hitting us is the exposure. Look at the other teams like India - most of the domestic players have exposure to international players in the IPL and are playing so much cricket. They are getting mentally strong, getting self-confidence on how to perform at that level in front of big crowds and the cameras, when everybody is watching.

That is the key, that is hitting the Pakistani players most of the time. When you come to international level, you are under pressure, but you never had that exposure before. That is the thing which is really hurting the players and you really get behind [the rest of the world on] how to perform in those sort of conditions. You need to improve that, you need to give players more exposure, maybe it is a better idea to have your own international league where players get exposure at that level.

SJ: There hasn't been international cricket played in Pakistan since 2009. As a young man, you must have watched a lot of international cricket growing up. For most international cricketers their passion for the game comes from watching cricket in their home town or home stadium. What sort of long-term impact does not having international cricket in Karachi or Lahore have on the future generation of players coming from Pakistan?

MH: I think that is the biggest problem for Pakistan at the moment. It really motivates you as a cricketer and gives you something that just says, "This is why I am playing this game." When you just watch them live in the stadium you learn what to do as a cricketer. That is why cricketers in Pakistan are behind all others in the world, because you don't have that sort of motivation, that sort of guidance, in the country. At some stage it turns the youngsters away and the passion for the game and the interest in the game goes down.

SJ: The shot that you played in the World Twenty20 in 2007, it completely changed world cricket. Basically it led to the formation of the IPL. But I want to ask you: what was going through your mind before you played that shot?

MH: I think that was one shot which was so perfect throughout the World Cup and even before that. I was so confident in playing that shot that I could play it even to an offspinner and clear fine leg easily. So I was so confident about that, that is why I took that option. But sometimes you can't execute your shots properly. Most of the people think that it wasn't a good option to have because Joginder Sharma doesn't have pace, but my idea was to hit it over the keeper's head. I used to do it so many times before that and I never failed, that is why I took that option. At that time, that was my best option. Now it is a different story. Maybe, if [such a] situation comes, maybe I would go for another option.

SJ: What were the emotions? We have all seen the pictures - you were squatting, with your head over your bat handle. What were the emotions running through your head?

MH: It is obvious, when you get out and you couldn't succeed, for some time you feel disappointment. But again, it is how it goes. Sometimes you succeed with your shots and plans, sometimes you don't. Obviously that was a big decision, when you are in a [World T20] final. It was a big disappointment. But as a player you need to move on, you have to get out of that. You should do your best, you should try hard, and that is what I did at the end. If you have a boundary, you would have won the game; if you didn't have that boundary, the other team wins that game. You can't sometimes control the result, but as a player you should always believe that you put your best effort.

SJ: You are 39 years old. The World Cup in Australia/New Zealand is in February-March 2015. What are your goals and ambitions for yourself and for Pakistan as you look ahead to the World Cup?

MH: Frankly speaking, I never look so far. I really want to play every game with the same passion, with better performance than before. And I really want to develop a team that can go forward and perform well for Pakistan and win the World Cup. I don't know how long I will go, but what I will try to do is - it doesn't matter how long I play, in the games that I play I [want to] really contribute. At the same time, I would really like to develop the game and the youngsters - they have to go forward for the next eight to ten years and perform well for Pakistan, perform well not only in the 2015 World Cup but after that too.

SJ: You talk about developing a team for the future, for the next eight to ten years. But let's say you retire. Is there a leadership vacuum if and when you retire? Because there doesn't seem to be an obvious choice, in terms of a guaranteed spot in terms of form, who can take over from you.

MH: That is what the cricket board are trying to find. Some of the youngsters are really coming up, performing well, they need a little bit of consistency. They will learn, when they play regularly, how to go about that. As a team, as a management, as a cricket board, this is the biggest task for us - to select someone and give him confidence in future to not only perform as a batsman or a bowler but also to think as a captain, about how to take this team along with him.

SJ: Are there any obvious candidates?

MH: Anybody can be a candidate. There are only three or four senior players - me, Younis Khan, Saeed Ajmal, Shahid Afridi. All others are of the same age group. It really depends how they carry themselves. Whoever responds well with performance and attitude, you could just move towards him. It is not any particular player, because seven or eight guys are of the same age group.