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'If Misbah believed in a player, he'd absolutely bat for him'
Subash Jayaraman: Would it be fair to say that you had moderate success as a cricketer and - you mentioned this in an interview ten years ago in the Observer - that you had the ability and the talent, but you did not apply yourself?
Dav Whatmore: Yes, more or less. What you are trying to say is right, there is no question about my ability as a player. When I got to international cricket I found that my mental strength wasn't as strong as it should have been. There were some reasons for it. There was also a solution, which could have been to my advantage. But the thing is, there were no coaches in those days. I needed somebody to tell me that I was good. I just had too many self-doubts. That was my problem. I found that to be of terrific help to me as a coach.
SJ: In that interview you'd said that you rued the fact that you hadn't had any assistance from a coach who would have helped you get rid of your self-doubts. Is there anything else that could have helped your playing career? And, how did that pave the way for you to be a better coach?
DW: No, that was the only area that prevented me from having a long international cricket career. I was good as a fielder, took a lot of catches. I enjoyed fielding. I had terrific ability and talent with the bat, in terms of technique. Unfortunately the mental strength was the one that failed me. If I had some assistance from somebody at that point, that would have allowed me to have a long career. With the results of me being a failure in that area, I was very keen to ensure that I could help others to realise the potential of their respective careers if I was able to assist.
SJ: Are there specific examples that pop up in your mind where you helped another Dav Whatmore in, say, Pakistan or Sri Lanka or Bangladesh?
DW: The younger players coming through needed a lot of reassurances. With players who are superstars, like, say, [Muttiah] Muralitharan and [Sanath] Jayasuriya, my job was to take pressure off. In those cases, there is a huge amount of expectation every time they go out to bowl or bat. They don't need any more pressure. Whereas a younger player coming through needed more of a caring-parent type of approach.
SJ: Especially in the subcontinent, aren't there a lot of players playing in the international arena before they are mentally ready for it?
DW: That can happen from time to time. It can become a real problem for some players. And those players need the help and assistance. That is what the coach is there for.
DW: And Shakib Al Hasan as well. Look, it is great to see that boys coming through have the ability. Once you see that in a player, that really does fill your heart with joy. Now it is a case of ensuring that they come up with their performances, not only for them to feel good but for the team to win.
SJ: In your first assignment as a national head coach, with Sri Lanka, you won the World Cup. Did that put any pressure on you, in the sense that you were expected to perform miracles anywhere you went?
DW: Yes, there was. Hard to say, but thankfully, ignorance is bliss. I kept telling myself that the players did it, not me. I certainly had a hand in it. It is all about the balance whether the team wins it or loses - a coach has a percentage of influence in all performances. But ultimately, it is the players that should get the bulk of the credit when they do well. Conversely, when they don't do well, they share responsibility, as does the coach. Having come into international cricket and taste terrific amount of success in a very short time... And before the World Cup, Sri Lanka had won in Pakistan in both Tests and ODIs. In a very short space of time, they had a lot of success and their expectations were correct.
SJ: What were the more visible as well as hidden effects of Whatmore as a coach on that 1996 World Cup-winning Sri Lankan squad?
DW: That World Cup squad was just a magnificent group of players. They had just realised their potential. My role in that was to create the right environment, to give positive feedback when needed. I spent a bit more time with the younger players rather than the seniors, to really ensure, with captain Arjuna [Ranatunga], that we had prepared as well as we can - both from a tactical point of view and technical point of view.
There was one match, I remember, against England in Faisalabad in a quarter-final, where we went out to practise, having only arrived in the city that morning and we had a game the next day. It was a tough schedule. We were out there to practise, England didn't. We heard everyone saying that because we practised, we won. But we just didn't want to leave any stone unturned. My role during that lovely six-week period was to ensure that we had a very healthy environment from which we could go ahead and get the right result, given that we had a terrific amount of skill in that XI.
SJ: There was Mark Greatbach in the 1992 World Cup taking advantage of the 30-yard circle. But then you had Romesh Kaluwitharana and Jayasuriya play [up the order] in the tri-series ahead of the World Cup as well. How much was it your input?
DW: It wasn't mine. The suggestion had come from the manager, Duleep Mendis. He came to me one evening while we were playing the Australians just before the 1996 World Cup and said, "How about if we open up with Romesh Kaluwitharana and Sanath?" because Romesh is one of the sweetest hitters of the cricket ball. The way he was batting, he batted normally at No. 7 with the field spread, he would often get out in the outfield playing some decent shots, I will have to say.
As soon as Duleep mentioned it, I saw the sense in it immediately. I very much supported it and watered it and fertilised it and let it flourish. I gave confidence to both these boys to just be themselves. I can honestly tell you that in every team meeting, we never ever asked them to go out and give us 10-12 runs in an over. What was said was, the idea of them batting is to let people know that we could be 0 for 2 the way we play, but not to worry because the next five batsmen are all capable of getting hundreds in their own right. It was my indirect way of saying: "Be yourselves, be aggressive, and don't worry about getting out, if you happen to get out, because we have some very good players coming behind you." It worked. Nothing like a person going out to bat without any pressure.
SJ: You worked as head coach in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Pakistan, and in India with NCA and with Kolkata Knight Riders. What do you see as the various challenges in these very different places?
DW: The challenge really is to get ahead of the game if you can, particularly in Pakistan. It is a very tricky environment to be in. The players themselves don't make much of a difference. They are all willing to work hard, they all want to do well for themselves, they all want to have long careers in all three formats of the game. But working with the administration, working with the selectors, working with the media, are all big challenges. I felt more of that in Pakistan than I felt in the other three countries. So it was a bit of a tricky situation from time to time. But thankfully, I decided not to renew my contract and we left on very amicable terms.
SJ: In a recent interview, you had said that in the subcontinent it takes generations to change cultural divides and mindsets. Can you expand further on it?
DW: To be successful in environments like that, you can't change them overnight. Any major change that is born out of a cultural background takes a very long time. It is almost a generation or two before things change. For me to come and clash the cymbals and beat the drums will be absolutely stupid. That is not going to happen. And people who think that they are going to get the Miracle Whatmore, who will get immediate results, it is just not going to be. I was very keen to take on that position because I honestly thought I could make a difference. At the end of that period, I left with a lot more experience from that part of the world, and I am sure the other boys also had terrific experiences in working with a person from abroad who had actually lasted those two years. It is a case of being perceptive than judgmental.
SJ: There was this wonderful letter when you were hired as a Pakistan head coach from Geoff Lawson. How much of that was actually true, and how much of it were you prepared for? Was there satisfaction in how you left the team?
DW: A lot of that stuff didn't apply to me as such. Henry Lawson was on a hiding to nothing, I felt. It was great that he had held the position at that time. He had a lot of opportunity to get experience from working in those conditions, but didn't last very long because people were unaware of the environment that they work in. It takes a lot of patience to understand the way you are and who you are dealing with. It didn't surprise me. He is not the only one. There have been a number of examples in the past - like Greg Chappell with India. Also Ric Charlesworth with hockey in India, another recent example of people who are unable to absorb the environment and understand that the cultural differences cannot be changed overnight. If you want to do something, you have to chip away at it, you have to work at it, you have to change the views very slowly.
SJ: What was your approach to this immovable force of bureaucracy and board politics?
DW: The chairman of the Pakistan Cricket Board changed thrice in just a few months, from Mr Zaka Ashraf to Najam Sethi back to Ashraf and now again to Mr Sethi. It becomes very difficult to feel secure in any position - whether you are a player, administrator, selector, or a coach. It requires very careful treading in terms of achieving what you want to do with the team as well as looking after yourself. So it was a very dicey situation, you know. You have to be very careful. As I said before, I was very pleased that I was able to leave with my head held high, and also leave with many friends in a number of areas in Pakistan.
SJ: In your coaching tenure with all these different nations and different levels, you have worked with several captains. Most recently you worked with Misbah-ul-Haq. With Sri Lanka, you worked with Arjuna, Sanath. Also Gautam Gambhir, Habibul Bashar. What was it like?
DW: There have been some great players that you mentioned, it has always been a very healthy professional relationship. Happily, I can say that I have enjoyed working with a number of different leadership styles. I have adapted myself to those approaches from different types of leaders and I am sure that I have been able to assist those captains in a job that is a difficult thing to do.
SJ: I want to specifically talk about Arjuna and Misbah. A question from listener Vish: What is it like working with someone who comes across as very headstrong, shrewd, and tough like Arjuna Ranatunga? How do you ensure that a strong personality like that does not encroach on your role as a coach?
DW: Oh no, we had no problems from a professional point of view. He was a very, very good captain, a very strong leader. At the same time, it would surprise a few to say that I thought he was more democratic than what some people would think.
He was a leader in a couple of very sensitive issues that happened particularly with Muralitharan, and a few other events. To me, he was a pretty decent family man. He had good values. And he would do certain things which were different to others. But he was a bit more democratic than you would think. At the end of the day, he made decisions on the field and defended them, and had the support and the respect of everyone else in the team.
Misbah, on the other hand, though, was working in an environment that was a little bit more volatile. But Misbah is a very strong character who absolutely bleeds Pakistan cricket. It was an absolute pleasure to work with a player who shared loyalty to players and spoke up in defence of those players even if they failed. If he believed in a player, he would absolutely defend him in selection to ensure that we had some kind of continuity in all the formats of the game. His own personal contribution to Pakistan in all formats has been wonderful. Without his contribution in many games, we would have been in big trouble.
SJ: A question from James: How did you deal with this rather incessant sniping through the media by opinion-makers like ex-Pakistani players?
DW: Very difficult, I have to tell you. In hindsight, it was good that I didn't understand too much of Urdu. I certainly couldn't read it. I was protected a lot more from the criticism that comes your way. Sadly, to me there was little show of nationalism. There always seem to be people pushing different players in the XI at the detriment of whoever was in the team. Regardless of what you did, there was always criticism, unjust criticism. A lot of it came to the captain, a bit of it came to me - on the principle that I was a foreigner. To be very honest to you, I didn't feel that it was a personal attack, it was a case of them promoting their own person for whatever reason at the expense of me. it was difficult for me to accept that because it took a little bit of time to understand what was going on. When I did, it still hurt. Nevertheless, that is the way it is in Pakistan. You have to grin and bear it and move on.
SJ: In a recent interview, you said that the psyche of a Pakistani cricketer is that they have to look after themselves because nobody else will. Is it coming out of the volatile nature around them? How should the Pakistani player be insulated from that?
DW: Unless these guys can do what they need to do for themselves there is no guarantee of anyone else doing it for them. As soon as a player starts to fail or has a bad series, there is every chance that the player will no longer be in the team. It arises from all these media creating so much hype. It affects the decisions made by the cricket board. That is a sad thing because it is not very easy to function in that environment.
SJ: In your coaching tenure did you come across a player that you thought had all the potential and talent but just couldn't convert it on the field? Was there someone you felt you could help, but couldn't, someone that was frustrating for you?
DW: I have certainly felt that towards Mohammad Ashraful when I was in Bangladesh. As it turned out, he has been playing a different game from time to time as well, which was a very naughty thing to do. It reflects on my ability as a coach to get the best out of a player. He had so much ability. I kept racking my brains on how the hell can I get this guy to become more consistent. From time to time, the other factors come into it, as we all know now.
Certainly there are other examples of players who need to be more consistent with their performances. We know what they can do, they just need to show that they can repeat more often than not rather than thinking, "I have got one good score, I am okay for the next two to three matches." That is really not the way to go about it. These are the things that can keep you up at night as a coach.
SJ: When you joined the NCA in India, what did you think of the system? What changed under your leadership there? From the outside looking in, it looks like a place for rehabilitation of players rather than a finishing school for up-and-coming cricketers.
DW: I have to say that they were terrific two years of my life to be involved in something new for me. It was a destination where not too many contracted players were coming along, because, from what I gather, they didn't think they were receiving too much information when they did come to it. But what we did in that short period of time were two things effectively.
One was to bring in some very good support staff in Paul Close, for physiotherapy, and Paul Chapman who was a very good fitness advisor.
Yes, you may say this was a case where players came in for rehabilitation but they also came for getting fitter, because they saw a real value in these two guys assisting and guiding players in India to become better.
The other major thing that we did when I was there was a coaching manual. I have looked at all the coaching manuals in the world. But I can tell you that the document that we came up with and presented to the BCCI was the best in the world. There is no question about it. That took quite a while, with the help of a guy called Doug Eckley, who had a terrific concept in the way it was presented in this manual. There were a number of other initiatives that we did as well as we can in the existing forms of what happened in the 12-month period at the NCA, working with the junior teams, working with state teams, it was all very good.
SJ: Finally, you were close to getting the job of head coach of India in 2007. Now that you have moved on from Pakistan, if an opening were available in India, would you be interested?
DW: To be very honest with you, I don't think I was [in the run]. A lot of the media was writing it that way. It was nice to read, nice to hear - but it really didn't come from the right people. I think I was wrong in assuming, and I think I have learnt a bit from the experience.
As for the question, I am having a decent break from international cricket coaching. In fact, I am trying to plan my future now together with a company called Arena Sports, based in Dubai. I have joined hands to organise my future outside of a international cricket team. But who knows, anything can happen in the future, and I am open to offers.
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Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch