May 6, 2014

The Waqar silver lining

The one good thing that may come of the latest shake-up in Pakistan's cricket administration is that Waqar Younis returns to the coach's job

Waqar Younis: the one who can pull Pakistan back up on to their feet © AFP

Seemingly unbeknownst to the rest of the world, and even the casual fan in Pakistan, the cricket in the country has gone through quite the clusterfuffle over the past month. The T20 captain resigned before he was pushed; the coach of that team has been rewarded for his failure by landing two higher posts; the musical chairs in the PCB has resulted in Basit Ali and Mohammad Akram becoming the guardians of the future of Pakistan cricket (which is probably the least disagreeable part of this reorganisation); and there is the latest edition of the "Let's change the domestic structure before people get used to it" game.

Once the dust had settled somewhat, the head of the six-member selection committee (which is a slightly odd notion in Pakistan in the first place) said to the media that the position of the captain who had led his team to four bilateral series win in five needs to be reconsidered because, in his words, "the captain should be liked in the media and by the people as well". This was followed only hours later by the head of the PCB saying that there would be no change in captaincy. Meanwhile the TV network that had once employed (or still employs) these two disagreeing gentlemen found the time to have a two-hour Misbah bash-athon in between these two statements. So fond are Pakistanis of the "cornered tiger formula" that the board seems to be actively trying to make sure that the team starts by being pinned back in a corner.

I'll postpone a rant over this shambles to another day, because the silver lining to this cloud may have the most significant impact on the Pakistan team in the short-to-medium run: Waqar Younis has been appointed the head coach of the Pakistan team.

Like everything else in Pakistan, Waqar splits opinion - he was either the most destructive bowler in the country's history, or someone who had an extraordinary peak but an ordinary plateau. As a captain he was often considered far too conservative, considering the resources he had and the badge he was representing. That conservatism has been present in his coaching stints too, in addition to his belief that the coach has to have more power than he has traditionally been given in Pakistan.

But the stats speak for themselves. Over the past six months, with Junaid Khan going off the boil, and injuries to Mohammad Irfan, questions have been raised about the strength of Pakistani pace bowling. This is a problem Waqar has experience of solving. From 2003 to 2006, Pakistan's fast bowlers averaged 34.8 in Tests and 32.5 (at econ 4.9) in ODIs, despite the best efforts of Shoaib Akhtar. In March of 2006, Waqar was appointed the bowling coach, and under him those numbers fell to 32.3 and 28.8 (at econ 4.6), despite Shoaib not playing a single Test under him.

Over the next three years, the performances of Pakistani pacers fell yet again, though they spent most of 2008 bowling to substandard batting line-ups. Over those three years Pakistani pacers averaged 37.1 in Tests and 30.2 (at 5.1) in ODIs. Enter Waqar, a second time. In the 22 months that followed, the Test average dropped to 30.5, and although the ODI average went up to 34.1, that had a lot to do with the disastrous tour to Australia and the fact that his best two pacers were banned for most of his tenure.

All that makes him the ideal candidate for the Pakistan bowling coach's job - one he should be given for life if he were inclined that way and the PCB had any sense (both unlikely scenarios admittedly).

His bowling expertise alone supports his ascendancy to the head coach's position, but in addition to that, he did a damn fine job as head coach in his previous stint. Again, some would disagree with his methodology or thinking, particularly if they are fans of a certain captain Waqar often clashed with during that time. But again the stats, and the context, speak in his favour. He took over as head coach after Pakistan had finished a tour to Australia having lost all their matches, under a captain who had been placed there thanks to a mutiny, and a coach who called the players "mentally retarded". Unfortunately Pakistan didn't have a Kevin Pietersen to put all their blame on, so they had to rely on Waqar to bring them out of the abyss. And of course he did. Pakistan recovered enough to have decent showings in the World T20 and on the six-Test tour to England, where they competed despite not having a single batsman in any semblance of form, and after the new captain had abandoned ship only one Test into that mega tour. What followed was Salman Butt, Mohammad Asif, Mohammad Amir and Zulqarnain Haider doing what made them famous, and Pakistan were back in the abyss. Twelve months after the Zulqarnain episode, Waqar did resign, having made Pakistan into a rather good Test side, and a pretty decent ODI outfit. As one Pakistani player so nearly put it, twice Waqar had encountered a team on its knees, and both times he had grabbed it by the collar and brought it back up to its feet.

It's not a Moyes-to-Manchester United type situation, where an impressive CV is destroyed by the situation the coach is walking into. Pakistan have lacked the bad cop over the last two years. Misbah and Dav Whatmore were more inclined toward being the good cop, which isn't the sort of thing that brings you success in isolation when it comes to Pakistanis. By all accounts Waqar is someone who is not only suited for the role of bad cop but in fact relishes it. Pakistani cricket is defined by the supposed carefree attitude it often has when on the field, but throughout its greatest years it has relied upon the young stars being deathly afraid of their leader - whether that be Abdul Kardar, Imran Khan, whoever. There's a reason why when Waqar confronted Amir after that no-ball, Amir froze, unable to respond, unable to defend himself to someone he respected and feared. (Of course, that situation was then "handled" by Salman Butt, who tried to assuage Waqar's suspicions.)

Thus when reunited with Misbah (or whoever Moin Khan decides to replace Misbah with), Waqar will be able to take on the most difficult role in the Pakistan dressing room. This may sound like the ramblings of a fan boy, but the truth is that his work in his two stints has shown he has earned the right to fail. Two decades on from sowing the seeds that meant his generation could never fulfill their potential, Waqar is ideally suited to make sure that history doesn't repeat itself.

Hassan Cheema is a sports journalist, writer and commentator, and co-hosts the online cricket show Pace is Pace Yaar. He tweets here