May 8, 2016

How do you judge a coach?

Results aside, especially in Pakistan, the board's cooperation and the sociopolitical climate make a difference to how a coach fares

Bob Woolmer combined technological innovation and great man-management skills to steer a transitional side towards success © AFP

It unfolded with all the melodrama and tackiness often associated with the desi process of choosing an appropriate rishta. Potential suitors came and went, names were thrown about in hope as well as despair, there was haggling over money, and finally, there was Mickey.

The appointment of Mickey Arthur is the fourth time Pakistan have appointed a foreign-born coach to lead the national side. The first such appointment, of Richard Pybus in 1999, took place in an era where cricket was only recently beginning to appreciate the value of a coach, and indeed, a coaching staff. The importance of the role evolved rapidly since coming to prominence in 1990s, and as Osman Samiuddin recently noted, the advent of T20 has added a further layer to that evolution.

The fact that the captain is so influential meant that cricket's need for a coach was less crucial compared to other team sports. More significantly perhaps, coaching international sides as they did, rather than franchises or clubs, meant that cricket coaches have always had limited resources to work with - you can't buy or transfer replacements.

So how does one judge a coach? The bottom line, the one that is often knotted up to make a noose, is the overall record. How many wins, how many losses - as simple as that. Beyond that are more nebulous factors, like development of players and introduction of new tactics or the creation of an identity. In winning sides, these things are as easy to spot as smelling out the perfume shop in an airport duty-free. In less successful sides, with blame and betrayal swirling in the air, separating the coach's influence from other factors can be like discerning between smoke and fog.

Geoff Lawson was sensitive to the local culture but was powerless to do anything about a temperamental board, which wasn't willing to give him the time to settle down © AFP

And then there is the question of luck. Factors such as the stability of the board and cooperation from it, the strength of the domestic infrastructure, the sociopolitical situation, are all out of most coaches' hands, and all weigh heavily on how they perform. Since 2009, every Pakistan coach has dealt with a lack of cricket at home, a hugely debilitating factor.

If one is to take a swift look at the record of the four foreign coaches appointed by Pakistan, only one has done well while all the others have been quite poor.

Foreign coaches' Test records with Pakistan
  Matches Won Lost Draw W/L Ave RPO Inns HS LS
Richard Pybus 12 3 9 0 0.333 25.73 3.3 24 403 53
Bob Woolmer 28 10 11 7 0.909 36.58 3.48 53 679 72
Geoff Lawson 5 0 2 3 0 34.38 3.03 10 537 206
Dav Whatmore 13 3 7 3 0.428 29.59 2.9 26 551 49

Bob Woolmer's record in Tests is well ahead of the others, while his record in ODIs is about equal to that of Richard Pybus, who had a much stronger team to work with. Dav Whatmore turned a struggling ODI side around, but both his and Geoff Lawson's numbers were inflated by wins against weaker sides.

Foreign coaches' ODI records with Pakistan
  Matches Won Lost Tied No result W/L Ave RPO Inns HS LS
Richard Pybus 37 20 15 0 2 1.333 30.06 4.98 37 344 117
Pybus after 1999 World Cup 27 14 11 0 2 1.272 30.45 5.1 27 344 117
Bob Woolmer 69 37 29 0 3 1.275 30.53 5 69 353 89
Woolmer against top eight teams 61 30 28 0 3 1.071 29.85 5 61 353 89
Geoff Lawson 28 19 9 0 0 2.111 40.36 5.62 28 347 190
Lawson against top eight teams 15 6 9 0 0 0.666 37 5.4 15 322 190
Dav Whatmore 47 22 22 2 1 1 29.55 4.85 47 329 151
Whatmore against top eight teams 39 16 21 1 1 0.761 28.1 4.79 39 329 151

Foreign coaches' T20 records with Pakistan
  Matches Won Lost Tied No result W/L Ave RPO Inngs HS LS
Geoff Lawson 14 11 2 1 0 5.5 25.15 7.84 14 203 152
Dav Whatmore 25 15 9 1 0 1.666 22.38 7.37 25 195 74

But when you look a little longer at these numbers, you can see the emergence of an old problem in Pakistan - patience, or rather the lack of it.

Pybus was part of Pakistan's coaching staff at two consecutive World Cups - officially a trainer at the 1999 tournament, he was fired after Pakistan's tour of Australia at the end of that year, then brought back for around a month in 2001, before returning for a final six-month spell in 2002-03. Overseeing an ageing team of superstars mired in controversy, Pybus retained the support of some of his players, particularly his captain, Wasim Akram. He had a spectacular record coaching in South African domestic cricket, but the stop-start spells with Pakistan didn't provide much insight into his impact.

In 2004, in came Woolmer, who in my opinion was the best coach, foreign or local, that Pakistan ever had. Woolmer had made his name on his embrace of modern technology and a fascinating aptitude for innovation, yet his stint with Pakistan underlined his extraordinary man-management skills.

Taking over a side in a generational transition, he was given plenty of time and space during a stable era for both the PCB and Pakistan. Woolmer gave his side an identity and had a marvellous touch when it came to dealing with its stars. He transformed the careers of Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf, helped bring the best out of an ageing Inzamam-ul-Haq, and even briefly tamed eternal mavericks Shahid Afridi and Shoaib Akhtar. Although his side had begun to unravel both on and off the field since the England tour of 2006, the tragic end of Woolmer's reign was a horrible shock, even without the nasty rumours around it. The loss of his paternal presence seemed to hasten the team's descent into madness, one it has yet to recover from.

The core of Pakistan's current Test side was nurtured under Dav Whatmore © AFP

What seemed to be the most important facet of Woolmer's success (and one that determines how any foreign coach does in any team) was his ability to understand and respect the local culture. In a letter written to Dav Whatmore before his appointment as Pakistan coach, Lawson displayed his compassion and understanding of Pakistani society. "I learned a bit of the lingo and stayed off the booze. I recommend doing at least one of those," he wrote.

Yet the same letter also gives away some of the reasons why Lawson's stint was largely disastrous, and why understanding and empathy aren't enough. With the team in transition once more, he tried to be firm in his support of his captain, but a string of underwhelming results poisoned their already bitter relationship with the local press. In 2008, when a new set-up at the PCB fired him just over a year into the job, Lawson gave the impression of having been left bewildered by the entire experience. Apart from a brief spell in the IPL, he hasn't held a full-time coaching role since.

It took another four years before Pakistan returned to a foreign coach, and this time it was Whatmore. While Whatmore, whose best moments with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka had come in ODIs, rapidly improved Pakistan's white-ball cricket, they began to suffer in Tests. The situation was reversed completely in the two years after his contract ended, which suggests a rather simple conclusion. Yet it is also true that his tenure saw a tougher touring schedule, and it was the core of his developing Test side that blossomed in to the strong team under Waqar Younis.

Like Whatmore and Woolmer before him, Arthur arrives in Pakistan with a perception that his best years are behind him. Despite giving off a very genial impression, he also brings considerable baggage. His successful stint with South Africa as well as his disappointing run with Australia both ended in controversy, and even the PCB had once sent him a legal notice over claims he once made about fixing. His recent spell with Karachi Kings in the PSL also saw drama over the captaincy.

But if the mission for Arthur is to regain his reputation as a top-notch coach, then the job isn't lacking in challenge. His regime kicks off with two extremely difficult tours - to England and Australia - and he inherits short-form sides that are among the worst in the world. If he is to stick around, he will need to find instant results from some of the toughest match-ups possible.

And that reveals the ultimate folly of Pakistan cricket's expectations of their coaches, whether foreign or local. Setting up someone to fail and giving them little to no second chances is a great way of generating headlines but a terrible way to run a team.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal