'I want to try and help Shoaib Akhtar'
In cricket, not many relationships have held more intrigue than that between the Pakistan team and Bob Woolmer. Almost 18 months, some indifferent Test results, some consistent ODI performances and the usual dose of Pakistan-specific shenanigans behind him, Woolmer talks to Cricinfo about what he has achieved, what he wants to achieve, England and, of course, Shoaib Akhtar
You've been coach of Pakistan for over a year now. How has the experience been?
I am so pleased I took it and got involved. It's been the most rewarding and fascinating experience of my whole cricket career.
You weren't wary of coming here, given the Pakistan board's reputation as fickle employers?
I didn't really know what I was in for. People within Pakistan are sceptical because they know what's been going on. I had no idea; I knew that people came and went quickly but I actually didn't know what the politics of the situation was. There was an advantage in being an outsider. Every job I have been in, including Warwickshire and South Africa, I have come in from the outside. You are not biased in any way, you look at people objectively and purely on their cricketing skills and I feel that has helped.
Have you found it difficult to work in an environment like Pakistan coming from a county system or even a country like South Africa?
I'm involved in that structure so there aren't that many surprises now. Initially, I had to see what happened but now I try to communicate what I want to implement in terms of cricket so that the structure fits around that. If I put my plans in place well in advance - like a six-month plan - then we can work around that; this is what I like to practice on this day, this is what I would like to practice on that day and so on.
You have found the board receptive to that?
They've been very good. We have some very fine administrators and hard-working people in the board. This perception that the PCB is wishy-washy is not really fair; my perception is that other provinces and associations are a little wishy-washy. My impression is that communication is a one-way street with them. Generally there is a lack of communication with them and that is one area where we can all improve.
Given the problems coaches have with selectors in other countries, how have you found your experience of it here?
I sit with the selectors and explain how I like to work and hope that we can work together. Selection is not about having a say, it is about discussing people whose lives are very important to them and we're dealing with very important lives. We're here to help these people develop as cricketers and as people generally. When I sit down with the selectors, I want to talk to them about strategies that can help people on the field. It is in our interests to do the right thing for the players. It's not a question of not having a say.
I went out of my way to discuss things with Wasim Bari and now we have an excellent relationship. He was a fine cricketer in his own right, one of the best wicketkeepers ever according to Alan Knott. He knows his cricket and the people around it. So do the other selectors, Iqbal Qasim and Ehteshamuddin. If you feel threatened, that is when the problems arise. What I try and do is break down this player-selector and coach-selector relationship because essentially we are all part of one unit. They've been fantastic and are very good people. In the end, picking 11 people from 150 million is not an easy task and nor should it be seen as one.
How would you evaluate your time so far here? Are you happy with the progress made with the national team?
It's like being with a child - you don't really know they are growing until you leave them and come back. There are certain things I see that I am very pleased with, in terms of attitude, commitment, training, work ethic in the nets. Some players are 180% fitter than they were from when we started. But essentially, like any coach, I try not to worry about results because for me results come if we get the process right. And the process is to make sure we are doing the right thing and training hard enough.
Hopefully, the results will come from that but you have to get those processes right. In a way you don't really notice whether you are improving or not. Sometimes, you play against a Tendulkar and it doesn't seem so tough but then you play against Lara in full flow as we did and it makes a difference, making it difficult to measure improvement. Individuals make these differences, they create tougher scenarios.
To put it another way: are you some way towards finding a settled Pakistan team?
I feel very fortunate to have the talent that I have. You could probably name 30 players who could make a pool of talent for the national team. One of the problems Pakistan have is that there are too many players of similar ability and not people actually straining above that.
But are you concerned that there are still specific areas in the team that are still problematic, like the openers?
Concerned in that I would like two people to take that spot and make it their own. Concerned in the sense that we are exposing our middle order to the new ball too early, but there are greater concerns in life. I try not to use the word `worry' too much, I find a solution to it. Hopefully the players themselves can start producing the type of performances Pakistan needs against the new ball. It's very important to understand that batting against the new ball is very different to batting against the old ball. You've got to play fewer shots in that situation for a period of time, you have to be more judicious in your shot selection against the new ball.
The fitness levels are something that have improved over this period.
That is the other big change that we have brought in. That was the worst side I have ever come across in terms of fitness when I got here. People used to turn up nine days before a camp and train for a whole series or tour before. Now we have a twelve-month fitness regime and people are training harder. Mohammad Yousuf comes into the gym every single day even when he doesn't have to; that is his culture now. Imran Farhat is in every single day, morning and afternoon, and he does aerobics in the morning and weights in the afternoon. Umar Gul has been training and training for so long, Rao Iftikhar as well. It really has been a revelation how so many players have really taken to it. What we need to do is get these facilities right around the country so we can get all the teams fit to a similar level.
Over the last year or so Pakistan have gone behind in a series only to then fight back. Why has this happened so regularly?
We're definitely slow starters. There's no doubt about it; that is certainly an area we need to address. We tend to play only two or three-Test series and it's quite tough to pull it back all the time. It's possible but tough. If Pakistan were to play a five-Test series, they would improve over the series and especially now because our fitness levels are higher. It'll be interesting to see how our fitness now affects our cricket and also as now we have had a full three-month period where we have been able to train.
Pakistan have yet to win a Test series since you have taken over, although in one-day matches the side has shown progress. Why is that?
One of the major reasons for this, and I said this last year, is that we just don't play enough Test cricket. You can't win in Test cricket unless you play enough of it. So we have to play more and I have identified, in Test cricket, areas where we need to improve. One-day cricket is synonymous really with Pakistan in the sense that they have so many stroke players; we talk about, in the Western world, finding and playing pinch-hitters.
In the Pakistan side we have to find someone prepared to bat 50 overs. We have 11 pinch-hitters here; even a Danish Kaneria comes out swinging and fancying his chances. There is a different philosophy here and it helps. Generally, there is massive improvement in a lot of areas while there has been little in others. I don't want to go too much into the specifics only because the dynamics of the Pakistan team are very different to other teams due to culture, religion and so on.
There is a slower progression in certain areas than others. You might get other teams to do different things quicker, it is different in the Pakistan team. Inzamam-ul-Haq summed it up to me when he said "Let's do everything slowly." That is not because the players are stupid or thick or anything, it's because people are happy in their comfort zones. To take them out of that into a new way can often be quite difficult.
In that sense do you think your tenure of three years is enough?
It depends whether you are doing this as a vocation or whether you have a genuine interest in the job. It's a difficult one to answer; in my experience it takes a minimum of four years to get your type of cricket on the field as a coach. I'm not trying to make excuses where people can say `hey mate, you haven't got four years.' From the experience that I have had - and I don't expect it to change drastically here - even if I only have three years, if I can leave the Pakistan team with something, in some sort of shape that would be great.
If I am asked to carry on or I stay on, we don't know yet. I work on this saying which I find really poignant: 'yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery so concentrate on the now'. In Pakistan, tomorrow is definitely a mystery and yesterday is definitely history and so mainly we have to concentrate on the now. The biggest lesson I have learnt here is to concentrate on the now because if there is a plan, it can change just like that.
Have you seen much of the domestic scene and players, beyond the national team?
I went on an A tour deliberately and have seen many build-up games here, all the A games against Australia and the academy games. I've seen a lot of cricketers now. The chairman uses a good analogy: north, south, east and west are the four stations in a game of bridge. Originally I only had the 13 cards presented to me. Now I have had a chance to see all four hands and have seen much more. There is still a lot more to see but I feel more confident in my assessment of players now than I did this time last year.
How important is working on the mental side of the game with Pakistani players?
Most coaches at this level have to be amateur psychologists. No one teaches you how to handle people but the dynamics of cricket, where you have to face a five-and-a-half ounce missile and have 0.45 seconds in which to do it, no psychologist in the world can teach you. That is about pure technique, instinct, desire and a touch of craziness. You have to be slightly loopy to play this game.
So, you become an amateur psychologist and learn how to deal with people. I've been involved with a lot of people and hopefully I am getting better at it. So, I work with some people. I'm not going to be successful with everyone that is impossible. People will warm to me, others won't. I've been lucky that the Pakistan team has warmed to me and that is probably because we have brought something fresh to them.
Would it be fair to say that you have had problems with Shoaib Akhtar, with his attitude, his discipline?
I wouldn't want to use the word `problem'. We probably both want the same thing out of Shoaib Akhtar but we are going down different paths trying to get there. I would agree that we haven't found the same path. He has stated categorically, this is his view, he doesn't think coaches know about fast bowling, which is naïve. Specifically, when it comes to myself - and I am not blowing my own trumpet here - my whole life has been about how we can get the best out of fast bowlers. How we can rest them and train them so we can get them on the field bowling quicker for longer periods, manage them during lots of cricket and rotate them more. I understand that Shoaib Akhtar runs 30 metres to bowl and he puts a lot of effort into it. He bowls very quickly and is a massive asset to any team. But in order to do that you have to be a lot fitter than he is at the moment.
Where does the situation stand with him at present?
The only thing Shoaib has to consider is that he must get himself fit if he is to bowl consistently fast for the rest of his career. He's 30 now so his fast bowling career has probably four years left. It doesn't take two years to get fit, it takes two months; he has an opportunity to do that. He mustn't think that I, or anyone else, is trying to hinder his career, we're trying to help. It's the same with any player - if they are not going to accept advice, the coach will find it impossible to work with him.
If they work within the advice and have a look at if it suits them, then it is fine. I'm often asked whether I am trying to ruin his career and I ask why would I do that? It doesn't make any sense. The question has even been asked by him, not to me directly, but through someone else. What I am going to say to you is this - I want to try and help Shoaib Akhtar. I want him to play for Pakistan; I want him to be good at what he does. I want to be part of his career and not someone he fights with.
From what I can gather, other people outside the game of cricket are advising him so either you listen to the coach or you listen to people who don't know anything about cricket. It's a major problem if you have contrary advice. If Shoaib wants to do it his way and if he doesn't fit the bill, he has to understand he might not get selected. He's coming to the camp on the 21st and he's playing on the 26th in the practice game so I want to see him get stuck in. We have a very important series coming up against England and it's not about Shoaib Akhtar or Bob Woolmer.
England will be a very tough series and they arrive here, for the first time in many years, as favourites. Realistically, how do you think Pakistan will fare against them?
I'll put it this way. If Pakistan compete every ball, every day, every minute, every hour of the game and don't let up, we have the cricketers available who can produce the performances to beat England. If we don't, if we're not fit enough, if we have injuries, or we drop catches, then England will beat us. They are a good side.
We have to do what we did against India. We were told we wouldn't win a game and that it was a waste of time us even going there. But the guys fought, they competed. If there is another thing that has been brought to the team, through Inzamam, is the ability to compete and compete hard. It happened after Australia, where we looked at ourselves in the mirror and said 'we are not competing'. We played and competed in India and West Indies after that and played well. We are still a work in progress, by no means the finished article.
Do you subscribe to the theory that England might struggle here with conditions?
I will never underestimate an opposition team or a cricketer playing at this level. Who am I to criticise people who make it to this level? If you play at this level you are very good at your job. So we can't afford to work on what England will do - they will make a terrific effort to adapt to the conditions, to adapt to the country they are in.
They will be working very hard to win. They have stated categorically that they want to win here and in India, they want to retain the Ashes in Australia. They are setting targets and goals for themselves. Our targets and goals are more modest compared to theirs.
Do you believe they have a weakness against spin?
I think that is a fallacy, it has been overplayed. They are international cricketers, if they come here or India they will be able to play it. I hear all this rubbish about them not being able to play spin but they are international cricketers. They will be able to play it. We have to forget all that. We must not worry about England too much, we have to concentrate on what we do. If our batsmen fight it out against Harmison and Hoggard and get through Flintoff and Giles and they stay there and stay there, that is how you win matches.
Are there any players you are particularly looking out for?
All of them. Hoggard can take six wickets in certain conditions, Giles took wickets last time he was here, Geraint Jones is a good cricketer - his keeping will be interesting to watch with uneven bounce and turn. Strauss and Trescothick are a good opening pair; this was the reason for their success against Australia. Their teamwork was also key; everyone performed.
The reason they beat Australia was because England fought every single minute of the day. I don't think they were the better side, but they fought hard enough and Australia crumbled under the pressure. England deserved to win the series, but they may not be a better team. They are right up there and are a very fine unit. For us to compete against them will be a terrific thing for Pakistan cricket. We have to take things from them; we have to learn things from every team we play against.
Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo