October 27, 2008

A soft target, an old hand

Geoff Lawson was a convenient whipping boy, but it just may be that Intikhab Alam is the right choice for Pakistan at the moment

Why Lawson alone, maybe Shoaib Malik as captain must be held accountable too for Pakistan's decline © Tigercricket.com

Though the manner of it should not have pleased anyone, the sacking of Geoff Lawson, it is safe to say, has done just that. An easier target hasn't been seen round this way since Pervez Musharraf stepped down earlier this year. As all the country's ills were thrown onto Musharraf's shoulders, so too all the cricketing ones have been on Lawson's.

He made a convenient scapegoat, did Lawson. Spiky, aloof, without a laptop, picking fights with the media: what did he even do? Results weren't great on the field, but Pakistan was also hardly on the field during his tenure.

Five Tests he helmed in 15 months, in none of which was remotely the strongest XI available to him. There were a few more ODIs, 28 of them, but 13 were against the might of Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Hong Kong; Pakistan may be weak right now but not that weak.

So there were no Test wins and nine losses in 15 ODIs against established teams, but really, how much time was he given? Barely had he started than he finished.

And why stop at just the coach? Has Shoaib Malik played no role in this decline? His time might be coming too. He is contracted to lead till the end of this year, when a review will take place. If it is an honest review, only one outcome should emerge.

Many will point to Lawson's example as final proof, were it needed, that foreign coaches just don't work in Pakistan. Is there really something to this? This country is going through a strange disorientation currently, where it doesn't really feel part of a global community. Travel across borders has never been greater around the world, except in Pakistan: not many come here and not many from here are readily or easily welcomed around the world.

US forces fiddling in Pakistan territory (and they have historically acted as if they run it); an impending bailout by that poster child for foreign interference, the IMF; the xenophobia that floats to some degree in most countries - all this perhaps has implications for how Pakistan views and interacts with foreigners. At best there is awkwardness with them; at worst hostility, as there was with Lawson and Bob Woolmer just before he passed away.

If the whole country feels it, why won't the cricketers? They are supposed to be worldlier, these cricketers, from all their travels, but if there is one thing that recent Pakistan sides haven't been, it is particularly worldly. Perhaps it is just simpler to conclude that the three foreigners Pakistan has tried so far didn't work. Still, you can't help wonder what Dav Whatmore, who lives within the faultlines of culture and nationality, would have done.

Maybe the appointment of a local, in this environment, isn't the worst thing. An increasing number of people in Pakistan will welcome Intikhab Alam first because he is local.

Since 1998, Pakistan have tried seven coaches. Many conclusions can be drawn from that about Pakistan cricket. One conclusion, not often drawn, is that perhaps Pakistan can do without a modern-day coach. Maybe the concept just doesn't click with Pakistan players

In cricket's narrower world, however, Intikhab is an intriguing choice because he's not really a coach. Rather, he isn't what cricket in 2008 identifies as a coach. He is more a manager in the old style, more Barrington than Buchanan; a calm, cheery man more adept at handling men and their egos and organising practices. Fancy fielding drills, video analysis and strategies, in or out of the box, might not be so forthcoming.

In 1992, he was the coach-manager of Pakistan's World Cup-winning side. If it detracts from him that that was a different time, it should be happily recalled that he kept men as different as Imran Khan and Javed Miandad together on the same page. His modern experience is mixed: a short stint with Pakistan in 1999-00 ended, ironically, because it was thought a "proper" coach was needed. Of his two seasons with Punjab in the Ranji Trophy halfway through this decade, one at least was a success.

Who's to say that he isn't what Pakistan needs? More and more people are sensing that he is (even if Javed Miandad was reportedly the board's first choice). Pakistan, after all, knows a thing or two about the breed. Since 1998, by which time the concept of a cricket coach was well established everywhere, Pakistan have tried seven of most kinds and colours. None have been outstanding successes, some have been outright failures. Many conclusions can be drawn from that about Pakistan cricket. One not often drawn is that maybe, just maybe, Pakistan can do without a modern-day coach. Maybe the concept just doesn't click with Pakistan players.

Certainly, senior PCB officials have kept this conclusion in mind while making the choice. Just because it hasn't been attempted lately doesn't mean it is a flawed idea. It might work, it might not; though it shouldn't be forgotten in all the fuss about coaching that having a decent captain and team might help too.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo