Younis Khan September 23, 2009

'I've had to stop smiling'

Pakistan's captain talks about the pressures and the joys and pains the job brings, in the first of a two-part interview

Read part two of the interview here

You've been captain for six months now. How has the experience been?
It's been excellent so far. I was realistic when I took over. I knew many things I would have to tolerate. That's not such a big thing. I was vice-captain for three years under Inzi [Inzamam-ul-Haq] and saw many external things. It was easier then because I didn't have to take the flak.

What kind of outside things do you mean, and how much of an issue is it?
It's difficult because many times you have to fight for your own boys against your own people. Selectors, management and all others, they come in with their ideas and thoughts and opinions. Some say bring young guys, some say stick to older players. Everyone has their own opinion and it becomes difficult at times because you have to fight against your own people and you're defending your own boys. I have to decide when to fight, with whom, on what. Ultimately you have to decide what you feel is right and act on that. There are people who listen and agree and there are others who debate. I try to debate. In that process, some people like me and some don't.

You said recently that captaincy in the subcontinent is particularly difficult.
In this region, wherever you go, everybody gives you their opinion, whether he plays cricket or not. Everyone feels they can play cricket or do everything. Some people tell you, do this, some people tell you, do that. Chholey-wale [snack sellers on the street] will tell you "This guy I don't like, kick him out." A few steps up, the Coke-seller will tell you about the same guy, "I like him, don't kick him out." Your own privacy goes because everyone not only has an opinion but they want to enforce it on you.

Does it become difficult then to know that you have made the right decision and to stick by it?
See, I've been playing for quite a few years and have taken many decisions in that time. Taking Shahzaib [Hasan] to the World Twenty20. He didn't play from the start, but when he did, he delivered. Then there was the Fawad Alam decision - he hadn't opened ever. I wanted to play him, so I took a chance. Everyone said he is a top player and I think this as well. I think that means he can play anywhere in the order. I did this myself. I started at six and had never played at one down before I became one. After Saeed [Anwar] and Aamer [Sohail], the one-down is pretty much an opener anyway. I got a chance to play there and I accepted it because I needed it. I was in and out of the team at the time.

So whenever a decision has to be made, I think first of the worst consequences that are possible. When we went to play India in 2005, I placed a fielder for [Virender] Sehwag between midwicket and square leg, just one guy. Rao Iftikhar was playing one of his early matches and he would bowl and Sehwag would hit him straight to that fielder. I kept seeing this. It kept happening - the fielder wasn't midwicket or square leg - and the guy kept saving the runs. People said afterwards, "Wow, what a position, if you hadn't kept him there, he would've scored many runs." If he had kept missing it people would've criticised me and said, what kind of position is that? I imagine the worst beforehand.

You have to try things in life, make such calls. If you don't then… Like Shahid [Afridi], to play him at No. 3 - I tried it earlier, in the World Twenty20, in the India warm-up match, and it didn't work because he was out first ball. But I kept it in mind from before and really wanted to do it. I tried it again and the second time it fit into place and worked. If it doesn't come off, it doesn't, what can you do? Things in life don't work out.

"My players are from this environment so obviously they will be products of this environment. They are something today, something else tomorrow and something else the day after. This is our temperament, it is in our blood"

You accepted the captaincy this time round but turned it down in 2007. Why?
The conditions then were different. We were coming off a World Cup and I scored 40 runs in all my matches, so I was guilty then. My thinking was that a captain should come in when he is in good form and at the top of his game and only then can he command the respect and only then can he achieve change. At that time I wasn't in a strong position, and I would have had to compromise on many things, which I will not do. This time I was strong. The situation this time was that I was in a strong position and conditions were more suitable.

Where did you learn about captaincy and leadership?
My elder brother Sharif Khan was captain of a local Karachi club, Steel Town club. He had a lot of respect and captained very well and courageously. I used to play with him and went around with him. So I picked up a lot of the mannerisms, the thinking, from him. When I used to go to club matches, I used to go as the captain's brother so that instills in you something. You know how people treat you, how you should treat people, how they respond to different behaviour.

Then I saw Imran Khan a lot, the way he performed himself and the way he was - a very sober, unexcitable personality. Above all, he was a Khan. Every Pathan from that time used to want to be like Imran Khan, to follow him, and I was no different.

I have spent a lot of time with Rashid Latif. I learnt a lot from Rashid, especially one thing which was that if you want to do something, just do it. Don't dilly-dally and regret not doing it later, just go ahead and do it. You have to take chances.

Who is your think-tank on the field?
I always discuss with [Mohammad] Yousuf and Shahid and [Shoaib] Malik also. These three are the main sounding boards on the field. Umar Gul, who has captained Peshawar, I run things by him. Whenever I am thinking of doing something, I always throw the idea out there to be discussed. I speak to [Kamran] Akmal a lot, standing next to him at slip. You don't have a coach on the ground, so four-five guys I discuss a lot with. I have been with Yousuf and Shahid and Rana [Naved-ul-Hasan] since Under-19, so we know each other well. But I also will go up to any guy, young or old, inexperienced or veteran, and just ask them their thoughts on the game.

There has always been in Pakistan cricket talk of factions and splits within the team, from teams in the seventies to now. There is speculation even now of groupings and cliques against you.
Many people in the past have come to me, big names, to maybe try something. Under Malik's captaincy, the types of things that were happening... As a senior player who was performing, players would come up to me to try and stir things up, try and change things. "Let's do this, why don't we make a group?" and so on. But I have never been part of any cliques or groups. I have avoided them and tried to stay neutral throughout. That is why I have survived. If people come to me now to try and instigate, or get into one group, I run away. I don't want to be part of that.

As captain you speak and build relationships with players. What I want is that each player knows exactly what I will do for them, how much I will do, as captain. If you speak to anyone about me, whatever they say about me - that I am stupid, or stubborn, or angry, whatever else - they will all tell you that I am the same on the outside as I am on the inside. Whatever I say in a private meeting, I will say the same thing outside. I will not say different things to different people depending on different situations. This everyone knows.

Before, when we lost a match, everyone used to say, "The match was fixed, the players sold out." Now when we lose, everyone says players have had a fight. But what I want to know is, fight over what? Obviously if players don't perform always, they use these things as crutches, these excuses.

I have seen one thing in my country, one amazing thing, especially in the media. Often one thing is said and thrown into the press like an arrow, like "the team is unhappy" or something. The captain then responds to it by saying, "No, no, everything is okay, we are happy." Then everyone assumes that everything must be wrong if he is saying that. Sometimes I don't respond to it. If someone has thrown that arrow, let him.

This time, during the World Cup, for example. I've always played and captained with a smile on my face. After the England loss, I spoke to the media about how it was a "fun" format. How the media grilled me over that! Don't you think Twenty20 is just that? A fun format? Everyone says it, just in a different way, but today everyone is concerned about promoting Twenty20 too much. What will happen after five years in this format, with so much money at stake? There are dangers there. Nobody wants to play two days anymore, just a few overs. But the response I got to saying this was so negative.

After that match, I changed totally. I was silent, not smiling so much and I didn't even smile when we won. I felt then that I needed to get a bit tight and stop all this smiling. Then when I did that, people started saying, "Look, the captain is not mixing with the players, something must be wrong, he must have fought with them."

Did Imran not do this? People didn't accept it because I was totally changed. I used to chirp and smile and when I changed people thought I had fought. Even now I don't chill out too much because I've seen that if you get too close and too pally with the boys, then you lose a bit of authority. Now the same people are telling me to become pally with the boys again. I don't want people to get involved in these issues and invade my privacy.

"If you want to do something, just do it. Don't dilly-dally about it and regret not doing it later, just go ahead and do it. You have to take chances"

I never got into a group. This is how it works in Pakistan: you find the group in power and align yourselves with them. That happens everywhere, in every field. I have always striven to be neutral. I don't look to anyone to help me, to the chairman or selectors or managers or ex-players. Whenever I have been dropped, I have never called a selector to ask why. If I have come in, I have done so on my own strength. I have made it difficult for people to ignore me.

Has your batting been affected by your captaincy?
In one series, against Australia [in May 2009], I got very involved in it. It was against Australia for a start and I tried to get each and every player, individually, up for the series. I think I made about a hundred runs in the series, and I felt that my batting struggled. I got a triple-hundred against Sri Lanka, but here I was out of focus. Shoaib Akhtar was coming back, Shahid Afridi was also a little down, in a bad way. To push Shoaib, Shahid, Saeed Ajmal - who was a new guy and hit by that ICC call, there were four-five guys who really needed support and push, and in doing that I feel I lost my focus. I've thought about it hard and realised how important it is for Younis Khan to score runs, because when I have, then the team has done well mostly.

Pakistan has long been an erratic team, fluctuating between the sublime and ridiculous, day by day, session by session. How do you deal with this?
This is not something new. It is something that has been there from a long time. It is very difficult to handle as a captain. I don't smoke cigarettes that I can go and smoke away some tension. I've seen many captains either lose their hair or start smoking - I'm okay on both fronts right now. But I feel that the whole country is like this, this is how it works here. You wake up some mornings to find suddenly the whole political establishment has changed and that the army is in, or the other way round. My players are from this environment so obviously they will be products of this environment. They are something today, something else tomorrow and something else the day after. This is our temperament, it is in our blood. To change us, to take this out, it isn't just to work on the team. Many things in the country need to change.

Read part two of the interview here

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo. In the second part of the interview, Younis talks about his legacy, the joy of winning World Twenty20 and the promise of Champions Trophy