'There was no other choice but me'
His team is young, raw but full of talent and the next two months could give a strong clue of the side's future. On the eve of the opening Test against Australia at Lord's, Pakistan's "home" Test away from home, Shahid Afridi talks to Cricinfo about leadership, communication and helping young players.
How are you enjoying the captaincy?
I am enjoying the captaincy because I have been entrusted with the responsibility. It is not just about leading 17 players, it is about leading the entire country. Hence there is pressure, which comes out of the expectations of the people, and my own. It is a difficult job. It is natural for captains from the subcontinent teams to face overwhelming pressure constantly. But my country has given me a name and therefore I take any difficulty as a challenge. If my country needs me, and if I can do well and can put the team in a good position, it will be a big achievement. Something the people will always remember. If down the line I become aware that I am not a good captain or not a successful one, and the team is unable to make any use of me as a captain, I will not chase it. If I don't have the ability then I will leave it on my own. I've been playing for 13-14 years now and to finally get the captain's post is definitely a big honour.
Were you ready for it?
Firstly they did not have any other choice. Also, there were issues quite a few captains [in the near past] had faced with players not entirely happy with them and some even not wanting to play under them. Nobody is a born captain. He learns with time. He works closely with the boys. He works with senior players, asks them for suggestions and devises strategy. He needs to work closely with the coach, and that relationship needs to be strong. It can't be just you on your own. You need to do all these things if you want to be a good captain. You can't get personal with players on the ground - every player is equal.
Do you think it came late?
I was ready four to five years ago but somebody else was appointed instead. The board told me that I would be the captain but the next day they announced I would not be the captain. I was really hurt. They didn't need to tell me that at all. I told the board people so at that point. But now a lot of water has gone under the bridge and it is a new chapter.
This honesty of yours, this blunt attitude - do you think it is good for a captain?
I've always believed it is important to be clean from inside. I cannot favour any player, let him be a junior or senior. That is because it is a position the almighty has given me and he is watching me round the clock, what I do, so I cannot think of doing anything wrong.
What is the most difficult thing about the role?
It is important to keep everyone happy, to keep the players together. Yes, it is slightly difficult to take everybody along with you always. But it is not impossible. For that you need good and sincere people around you. You need the management personnel who can help you out with various things. The captain can't be asked to get into every decision.
How important is communication?
It is because of lack of communication, in addition to the little things that people kept quiet about, that led to a difficult situation and the problems in the past. So now I ask my players to express themselves with freedom. Even if I am at wrong I have asked them to just walk up to me and share their point of view. As a player I think differently and as a captain I think differently and both parties can only understand each other by communicating openly.
Is it important for you to mentor younger players because you were a young player once who fell by the wayside yourself?
I think that is already happening. There are so many young players in this squad with whom I have personally sat and had one-on-one chats, and given them the freedom to think on their own. It is not only me, even my coaches are doing the same. There is no pressure on the youngsters in this team. You can sense their confidence now. I don't want to add any pressure on a newcomer because I know what a youngster thinks when he comes into the team. I also strongly feel that he can't just be there for two or three matches, he needs to be given a fair run. He needs to get the returns for his hard work. The rest is up to the player - how much he is dedicated and determined. I have already chatted to the selection committee and we are on the same page on this front.
Do you seek suggestions from any of the senior players?
I take very few suggestions from others. If I feel I need to pick someone's brains, I will do it. Too many ideas make the job difficult.
Do you follow your instincts more, then?
Once I take a decision, I stick to it. I never say it is wrong, and my players support me.
Who was the captain you admired as a youngster?
Imran Khan. In that era he had a big and powerful team to back him. He had the likes of Javed Miandad, Wasim bhai [Akram] to support him, so he did not have many problems. Respect is the most essential thing about captaincy. Respect between the captain and players is important. It is give and take. Imran bhai never demanded respect, everybody gave him respect.
How do you balance with the expectations of family, team and friends in this new position?
The family understands how much time I can afford to give them. It is not really that difficult to give time to everyone. Once I am out of the ground I forget cricket or keep it away as far as possible, to lighten up.
Do you take pressure at all?
Of course there is pressure. We do face the heat but a player's worth is understood by the way he deals with pressure. I don't show it on the face, but inside me what happens only I know.
Recently Mohammad Yousuf said that new players coming out of Pakistan are not Test players, they are Twenty20 players. What is your opinion?
I don't agree. We have youngsters who have the temperament to survive in Test cricket. I spoke to a lot of domestic coaches, and some of these youngsters I had observed them personally and they were picked based on my own belief in consultation with my coaching think tank.
This is a very complex tour. How do you approach the challenge?
My team is a young one. So I will not speak about winning straightaway to them. We are rebuilding the Test team, and part of the process is to give chances to the youngsters. We don't have really big expectations from them, but these are talented players who will do well. I want to see them play good cricket and myself playing well with them. At least I want people to say that it was a good team, who played good, who fought well, and it was fun to watch them. Those words would be enough for me.
But Pakistan has a history where as soon the team starts doing badly, the whole set-up is changed. Do you think once again there will be chopping and changing?
Nothing like that. Everyone knows that the team is still work in progress, with new boys coming in. So far the results in ODI and Twenty20 games recently show that we are rebuilding. But we are playing as a unit. You can see the results and the efforts the players have been putting in. Unlike in the past, where there were so many problems related to discipline or differences between the coach and captain or with the selection committee - there is nothing like that so far that has happened. We are progressing now.
Considering you have played under Waqar Younis, do you have a good rapport with him?
Vicky bhai is a sincere man and he is good. Then we have Aaqib Javed and Ijaz Ahmed, and the latter was the coach of our Under-19 team. All of them want the team to have a good standing. These are people who want the team to go ahead. Each one works hard with every player, is transparent, and does not have any selfish angle, and that is the reason I like them.
When Australia heard you were leading Pakistan for the series Ricky Ponting said "We'll sort him out pretty quick." Does that mentally spur you on?
Allah has given me two ears: I hear with one and throw it out with the other. Whatever happens on the ground, we will know soon.
Captaincy has come late in your career - how long do you think you can sustain it?
In our region we never know what will happen when. You know that even if you lose the World Cup final you will not know where you stand. I did not ask anyone forcibly to give me the captaincy, nor will I forcibly captain the team. If I am good I will prove it through my performance. If I am not good I will say khuda hafeez [God be with you].
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo