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A year into his job as Pakistan coach, Waqar Younis is still standing. He has applied himself to the task of keeping one of cricket's historically most fractious teams going and has done better than most would give him credit for
March 19, 2011
Last year, in the run-up to his appointment as coach of Pakistan, I asked Waqar Younis why he would want to give up a life in Sydney and the post-retirement comfort of a broadcast career for a position with little comfort and zilch security. Financially, too, it eventually turned out, he didn't stand to gain.
A degree of patriotism acceptable to Samuel Johnson - that is, not enough to be scoundrelous - was involved. But within the response was also a piece of reflective honesty. He had just completed a second, brief stint as Pakistan's bowling coach on a legendarily malfunctioning tour of Australia, which could sit easily alongside the most riotous tours by any rock band anywhere.
Waqar had played through, and contributed to, plenty of fractious, clique-ridden days himself, when team-mates went years without saying a word to each other off the field. "I just want to tell these guys," he said with the resignation of a lapsed preacher, "that they are going to regret a lot of this when they get older and look back at their careers. I know because I've been through it. They are going to regret it."
On March 3, as Pakistan struggled and then raced past Canada at the Premadasa in Colombo, Waqar completed a year in a job that takes far more out of you than it gives back. In some cases, as of Bob Woolmer, it takes life and gives back a red-brick wing at an academy. There is no scale of despair left on which to grade the last five years but the one just gone would stand tall by any measure.
Waqar has lived through it. He's still working on the players, to make them understand his regrets. "That culture has been there a long time. In my time, probably before my time as well. You start disliking other people, you start blaming them. It's an old illness and it doesn't go so quickly." But remarkably for the year, there is silence around him and his position, and silence in Pakistan cricket is beautiful.
THROUGH SRI LANKA, in Hambantota, Colombo, Kandy and then Colombo again, Waqar Younis has overseen practice sessions of mostly frightening energy. In large part he has created that force, channelling it through younger players and key senior men. On some occasions I suspect he has forgotten he is a coach, getting so involved in fielding routines, he could still be bowling.
"If I don't do it, they won't do it," he says. "The masla [issue] is, they have no threat. Either this or you have such a system of academies where you are producing guys and there are guys behind each guy threatening his place, so that he has to do it on his own anyway, without needing extra motivation."
He isn't military in his manner of coaching - not fully anyway. He cracks jokes in Urdu and Punjabi but has also cracked the whip with some younger players, whose heads sometimes get bigger than their games. He likes "the technical side of it, showing them their game on the laptop", but he isn't John Buchanan and it wouldn't be surprising if he errs on the side of Shane Warne in his opinion of such coaches. He is very much an Action Jackson kind of guy.
"I'm probably more practical and hands-on, just wanting to get into it, go out there on the field and do it." The job description of non-playing captain, or an off-field one, maybe says it best, though that is not to apportion to him any greater or lesser influence in matters.
If we're being perfectly honest about it, the early Waqar - the headband, from which mushroomed a poor impersonation of an Afro, the moustache, and the single-minded push for pace - would not have made any kind of coach. "Someone said, 'Bowl quick', so I did. My aim was to bowl quick. Imran Khan used to give me the ball and tell me, 'Phaar do, jaake.', blow them away."
|Waqar is still modern enough but more significantly, he is now worldly enough without being from another world. His time in county cricket and his years in Sydney - where he usually lives with his wife and family - place him as a useful species: a local foreigner, or a "glocal" in Pakistan|
But it was his later resurrection, from injury and politics and every whim on which Pakistan cricket turns, that forms much of what he is now. His impact as bowler lessened as the pace did, but he picked up smarts in return. Time, he says, taught him as much as coaches did. The action changed, a handy outswinger emerged, some books were ingested and, years later, here we are. The person, he acknowledges himself, also changed, mellowing and shedding the early starriness as he has grown older, as the fortunate ones do.
He has no coaching qualifications of any level, and in a way that is quite endearing. That he knows about bowling has long been apparent from his broadcast stints, when he talked specifically about the art, about actions and wrists and the exertions on a body. His first stint as Pakistan's bowling coach, in late 2006, when he worked under Woolmer and with bowlers such as Umar Gul, was instructive and beneficial to all; Waqar learnt from Woolmer and Gul, and others from Waqar, and we that there might be a coach inside Waqar.
What kind of work might happen with batsmen is not as apparent. With the range of problems that Pakistan's batsmen suffer from, it might need more than just Waqar, as a good bowler, having "a fair idea of the batsmen, what they do, pick up their strengths and weaknesses".
But these are also the concerns of normal teams, with normal coaching requirements. At the best of times we've not known what kind of normal works for Pakistan: foreigner, local, doer, thinker, analyst, ex-player? And at this most delicate moment in their existence - iss naazuk mor par Pakistan Television would say - what is needed?
Shahid Afridi said something striking about Waqar the coach last year, back when Afridi had just become Test captain. "The best thing about him is that he lives outside Pakistan and so he doesn't have an angle on anything. All the guys are the same to him. Nobody is from Sindh or Punjab - they are all one. He doesn't give examples of his own time either, that I used to do this, or used to do that. He talks of this time."
In a way, this is the heart of it. Waqar is still modern enough but more significantly, he is now worldly enough without being from another world. His time in county cricket and his years in Sydney - where he usually lives with his wife and family - place him as a useful species: a local foreigner, or a "glocal" in Pakistan. In a country and a cricket culture increasingly left to its own, removed from the rotation of the world outside of it, it might be the best way to be: a detached but informed observer.
"I understand this culture and I understand the other culture as well," he agrees. "That's why some of the players find it hard, because I say, 'This is your job. I do my job I get paid for it, now you do your job.' It is a simple, professional interaction. Forget friendships and matey-ness. Let's make it professional. 'My job is to tell you, teach you and so on. Your job is to do it. You do it. If I make you do something and you don't get results, then you come and tell me, "You said this and it didn't happen."' But then you have to put your head down and do it properly. But this culture will not change overnight."
That is why he understands that Pakistan responds to a kind of overpowering, immense individualism, but that it might also need fresh input and thought. "We have had foreign coaches as well. I have played under them, I have learnt from them. But I think in our culture a big name makes a difference. Here, players are sometimes bigger than the game. That is a reality. To suppress that, you need a bigger name from on top.
"Westerners help because they make fine coaches. Richard Pybus was great at man management. Bob Woolmer did a wonderful job, and I think you still need a few foreign people to come in because they bring different ideas and are more professional. Whatever they need to do, they just do. But you need a bigger name on top to handle it."
PAKISTAN HAVE BEEN FASCINATING to watch over the last year. It is not the same fascination we have attached to them in the past. They are flawed; some were corrupted; and they are hurt and unsure, defensive. But they are trying, one day to the next, to move on, not sure where they are going, but somewhere less dark than where they have been.
They have had no business taking Tests off Australia and England, drawing with South Africa and losing two close ODI series in the deciding fifth game. Even beating New Zealand seemed a bigger deal than it usually does, and they have - with no disrespect - done it often enough. They have gone further and won more games in this World Cup than the last two combined. Some pride in all this is understandable.
"The biggest satisfaction I have got," Waqar says, with great care, "is that we went through a lot of crises and I still managed to pull these boys out and got something out of them. It was very difficult, very tough.
Some days I didn't feel like getting out of my room, thinking: 'Another controversy? Today that guy has run away, some other scandal has happened, another match-fixing thing.' It just becomes harder and you don't feel like getting up, asking, 'What am I stuck in?' But the most satisfying thing is, I keep it going. I just make sure, 'Okay, if I have taken this job, I have to keep doing it. I have to keep getting up and working at it.' People get tired of me, but I have to keep going."
"Going" is officially till next March but it could just as well be, as Waqar knows only too well, till tomorrow. Each of the last three World Cups has cost Pakistan a coach. If there is failure - and not winning the World Cup will not be a failure - then who can say whether all this will be worth anything? Sticks will be found to beat him with. The ethnicity card is bound to be played. Perhaps people will note a strange defensiveness as coach - and when he was captain - and its contrast with his aggression as a bowler.
Maybe not enough people will see it as pragmatism, an adjustment to frailties and to a time that does not offer the same weight of match-winners as Waqar's era. "We had about seven, eight match-winners. In that time we had fights, but at the end of the day when someone went on the field, their personal goals were so big that the team goal automatically was developed because of that. Now you don't have that. You don't have big match-winners as such, so you have to develop teamwork."
There is only one fear now, he says, which is driving him. "I don't want cricket to go the way hockey has gone. That is my real fear, that it gets into so many problems that you can't lift it again. But I believe in myself, that I can do it and make things better. Deep down inside, if I look at the last year, and I look at the ups and downs we have gone through, we've done a good job."
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