February 28, 2012

Letter to Whatmore

Geoff Lawson
A former coach welcomes the new arrival with a few words of advice

Salaam aleikum, Davenell bhai

It has been many years since we first toured with Australia together, back in 1979, when you played so well against India. The wheel has turned almost full circle, just lacking the final shift across the line so artfully drawn by Sir Cyril Radcliffe.

The news of your (eventual) appointment has reached the shores of your former adopted homeland, and I must say I am quite pleased that your name plate will adorn the door of Room 3 at the National Cricket Academy admin block in Lahore. I note that contract negotiations were convoluted, complex and ambivalent, so all seems normal at the PCB.

Hopefully they have cleaned out my cupboards and those back issues of Optometry News, Playboy for Seniors and Golf Digest have been consigned to the garbage, or at least sent over to the player accommodation.

I am sure the PCB liaison man, Zakir Khan, will have let you know about the security arrangements. I recall clearly his words to me when I discussed my possible engagement as the national coach after the untimely demise of Bob Woolmer: "Yes, Geoff, there will be plenty of security, you just won't see them." Comforting indeed, but my biggest fears when living in Lahore did not include IEDs or rogue terror cells but anopheles mosquitoes and dengue fever (which I contracted leaving Pakistan in 1982 and wouldn't wish on my worst enemy).

I hope you get out to the regional centres like Multan, Faisalabad, Sialkot and Sheikhupura to see some of the local cricket. Some of the grounds are very poor and some very good. I would rate the stadium in Multan as one of the best in Asia - it's certainly a far cry from the old ground on top of the hill in the middle of town where we played in 1980 and 1982.

You will find that, contrary to widespread belief outside of Pakistan, there are some quicker pitches that certainly favour seam bowling. If you look at the figures for the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy it is usually the pace bowlers who dominate. Occasionally there will be a slow turner; the National Stadium, Karachi, can be either good to bat on or a real haven for the slow bowlers. Generally, up north they produce the stronger, bigger physiques and therefore the faster bowlers.

I was pleasantly surprised by the standards of the better QEA teams. I thought the competition had quality and was robust. It is good when national team-mates go hard at each other in first-class games.

Make sure you have some input into the Pentangular Shield teams' selection. That competition, between five provinces, is the equivalent of the Sheffield Shield. After the 24 or so first-class and corporate teams play their tournament, the national selectors pick five teams to represent Punjab, Sind (the two big boys, whose players come mostly from Lahore and Karachi), North West Frontier Province (now called Khyber Pakhtunkhwa), Baluchistan, and Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), which include Rawalpindi and Islamabad. They only play each other once in four-day games, but those matches are hard-fought and of an excellent standard.

The guys who do well here are just about ready for the next step, and you never know in Pakistan when some young genius will pop out of the woodwork. Like Mohammad Amir, who has just arrived back in Lahore from detention in England. You should take the 20-minute drive over to Defence Housing and have a chat with him sooner rather than later, to see what his mental state is. I reckon he would benefit from getting straight back into cricket of some kind, if only at club level.

Also, Dav, be careful in the traffic. I know the roads are mostly crammed with bicycles, motorbikes, rickshaws and camel carts that move like treacle through a sieve, but those six lanes leading onto the Liberty Market roundabout remind me of Talladega Nights with Will Ferrell sans beard and driving license. Your experience in Colombo traffic will stand you in good stead, but try to get a driver who speaks passable English and isn't a former auto-rickshaw operator. I wouldn't bother getting behind the wheel myself, based on my driving experiences. I was perfect - three drives, three accidents. None were my fault, of course, as I was using the imperial driving code - which among many details mentions something about driving on the left-hand side of the road where possible - not the South Asian one, where the horn is compulsory and "give way" loosely translates as "go as fast as possible to beat the next guy into the gap that would maybe fit a dinky toy while avoiding the over-laden donkey dray".

I must confess that when I moved into Room 3 at the NCA, most of Bob's stuff, from cricket books to DVDs, rindless-marmalade jars and tea caddy were still there. I did find it a little disconcerting that the personal items of the much loved and respected coach had not been packed and despatched. I'm sure Ijaz Butt will have cleaned out my detritus immediately, given his statements regarding my usefulness to Pakistan cricket after his brother-in-law anointed him chairman of the board after the 2008 general election. Sad days for all.

When in doubt, ask Misbah who should be in the team and he will give you players who aren't someone's second cousin's brother's uncle but rather are the most skilled for that position

With your vast experience in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, the language barrier should be at ankle height. Most of the guys speak English, falling into a range from "better than Australians" to "you get the drift". Cricket is the universal language, in any case. An outswinger is still gripped the same and a cover drive still gets hit through cover. Urdu and Hindi have many common words, although if they get to speaking Punjabi or Pashto, call for the gardener to translate. He used to run a video shop in the SWAT Valley until the Taliban arrived and issued an edict that no one should have fun.

A huge bonus for you will be that Misbah-ul Haq has taken over the captaincy. He is a bright, well-educated man, who understands the game exceptionally well. When in doubt, ask Misbah who should be in the team and he will give you players who aren't someone's second cousin's brother's uncle but rather are the most skilled for that position. He is a winner and plays no favourites, and will be an excellent sounding board for whatever strategy you feel will work best with the team. He sets a perfect example in work ethic and discipline, and it does make a difference when the senior players are doing all the right things, especially in their culture of age and respect going hand in hand.

Dav, I must issue a note of warning about dealing with the media in Pakistan, especially if you play against India and finish second - although that might never happen in the near future, given the political machinations at the highest level. Speak to Immie on this point: the Lion of Lahore may be the only person in Pakistan who can make it happen; now if only we could get Sachin to stand for the Lok Sabha, we could create cricket detente.

If the local journos want to be disrespectful and force their pre-conceived agendas on you, go right ahead and let them, unless you want several thousand views on Youtube. My son has installed the clip of me walking out of a press conference as my screen saver, so if I want to remind myself of how not to suck up to reporters I just hit Control F6 and amuse myself for three minutes.

But have no fear, Dav, of the man in the street. The press may have their private or provincial agendas, but I found the common man to be most friendly and hospitable. Even when we lost the occasional match, their approach to me was civil and respectful. Not an effigy in sight, burning or whole. They appreciated that a foreigner was in their country to help, to do his best and, win, lose or draw, to show respect for the nation and the culture.

I learned a bit of the lingo and stayed off the booze. I recommend doing at least one of those.

Stay away from politicians, public meetings, police stations or military establishments. If taking the team to the Army School of Physical Training in Abbottabad, stay clear of buildings with just a few too many antennae sticking out of the chimney, and keep your head down if you hear helicopters approaching.

That's about it, mate. These guys can play some wonderful cricket, and I'm sure they will listen and learn and benefit from your enormous knowledge of the game. I look forward to visiting you at Gaddafi Stadium when Australia return to play a Test there. When that happens, cricket really will be the winner.

All the best

Sahib Henry

Geoff Lawson played 46 Test matches for Australia, and has coached NSW and Pakistan. He now commentates on the game for ABC Radio