February 2, 2014

'TV does not always tell you the real story'

Pakistan's fielding coach, Julien Fountain, chats about the improvement under his watch and the challenges of training players to field under pressure

How was it working with the Pakistan team?
It's been a fantastic experience working for one of the world's most respected cricket nations. We have covered a lot of miles in two years, technically, emotionally and in actual geographical terms!

What difference do you think you have made in the last two years?
Well, I can only repeat what has been said to me by opposition coaches, opposition players, the international cricket media, former international cricketers and other respected members of the international cricket community and that is: "Pakistan's fielding has really improved over the last two years." I think that says it all.

Pakistan's fielding hasn't enjoyed a great reputation in the past and we could safely assume they were not the best fielding side in the world. Is it still the case?
Firstly, whatever their reputation was in the past does not really concern me. I was hired to do a job, which I have done to the very best of my ability, given the many constraints involved with coaching Pakistan.

I would like to ask you a question, though: How exactly are you judging this so-called reputation, because if the reputation is based on factual evidence then fair enough, but if it is based purely on TV pundits and former players giving their views on things past and present, you really should remember that these guys are paid to entertain and there is nothing Pakistan fans like more than to hear how bad the team/player is and how they should be changed.

Also when a TV company puts a montage together to show "poor fielding" they do not always show the correct items, as the person editing the montage is not a professional coach, with a professional opinion on each particular incident. They are merely putting together a series of what they consider to be mistakes. TV does not always tell you the real story.

Where does the problem lie?
Fielding is all about attitude and technique. And you create the right attitude and learn your techniques when you are a young player (6-16 years old). Unfortunately, one of Pakistan's great strengths - street cricket - is also one of its weaknesses as it does not really allow a young cricketer to develop that fearless hunter-killer mentality that other teams such as South Africa, England, New Zealand and Australia have.

In all of these countries, children play a cross-section of sports such as soccer, rugby, hockey, tennis, basketball etc right from an early age. This helps them in a number of ways both technically and physically. For example if a child learns to dive with a rugby ball or tackle in soccer when they are eight or ten years old, then diving to stop a cricket ball is easy. But if they have never dived or done a sliding tackle, then they are nervous and afraid of injury. The national players do dive and slide, but they have had to learn these skills very late in life and find it tough to beat the fear. It is not an Asian thing either - look at Sri Lanka, they dive aggressively a lot. Incidentally, rugby is a very popular sport in Sri Lanka.

"If a player has not trained at a higher intensity, how will he cope when the games become high pressure?"

Do you think you have done enough to lift the standard of fielding at the top?
Yes, I have helped the national players compete against and "out-field" teams like Australia, England and South Africa on many occasions.

From a tiny snapshot of data I have collected, I have learnt that even though South Africa is supposedly a "far superior fielding team" Pakistan managed to save as many runs, if not more, than South Africa on a frequent basis. Do not be fooled by the fact that South Africa apparently dive more than Pakistan. The amounts of balls dived for, whether the fielder touched the ball or not, was usually similar. Yes, of course, Pakistan can get better, but then all teams could be better. But it is too easy to say, "Pakistan is a poor fielding team" as it's a cliche. I would humbly suggest that TV commentators check proper fielding statistics prior to making grandiose statements about which team is better on the field.

How comfortable were the players when it came to working with you?
Working with a national team is not as simple as creating a plan and following it. With the Pakistan team, as they are playing away from home 100% of the time, you have to constantly factor in travel time, facilities etc. We managed to achieve some good results in fielding, which helped win us games when other departments did not fire.

What in particular did you work on?
I tried to focus on the areas which need attention in any given format, without favouring or neglecting others. For example for T20s and ODIs we looked at diving and sliding, coupled with pairs-fielding, dynamic movement, aggression with tactics, psychology and stump hitting, without forgetting flat catching and boundary-rope catching and fielding.

How was it dealing with egos in the team?
Pakistan has no more or no less big stars than any other international cricket team. They are treated like superstars by the general public, but I deal with everybody equally, like it or hate it, I have a job to do, which is to improve team performance. The problems occur when others fail to handle these stars correctly and create soft corners for these players to hide in. I have over 17 years of international cricket coaching experience, and over 25 years of professional sports experience as both a coach and a player, so when my gut feeling is to praise a player, I praise them; when it is time for a bamboo [reprimand], they get a bamboo.

Was there a language barrier to overcome?
I have learnt enough Urdu to get by, and there are several players who can speak good English in the national team. However, yes, sometimes the language barrier could be used as an excuse for non-compliance, citing misunderstanding.

Did you ever get frustrated when players were not responding well in the field?
I would not be human if I did not get emotionally affected both by good and bad performance. Frustration usually occurred when there were needless mistakes, especially in crunch situations. A good example of this was during a T20 in Dubai when we failed to score 100 runs. That was a game when we simply could not afford any mistakes at all, and sure enough, we dropped catches and fumbled balls in the very first couple of overs. That is a good example of a game where our poor performance in another department affected our psychology badly and we were unable to get our heads back in the game. If a player has not trained at a higher intensity, how will he cope when the games become high pressure? Soft corners at training cause weaknesses in competition.

Were you able to work with coaches and younger players at the domestic level?
Unfortunately, due to our heavy overseas commitment, my time spent with other players and teams was a lot less than I would have liked. The Pakistan national team is only as strong as the players being selected from domestic cricket. If the standard of fielding skills (or batting or bowling, for that matter) are poor, then the player is a weak link upon his arrival into the senior team. Luckily I was able to spend a bit of time with the Under-19s and we ran a specialist fielding coach course to "up-skill" the coaches. However that is only of benefit if those coaches go on to pass the skills, techniques, tactics etc on to domestic players.

In Pakistan cricket, is fielding taken for granted?
Having seen how cricketers grow up playing street cricket, it is not surprising that fielding takes a very distant third place. However, using that as an excuse cannot be accepted. I proposed a series of initiatives to try to address things such as fielding skills in street and club cricket to help set some standards for young players. However, I am still waiting for the response.

Did you work with keepers?
Yes, I worked with all the keepers prior to July 2013, however once Moin Khan joined the team some of them preferred to take their keeping advice from a former international wicketkeeper and national captain, which is perfectly understandable. But I continued to help them whenever I got the opportunity.

What is the status of your contract with the PCB?
My contract expires at the end of February, so I am still based at the NCA until then. I am getting involved in the U-19s' pre-World Cup camp, which is fantastic as they are the future of Pakistan cricket. They were very talented when I worked with them previously, and I am looking forward to seeing them selected for the senior team soon. I only hope they have the same attitude as they do now!

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent. He tweets here