Bob Woolmer's task with Pakistan August 17, 2004

Fighting the forces of ineptitude

Commentary by Kamran Abbasi

Bob Woolmer: 'For my money, a reasonable start' © Getty Images

If you ever wondered about the wisdom of Pakistan's selectors, then here's an insight. On the eve of this year's second Test between Pakistan and India Test I flew from Karachi to Lahore with Saad Shafqat, Javed Miandad's co-writer. Wasim Bari, chairman of selectors, was on the same flight. He was a man under pressure.

Pakistan had lost badly at Multan and there was an ongoing spat about who selected the final playing XI. As we made our way out of Lahore's new airport Bari saw us and, unprompted, made it clear that final selection was nothing to do with him. His business was selecting the squad for the Test, and the rest was up to the team management. Wind forward to the end of the first day, and Umar Gul has bowled a matchwinning spell. As Shafqat and I leave the ground we spot Bari again. Shafqat cheekily congratulates him on the selection of Gul.

"Yes, it's incredible," says Bari. "When I saw the teamsheet I realised that we were a bowler short, and I rushed to the team management and insisted they include Umar Gul."

Now this may be exactly what happened, although it struck us that Bari was quick to distance himself from defeat but in a rush to associate himself with success. This, unfortunately, has been the state of Pakistan cricket administration for many years. It is human nature to a certain degree, but it is hard to recall a recent example when someone senior in Pakistan cricket accepted responsibility for failure -- and there have been many to be accountable for.

Bob Woolmer has to find a way of flourishing in this environment. It may be harder for him now that Rameez Raja has gone. Rameez recognised the value that a quality foreign coach like Woolmer could add to the Pakistani system. He could have helped protect Woolmer in a system where it is every man for himself and the foreigner is the obvious scapegoat. Rameez's resignation is unfortunate timing for Woolmer, but Rameez's conflicts of interest had made his position untenable, with his little-mentioned employment with Allied Bank emerging as the more personally damaging.

Woolmer's challenge will be getting a free hand to implement change in the way that he wants. The goodwill that accompanies a new appointment can evaporate quickly. The challenge for Pakistan's administrators is to allow Woolmer a free hand. It is essential that a new coach is allowed to pursue the strategy of his choice, and be held to account if that strategy fails. Selection is perhaps the most important area, and this is where Wasim Bari and company must serve the country and not themselves.

Woolmer has already had to intervene to bring Shoaib Akhtar back into the fold after Pakistan's administrators had taken against him. And while much of the selection for the upcoming tours is reasonable, the omission of Azhar Mahmood, a proven performer in the conditions that Pakistan are likely to encounter in Holland and England, has non-cricketing reasons. Mahmood's recent interview for this website displeased the PCB. This reflects poorly on Shaharyar Khan, the chairman of the board, who was appointed for his wisdom. Selection should be based on merit, not on vindictiveness.

A further hurdle for Woolmer is the Pakistani press corps. He encountered extraordinary criticism after one bad defeat in the Asia Cup, although it is hard to know how any reasonable commentator can pass judgment on Woolmer on the basis of one tournament. Woolmer has set about defending himself on his own website, dissecting the criticism and offering some criticism of his own. It is refreshing that a Pakistani cricket official -- which Woolmer may not behave like, but definitely now is -- is prepared to be accessible and debate openly in this manner.

For my money, the Asia Cup was a reasonable start for Woolmer's Pakistan. The tournaments in Holland and England offer further opportunities for him to learn about his players, and refine his strategy. The real tests will begin later this year, with Sri Lanka's visit followed by the tour of Australia.

Pakistan has a fine crop of young players and a proven international coach to bring the best out of them. Yet the forces of ineptitude -- the PCB, the selectors, and the media -- are already causing concern. Woolmer's reign is a test of the maturity of Pakistan's administrators and media as much as it is a test of the players and his coaching. Pakistan cricket has the best opportunity it has had since at least the 1999 World Cup, and possibly even the 1992 World Cup, to move up to the next level in world cricket. One tournament down the road, and the forces of ineptitude have failed more than Woolmer has.

Kamran Abbasi is a London-based cricket writer and acting editor of the British Medical Journal.