Umar Gul: 'As a coach, your job starts when a player is going through a rough patch'
After his retirement from playing cricket late in 2020, former Pakistan fast bowler Umar Gul changed hats seamlessly, taking up the bowling coach's role with Quetta Gladiators in the PSL almost immediately after. Here, he talks about his coaching philosophy, particularly when it comes to fast bowlers and their nurture.
How difficult was the transition from a cricketer to a coach?
It's never easy when you have given your everything playing cricket since your childhood. There was passion involved and when you have done it for 20 straight years, it's not easy to walk away just like that. There were brief [career] gaps due to my injuries and those were frustrating times but I always made a comeback and never let it go. Because it was about passion, it took time for me to absorb that I won't be bowling anymore and it will not be the same when I retire. I wanted to continue playing in a few leagues but there were no takers and it came down to making a quick decision about my future before it was too late.
I wanted to stay close to the game, be in the field, so I told myself: why not coaching? I gave myself a long, hard look, thought about my temperament and I realised I have always been generous about helping my colleagues when working in the nets - giving them tips, listening to others, chipping in with my knowledge. I wasn't just bowling but learning a lot around the art of bowling.
I was lucky enough to get a call from Quetta Gladiators to work as a coach only two months after I retired from cricket. Then I had a stint in the Kashmir Premier League and in the Lanka Premier League for Galle Gladiators. This season in PSL, Moin Khan [head coach] had his son's wedding and I have been leading [Quetta] as head coach. That has been a productive experience, working broadly with everyone rather than just bowlers.
You are a rarity as a Pakistani former player who has decided to go global with his coaching career, rather than just doing it as a one-off.
I think it is a role that requires a different kind of expertise [to playing]. It's a different ball game and we ex-cricketers overestimate ourselves on the basis of the cricket we played and think that we can easily take up coaching as a career straightaway.
It requires grooming, experience, and ideally if you come through working with a younger lot [of players] it's easy for you to grow. It's a difficult process but [worth it] if you want to go global and are not just looking for small gigs.
My career panned out in an era where the gears shifted from the mid-2000s [type of cricket] to modern-day cricket in the last five-six years. So I didn't have to take a break or learn to catch up with the times. I played my cricket with HBL at domestic level and played under so many big names. With such an extensive playing career you definitely learn a lot, especially when you come up under big coaches throughout. There were different philosophies from coaches and captains. I led HBL, so there was also leadership involved and there was a consistent learning curve from playing the highest level of international cricket.
There is debate about whether or not it is necessary for a good coach to also have been a good cricketer. What's your take?
You can learn the game theoretically and still become a good coach. Basically there is no right or wrong answer to this. It's a combination of many things and not always about cricket but management of players.
Cricket is evolving rapidly and it depends on how quickly you learn new things, and how you work with players. I am gaining tons of experience with Gladiators and I love to work with players in the field, so it isn't really a problem for me to adapt.
I'm not limiting myself to Quetta Gladiators only but looking for other opportunities to grow myself. I have made my mind up that this is my bread and butter. I have done my Level 2 coaching course and am waiting for PCB to open up the Level 3 course. If you want to do it right, you need to learn it right. With all the practical knowledge, you've got to have theoretical knowledge as well.
How would you describe your coaching philosophy?
Your actual job starts when a player is down and going through a rough patch. Form, good or bad, is inevitable. You can easily lose your way with one patch of bad form and fade away like you never existed. That is cricket.
Obviously a player playing at the highest level must have the skill sets and the hard work behind him, otherwise he wouldn't have made it that far. A good coach is the one who basically picks up a player in bad form and encourages him and works with him to overcome the lean patch. It's basically working with the psyche of the player. You have to go into his mind to figure out the problem. I have been through so many phases in my career and I know what a player expects from a coach and what a coach should be doing to lift up a player.
With batters scoring more runs than ever in the shorter formats, there is always pressure on bowlers to keep evolving. How tough is that on bowlers?
In the past, longer formats were more focused and the conditions were more bowler-friendly, but with the passage of time, T20 cricket has taken over a lot of attention. There is public demand [for this kind of cricket] and over time, the changes are largely batting-friendly, and that's understandable because ICC is basically looking to attract fans.
The pitches these days are much flatter, making it tough for fast bowlers. But at the same time it just takes one good ball to get rid of a batter. The balance is important and ICC should be finding a balance between the bat and the ball, and that basically comes with pitches. More runs are a public demand but as a professional, either as a batsman or bowler, you have to keep evolving, regardless of the conditions. If you want to be a great player you have to adapt to tough conditions.
As a coach, how do you prepare a bowler to deal with power-hitting batters?
There is nothing better than a yorker. It is still the best ball a bowler can bowl in all three formats. It's really tough for a batsman to hit from that length. Although batsmen have innovated so many shots, like paddle sweep, reverse sweep, scoop, for bowlers the yorker is still the best ball. If you have a strength, you must work hard on it so you have even better command of it.
Other than that, you have to keep working on other varieties, like slower ones, knuckleballs, releasing from the back of the hand, slow bouncers - so there are varieties that can counter the batsmen but you have to have control to do that.
Length balls in T20, bowled on the stumps, are very useful, but then you have to trust yourself and back yourself. The best bowlers in the world, like Rashid Khan, Imran Tahir, [Tabraiz] Shamsi these days, or in my time [Lasith] Malinga or me, what we used to bowl was stump to stump. Line and length needs to be accurate and you need to have self-confidence.
Yorkers aren't bowled consistently, though. Why is that?
I see bowlers hitting the yorker length in training quite often but then it depends how well a bowler manages to execute on the field. The Pakistani fast bowlers definitely have the skill but they are lacking the self-confidence to bowl three to four back-to-back yorkers. They have the fear in their mind that a batsman could go for a paddle sweep or a number of other shots. If you are going in thinking about how to survive, it won't help. This sense of fear needs to be eradicated first if you want to be able to hit the right length.
What's your take on Quetta Gladiators bowler Mohammad Hasnain's bowling action, which was recently declared illegal? Was it always flawed or do you think he just tried too hard to generate extra pace on Australian pitches in the BBL?
In franchise cricket we don't have enough time to look at the technical side of a bowler's action or to mend their action. It's mostly about sharing cricket knowledge and preparing from game to game, working on the strategic side. I don't think Hasnain exceeded his elbow flex trying to hit the hard length on Australian pitches but I am not really sure what went wrong. I haven't seen his biomechanics report and videos yet and I don't know which of his deliveries was the problem but I have spoken with him and backed him to remodel his action. I have encouraged him and asked him to accept it rather than be sceptical about it. He needs to be clear that he needs to remodel his action. I hope he will come out of this soon, as he is an asset.
Another young Quetta fast bowler is Naseem Shah. What are your thoughts on his progress in his career so far?
I am surprised that he wasn't picked in the 15-man Test squad [for the Australia series] and was selected among the reserves instead. In Test cricket in Pakistan you need a bowler who can consistently bowl 140-145kph because of the slow pitches. When the ball gets old, you need pace to reverse the ball to deceive the batsman. It was shocking that he isn't there in the squad.
He has improved dramatically in the last one year. He has pace, he is young, and his fitness is better as well. And he is maturing in his bowling.
When I joined Quetta last year I spoke with him in detail. He used to bowl short a lot and I persuaded him to switch to good length instead. It will only come when he plays the longer format. He has everything in him but he needs to get more cricket under his belt.
As a coach, I speak with bowlers not just about their bowling but how to analyse the batsman you are bowling at. You must look at the batsman's weakness, where he is making mistakes, and that's an ability every bowler should have, because that breaks down the mechanics of bowling easily.
With Naseem I speak with him from time to time about how to read a batsman's mind and his bat flow, and how to adjust line and length accordingly. He is responding well. He hasn't played much white-ball cricket lately, but this PSL season he is playing consistently. One thing is for sure: the more you play, the more you get polished.
How do you compare the scope of work for a coach in the shorter and longer formats? Does T20 give a coach enough time to make a difference?
If you want to develop a player, you need plenty of time with him to change his mindset and his game. You need time pre-series, when you are not playing games and there is enough time for development.
It varies from player to player. Some are quick learners and some take time to absorb intel. It is a lengthy and gradual process where both coach and player need to understand each other, but in franchise cricket you hardly get two to three days of practice, and there are back-to-back matches. You cannot afford to tweak someone's bowling techniques [during a tournament] because it can affect his performance mid-season, and there are chances of picking up injury. You can't make a bowler learn the technical side of bowling mechanics.
It will be a mistake by a coach if he tries to work on bowlers' techniques [during T20 tournaments]. Franchise cricket is more about sharing intelligence with the help of data about players' weaknesses and strengths. You get tangible analytics, so as a coach you have to sit with the bowler and talk it out and make a bowling plan.
What if a player is out of form and you as a coach have to try to pull him out of it?
If someone is out of form, as a coach you help him regain his rhythm. You make him bat a little longer in nets to get his touch, or for a bowler you make him bowl longer spells to find confidence. Sometimes a player is overworked and all you have to do is to reduce his load and relax him for some time to regain his form and rhythm. Sometimes very small things make a difference and you just need to understand the problem. Players obviously need an answer and as the coach you have the eye and it needs to be good enough to provide the answer they are looking for.
What is your assessment of Pakistan's current fast-bowling crop?
We have a great line of fast bowlers in the country but the lack of first-class cricket is a problem. It is really important to have enough matches under your belt. It's very rare that a bowler without real experience of first-class cricket comes and immediately starts excelling at the international level.
To play the longer format helps you grow as a cricketer. It makes you learn the art of bowling. It helps your body endure and acquire greater command of your line and length. Your temperament comes with playing the longer format and it improves your skill set and also gives you a reality check about yourself as a bowler. If you can sustain playing in the longer format as a bowler, you can easily adapt to white-ball cricket with success.
Unfortunately in the last five or six years, the selection of national players has arguably been driven by their performance in T20 - either in the PSL or the National T20 Cup. There is skill in white-ball cricket but your body needs to sharpen up. In first-class cricket you have to bowl 15-20 overs a day and stay in the field for six to seven hours, so that way your body gets used to coping with the pressure and load. Also when you bowl spells in different phases of the day, that enhances your bowling skills. Shaheen [Afridi] is exceptional, but it depends how quickly you learn.
Is it really important for a white-ball specialist to play first-class cricket?
It is. Even if you only want to play white-ball cricket, you still have to engage with the longer format, especially if you are young. I spoke to Mohammad Amir when he retired from red-ball cricket. I asked him to pick and choose, even if he wanted to focus on with white-ball cricket. It's not necessary to play the entire season but a few games to keep your fitness and rhythm intact.
T20 bowling also needs rhythm, and if it's not there, you can't have a good T20 game either. It looks like just a matter of four overs but for it, you still have to practise for 12 overs a day to keep your game alive. Otherwise it's tough surviving bowling just four overs in the nets. The format appears to be easy but it sucks up a lot of your energy. I am saying it because I have played it and I know it.
These days an elite player from Pakistan plays about 150 days of cricket overall in a year, including franchise cricket, internationals and domestic games. Do you have any thoughts on how to make sure players have long careers despite this workload?
That wholly depends on the player and how he looks at his workload. If I say somebody is tired and should rest, that is unfair because it's the player himself that knows exactly about his workload. It's a coach and trainer mutually planning for a player that helps the player manage his career effectively, but the player obviously has to be honest and careful.
These days there are lots of scientific tools available - like, Australia and England players are constantly being monitored in terms of their workload and pressure. You have specialised gym training to maintain fitness, and no matter what age you are, you can still manage your game.
Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent