print icon

'Batsmen win you games, bowlers win you tournaments'

Bowling coach Azhar Mahmood talks about the transformation of Pakistan's pace attack, a key factor in their road to the Champions Trophy final

Nagraj Gollapudi
A year ago it was felt that Pakistan did not have enough bowlers for one-day cricket - bowlers who had the variations and the knowledge to bowl in different phases with a white ball. But the emergence of Hasan Ali and Rumman Raees, along with the return to form of Junaid Khan, has made the Pakistan bowling attack an effective unit. All three have played crucial roles in Pakistan reaching the Champions Trophy final.
Behind the success of the Pakistan pace unit is their bowling coach Azhar Mahmood. During his career, Mahmood bowled medium-fast with the mindset of a fast bowler. Towards the end of his career he used his brains to offset his lack of pace. He tells ESPNcricinfo why he feels Pakistan's young fast-bowling unit is one of the best.
You said the current fast bowling unit is the best you have worked with. Why?
Because they have got skill, they have got the ability to take wickets, they want to learn, and they are very disciplined. Each of our fast bowlers has a different skill, but to go on the field and execute the plans, guys like Hasan Ali and Mohammad Amir have done that. I find that remarkable.
You said this transformation has not happened overnight, it has taken six months. What has been the focus for you in this period?
The thing I have tried to change is the mindset during the match situations. Do they have the courage to go and do the same thing in tough situations during a match? I am trying to teach them this kind of mindset.
I have been working with the Pakistan team since Pakistan's last tour of England [in 2016] and I have been impressed with their consistency. My job is to teach them to take the responsibility, making the decision at the right time. I have not got enough time to work properly on their techniques. It has been more about the tactics and making minor adjustments in their bowling action like checking their wrist position, the head position, the front arm, the front shoulder.
You and the bowlers have come a long way from the blow inflicted on Pakistan by Alex Hales last year.
I must give credit to all the bowlers. I gave them the plan even that day. It was just a bad day. At times you have to give credit to the batsman to come out and play a phenomenal innings like the one played by Hales. He played out of his skin.
What I have been working hard with the bowlers is on their thought process. Everyone has the skill. Everyone practices day-in, day-out. It is very important to understand when to use a delivery. If they have the courage, if they are brave enough to bowl that delivery in a crunch situation, that is what matters.
On Pakistan's last tour of Australia, a very dear friend who follows our cricket closely said: "Before I die, please make your bowlers pitch two yorkers in one over." Check the matches we played against Sri Lanka and South Africa in the Champions Trophy, and check the number of yorkers we bowled in the death overs.
Check the slow bouncers our boys pitched in the semi-final against England. The boys are executing the plan. Ben Stokes, one of the best strikers in the world, he faced the last 11 overs and during that phase we went for just one boundary. He just couldn't get a boundary in [64] deliveries? That solitary four also came off an edge of Liam Plunkett's bat. I am really proud of my bowling unit. I am very pleased with the work we are doing, to see the improvement and growth in the bowlers.
You have played in England a lot. What is the key to succeed on such pitches that you have noticed in this tournament?
The ball has not been swinging. Not from Amir. Not from [Trent] Boult. Tim Southee swung a little against Bangladesh. I feel that has to do with the weather. When it is cold, the white ball does not swing. The fingers also become stiff when it is cold conditions. That is what I feel speaking about the absence of swing.
But we have not let that impact our plans. We have bowlers like Amir, who has both swing and seam, and we were looking to get wickets in the first ten overs. If we can't get wickets, then we have to drag the length back. If you allow a batsman width, they will murder you. If you tuck them in, if you don't give the any room or any margin of error you have a chance to take the wicket. That has been my suggestion: don't let them open their arms.
"Amir has got everything: skill, pace, mind [...] I think he is bowling at 70% potential. That is my feeling. He needs to put his foot on the throttle and just go"
But Pakistan have been the only team to get some reverse-swing.
Conditions - we used them properly. Against South Africa, at Edgbaston, we played on a old pitch which was being used for a third match. We were originally meant to play on a new pitch, but since it had rained heavily, they played on the used pitch. So those conditions suited us as the square was rough. In Cardiff, too, the practice pitches had no grass, so the ball got scuffed up easily.
It was similar conditions to the subcontinent. We did not get massive reverse-swing, but it was enough for the bowlers to utilise to their benefit. I heard England speak about the pitch conditions after the defeat, but we made better plans and executed them. We outplayed England, simple as that.
What is the right length and line to bowl, then, on these pitches?
It depends on the pitch, the bounce. Usually you need to pitch on a good-length spot, about six to eight metres from the wicket. But sometimes the good-length spot can also be five to six metres, but that totally depends on the bounce again. At The Oval, normally you get extra bounce so the good-length spot should be about six metres. But the pitch in the India-Sri Lanka match was true, where you could easily hit even a length delivery on the up. But if the pitch holds up then you go for stuff like cross-seamers.
We learned our lessons from our experience from last year's tour. We figured the side boundaries here are usually longer compared to the shorter straight ones. The key thing for the bowler is to ask the batsman to hit to the longer boundary. If someone can clear a 75-80 yards boundary, then you just say "good shot".
Pakistan have been successful in the middle overs [11-40]. What have you and coach Mickey Arthur done specifically that has helped the fast bowlers be so successful considering before this tournament you would struggle during this phase?
Our economy rate has been brilliant, considering we have bowled our last three opponents out below 250. One important factor has been we have got the right combinations. Hasan Ali, a wicket-taker, a match-changer, has been successful in this middle segment.
In our first match, against India, we played Wahab Riaz. He struggled with the new ball. He is a better bowler with the old ball than the new ball. Hasan, too, is a better bowler when the ball is slightly older. That is why we used Imad Wasim to open the bowling. That was our game-plan so we could bowl well in the middle period. But when one of your strike bowlers does not perform in the middle overs, the pressure comes on the inexperienced ones and that is what happened against India.
If you see we were fine against India till the 40 over. The plan was working till then. It was only in the last eight overs that we lost the plot and India made 106 runs. It was in those eight overs we did not execute the plans. When you are under pressure your mind gets clouded and that is what happened.
But we have been good since then. Hasan comes after around 15 overs and then he bowls his quota before the 45th over. He is key for us. We also have Shadab [Khan] as an attacking option who could get us a couple of wickets. The only way you can control soaring run rate is by taking wickets. India and Pakistan have taken more wickets than the rest in this tournament and hence they are in the final. My theory is: batsmen win you games, bowlers win you tournaments.
It is incredible still to see Pakistan turn games around during modern times when a team like England have a reputation for scoring big.
In modern-day cricket, teams' approach is to treat the first 40 overs of an ODI as a Powerplay. If you have a David Warner batting on 80 and Glenn Maxwell going strong on 90, and you have only four fielders in the outfield, it is hard to stop them. That is why if you keep taking wickets, you put pressure on the opposition as the new batsman has to build his innings.
Amir has not taken big hauls of wickets since his return to international cricket, but what exactly does he bring to the group that is vital?
Amir has got everything: skill, pace, mind. I just feel sometimes that Amir holds himself back. He does not go all the way. The way he has been bowling so far, I feel he has more potential to do much better than what he is doing. I think he is bowling at 70% potential. That is my feeling. He needs to put his foot on the throttle and just go.
"We have to believe we can beat India, because the overall record between the countries stands 72-52 in Pakistan's favour"
Have you told him so?
I have not yet shared that thought with him. But what I am saying is in a positive manner. Maybe I am wrong, but that is my feeling. I will give you another example: Yasir Shah. Recently, after the West Indies tour where he got 25 wickets, I checked with Yasir: "Are you satisfied with your bowling?" Because he trusts me, he said no. He confessed his length was [on the] shorter side although he got wickets. I told him that was my point: if you did not bowl well and still got 25 wickets, imagine what you could have ended with if you had bowled well. It is very important that I have the trust of my bowlers. They need to trust me and understand where I am coming from.
What about Junaid Khan?
Junaid is always under pressure as he keeps making comebacks. It is not easy when you are coming back and you are expected to perform. But he bowled really well with the new ball against South Africa. Him sharing the new ball with Amir allows our main bowlers, Hasan, Shadab or Faheem [Ashraf], to operate in the middle overs. We did not have that luxury against India, someone who could control the game up front.
He has become a key factor. It shows his character, not playing the first game, then putting in good performances. I have been working with him on his bowling action. His head position and the bowling shoulder were going in opposite directions. He was losing direction. I have been trying to get his head and bowling arm as close as possible, just like Amir.
There is one area where you have brought about a significant change - arresting the no-balls. We hear you have this special device which you use to check no-balls in nets now. Tell us a bit more about it.
We were having issues with the no-ball during last year's Australia tour. I thought we had to do something about it. This device basically tells the bowler to stay behind the line. It is basically two line sensors on both sides of the bowling crease. Three is a monitor that beeps based on where the foot lands. It will beep if it is a no-ball. That way even if am not around I know who has crossed the line.
Sunday would be the biggest game of their lives for all your fast bowlers. What gives you the belief they can handle the pressure in the final?
Where we started and where we are now, that gives us the biggest belief. Before the tournament started, we said we will go to London - not to take a flight, but to play in the final. We said the same after losing to India. We have got nothing to lose. We need to play our best cricket on June 18 to beat India. Our record might not be good in ICC tournaments, but we have to change that. We have to believe we can beat India, because the overall record between the countries stands 72-52 in Pakistan's favour. It is all about being mentally tough.

Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo