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Couch Talk

'Reverse swing used to be our secret, but now it's in the open'

Former Pakistan fast bowler and current UAE coach Aaqib Javed talks about coaching fast bowlers, match-fixing in the '90s, and his "lucky" hat-trick in Sharjah

Subash Jayaraman (SJ): What do you teach a young fast bowler under your guidance?
Aaqib Javed (AJ): It depends. When you see a young fast bowler, you want to watch their technique, because it is important to have an injury-free action. It is better to have the assessment when they are 15 or 16, because from the age of 16 to 19 is a crucial time, as the bone growth doesn't end at that stage and you have got a lot of injuries, especially stress fractures in the back. So it is good to have a complete action assessment before they are 16. As you develop their technique, you assess them as bowlers - what they deliver, the speed, swing and control. That process is never-ending.
SJ: Let's say you have a set of fast bowlers who have come through the assessment process and have clean bowling actions. On a day-to-day basis, what do you work on?
AJ: Nowadays, we do weekly skill-testing, which is about assessing their progress. There are several criteria - bowling with the new ball, hitting the off stump, using tools such as cones, aiming for the top of middle and off, using a one-foot round target, which the bowler has to hit six times - first with new ball and then the old ball. Practise bowling to right-handers and left-handers [with the target], then bowling the yorker length - assess them on bowling at the blockhole and the other at the [side] white line, and practising bouncers, where we use a stick with a one-square-foot target, normal bouncers, slower bouncers. You gather such data on the bowlers and you come to know which bowler is lacking in what - new ball or old ball, bowling yorkers or bouncers, slower balls. This is the actual process of assessing them.
SJ: How long does it take for someone to mature into a complete fast bowler?
AJ: I don't prefer holding fast bowlers back. [By observing them] during practice sessions, during target games, where we give them game scenarios, and if somebody is pretty accurate with the new ball, is able to bowl yorkers, and has some variations, he is ready to go, because you don't want to waste time. If somebody is ready at 18 years, you let them play because the fast bowler's span is pretty short compared to spinners. I prefer spinners to spend more time in domestic cricket before you put them at the top level.
SJ: When do coaches generally remodel a bowler's action? What are the pros and cons? For example, some coaches advised James Anderson to remodel his action, but that made him a lesser bowler. He then went back to what was natural for him and has come back to be a great bowler. Where do you draw the line?
AJ: You've got to be very careful. I would only suggest changing somebody's bowling action if he is injured, or if before injury you have indications that he's got lateral flexion of the back, hyper-extension of the back, his alignment is not right. I want all bowlers to have good alignment - the last three paces [before delivery] in one line, the landing foot, delivery stride and follow through, because all the pace must be conveyed towards the target. The most important thing is, with all these injuries, the front-leg position at the delivery stride should be braced. Braced means more height, more power. You can't teach this to everyone. But until there is any indication of injury I don't suggest they change their action. There should be a solid reason, which most importantly is injury prevention.
SJ: Nowadays teams have large support staff. Is there over-coaching of the bowlers rather than focusing on the basics?
AJ: When you said more support staff covering their respective areas, I think it is really good, because if you have one [common] coach for all aspects of the game, like batting, bowling, fielding, then you might make mistakes. But if you have separate coaches, a specialised bowling coach, then you can't miss it, because your responsibility is to look after your four or five bowlers.
I think if you have specialised coaches, they will have the right plans because they have more time to focus on four or five guys. I'll go for more coaches than lesser support staff. To begin with, cricket is still way behind when compared with baseball, basketball, tennis and even football, because of their protocols and their professionalism on and off the field. We need more professionalism in cricket.
Over-coaching in fast bowling can involve changing one's action unnecessarily, because there is no "role model" in fast bowling. The West Indian fast bowlers used to have front-on actions. Andrew Flintoff had a front-on action. There are many bowlers with side-on bowling actions, like Waqar Younis, Dennis Lillee, Wasim Akram. It should be suitable to you. You can't change a side-on bowler to a front-on bowler and vice-versa. You need to respect their natural actions. I still believe there is no perfect model.
SJ: How different would your career have been if it hadn't run parallel with Wasim's and Waqar's? In addition, you had Saqlain Mushtaq and Mushtaq Ahmed as well. How did you fit into the team plans?
AJ: It's about your role. I always had a clear mind about my role in the team. Especially in one-dayers, we had a very solid bowling unit. Wasim and myself used to take the new ball and then we'd bring Waqar in with the old ball with his reverse swing.
Look, it's difficult, because when you have people like Wasim and Waqar bowling from the other end, there is a little bit of pressure, and if you don't give the opportunity to the bowler to dismiss the tailenders (laughs) you hardly take five wickets in a match. I would say that if my career hadn't run parallel to Wasim's and Waqar's, I might have fared better. I hardly bowled to tailenders. It's really hard bowling against the wind all the time, especially in England and New Zealand. Yes, I think if you play as the No. 1 bowler or No. 2 bowler, you definitely have greater chances to perform better.
SJ: Every Pakistani fast bowler in the last 30-odd years seems to know about reverse swing.
AJ: We have a culture where they see other bowlers bowling reverse swing and that comes from the national team down to club cricket, to schools, because everyone wants to know what it is. Same thing applies to the doosra. When Saqlain started it, nobody else knew about it. Now you'll find many youngsters even bowling doosras, which I think is not a great choice at the moment because you're bending your elbow, but reverse swing is not a secret anymore. It used to be our secret but now it is in the open because I have seen Anderson and others bowling it perfectly.
SJ: When did you first come across reverse swing and who did you learn it from?
AJ: Frankly, it did not start from the national team. Before that, it was known even in club cricket, because reverse swing is so common in Pakistan. You don't have to wait for some elite bowler or coach to tell you, because it is in your culture. I'm surprised that in India, with a similar sort of environment, I found that many Indian fast bowlers had no clue about reverse swing. If you are playing on dead, slow pitches, you've got to produce something in the air, and reverse swing is ideal because you can create angles, swing, and dismiss any sort of batsman.
"Cricket is still way behind when compared with baseball, basketball, tennis and even football because of their protocols and their professionalism on and off the field"
SJ: There are legal and illegal means of altering the condition of the ball to aid reverse swing. What about your experience? Have you tried them both?
AJ: I think, yeah. There are two ways of bowling reverse swing. One is using a tool to damage the ball. The other is if you know how to make a ball reverse - if you have a new ball and usually when bowling bouncers or short-pitched balls or sometimes even the length ball, we used to hold it across the seam. When you repeatedly hit the surface with the cross-seam ball, you create marks on one side. When you hold the ball on the seam and the seam is hitting [the surface] all the time, it is not going to have an effect on both sides of the shine. Generally it is a difficult process because it requires a lot of practice, and sometimes you've got to wait for 25 or 30 overs, but I think this is the right way. It is within the limits.
SJ: We have heard from Imran Khan and others about using bottle caps, spikes in your boots, or even sawdust. Have you ever tried any of these methods?
AJ: I have never encouraged my bowlers to use any tools, because there are ways of doing it: use the surface of the pitch. Sometimes when you are young and you want to achieve something quick… we have used different things.
SJ: This is a question from a listener, Ahmer Naqvi from Islamabad. The batsmen are getting more of a free hand, while anything the bowlers come up with is put under the microscope. Will the balance be restored by newer skills, or newer laws in cricket?
AJ: I already mentioned that cricket is still a sport not comparable to other elite sports like football, rugby, American football, baseball. Without technology you can't improve. Talking about illegal bowling, it's still really difficult for any biomechanics lab to produce something which is used during the game. Every analysis is made in the lab, in indoor centres. You can't compare bowling in the lab with that in the match. We need technology that is accessible and useful for bowlers during the match.
Regarding new rules that favour the batsmen, after all, batting is the attraction of cricket. People want sixes. There are a few exciting bowlers but I think the real excitement is sixes, fours - that is the ultimate. Nowadays there are crackdowns on several bowlers but I think in future I can see the ICC conceding more than 15 degrees [level of tolerance], because 15 degrees is really the minimum. I think if they give another five to seven degrees, you will have quite a few skilful bowlers playing at the international level.
SJ: Ramiz Raja recently wrote about match-fixing and the kind of things that went on within the Pakistan team of the 1990s. This article was also in relation to the attempt to bring Mohammad Amir back in to the game. What are your thoughts on it?
AJ: Look, I was the one person who went against the players' report and tried to produce evidence against some of my friends and colleagues. I am really against corruption. It is not good for the game, and I would endorse Ramiz Raja's statement because you have to set examples. The best way to set an example is: once you have made a decision, back it up. I won't welcome Amir to play the game at the international level.
SJ: What about the mid-1990s team? Raja mentioned players within the team desperately trying to lose matches. Were you aware [at that time] of what was going on?
AJ: Yes, there were some moments. I also mentioned that at one point I went against three to four guys in court. There was something fishy going on at that time. Nowadays, I would say there are tighter restrictions. Even till a few years ago, it [fixing] existed. It is really bad for the game and I am totally against it. I never wanted anybody to get away with it. If Amir has done it, he has to face the music because the ICC and the cricket boards should be able to set high standards - which is zero tolerance of any wrongdoing.
SJ: The 2015 World Cup has two groups of seven teams each but for the next World Cup in 2019, the ICC has decided to restrict it to ten teams. As head coach of a team outside the top ten, what are your thoughts on this decision?
AJ: The ICC has to decide which way they are going. I'm still confused: do they want to grow cricket, or do they want cricket to remain within eight countries? I think cricket has scope and it is spreading.
They can play around with the format. You can still have 14-16 teams in the World Cup, like they did in the last World T20, where they started with a qualifying round and gave opportunities to teams outside the top ten to beat the lower-ranked international teams. The lower-ranked [Full Member] teams should feel some pressure.
If I were to ask the ICC or those who support the idea of having fewer teams at the World Cup: what have Bangladesh and Zimbabwe improved on in the last 15-20 years? Nothing really. And they won't, until you put them in a situation where they have to grow and feel, "If we don't grow, then teams like Ireland, UAE or Afghanistan will beat us and move forward." Also, what is the logic of having ten teams then? What is the logic of having Bangladesh and Zimbabwe all the time in the World Cup? Why not other teams who are growing and doing well?
SJ: What do you think of UAE's prospects in the 2015 World Cup?
AJ: You have to be careful when you go to a World Cup, especially the 50-over format. You have to plan things that are workable and set targets that are achievable. We have detailed thoughts on these and we will come out with a plan, like "Let's go to the World Cup and win two games." We are focused only on two wins at the 2015 World Cup.
SJ: You might think this question is a bit cheeky. I was a 14-year-old kid watching the India v Pakistan game in Sharjah in 1991 where you took 7 for 37, including a hat-trick. How many of those three lbws would still stand if there was DRS?
AJ: (Laughs) Must be missing a few! I think I was lucky to get away with three lbws, because it is really hard for an umpire to give three consecutive lbws. I would say that the umpire was quite brave. Nowadays, you can't even think of having three lbws in three balls.
SJ: Did you think all three were plumb?
AJ: Well, not plumb, but close enough. But that moment is gone, finished.