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'I've been the toughest I've ever been in my coaching career with Pakistan'

In part one of a two-part interview, Mickey Arthur talks about the success stories in the Test series in England, and dealing with unfit players

Mickey Arthur, Pakistan coach, at training, Kia Oval, August 9, 2016

"I am trying to create an environment that stimulates the players, lets them enjoy their cricket and have fun, but also challenges them"  •  Getty Images

Read part two of the interview here
Throughout the 70 minutes of this interview, Mickey Arthur never lost his smile. We met in the Pakistan team hotel in Manchester, where Arthur had just arrived after a strenuous training session on the eve of the T20I at Old Trafford, which Pakistan would go on to win handsomely the next day. Despite his easy disposition, Arthur was honest, blunt and realistic about Pakistan cricket, the structure, the players, their habits, the lack of discipline, and how he aims to establish a "culture of excellence".
In the little time you have spent with Pakistan, is this the most difficult job of your career?
No. It is not. It has been fantastic. It is frustrating at times because we were almost starting from a very low base in terms of structure, player plans, injury and fitness assessments etc. But the scope of the job is so good and so broad. I really do enjoy it.
We are trying to create a culture of excellence. To create that culture has been tough. It hasn't been there in Pakistan cricket for a while - whether that is cultural or a product of the environment, I am not sure. But we are getting very structure-based. Low fitness levels will not be tolerated. If we want to catch up with the rest of the world, certainly in one-day and T20 cricket, we have got to be doing those little things well. So it's been lovely, fantastic, exhilarating, but also frustrating.
You have marked your priorities already, but before we dive into them, firstly what made you take up the job?
When I lost the job with Cricket Australia, I almost felt I had unfinished business to do. I felt that my reputation with South Africa and internationally had been very good. And then you lose your coaching job, it is tough. It kept me three years out of it.
I really missed the adrenaline rush of international coaching. [But] I kept myself in the coaching loop: I coached in the Bangladesh Premier League, Caribbean Premier League and the Pakistan Super League. That pricked my enthusiasm again for the international job. So when this Pakistan job came up, because I had coached in the PSL, I thought it could be quite a good one.
What were you asked during the interview?
Nothing really. I just had a phone call and they [PCB] asked me if I would like to do it. I didn't have an interview as such. There was a little paper you had to write on and that was it.
Were you given a blank slate?
The chairman [Shaharyar Khan], executive chairman [Najam Sethi], and COO [Subhan Ahmed] had given me almost a blank piece of paper to come in and create a structure and get Pakistan cricket back to where it should be. Success needs to be measured with team success, but also down the line with structures that have been created and standards that have been put in place.
I have been really disappointed with players who have joined this tour [ODI squad] unfit. But that has just been the norm. That won't be tolerated again going forward because now everybody knows what the minimum requirement is.
"Every player who arrived on this ODI and T20 tour has been below standard in fitness, which is not a good place to be"
Barring Bob Woolmer, Pakistan players, media and fans have rarely warmed to overseas coaches. Do you reckon you started from a point of disadvantage?
I spoke a lot to Bob when I was coaching South Africa and he was in Pakistan. Bob loved every minute of coaching Pakistan. He loved the people, and I can see why. The people are fantastic. It is just that they need to be pushed and challenged all the time. Otherwise they get into comfort zones very easily. I am trying to create an environment that does that: stimulates them, lets them enjoy their cricket and have fun, but also challenges them. Those three things are so important.
Does that style suit your coaching philosophy?
Yes, it does. I intend to be pretty much a hands-on coach in that I like the challenge of creating those environments. It worked fantastically well working with Graeme [Smith, in South Africa]. It didn't work that well with Australia. For me, coming in and building a team is something that I really enjoy. I enjoy seeing young players given the opportunity and then perform and go on to have fulfilling careers.
You said this elsewhere about coaching Pakistan: "It's totally out of the comfort zone. It's cricket I've never played and never coached - what a treat!" Can you expand on those thoughts?
It is out of my comfort zone because you are coaching a completely different nation. It is not like coaching Australia or South Africa. That was particularly hard, but culturally [in Pakistan] it is very, very different. So it challenges me as a coach every day. Every night before going to bed I analyse: have I done well, have I been too hard, too soft on the players, have I stimulated them enough in training, was the practice session good, did I deliver the right message?
Generally with the nations I have coached, you get a feel straightway, because culturally it is very similar for me. But with Pakistan it is different. I am working with good skills, good talent and a population that is very demanding and very passionate about their cricket. You put all that in the melting pot, it becomes fantastic.
Sometimes I look at myself and think: have I been too hard in terms of pushing and challenging the players? But I only think about that for five minutes and then I say I am doing okay because they need to be pushed and challenged.
I have found with this team that you have to continually be driving home those standards. I have probably been the toughest I have ever been in my coaching career with Pakistan for the simple reason that it is needed. Hopefully it is taking the team in the right direction, but more importantly it is teaching good habits that go with professional sport.
When you took over the job you said you were excited about working with individual players as personal projects where you can help them evolve and improve individually. You said you are good at that. There are many in the Pakistan set-up who could benefit from this kind of personalised treatment. It is almost what Woolmer did with Younis Khan and Mohammad Yousuf.
Sohail Khan, Rahat Ali are good examples. What you need with them is, they go back with the fitness programme, they go back with an injury assessment, with a total assessment on how they are physically, mentally and technically. So we send those reports back to the NCA [academy], which then takes over the coaching and the monitoring of those players while we get another set of players for the ODIs and T20Is. When the players are not with us, they are directed by Mudassar Nazar [NCA head]. So I can pick up the phone at any time and say, "Mudassar, tell me how's Sohail Khan doing? What is his fitness level? How many overs has he bowled this week? And the front arm that we wanted to work on, what is that looking like? Is that allowing him to drive through the crease more?" In other words, we have got control and ownership of those players.
I will give you another example, Mohammad Irfan. Before he came for the ODI series, nobody could tell me where he was with his fitness levels. There was no data. It was very amateurish. And now we are trying to put those individual player plans in place so we can monitor those players all the time. Hopefully those notes are going to the coaches in domestic cricket and they are hopefully giving the same message as we do. So when you talk about player projects, that is what I am talking about. And when the players come back to us, I want the comments from the NCA on what the coaches there have worked on, this is how they are progressing. But there also needs to be some accountability with the NCA, the club coaches, the department coaches, so that the players are getting one message and they are not confused. There is a stream of communication going all the way down.
Would you say you are creating a structure that is transparent, where information is shared among everybody and both coaches and players are on the same page?
Mohammad Irfan comes out here [in England] and he is clearly not fit enough to play one-day cricket. If there were individual player plans and definite markers on where he should have been, we would have known. We didn't know.
Are you being harsh on Irfan?
Of course not. Irfan is a fantastic cricketer. I had him in my room after the Cardiff ODI. I told him, "I can't select you for the next game [because] I am not sure you can get through ten overs. I can't select you for the T20 because I am not sure you can get through even four overs. You started cramping in your fourth over the other night, so how can we take the risk and play you?" But now Mohammad Irfan has gone back to Pakistan with a training programme that is custom-made for him, which gives him the best possible opportunity to come back and play for Pakistan.
There is nothing personal, but enough is enough. We have to set some real standards to make people understand that we are pretty serious about players arriving unfit. Every player who arrived on this ODI and T20 tour has been below standard, which is not a good place to be.
"I have told the whole bowling attack they need to control the run rate. Every time we took the new ball England got off to a flier"
Has that been a big hurdle for you, then?
Well, it is because we can't train them here. We train them technically, tactically and mentally, but if we have got to do it physically as well, we've not got enough time. It is not the system's fault only. There needs to be player responsibility as well and there has been no accountability from the players. I will take Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan as examples. They are 42 and 38 respectively. They are the fittest players in Pakistan cricket. And there is no coincidence that that's why they are the best performers over the last year. They drive themselves. They take responsibility for their fitness. Shoaib Malik, in the one-day squad, in his mid-30s, fantastic, fitness-wise. He is lean, he is mean. I want the young guys to do that. That is true professionalism. I don't think that has been driven in the youngsters properly.
We have got a responsibility to the people of Pakistan and I have got the massive responsibility to the PCB to get it right. And I certainly won't be compromising on any of that. And the players know that: I have spoken to them directly. You arrive like that again [unfit], you won't play.
Moving towards the positives, do you agree the Pakistan Test side is a settled unit with players knowing their role and performing accordingly?
I do agree. There has been a little movement in that Sami Aslam has come in and done really well. Asad Shafiq batted at No. 4 (at The Oval), really took his chance and scored a hundred. There will be another batting position that becomes vacant at some stage. How we fill that I am not sure. That will probably be No. 6.
Whose position?
Asad Shafiq was moved to No. 3 [No. 4, because Yasir Shah came in as nightwatchman at 3] because [Mohammad] Hafeez was dropped. So that position has become available. There are people who want that position and somebody who fits the bill in terms of physical, mental, tactical and technical will get that role. But going back, that Test team is a very good cricket team. I was so excited when I saw the Test team train and play. We had everything: we had the pace of [Mohammad] Amir and Wahab [Riaz], Sohail Khan did something different, Rahat Ali got some bounce, and we had Yasir Shah, who was brilliant.
Do you agree that it is mainly down to Misbah that the Test team is in a healthy state and form?
A lot of it is down to Misbah. He took over in 2010 and what he has done for Pakistan cricket has been immense. I have had the pleasure of working with some very good captains in Graeme and Michael Clarke and Misbah is right up there. He is respected. When he talks, people listen. He is a general. He is a man of very few words.
Misbah has his own style of leading and playing. Could you adapt to that?
We have worked really well because I have taken a lot of the off-field stuff off Misbah. I have driven the culture, I have driven the communication with players, I have taken the lead in working out the selections with Inzy [Inzamam-ul-Haq, chairman of selectors]. That has allowed him to go out and concentrate on the team and on his batting. I had a honest one-on-one chat with Misbah before the England tour and we clarified our roles, we spoke about where the team is, and we have worked as one. I still think we can get better. I still think we can challenge ourselves a bit more.
Which are the areas you want the Test team to improve on?
I just want to see them get better and better and not be happy with where they are at the moment, because I believe we can get a lot more out of them. I know we will face challenges when Misbah and Younis eventually go. And that is why it is so important to get some game time into young batsmen who can then step up into those roles.
You have admired Misbah's strength of mind as well as that of Younis. They like setting an example as leaders, right?
When we arrived in England it was Ramadan and we were training. Misbah, Younis and a lot of others observed Ramadan to a T in terms of their eating habits etc. At the outset I said to Misbah: it is going to be quite tough. This is our preparation time and we are going to be putting in a lot of work. He said, "Coach, don't worry about us. We can work as hard as you like and we have to." He worked extremely hard. It was an inspiration to see him go about his work ethic.
Misbah and Younis have played a massive role in motivating younger players. They are very meticulous in their preparations. They are fit, they do their gym work, rehabilitation, recovery, they hit enough balls, they know their games at all times, their routines are so structured and they get their rewards for doing that. Younis went through a rocky road in the first three Tests [in England], but he still backed what he was doing. He still knew that was the right way to go about his preparation. Every day he would do the same whether he got a nought or a fifty. He just had that strength of mind.
"He is everything that Pakistan cricket needs. He is talented, fit, very intelligent. He will be the heart of any team because of his work ethic and everything he puts into his game"
On Shan Masood
Were you worried when Younis failed in the first three Tests?
I wasn't, to be honest. I had not seen a hint of panic in his eyes, or desperation. He listened to the advice we gave. He took it on board. And yet he knew there was a big score round the corner, because he was just ticking every box. Myself and Grant [Flower, batting coach] just wanted him to stay still at the crease. We thought he was moving too much, and when he was moving, his weight was going across the crease and not forward, not at the ball. So it was impossible to hit the ball straight. In the last Test he did that. And the strength of mind that he had in him, he just continued backing himself, still being a brilliant team man, still being brilliant around the changing room.
Can you talk about Mohammad Hafeez who struggled and was eventually dropped?
Hafeez is a very good cricketer. And all cricketers go through this little period where they don't make as many runs as they would like. He had one or two starts which he did not capitalise on. Opening the batting in international cricket is tough. You are facing [James] Anderson and [Stuart] Broad and they are quality bowlers.
I also feel so sorry for Shan Masood. He is everything that Pakistan cricket needs. He is talented. He is fit. He is very intelligent. He will be the heart of any team because of his work ethic and everything he puts into his game. I felt so sorry for Shan because he kept getting out to Anderson. And Anderson has done that to plenty of batsmen around the world. If you compare the two, Shan would just go and work and work, whereas Younis knew what his routines were and he used his experience. I hope Shan learns from this experience. He will be back at some stage. If you want to build a team culture, Shan Masood is a guy you are building it around because of what he brings to the table.
Was it your decision to drop Hafeez and push up Asad Shafiq at The Oval?
Yes. Technically, Asad Shafiq is our best batsman. When he gets forward he is sideways on. Look at him: short, balanced, punches well off the front foot, cuts exceptionally well. At times I could almost visualise Sachin Tendulkar. That is high praise, and I have told him that.
So you are going to continue bat him at No. 3?
Technically your best player should be batting at No. 3. I was really impressed with Asad, who really wanted the opportunity to bat up the order. He batted up the order at The Oval after getting a pair in Birmingham. And then got a hundred, and that says so much for his temperament and skill.
Sami Aslam is another player who seemed impressive straightaway.
Again, he worked so hard at his game, his fitness, his fielding. It is all interrelated. He was not slow on his feet anymore, he was making good positions with his bat, and he came and took his chance and batted beautifully. With him coming into Hafeez's position and batting really well with Azhar Ali, then with Asad Shafiq alongside Misbah and Younis, there is more competition for places now. And that has to be good. And that is when we can challenge more as a support staff because players must meet standards. It makes fielding so important because if it is a fifty-fifty call, we look at who is a better fielder. Steve Rixon [fielding coach] drives the fielding standards every day. Fielding might be your ticket into the team because we are still very poor in that department.
One success story - and Misbah credits this man for being a catalyst for levelling the series - is Sohail. How do you look at him?
Sohail Khan came in and did exceptionally. He gives so much effort. But he realises that his fitness levels need to improve. I have had this conversation with him, but he thinks he is fit enough. I had Sohail in my BPL side and he impressed me so much because he was always batting and bowling in the nets. He has got skill. He swings the ball, bowls at a decent pace, he can bat a little bit. He had five wickets at Edgbaston. He had five wickets at The Oval. But he needs to improve his fitness.
Let us talk about Mohammad Amir. Despite being off the circuit, Amir has come back after six years and bowled like he never left. Was it a challenge for you to make sure his and the team's focus was not diverted going into the Lord's Test?
I can't speak more highly about Mohammad Amir as a cricketer, as an individual. He is an awesome bowler and such a nice fella. And the way he handled himself through the series was impeccable. He always was going to get the stick. He wanted to win the English public over by his actions, by the way he performed, by the way he continually ran in for Pakistan. And he did all that. He told me he was incredibly nervous going into that first Test. I felt it. But once he got that out of the way, he was just getting better and better. He did not get just rewards on the England tour because there were a lot of dropped catches off his bowling.
There seemed to be a moment in the Test series where you threw your cap down.
There was a moment of frustration where I threw my cap down where Amir had a catch dropped off his bowling, because he deserves better. There were about six catches dropped off his bowling. Amir ended up taking 12 wickets in the series at 42. If those six catches were taken he would have ended up with an average in the early 20s. Then you would have said he has had an unbelievable series.
What has been your advice to the bowling attack?
I have told the whole bowling attack they need to control the run rate. Every time we took the new ball, England got off to a flier. We would bowl three good balls, cut for a four. We have got to be able to eliminate those bad balls. There is going to be times where there will be streaky fours, but I am talking about the rank bad balls.
"I have had the pleasure of working with some very good captains in Graeme and Michael Clarke, and Misbah-ul-Haq is right up there. He is respected. When he talks, people listen"
I have told my bowling unit that if you get your line right you cut the field in half. If you get your length right you cut that half of the field in half as well. Then you can defend quarter of the field, but if you are getting your lines, and lengths wrong you can't defend. People can score all round the wicket. So I would like us to be able to bowl our stock ball a lot better because we need to control the run rate a lot better than we did with the new ball. And that gets masked in the UAE because if the run rate gets out of hand then the spinners come in and then you start controlling the run rate. I want us to be able to be control the run rate with the new ball, particularly in the Test series in New Zealand and Australia coming up.
Honestly, did you think it would be 2-2 going into the Test series? Misbah said Pakistan should have never lost at Edgbaston in the third Test.
Both sides would be sitting and saying they had opportunities to win the series. It was an unbelievable Test series, so 2-2 was probably the right result. Those are the expectations we must always set. We are never going to lie down. We are going to be at you all the time, even away from home conditions. The best teams in the world have to be able to win away from home. So for us to have a 2-2 series draw almost validates the No. 1 position. Away from home is hard to win now: even Australia, England, South Africa find it hard to win overseas. I took the last Australian team to India and we lost 4-0.
Do you feel being with Pakistan is like being with South Africa, where you had the trust of Smith along with other senior players?
I feel very comfortable with the Pakistan team. I feel very comfortable with the captain. They have allowed me to create the structure that I wanted to create. And I am very thankful for that because they could have made things difficult. They know that Pakistan cricket has so much scope to improve. The job of a head coach gives you the respect early on, but over a period of time you've got to earn the trust. And I think I have earned the trust. Younis acknowledged me and the support staff when he scored the double-century. That was a real nice gesture.
What's the succession planning for when Younis and Misbah leave?
It is hopefully too premature to think about that at the moment. They will be around for a while. I hope they don't go out together as that would create a hole at No. 4 and 5. But Younis has just got a double and Misbah has played exceptionally well. So I think there is still time.
End of the year Pakistan will be in Australia. Will you be happy to lead Pakistan to victory in a country of which you recently became a citizen, but which sacked you as cricket coach?
I am a citizen of that country and very happy living there. It would be a proud moment to go there as the No. 1 team. I am certainly not going there gloating. I am just looking forward to playing in Australia, where the cricket culture is second to none.
How do you now maintain the No. 1 Test ranking?
I said to Misbah the other day: how do we do it? He said, "We just have to win every Test we play." India are playing 13 Tests at home and barring three Tests against West Indies in the UAE, we are playing three Test series overseas - in New Zealand, Australia and the West Indies.
Read part two of the interview here

Nagraj Gollapudi is a senior assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo