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Shaun Tait: 'As coach, if you use your ears more than your mouth, that serves you well'

The fast-bowling coach, who worked with Pakistan over the last year, talks about Shaheen Afridi, Naseem Shah, Hasan Ali, Mohammad Hasnain, and what went wrong in the England series

Pakistan's fast-bowling coach Shaun Tait talks to the media, Karachi, September 18, 2022

Shaun Tait: "I've learned more about the modern-day cricketer by listening to them. I'm big on feel, mindset and relationships"  •  Rizwan Tabassum/AFP/Getty Images

Shaun Tait was named Pakistan's fast-bowling coach in February 2022 for a year*. As one of the fastest bowlers of his generation, his appointment appeared to make sense, particularly to the cricketing nation with the most reverential relationship with its fast-bowling history.
The Pakistan backroom staff at the time felt transitional by its very nature; Saqlain Mushtaq had just had his interim stint extended by another 12 months. Pakistan had several highly promising fast bowlers, all frighteningly quick, most extremely young. Tait was with the team in a frenetic, tumultuous year that had its fair share of joy and frustration.
During one of those low points, the evening before England put the finishing touches on a 3-0 Test whitewash, we spoke to Tait about his time in Pakistan. He spoke, individually, about Hasan Ali's streakiness, Mohammad Hasnain's pace, and Naseem Shah's leadership qualities.
How has your stint with Pakistan been?
I've enjoyed it. It was so exciting. Asia Cup, World Cup, the lead-in to that, I loved that period. Our bowlers were up and ready and they were bowling fast. We had a couple of huge games against India with big crowds and our guys bowling good pace. To me, that's it. That's what I liked as a player - entertainment. As a coach, I like to see the bowlers do that - entertain, run in to bowl fast, take wickets. So that was enjoyable.
Is your role tactical or more focused on man management?
I just read an article about Allan Donald [working] with the Bangladesh fast bowlers. He said that he coaches mindset. I'm not gonna put myself in his category, but that's a similar approach, I guess, to what I have. Big on relationships with the guys, but also giving them their space. Not hugely technical unless I really see something that is worth talking about. And then I'll have a conversation with the player if the technical side of things needs to go further. But I'm certainly not going to try and change people. I'm not a by-the book-coach.
A lot of it goes on feel, learning about the player. I think if you use your ears more than your mouth as a coach and listen to the players, that serves you well. I've learned more about the modern-day cricketer by listening to them. The technical stuff is there, but I'm not an overly technical coach. I'm not huge on the analytics, but it's there and you've got to use some of it. But I'm big on feel, mindset and relationships.
Why did the England series go so horribly wrong?
It was certainly eye-opening for a lot of people. We knew the way England were going to approach it. We've seen the way they've been playing in recent times. They obviously stepped it up a little bit.
It started from the first Test. They got the rub of the green. England winning the toss on a wicket where they could certainly play their shots helped. We ended up with a couple of injuries. The first Test was a perfect storm for England. The momentum just continued from there. It's been a tough series, but I think there's been moments when Pakistan have certainly stepped up and had a crack. There's been times when we've moved the game forward, more so than maybe in the past. It just goes a little bit unnoticed.
Do you have any input on the kind of wickets Pakistan produce in Test cricket?
I don't have any input whatsoever. I would like to see different pitches, and I'm not the only one, but I'm not saying I should have any say in that. We didn't have the attack that people thought we may have gone in with. We lost Haris [Rauf]. We lost Naseem [Shah]. Shaheen [Shah Afridi] was out injured. The team looks a little bit different to what it did maybe nine months ago.
But I'd like to see pitches different because I'm a bowling coach, I'm a fast bowler. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to realise that it would be nice if things were different.
Pakistan produced great fast-bowling wickets against South Africa before you came in, so have the fast bowlers given you any input into what's changed?
Talking to you right now, I'm probably learning more about them. I don't know enough about cricket wickets to know if they can make these pitches fast-bowling friendly. I don't talk to the curators about whether they can make a wicket better for fast bowlers. I don't think it would matter if I did, to be honest. If I, as a fast-bowling coach, walk up to the curator and say, "Can you please make this wicket fast bowling friendly?" I don't think he's going to do that.
Most of the fast bowlers seem to have bought into what you're trying to do with this unit. How have you built that rapport with them?
Maybe they can relate to me a little bit because I played and I bowled with pace myself. Certainly not as good as these guys. I played three Test matches, 35 ODIs, but I think they can relate to the fact that I bowled with pace and I liked to entertain. They can warm to that and I can relate to them. That helps. I sort of know what they're going through - not all the time but a lot of the time. I haven't tried to force them to do things that they don't want to do just because I believe in it. Except, I've held them fairly accountable to death bowling, which has been ongoing, and I knew it was going to take quite a while for it to happen.
By the time the World Cup came, I looked at them and I'm happy we did that death-bowling preparation. It started months and months ago, the discussions around death bowling and being disciplined in the basics of death bowling. Ruthless in the basics and adding some of their strengths in with that. I think we did a good job of that in the World Cup. Being brave at the death is not always going to work out, but when it does, it's such a great feeling for a fast bowler. You've pulled off the last four overs of the game. That specifically has been something that I think I've added to their mindset.
"There's no way - no way - an express fast bowler can now play all three forms consistently"
Is it different coaching high pace vs regular pace? Are express pace bowlers more vulnerable?
Yeah, I think so. I step back from the medical and fitness side a little bit and let those experts work with the fast bowlers. I'm just in the conversation, helping out. So from that point of view, it's been interesting.
We've had back-to-back stuff. Even if it's T20, it's still high intensity and we've got guys on the sidelines. Your Shaheens, your Naseems, your Haris Raufs. They were on the sidelines for much of our season, so I suppose that is a good example of the toll it's taken.
Can extreme fast bowlers bowl in Tests?
It didn't work for me! If you talked to Brett Lee, it might be a different story. It doesn't happen very often, but I have to say this: There's no way - no way - an express fast bowler can now play all three forms consistently. That's for sure.
Afridi's injury during the Sri Lanka Test series was mismanaged. He went on to break down in the World Cup final. Is there a recognition that lessons need to be learned from what happened there?
I don't know. Like I said, I step back from that [medical] side. If you look at the FTP [Future Tours Programme] going forward, it's stacked. That's what I mean when I say there's no way an express bowler can play all forms. But it's certainly opened our eyes up to how polished our management of Shaheen's going to be.
What do you think of the level of sports science around Pakistan's fast-bowling unit? Is it where it needs to be? How far does it need to go?
I hate the sports-science subject. I'm not a big analytical coach and I'm not a huge sports-science guy. It's not that I don't believe in it. I just don't know how much you can constantly throw into sports science and expect that these stallions are going to keep going. Every individual is different and that has to be taken into account. For me as a bowling coach, it's taken time to work out every individual and what they need differently. I've got a good grasp of that myself now. My relationship with individuals is quite good, I suppose. I would say sports science is getting better, but that's not my subject.
Is there space for you to be more assertive in how much the fast bowlers play and when they rest?
Those conversations have happened, and I'm asked for my input, but if I knew what causes injuries, I wouldn't have got injured so much myself and I would have played a lot more Test cricket probably. If you get someone that's got a great eye for bowling technique, I'm sure they'll come up with something. There's a six-month process required to change things. There's not a great time to do that because the media, the fans, selectors, want to see players on the park.
We played a hell of a lot of T20I cricket in the World Cup and its build-up, and bang, we were playing five Tests. A couple of guys get injured because they're so used to bowling four overs. And even though you're trying to build up their workloads during that time, it's very difficult to get into Test cricket on a flat pitch. I don't think that's a great shock. You look at England - their fast bowlers were pretty much red-ball bowlers that haven't been with the T20I side. Our guys have been with the T20I side and then they came into the Test side. That was asking a lot of those bowlers.
Does there need to be segregation between white- and red-ball teams?
You have to start going down that path, which is not easy because you have to then pigeonhole players about whether they'll be Test or white-ball bowlers. The players have to be in that conversation, but definitely, there's got to be some separation. You're also away from home now, even the coaching staff. It's not just physical, it's mental as well. It's definitely got to be looked at.
Are there lessons to be learned from your own career in the way you manage these players?
I think you can't help but look back on your own career a little bit. And everybody's different. You don't necessarily come in and manage or mentor or coach thinking every player is [like yourself]. That'll be unsuccessful. But I certainly think about times from my career and I sometimes mention to players what worked for me. "What do you think, maybe it'll work for you?" I have empathy for them because I know what they're going through a little bit, which helps. So yes, at times you do draw on your own experience.
When you were hired in Ramiz Raja's time, it was obvious he was influenced by the Australian mindset. Do you think that was part of what you were expected to bring to this role?
I don't know if that's why I got hired - maybe it is. But it suits this fast-bowling pack. There's a whole heap of obstacles in the way for cricketers. Whatever those obstacles are, my job is to remove as many of those as I can and make life easier for them. That would be the No. 1 part of the job. And if that's the mindset, then great. I hope the players are enjoying it.
You've got to get their trust as quickly as possible. Once you get their trust and they know you're in their corner, that's great. It's not, "I'm the coach and you're there." I don't like that way of coaching. I'm in the corner with them and we'll fail together and then have success together as well. I think if I can walk up to Naseem, put my hand on his shoulder, and if it has any effect on him at all, that's great. That's part of my job, I guess.
"Being brave at the death is not always going to work out, but when it does, it's such a great feeling for a fast bowler. You've pulled off the last four overs of the game"
Is that also the way you were coached?
Not necessarily. I was in and out of the Australian team quite a bit, so I didn't have huge influences on my bowling. The biggest influence on my bowling was with my team-mates. So as a young guy in the Australian squad, I had Brett Lee, [Glenn] McGrath, [Jason] Gillespie, [Michael] Kasprowicz, but not necessarily coaches, no.
Hasan Ali is an enigma, given the huge gulf between his ceiling and floor. How do you deal with that?
He needs to trust himself more. You can get 20 different opinions about your bowling, but I think he's probably earned the right to trust himself and realise what works for him. He had a fantastic couple of seasons not long ago. I have not sat with him and done a lot of technical work, but I've tried to have a few discussions with him about clearing his mind and just keeping things simple. I know that sounds like a cliché and a bit lazy. He's a good bowler. I think he just needs to get some confidence back.
Is he someone who's more susceptible to outside voices, the media, etc?
Possibly. What I tell them is to shut out the noise as much as possible and just concentrate on what you've done in the past that's been really good. It's such a simple approach. With him, I certainly think that's necessary. But he's a smart bloke as well. Smart guys like him are not the easiest to coach because he's smarter than me!
Sometimes if I say something stupid, Hasan's going to go, "Really? I don't think that's right." So he's a smart bloke and he can work it out for himself. I don't know what the future holds, but it'd be nice to do some more work with him.
The fastest bowler Pakistan have is perhaps Mohammad Hasnain, but he struggles with confidence and has had action issues. What sort of career do you see for him?
Hasnain has got the ability to bowl proper rapid, but yeah, there's no doubt [there's an air of vulnerability to him]. I mean he went through the whole action thing, so he's now getting used to his body. It was Umar Rasheed [a bowling coach at the National High Performance Centre] who did a lot of work on his action. They're quite tight. He did a lot of work with him, and he's been great.
But my input with Hasnain is purely about just using his athleticism. Getting that grunt as a fast bowler and being angry. Just running in fast and feeling good. During the World Cup, I had a good chance of working on his run-up. He can play Test cricket, but not a great deal. But you see how the English manage Mark Wood. They do it pretty well. Potentially someone like Hasnain, maybe he gets his pace up and bowls short spells. He's going to be tough to deal with.
Could you do this job for a reasonable length of time?
I've enjoyed this role, and I certainly don't take it for granted. Going forward, I have no idea what the decisions are going to be. I have no clue. I like this job. I love the boys. I love working here and the people of Pakistan. Even travelling to Australia and New Zealand and the Netherlands, the amount of [Pakistan] fans are ridiculous. There's obviously a great following. It's a big thing to be part of. Pakistan's a big team with a great bunch of fast bowlers. I get asked for selfies all the time, much more so than I do in Australia. I probably get abused by Australian supporters more than anyone else!
Do the players consider you a hard taskmaster?
Unfortunately, no!
Do you have aspirations of being a head coach?
I don't know. I have weird goals. I'm not overly ambitious, but I could see myself being a head coach one day. But that doesn't mean [only in] international cricket. I don't sit there and go, I want to be with the biggest team in the world and I want to be the head coach. I don't have those overarching goals. I just enjoy the ride as it is.
What doesn't happen in Pakistan fast bowling right now that you think needs to happen?
[Long pause] I won't talk about the pitches anymore, but if they leave some grass on the wicket, that would help a lot. The fact I haven't got a straight answer is probably not a bad thing.
Do you wish one of these fast bowlers was a bit older? Because these pace bowlers are a similar age and that way it's harder for a natural leader to emerge.
No, I like that. Shaheen's a natural leader. They all are. Even Naseem, he may be a young bloke, but he's got a head on his shoulders that's far above his years. I don't even think they need a great deal of leadership. I think they've got it in them. And they've got charisma. The Asia Cup stood out to me this year, their charisma and presence. I talk to them about presence all the time as a fast bowler. That stood out in the Asia Cup. Everyone was talking about the Pakistani bowling attack, the way Naseem knocked over KL Rahul, the celebration - it all just looked great. And [that too] on debut. The way he bowled was just a guy that was above his years.
One thing I would like to see is a little bit more mongrel, you know? A little bit more. They can be aggressive but I'd like to see even more aggression. I'm Australian. I think Australians are trying to behave themselves on the cricket field more nowadays, but I don't think you can ever rub that off. I would love to see us be less friendly in general.
Have you conveyed that to them? A little bit, but probably not enough. Watch out for it in the future.
*Feb 6, 2023, 10.09GMT: The introduction to the interview was edited to make it clear that Tait's appointment as Pakistan's fast-bowling coach was only for one year.

Danyal Rasool is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo. @Danny61000