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Interviews

Aqib Javed: 'We wanted the best bowling unit, everyone else is after the best hitters'

How Qalandars used out-of-the-box T20 thinking to engage their core and engineer a turnaround

Umar Farooq
Umar Farooq
15-Mar-2023
Lahore Qalandars finished the group stage of PSL 2023 as the table-toppers  •  AFP/Getty Images

Lahore Qalandars finished the group stage of PSL 2023 as the table-toppers  •  AFP/Getty Images

In each of the first four seasons of the PSL, Lahore Qalandars finished bottom of the table. In the last three seasons, however, they have finished runners-up once and even won the tournament last season. This year, they have been the competition's leading team, winning seven of their ten league games. Ahead of a Qualifier with Multan Sultans in Lahore, their coach Aqib Javed tells ESPNcricinfo how they have turned their fortunes around. And what it feels like to have, in his words, the world's best T20 attack.
From being one of the least successful sides to winning the league to becoming one of its stronger teams now, how have Lahore Qalandars' fortunes turned around?
When I joined in the second year of this franchise, I looked around hoping to find players available to replace what wasn't working. We had Azhar Ali as captain... that was the choice we had back then. It was new back then and nobody had an idea what was happening and how to handle this. And then we brought in Brendon McCullum as captain, and his thought process now has started to reflect in his coaching of England.
Brendon did try to bring in that fearless element here, but to translate that any human being needs time. The biggest challenge in franchise cricket is that you have everything but time to understand and coach. There are players who land and play the next day like we had Sam Billings, who landed one morning and was playing the next day. So it takes time and we knew things were bad, we were criticised, but also knew we can't do much about it mid-season. So we started the PDP (player development programme) and decided to make our own players.
The biggest challenge is the selection in the draft, where you have to control your feelings, resist big, attractive properties, and focus on what are your requirements and team composition. We deliberately wanted to make the best bowling unit, where everyone else is after the best hitters. What is the counter to the best hitter? The best bowling. And what we have, nobody in the world has it.
"We had to tone down the temptation of big T20 names and invested our time in making a core largely based on getting reliable local players"
Qalandars were the poorest team in the first few years - how were those issues rectified?
You have four foreign players and you can't play more than that. So the focus has always been on seven local players and we haven't had a big pool available in our earlier seasons. Even now, there isn't a big pool coming out of domestic cricket, so we have to develop our own through the PDP. It's really hard to find the quality that is required at this level. You actually know those gaps and you have to search for the right player, bring them in, and get them ready for the role.
There has been a temptation to go after big names, and we did get the best in the world, but over the years [we] learned that it doesn't help if your local core isn't as good. So we had to tone down the temptation of [going after] big T20 names and invested our time in making a core largely based on getting reliable local players.
We took time when we were ridiculed a lot for losing in earlier seasons. But we were working behind the scenes. We were building our core quietly. We found Haris Rauf from these dusty grounds, we contributed to the growth of Shaheen [Shah Afridi] and made him captain, persisted with Fakhar Zaman through thick and thin, trusted David Wiese, let Mohammad Hafeez go and brought Sikandar Raza in. Rashid Khan became an integral part of the side, Zaman Khan is a new emerging talent, so overall we managed our core smartly. That's the only difference from being the worst side to one of the best sides. Now we have a reliable core.
How did you put the bowling attack together?
The idea was to recreate what Pakistan had in the '90s. In our cricket, the impact of the two Ws [Wasim Akram and Waqar Younis] is never forgotten. People don't want to forget the era. We can't have them back, but we can make another one for people to see and enjoy. So I had the vision to see Shaheen as a left-arm pacer, Haris Rauf with his deadly pace, and then we were looking for a new-ball bowler and we found Zaman Khan. Does that remind you of something? That takes you back to the '90s and that's what I wanted to see. Six overs upfront and the remaining six in death, so this combination today is the most lethal in the world. One moment of brilliance from a batter can win you a game, but bowling units win you tournaments.
People underrate Zaman and don't really see him as a prospect. The kind of performance he gave last season, he was ignored and he returned to repeat it. His skill-set and the confidence he has make him probably Pakistan's fourth automatic-choice fast bowler. After Shaheen, Haris, and Naseem Shah, he is the one that comes in the line. He has the control, has the variations, and a quality slinger action so I will be surprised if he doesn't play for Pakistan very soon.
"We say, if you want to win, come compete with us; but then you have to hit six bowlers at ten an over. If you manage to hit 40 each off Shaheen, Rashid, Haris, David, Zaman and Sikandar, then you deserve to win"
You've seen Rashid Khan up close now for a while - what makes him so special?
We had a debate the other day, talking about what he has that others don't. We agreed it is the pressure. If he is in any team, the kind of pressure he puts on the opponent makes a difference. His skills, the accuracy, and the level of control he has over his game. He has such control in his hands that he strikes at will. You feel nervous facing him because he brings that pressure and in four overs you don't have a chance.
So is it fair to say that Qalandars have gone from being a conventional T20 batting side to a bowling-oriented team and that has changed their fortunes?
What do we produce the best? Bowlers, right? I acted with the kind of bowlers we produce, to use that as leverage. This wasn't built overnight. We made it and I am extremely proud to form this attack.
In T20 thinking, you get wickets from the new ball and we have Shaheen, who is the best in the world and at the end, you have to defend the total. You need a death bowler and nobody is better than Haris Rauf. From two seasons, the way Zaman merged into this pack as a death bowler and even with the new ball, this composition is the best in the world. Then, in the middle overs, you have the privilege of Rashid and the kind of impact he brings to any side. This season, a masterstroke gift we found from the draft was Sikandar Raza. You look at our journey from Hafeez to Sikandar - isn't it one of the best moves? It is.
David [Wiese] - people don't rate him much, they think of him as a retired cricketer who used to play for South Africa and possibly a bowler they think they can use his overs as an opportunity. But it's an illusion. He has the highest number of five-wicket hauls in T20 cricket in the world. People look at him as a soft target and want to attack him, but he is very smart and uses variations depending on the situation. So, we say, if you want to win, come compete with us; but then you have to hit six bowlers at ten an over. If you manage to hit 40 each off Shaheen, Rashid, Haris, David, Zaman and Sikandar then you deserve to win. If any two bowlers go under 30 and others over [30] then the maximum you can get is 160 or 170.
Last year, Multan Sultans looked invincible, only to lose in the final. You are looking unbeatable right now - how do you guard against a similar fate as Multan Sultans?
It depends on the environment. Sometimes emotions drive you and take you to the skies. When you are on a winning streak everyone is a winner, even a coach or a masseur, the support staff feels like a winner even if they are not on the field. We keep on reminding ourselves to resist the temptation inside, and that excitement needs to find a balance. You lose someday and you could get really down or with a good win your excitement gets out of control. These are the kind of things we talk about in the dressing room, to understand failure and winning and finding the right balance between them.
There will be times when you lose. We lost against Karachi [Kings] and got into trouble against Quetta Gladiators, but when you learn to deal with the emotions then you're less likely to have accidents in the field. So a few losses in the group stage came at the right time to bring us back, to make us realise that it's not over yet.
Qalandars is a vibrant sort of franchise - loud, colourful, in the limelight. Is that a distraction at all?
Problems start when there is too much talk about the game, and everyone's throwing in their opinions, and a lot of elements that could take away your focus. We didn't make a team with a random bunch of players coming from different backgrounds, we made an environment and a good environment can change a lot of things. Everyone is treated the same and everyone is given importance. We are Qalandars from the heart, which gives us stability and gives us the freedom to focus on the game rather than managing egos. This team is not dependent on any one player. It's about composition, and every player has his own importance. There is no one superstar but everyone is a star.
We know our limitations, we know our strengths, and in cricket that one moment always comes to you where things can go either way. You can lose on a given day and it's not like you are invincible. For instance, it came on Sikandar Raza when he scored 71 when the team was reeling at 50 for 7, and he swung the game away and we ended up winning the game. He told us that when he went in he didn't feel that there was any such pressure on him, when to the outside it would look like there was.
Why did he feel that way? Because we have created an environment where you have to accept that in your mind that if you get out it's okay, it's not the end of the world. You can lose and your life doesn't end there. We just tell them that you should enjoy the game, recall why they started playing cricket in their childhood and never forget that. At times, I see so many people get involved at different levels, they make it like war and families open up the praying mats and start praying. Suddenly it feels like you need help from the divine to play this game. It's unnecessary pressure on you when you stop trusting your skills. All you have to do is enjoy the game and at the end of the day it's a game and you compete with skill. So keep it simple it's a game.
It's a belief that Qalandars don't believe in data - is that true?
I don't know where this came from. We, in fact, at one stage had three data analysts including AR Srikkanth from KKR, one of the most renowned guys in the business. So we do use data support as well. It's not something we boast about. It's basically a support, available at all times for players if they want to take it. We believe in players' skills, their abilities and developing leadership. We don't believe in sending messages from outside the rope. There is Rashid, Wiese, Fakhar, Shaheen inside and we have faith in them, believing in their collective intelligence and knowledge. If they together can't do it then they don't deserve to be in.
We as coaches developed them for every scenario they could face in and what to expect, what to do and how to respond. They are there because we trust them and if you don't know what to do, then what the hell are you doing inside? We don't confuse players with a lot of numbers, we train them to compete but every player has a different level of absorbing information. We have support available all the time and if you want it you can take it. We are not denying it but we are careful not to put too much pressure on them. You can easily scare the player off with it and could slow him down.
So where and how do you use data?
It is the coach's job to absorb the numbers and transform them into a language a player can easily understand. It works differently with every player; some players don't have time to watch cricket and we have to feed them with information about the opponent. Some players go with instincts and adjust within the field after watching a few balls. But our primary success is that we have a support staff working all year. If you look at other teams, they have coaching staff going in and out moving from IPL to PSL to Hundred to T10, and the window is always shutting down and opening to join teams a few days before the event.
We have a set support staff and our vision is to make competitive cricketers and back their skills so that they don't have to look back in the dressing room when they don't have ideas. We prepared them for being on the ground with all the support when you are outside the rope but when you are on the ground you should know what to do. It's the preparation that speaks on the ground. Our job ends when players go inside the rope. That is when their job starts and we take a back seat.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent