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Andy Flower: 'I'd like Rizwan and Masood to develop their partnership a bit more'

The Multan Sultans head coach explains why his team has been so successful, and the talent of the 20-year-old Ihsanullah

Multan Sultans have been the PSL's most successful franchise, in terms of overall wins, finishing in the top two in the last three seasons and clinching the title in 2021. Last year they lost only two out of 12 games and this year they have already won four out of six. Sultans' head coach Andy Flower talked to ESPNcricinfo about how they have sustained their success.
The progress of Multan Sultans has been tremendous. Last year they looked invincible, and this year they have started well again. What's the secret?
I wish we had been invincible. We've had a lot of good results. We played some really strong cricket and we're all really proud of that. I think some of the factors that go into it are, number one, the strong drive and support from the top - from the owner, Alamgir Tareen, [who] is very keen on us to challenging convention and using the information as wisely as possible. I think one of his favorite book and theories is stemmed from the Moneyball book. Certainly, when we began working together, we had Nathan Leamon, the ex-England analyst, who was working with us and particularly driving things from an information point of view.
Very importantly, we've had two very good captains who have been very successful for us - Shan Masood and Mohammad Rizwan. I think some of our coaching leadership has definitely helped, especially our Pakistani coaches, Abdul Rehman and Mushtaq Ahmed, are both very experienced coaches in their own right.
We've got quite a strong package on the management front. The players are the guys that do it out there in the middle, though, and we've had some outstanding performances. The combination of these things coming together has meant that we've had really good, consistent performances over the last three years.
In franchise cricket, what's a coach's role: managing players, coaching them, or mapping out the team's strategy?
A strategy for people to work from is important and giving people structure to work from is important. But managing the individual players is equally or more important. Also, bringing the team together, making them feel as if they are coming together for something special. I think that's also important from a motivational and team dynamic point of view.
How has the PSL been different from your work in other franchise leagues?
Each franchise tournament and each country has a different feel. That's one of the really nice things about coaching around the franchise world - you're experiencing different cultures, not only from a national perspective but also cricketing cultures. Pakistan cricket has its own thing, particularly around fast bowling and wristspin, which makes it a really exciting cricketing environment.
But also just being exposed to a lot of interesting cultures in the dressing room is quite interesting, in a wider perspective for me. The support for the PSL in Pakistan has been incredible. I love that sort of vibrant energy that you get from the crowds. We've been really lucky in Multan with our crowds. But I think the other teams will feel similar things, certainly here in Lahore, with Lahore having some of their first success last year and then also playing good cricket this year.
As you said, managing players is a part of the package. How do you deal with players' egos?
I think egos amongst sports stars - that is not particular to Pakistan. You get that wherever you go. I think some countries, like New Zealand, are very good at keeping that sort of fame and exposure in perspective. Here, in Pakistan, some of their stars are rightly lauded. But a really good example of stars keeping their feet firmly on the ground is our captain, Mohammad Rizwan. You know, he's a really strong leader. He's a strong man. He's got very strong and principled views. He obviously has a very strong faith, but he's also been hugely successful as an international sportsperson.
But on top of that - I think it has something to do with his strong faith actually - he keeps his humility. He's a great example to all the Pakistani cricketers and the international cricketers in our dressing room on how you can be a really high performer but also be very humble with it. Of course, you get a whole variety of people that are part of your dressing room. As coaches, we try to bring the best out of them and work out how the ego fits with all of that.
"We've played six games and won four. That puts us in a good position to qualify, so the first step is to make the playoffs. The second step is getting in the top two because it gives you a better run into the final"
As a coach, do you see Rizwan doing things differently from other players?
I think his faith and his and his humility keep him at a very solid foundation from which to work. But from a sporting point of view, and particularly white-ball cricket, I think once you establish a successful batting formula in your head, you know the type of cricket you need to play to be successful. He's repeating a similar formula all the time and that gives him a real consistency about what he does. Which is good for him and for whatever team he plays for. I think he's put in a lot of thought, practice, trial and error. In his younger days, I saw him when he was playing for Pakistan A against England Lions. I think from paying attention to what he's done and from developing his game, he's worked out a formula that works really well in white-ball cricket.
What's he like as a captain and what's his equation with you, his coach?
I've worked with some really great captains over the years and Rizwan, I find, is an excellent leader. He's got strength and positivity, which means that people will follow him. He thinks he has clear views on the game. I like debating cricket with him, debating selections or strategy, but he has very clear views and the courage about the way he plays, something that makes him a leader other people want to follow. They see that he's not afraid to challenge the opposition, to take on particular situations, to lose.
So you don't always agree with him?
No, definitely not. I think part of being in a healthily functioning team is being okay with disagreeing and then still coming up with a solution and on a way forward.
Over the last few years in Pakistan cricket, coaches at the national level have pulled back, allowing the captain to take the lead in dressing rooms as well.
I don't think it has to be an either-or, like you're either a dominant captain or you're a completely passive captain. There's always a middle ground to be found. But certainly in cricket, a captain plays a vital role because he's making so many decisions all the time and not just the decisions on the field. He's also a very important part of the leadership group off the field and a very important link between the coaching staff and the players. I think if in the national set-up, the captain is being encouraged to take charge and make decisions and formulate strategy, that's a really healthy thing.
Multan Sultans are quite data-driven, but Pakistani players are relatively new to the concept and generally follow the instincts. How do you work with them on embracing such numbers-based analysis?
Data can get in the way, can slow people down, can create confusion, so how data is interpreted is very important. But how and when you use that information with the players is also vitally important. It can turn some players off and it can be motivational for others. It can provide really interesting starting points to talk about cricket and also give black-and-white feedback to cricketers about how X, Y or Z might be happening and why it might be happening. Data has its place, but it's how it's used that's important.
Your point is a good one in that Pakistan cricket is probably known for its instinctive nature and for even instinctive selections of young fast bowlers, for instance, over the years. But I think these things can be blended. A captain like Shan Masood was very comfortable with the dissemination of information and using it. We work slightly differently with Rizwan, who is less interested in that side of cricket information, but more interested in his knowledge, his instincts and his gut feelings. Our job as coaches is to work differently with the different leaders we have.
Shan Masood's progress in T20 has had some fluctuations. How do you see him in this format?
He's definitely the real deal and is in the strongest condition I've seen [him in] in T20 cricket this year. I'd be surprised if he doesn't have a very strong finish to this competition. He and Rizwan have formed a very consistent and powerful partnership, and they give us great foundations from which to work. I'd like them both to still develop their partnership whereby one dominates the bowling and really puts the bowling under pressure when the other one is struggling a little.
Do you agree that the standard of bowling in the PSL is among the best in the world?
There's a lot of high-quality fast bowling that happens here, which makes it really exciting. But there's also some exciting wristspin in the PSL. The combination makes it a super exciting tournament to be part of and for the spectators to watch. We all like seeing inswinging yorkers or reverse swing or bouncers, big back-of-the-hand slower balls. Attacking fast bowling definitely makes this league stand out of any.
"I think part of being in a healthily functioning team is being okay with disagreeing and then still coming up with a solution and on a way forward"
The 20-year-old fast bowler Ihsanullah was virtually plucked out of nowhere by Multan Sultans. Has his success come through planning, or is it the typical Pakistani story of natural talent shining through?
I don't think anyone really expected him to do so brilliantly in his first six games in this season's PSL. He got a couple of chances last year and he did really well. He showed real potential, real pace. He was working on his run-up with Ottis Gibson, who was our fast-bowling coach last year.
Ihsanullah still keeps in touch with Otis on WhatsApp and sends him videos. Now he's working with Ajmal Shahzad, our fast-bowling coach this year. He has shown a lot of maturity so far. He's getting a lot of attention for the pace at which he's bowling, but he's also delivering consistent, high-quality yorkers. And he's our main death bowler.
He's a very exciting prospect. He's bowling with good pace. He's still got quite a lot of cricketing education to go through and also some physical education on what his body needs. We've got Cliffe Deacon, our physio, and the Pakistan national physio working closely with him on that, and Abbas [Hussain Abbas Mirza], our physical trainer, is also doing a great job with Ihsanullah at the moment.
This is just a start of his education as a top-quality cricketer, but it's a really exciting start.
What are your expectations from Multan Sultans this year?
I didn't come here with a very clear expectation of what we might achieve. Actually, we've achieved nothing yet. We've played six games and won four. That puts us in a good position to qualify, but we aren't qualified yet. So the first step is to make the playoffs. The second step is getting in the top two because it gives you a better run into the final.
We've got our eyes firmly set on the next game, which is against Lahore [Qalandars] in Lahore, which will be a very exciting prospect for everyone. That's as much as I want our guys to focus on at the moment.

Umar Farooq is ESPNcricinfo's Pakistan correspondent