All teams have their highs and lows. For the better ones, the highs have longer spans. For the not so better ones, it’s the other around. After having touched its summit back in the 90s, Pakistan comes across as a team for which the highs have seldom been really high while the lows have been frequent, at least during the last couple of decades.
It’s not a happy script and the one man who desperately wants to rewrite it is Waqar Younis.
One of the key players who were instrumental in the rise of Pakistan as a cricketing superpower in the nineties, Waqar is back in the fray. In his second stint as Pakistan’s coach, the former Test pacer is carrying a huge responsibility on his shoulders. For him the task is, simply put, enormous.
Waqar has to somehow lift Pakistan’s under-achieving team from its abyss of low self-esteem and negativity and turn it into a winning unit and that too within a span of a few months. With the ICC World Cup 2015 set to take place in Australia and New Zealand during February-March, Pakistan are facing a tough race against time as they look to regain the sort of killer instinct that made them the world champions back in 1992.
Personally, I’m not very hopeful about it. Just take a look at the current Pakistan team and its spate of losses and you’ll know what I’m talking about. But still, hoping that Waqar would prove me wrong I managed to get hold of him just days before the start of the ongoing ‘home’ series against Australia in the UAE.
Casually dressed in jeans and a cotton shirt, Waqar didn’t look much different from his playing days. After a brief chitchat that was mostly about golf, we got down to business in his room at the Movenpick Hotel.
My first question for Waqar was as to why Pakistan, despite all their talent, haven’t been a successful team for long spans like Australia, South Africa and even India. Waqar thought about it for a few moments. Initially it seemed he disagreed. “I believe we’ve been successful. Take a look at our results in the nineties and also more recently. We’ve been winning many matches.”
But then he thought again.
“I think you’re right. We haven’t been winning consistently the way we should have. We were good in the nineties but didn’t capitalise on it. Most of the good players weren’t allowed to settle properly. We didn’t show much faith in youngsters at least not at the right time.
“We think on short-term basis. We’ve had good players but somehow we have never readied their replacements. When we did replace them we weren’t very patient with the newcomers. The bottom line is that our planning has been faulty and that’s the major reason why we have not been a successful team on a consistent basis.”
So what could be done to change it? Waqar knows that it is a Herculean task. Pakistan cricket has been run on an ad-hoc basis for years and a series of carefully-planned, well-executed and concrete efforts will be needed to fix it.
“What we need is a sea change in the way we do things here,” he says. “But sticking just on the question of bringing consistency in our team’s performance I will say that the first thing we need to do is start doing things on a long-term basis. All of us, the Board, coaches, selectors, media need to show patience.
“We have to acknowledge the realities and be fully ready to face the challenges. There can be no short-cuts. What we need is to develop a pool of players and do everything to give them both opportunities and confidence.”
But such strategy might only benefit Pakistan beyond next year’s World Cup. For the 2015 event they will have to mostly rely on the existing pool. But is it good enough? It doesn’t seem so, at the moment. The team’s batting is brittle while the bowling also appears toothless especially in the absence of Saeed Ajmal.
“Firstly, I will stress that we will have to learn to live without Ajmal,” says Waqar. “It would be great if he returns to the team and plays in the World Cup but sooner or later he would not be there. Frankly, we need to look to the future. We need to look beyond the Ajmals, the Afridis and the Misbahs. They have done great things for Pakistan but they are not the future. We have to invest in the young lot.”
But the young Turks haven’t impressed much in recent times. Players like Umar Akmal or Fawad Alam don’t enough fit in that group anymore having played extensive cricket over the years. Then there are players like Sohaib Maqsood who are yet to fully realize their promise. Among the bowlers we have the injury prone Junaid Khan, the not-so-young Mohammad Irfan and Wahab Riaz. They hardly come across as a world-class line-up.
“Most of them are very good players and should be given confidence,” he argues. “I have great expectations from Irfan especially when it comes to the World Cup. He is a big man who really responds to all the tips and guidance he gets. He works hard and once he attains full match fitness I’m sure he is going to be a lethal weapon on the wickets in Australia and New Zealand during the World Cup.
“Junaid Khan is a smart bowler who is unfortunately going through a tough phase because of injury. Wahab Riaz has matured and has come out of his shell.
“Then we have batsmen like Asad Shafiq and Sarfraz Ahmed who are aggressive and have done exceedingly well in recent matches.”
But despite Waqar’s argument and the faith he is showing in his charges, Pakistan have nothing going for them in the lead up to the World Cup.
However, Waqar sees his team’s under-dog status as a blessing in disguise. “Don’t you think that sometimes it’s good to be the underdogs. There are less expectations which means less pressure and that’s something I don’t mind as the team’s coach.
On paper, our team doesn’t look very strong,” he agrees. “You also have a point when you say that the current formbook also proves that. But having agreed to those points, I will still say that my expectations aren’t low.”
Waqar’s optimism stems from what Pakistan did and didn’t do at World Cup 2011 held in the subcontinent. Then, under Shahid Afridi’s command Pakistan rolled into the last four only to fall to old foes India in a high-voltage clash in Mohali.
“I still believe that we could have won that World Cup,” says Waqar, who was Pakistan’s coach at that time. “In fact I believe we should have won that World Cup.”
Waqar, 42, is of the view that if Pakistan could be in contention four years ago, it’s difficult to rule out their chances in 2015.
“Our team is not much different now,” he says referring to the fact that seniors like skipper Misbah and then captain Afridi are still part of the squad.
But the aging duo were four years younger in 2011. Then, Pakistan had Saeed Ajmal, who it is feared will miss World Cup 2015 because of an illegal bowling action.
Umar Gul was at his peak but is now struggling with fitness problems. Misbah was the team’s most prolific batsman. Today, he is struggling to overcome a barren run of form.
“That’s all true but we have younger players like Sohaib Maqsood, who give me hope. Then we have a match-winner in Mohammad Irfan,” says Waqar.
The coach believes that with the induction of a few more youngsters and a generous dose of aggression, Pakistan can click Down Under the way they did more than two decades ago.
“We didn’t begin the (1992) World Cup as favourites but went on to win it,” he says. “In 2011 we could have repeated that triumph but our team failed to show much killer instinct when it mattered most.
“Like in the nineties we will need to show faith in youngsters. What we also desperately need is to learn to come out of our shell and be an aggressive team. That’s been our strength and we need to use it as an asset instead of thinking it as a burden.”
Waqar wants Pakistan to be almost always on the attack even against the toughest of teams.
“We used to do that in the 1990s and that was the time when Pakistan did best. I know we would also get out for 50 or 60 but we also would chase targets of 300.”
Can that be done with this current Pakistan team that has been low on self-belief? “Why not? I believe that all we need are the right mental attitude and a solid game plan.”
We talk about a few more things but then decide to wrap up the interview as Waqar needed to leave for another commitment. We agree on another, longer session to talk about cricket – and on a meeting in Lahore to play golf at Waqar’s favourite course, Defence Raya. “You’ll love it,” he tells me as we shake hands before saying goodbye.