Transcript: Couch Talk 30 with Ahmer Naqvi and Hassan Cheema

Couch Talk Episode 30. (play)

Guests: Ahmer Naqvi and Hassan Cheema

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Subash Jayaraman – Hello and Welcome to Couch Talk. Today we have two bloggers/Cricket-correspondents, but more significantly, Pakistani cricket fans – Ahmer Naqvi and Hassan Cheema. Ahmer writes for Dawn Blogs and has recently been commentating on the Test Match Sofa. Hassan writes for All Out Cricket and Dawn Blogs as well. Hassan is on twitter as @MediaGag and Ahmer as @KarachiKhatmal. Welcome to the show, gentlemen.

Hassan Cheema – Thank you!

Ahmer Naqvi – Thank You. Good to be here.

SJ – Where do we begin? Shall we start with what you personally went through during the 3rd and 4th day of the recent test at Abu Dhabi (between Pakistan and England)? Let’s begin with you, Ahmer. What did you go through?

AN –All the superstitions that I have as a cricket fan came to the fore. On the 3rd day, I was at the Test Match Sofa stint, I was commentating with them. It was a pretty even day for Pakistan at the end of it. we were still way behind in the test match, but just watching Azhar (Ali) and Asad Shafiq bat in the final session, when we get to it later- that was a part of the Misbah Team revolution. That was very heartening. When Pakistan seem to lose in the 3rd innings and they have got to set the initiative, they lose the top order, we usually fold in very cheaply. When they held on, I thought – we have lost, probably, out of the 9 sessions that were played so far, we had probably lost 6 to 7, but we were in a situation where we needed to win at max 2 or 3 sessions, and we would win the match.

The next day, was also the day after I had worked late and I came back home late. In the morning, I was thinking whether I should get up and watch the match or not. Because on the 2nd day, when I watched the match outside The Sofa, I seemed to have brought a lot of bad luck. None of the wickets had fallen. So, I decided that I will sleep in and wake up whenever fate wants me tow ake up. As it happened, my father-in-law called me and he woke me up and said “They have lost 4 wickets. What are you doing? Get up and watch the match.” I asked my wife, “ I don’t want to jinx it, so how do we do it without jinxing?” We got a few superstitions out of the way. I didn’t log on to twitter, didn’t do anything, just sat through and watched till the end.

Even though the way Misbah has gone about with the team is very different, watching the Pakistani bowling team knocking a side in the last innings was something that we have managed to witness quite a few times as Pakistani cricket fans. That is the reason we put up with all the stuff like match-fixing and losing in humiliating fashion and etc. For moment s like these. I’ve always maintained that Pakistani bowlers are the true expression of our cricketing identity, and it was absolutely glorious to watch.

SJ- And you, Hassan?

HC- It was somewhat similar. On the third day, I didn’t watch that. i listened to it on the Test Match Sofa. When Misbah got out, I thought tat it was finished. I wasn’t in office, I was at home at that time. So, I kept refreshing, kept listening to Test Match Sofa. I heard about Azhar’s defiant knocks. On the fourth day, I was in office during that time, and thankfully, there was nobody else on the floor. I spent the whole day watching the match. I was thinking that if we could get past 150, we had a chance, because England have been struggling against our spinners until then.

So, we got to 144 and I had to go somewhere and said to myself that I will watch the first 10 overs and if no wicket falls, then I will go have my lunch – I had not eaten till then. And, I watched the first 10 overs, and no wicket fell down. But, the spell from Hafeez, in particular, was so mesmerizing that I said I will watch till tea. And then, by the time it was tea, I was hooked to that. I remember when Pietersen got out, I got off my seat and appealed at the computer screen. Two balls later, I was still standing when Rehman bowled to Morgan. And, when that ball hit the wicket, I fell to the ground, on my knees. I just held my hands in the air, and for 2-3 seconds I was just in that position. I was quite engrossed in the match.

A year ago, I wouldn’t have watched the match, not that I had some other plans. But, the faith has been restored in the past 12-18 months.  It has been 3-4 days since then, but I’m still smiling.

SJ-  See, personally, for me, I am a neutral in this, but actually not. Because, if you love cricket and have watched cricket over a period of time, you know that when Pakistani bowlers are on ascendancy, there is a possibility of a result, something happening off the wicket or in the air – there is a certain buss to that occasion. You are drawn to it, and you can’t look away.

I was watching India – Australia, and New Zealand – Zimbabwe; and this set up perfectly. It totally redeemed my day.

AN- That’s the thing with Team Misbah – they keep surprising you.

SJ – Let’s talk about that phenomenon – Team Misbah, also known as The Order of the Tuk-Tuk. How has that fashioned the most recent recovery of Pakistani cricket?

HC- When the hashtag “#TeamMisbah” started, it was more of ironic than anything else – during that god-awful innings at Mohali. But, after that, him and Waqar had started this recovery process as far back as the South Africa series. And, you could say that it’s won me, and a lot of other fans over quite slowly. I think, probably, the West Indies series was probably the time I became of The Order of the Tuk-Tuk. Since then, every time you expect them to do something, they exceed your expectations. After this England series, whatever doubts people had, I think they are all removed. All that remains is to see how they perform on pitches that are not of sub-continental variety.

SJ- Ahmer, your input on Team Misbah?

AN- Hassan is what is now being christened as Misbrahmin, in the sense that he was on to the Team Misbah earlier than most of us. Myself, even on the 3rd day of the 2nd match, as I said on the Test Match Sofa, I love watching my team do well, but at the same time, there is this expectation you have as a Pakistani cricket fan, because you put up with so many ups and downs and chaos, that a studious and steady approach looks antithetical to our style of play. And for example – someone like Azhar Ali is the kind of batsman that, as much as I really admire and appreciate what he did, it is not naturally someone like myself, as a Pakistani fan would rather hate to earth. I’m saying this to make it clear that I wasn’t like I knew that Misbah knew it all along in the beginning. I didn’t have that feeling. I felt that it was that sort of hate you receive after Mohali was a bit unwarranted.

HC- No, it wasn’t.

AN – For me, the initial memory of Misbah was the paddle sweep in 2007 (T20) WC finals. The reason I appreciate that so much was that – without him, we couldn’t have gone so far in that finals. He had the balls to attempt that, in the final, against India, find the winning runs – that, for me, is the Pakistani spirit. Not the studious, grinding down approach. It wasn’t something easy to get on to, but somewhere in the hind-sight, what we could see was, that the last time Pakistan had an easier approaching test cricket was under Woolmer and Inzamam, and that was also a time when we had a good test side – we beat the Englishmen, who came here after winning the Ashes. That was built around more obvious talents, not so much in this side. What you appreciate is that there is a sort of strategy, a cohesion of thought and planning going on into it. Because, even through the West Indies series, you felt sorry for this team because they were only doing well, but, how else can they do it? They had limited players, what else can Misbah fashion a team around?

That was something that I picked up at first itself, that it might just be that we are witnessing a thing in cricket. For the past decade, test cricket has been so relentlessly pro-active, as far as batting is concerned. If it is a weak bowler, you immediately take him on. When the premier spinner comes on, you jump out of the crease and attack him. You control all the sessions, very much like the Steve-Waugh sort of approach here. And, because of the One Dayers and T20s breaking a lot of psychological barriers, it has come in to test cricket. I felt that, a team that is able to take control of that urgency and play a reactive approach, you can start seeing in Misbah that, that sort of approach was making sense. That was actually working out.

It wasn’t just the fact that they were doing what they could do, it was actually was that, in terms of batting, they were stretching out the game. I terms of bowling that is where the order took the sort of euphemism sort of failed, because Misbah is a very creative captain when it comes to bowling. The kind of field he sets for the spinners, the kind of approach he has for the spinners, to discontinue with the fast bowlers’ legacy and suddenly switch its arsenal around and use spin effectively – that is very radical stuff.

SJ- In my point of view, there are a few ironies, in the sense that there is this disciplined approach- wait for things to happen. The fact that Pakistan have always been known, in the recent past, to be known as a decent limited over team. Whereas, not doing as well or consistent in the test match arena. And, where every other team is moving to attacking, attractive, aggressive batting or bowling, Pakistan has moved to the other side and made it work. It was fantastic to watch. It was a gripping test match. When Asad Ali and Shafiq were going at 2 runs per over or under it, it was a brilliant test match. England had the upper hand, but it was slowly coming out of their grips. And you could see that. every single run they added, England were going to find it more difficult. It was riveting action.

HC-  Actually, I have to take issue with two things that Ahmer just said – one, that it is a myth that has been created after Imran about his team. But if you look at all the Pakistani teams before the 90s generation, the Golden Generation, they have always had more than their fair share of batsmen, who tuk-tuk’d. Hanif Mohammed, and even in the 80s, we had Shoaib Mohammed or Mudassar Nazar, whose job was to just play for 30 overs, even if they scored just 30-40 runs. That was enough to allow Javed Miandad and Salim Malik to score the runs. I’ve talked about this a lot of times before. What Waqar and Misbah have done over the past 18 months had been more or less the same approach as then. Actually, you can go back to the New Zealand series in 2009, where Salman Butt and Imran Farhat – one of the tests they scored 60 runs it the top of the innings in 30 odd overs. And, in another one they scored 130 or so in 60 overs. It was something that was building all along. The bowling has always been mercurial, in a condescending’s amazing that Pakistan now relies on its spinners, while no one has half-decent spinners.

The second thing is that this team has a lot to do with the pitches as well. If they were playing 3 or 4 years ago, on pitches that we have in Pakistan, you would see 0-0 draws throughout, and Pakistan could’ve been batted out on most matches. but, because they have had pitches that had something for the bowlers, they have been able to eek out results out of that.

SJ – Ahmer, I want you to come in and address this anti-mercurial Pakistan. One point I wanted to make regarding Hassan’s point-in the 80s, the batsmen played slow, and set the stage up for Miandad and Malik. But, you have to look at the rest of the world as well – how the batting was done in test match cricket. Then, you observe in the 2000s, how the batting has been approached by every other team, and how Pakistan has been moving in completely the opposite direction. Ahmer, you can take over.

AN – Hassan and I have, a lot of times while writing a blog or something, we get in touch and have  discussion about what the ideas are. We have ahd this simmering disagreement over this approach, whether this is genuinely a throw back to the 80s and what it means and all that. academic discussions aside, the one thing you can count on Pakistan on doing, and we expect a Pakistani team to do, is to not be conventional in its approach – not to play percentage cricket. In a sense, for example, what Pakistan, not so much any more, but atleast for 10-12 years could not beat South Africa, was because they were so methodical in approach. They were totally anti-thesis of whatever we did in cricket. From a distant, Team Mishbah looks like that is what they are doing – they are very methodical, very percentage based, not allowing for any flair. That is bit of, again, not a very good way of looking at it. As Hassan says it, the pitches have played a part in it. that the batsmen remain comfortable on it, but give the bowler something to bowl at.

Secondly, what I really appreciate Misbah for doing is that, we had that blow with losing our best two bowlers of the generation, and he didn’t allow that to affect. The approach that they have taken has taken a lot. This is the first time in history that the Pakistani team has averaged more than the English team, that just upsets the whole world on how cricket is supposed to be seen. Now, a match winner coming on from Abdur Rehman and Saeed Ajmal… Shoaib Naveed, on Dawn, made a very good point about Ajmal and Rehman when bowing in tandem were able ot stroke down the runs and were able to pick up the wickets. And I appreciate the way Misbah has been using them in way which plays to their strengths. In that sense of bowling heritage has remained its focus. Just because he is not using the fast bowlers, doesn’t mean we can think “How can Pakistan operate like that?” But, at the heart of it, Pakistan operates with the intent to take wickets. We are not going to play “Let’s bat big and get the score to get them out.” You are always looking to pick the wickets.

What Misbah has been able to do that sets him apart from other captains is that, when the going gets tough, a lot of captains would wilt under pressure, the fielders will go back and be waiting for something to happen. Misbah doesn’t let that happen. A lot of times during the test match, you could be forgiven for thinking that Pakistan has lost its way. But, they were always in it and sticking to their approach. When it came together, you would say “Ah, see? That’s what they were doing all along.” But, that wasn’t very obvious when Misbah was doing it. That has really been the genius to his approach.

HC- Ahmer makes a really good point that after Amir and Asif were no longer a part of the tema, the team is sort of like the Frankenstein’s monster, with journeymen and people who never made it, who were in and out of the team for 10 years. Most of the team is on the wrong side of 30, and all of them have enough experience to realise what their limitations are and what their strengths are. When they do that individually, they whole team reacts accordingly.

SJ- That was going to be my next question – What does the future hold for this team and coach? You have people at the wrong side of 35. Ajmal is 34 already, in Pakistani years…. The bulwark is aging, and it is going out of the door. You just lost 2 prodigious bowling talents/ the next time Pakistan is going to be playing outside the subcontinent, it is going to be in South Africa, in 2013. Where do you see this Pakistan team going? They have a method, there is not madness, it is calculated and they are going to stick to it no matter how the situation is, and try to execute their plans. That is awesome to watch. Especially when you have seen 4 matches when your team has no plans and gets bashed around, and then you watch another team that has plans and watch them execute that plan, that is awesome to watch. So, what doe the future hold for this team, in particular?

HC- This team has, maybe, a couple of more years. In that, I expect them to continue how they have had in the last 18 months. I think this is a nice time for Pakistan to start blooding in young players. Not like thrown them all in like Aamirr Sohail did after the 2003 World Cup. But, Asad Shafiq and Azhar are already there. you’ve got people like Umar Akmal, who can be a part of the squad. A few from the 2010 u-19 World Cup have performed well in the domestic T20s as well. We have got a couple of players who can become a part of the team and understand this culture. One of the problems that Pakistan have had over the past 20 years is that whenever someone came into the team, the culture he was exposed to was one which was very divisive, poisonous almost. When they became senior players, they continued as their senior players did. So, now if you expose the young players to this culture and ethos, then I think we could have over the next decade or so, a different team – a team in the shadow of Team Misbah.

Apart from that, with Pakistan, you never know – we could have an 18 year old come in 12 months from now and just set the world on fire. We will continue to have such players.

As for the coach, that is a long discussion. But, for me, I wouldn’t keep Mohsin Khan. Firstly, all the success that Pakistan has had via Mohsin Khan has been vie players who sort of when from being genuine players to international. All that was done under Waqar – Rehman, Hafeez, Taufiq, whoever. Even Ajmal wasn’t a regular when Waqar took over. And by the time he left the team after the WI tour and all that, he had performed well. If we get a coach in right now who has the vision, who has maybe the experience, and someone who is suitable for test situation – as in, you don’t want to do what India did, which is to get a guy who is famous for getting a young team forward, and being  given a team which has decaying corpses in it. it is the same thing we see in football – Chelsea and Inter Milan did the same thing this summer.

When he was appointed, I did not understand the point of Duncan Fletcher as the coach of India. Right now, I would actually support Whatmore, because he took over  Sri Lanka who were similar to Pakistanis – a lot of very percentage based, genuine players, who relied on spin and ____ batting- he took them forward from there. if you want Mohsin Khan to be the coach, he can be as assistant coach to Whatmore and learn from him for 12 or 18 months until Whatmore leaves the post and Mohsin Khan takes the post, or any other local candidate who we feel we have succession plan for as well.

SJ- Ahmer, you thoughts?

AN – In a lot of these sorts of analysis, I submit Hassan’s expertise of a mind. But, what I would like to probably say is that if we start looking into the future, we would have to look at where the game itself is going. In the next 5 years, you are not going to see the “death of test cricket” or anything. What I would expect to happen is that we are able to bring together the Test Championship for the sake of test cricket. But you feel that the game is going, atleast right now, to the absolute advantage that the batsmen have had for a very long time now. I think, that might start eroding away. The real premier batsmen that you had, the golden generation of batsmen, batsmen of the calibre of Ponting, Tendulkar, Dravid, that you can compare across eras – that is sort of ending now. With that, I would hope to see some kind of innovation coming around. Pakistan, in that sense has been a part of that change.

Cricket, in its history of 100 years or so, has seen batsmen come to the ascendency, batsmen come to protect themselves with the laws. A lot of administrators are batsmen and a lot of cricket beyond the pitch is controlled by the batsmen. And they are trying to make it as much easier for the batsmen on the pitch. And bowlers, throughout the history of the game have come up with ways of subverting that, having the ascendency before it is legislated out of the game. You will see, I will hope to see, that the bowlers get their own back in all the formats of the game – in all formats of the game, atleast in tests and ODIs. And, in that sense, I expect Pakistan to be savvy to taht change, at the forefront of that change. And in terms of batting, I have very little faith in Pakistani batting, the best think I can hope to happen is that once you have the kind of Misbah and younis kind of players leave, you get a few more Azhars and Asads. Three years ago, everybody would have been happy with Umar Akmal. But, he has been such a disappointment.Maybe a few mature guys, even if they help us recreate the sort of the 80s team in terms of batting…

The bowlers, you get the feeling that Pakistan will be able to produce not just good bowlers, but bowlers who stretch their genre of skills. If you have off-spinner, you just don’t any off-spinner, you have someone who is a wily kind of character like Ajmal is. Same with fast bowlers. I mean, that is the kid of hope that you have. I have that hope because of the age of the side. The nature of Pakistan’s own turbulence. We got rid of Ijaz Butt, but institutionally not much has changed. nothing much is going to change on that front. It always seems to affect the cricket. Those problems really haven’t gone away, and you can’t expect to unless Imran Khan wins the next election and decides to hold the board in his major. You can’t see that happening. As much as I’m enjoying it, I might not be carried away in thinking some sort of legacy or something. Maybe because I am some sort of Pakistan who has been starved to aften, but I am really enjoying right now.

HC- One point to add to that – this team, from Azhar, Asad, Rehman, Ajmal – what these guys have showed is that the difference between Pakistani domestic system and the international system stage is not as big as we imagined. People like Rehman and Hafeez have got from the international team worked on their game in the domestic and have come back and succeeded here. That in mind, I think people who have performed well nit he domestic game, people who are in their mid to late 20s have a better chance to get into the team than what we had 10 years ago, which was to try and get ina  guy who is 20 or 18 so that he is spoiled by the domestic system.

SJ- Last question, and I will let you guys go. What do you guys expect in Dubai?

HC- A victory.

SJ- So, a 3-0?

HC- Hopefully, yes!

SJ- Aamer?

AN- I will expect a rain-washed draw.

SJ- Is there still a space left in the Team Misbah bandwagon for the Pakistanis who are converting from the 2011 semi-finals?

AN- Pakistanis are excellent at jumping bandwagons! Not only are they on the bandwagon, they will be claiming that they have been there all along! And, as soon as we lose the first session or something, they will jump off it. we are a fickle bunch.

HC – In the next series, if we lost that, Misbah could be out of his job.

SJ- It is a ridiculous thing to say, but it is very true. It can happen, which is what keeps you on the tenterhooks all the time!

On that note, thank you, Ahmer and thank you Hassan for coming on the show. It was really wonderful talking to you both!

AN- Likewise!

HC- Pleasure!


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Episode transcribed by: Bharathram Pattabiraman