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Rashid Latif Exclusive: Babar Azam can be a good choice for Pak captaincy

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The Pakistan cricket team has clearly left its golden days far behind. A frustratingly inconsistent performance graph coupled with a slew of controversies surrounding its players is stifling for any cricket fan, who saw the Men in Green in their prime during the nineties and early 2000s.

In the midst of all the drama surrounding the sacking of former head coach Mickey Arthur and the growing calls for Sarfraz Ahmed’s removal from captaincy, former Pakistan captain Rashid Latif spoke exclusively to cricfit.com correspondent Ritam Basu from his Muscat residence. An unequivocal speaker, one thing that is guaranteed with Latif is his straightforwardness. Notably, the former wicket-keeper is touted as one of the primary contenders for the post of Pakistan’s chief selector following Inzamam-ul-Haq’s resignation from the selection committee last month.

(Photo By ASIF HASSAN/AFP/Getty Images)

Q: Off-field troubles involving the Pakistan team have taken precedence over its cricket in recent weeks. As a former player who represented one of the most successful generations of Pakistan cricket, how much do these things worry you?

Latif: When I was an active cricketer, Pakistan used to dominate headlines for both its on-field and off-field matters. Controversies have always been an inseparable part of Pakistan cricket, but my generation was one of the most formidable teams in the world. I think as far as quality was concerned, we were only behind Australia (in the late ‘90s and early 2000s). We had players like Saeed Anwar, Aamir Sohail, Saleem Malik, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Saqlain Mushtaq, Mushtaq Ahmed, Azhar Mahmood, Moeen Khan, Shahid Afridi, Ijaz Ahmed, and the list goes on and on; so many champion cricketers in one generation! The quality of cricket in Pakistan shot up after the 1992 World Cup. The match-fixing scandal hit the team really hard in 1995-96, but we won a lot of series before that. Then we performed exceptionally well at the 1999 World Cup in England. It was an era of match-winners. Compared to that era, I really feel sad and concerned about the current state of affairs in Pakistan cricket.

Q: Do you see a massive decline in the quality of the current team compared to the ones you featured in?

Latif: There’s an overall decline [in quality] in world cricket at present. Before, every team used to have five to six match-winners, and any team could defeat any other team. Such was the level of competition ten to fifteen years ago. Even the quality of the Australian team has gone down. The same can be said about Pakistan. Some teams, however, have improved a lot over the years. Bangladesh is certainly an improved side and so are New Zealand and the English ODI side. The Indian team has remained stable. South Africa and the West Indies have really deteriorated. Yeh sab toh chalta rehta hai (These things are common in international sports). I think the dominance and the growing demand for T20 leagues around the world have had an adverse effect on the skillsets of players. That’s why you see so many batsmen finding it difficult to adapt to Test cricket. Test cricket exposes everything. Look at England. They are the world champions, but even they are struggling to find a good Test opening pair.

Q:  Speculations are rife that you are the frontrunner to become the new Pakistan chief selector. What changes would you look to introduce in the team if you get the job?

Latif: I am in contention for the job. Over here everyone thinks that a certain individual can usher in a flood of reforms and change the existing system. Yahan pe sabhi yeh sochte hai ki Wasim aake ya Waqar aake ya Inzamam aake sab thik kar dega. (Everyone here thinks that a certain Wasim Akram or a Waqar Younis or an Inzamam-ul-Haq can put things right, if he comes to power). This happens only in the subcontinent, where individuals are preferred over the system. If you have a proper system in place, it shouldn’t matter who goes out or who comes in. I have said the same thing to the Pakistan Cricket Board. I am not keen on taking the job at the moment. I am busy with a lot of other things now, so I don’t think I’ll be able to take on a full-time job. Having said that, if the team needs my help, I am always ready to extend [my] support. Maybe I can consider taking the job in the future.  

Q: Is it possible for the chief selector in Pakistan to work independently, without the interference of Board officials?

Latif: The selectors work independently here. I don’t think Inzamam faced any interference from the Board during his tenure. The opinions of the captain and the coach, however, do matter. Sometimes the chief selector may be on the same page with them, sometimes he may not. Take Vijay Shankar’s case, for example. He was selected for the World Cup because Kohli and Ravi Shastri had confidence in him. It is always a captain’s team.

I think the Pakistan squad selected for the World Cup was the chief selector’s team. I don’t think Sarfraz (Ahmed) had had much say in the selections. Mickey Arthur might have had. It’s not that the selectors are not vested with any independence.

Source: Getty Images

Q:  How would you review Pakistan’s performance at the World Cup? Which are the players that you had expected to perform better?

Latif: I would say it was a satisfactory performance. It would have been foolish to leave out Mohammad Amir and Wahab Riaz. Thankfully, they were eventually included [in the World Cup squad].

The team was evidently low in confidence, wasn’t it? I don’t think we headed into the tournament well prepared. Moreover, before the World Cup, we lost 0-5 to Australia in the UAE and 0-4 to England in England. We lost our first match [of the World Cup] against the West Indies very badly, defeated England in our second game, then lost our way in the middle, and won our last four games. So you could say it was overall a satisfactory performance. We finished fifth in the group stage with 11 points. [I] don’t think you can call it a poor performance.

Hasan Ali was a big disappointment; Shadab (Khan) didn’t look much effective after coming back from a viral infection; Fakhar Zaman and Shoaib Malik were completely out of form; Hafeez was largely inconsistent. These players should have performed better.

Q: How much do you think is the Pakistan team influenced/affected by extraneous factors? Is it adversely affecting the health of the team?

Latif: These factors definitely affect the team. This happens with every big international team. Some teams manage to tackle these external issues effectively, some don’t. There is political influence and pressure from the Board, but this is how things are run in the subcontinent. I keep myself away from these things because if I occupy some position within the team and the Board asks me any question, I’ll always express my honest opinion. It may not correspond with the Board’s policies. That’s the reason why I don’t want to get associated with any organization.     

Q:  Majority of former Pakistani cricketers have called for the resignation of Sarfraz Ahmed from captaincy. What is your opinion? Would his removal change things much?

Latif: This debate has been going on in Pakistan for a long time now. Many ex-players indeed have called for his sacking. I don’t agree with them.

When Sarfraz was made the captain, nobody raised any objection. Then he led the team to the Champions Trophy victory. It’s not always the captain who is to be blamed if the team fares badly. Sometimes there can be selection issues and wrong strategies of the coach as well. We generally ignore these possibilities and make the captain the scapegoat. Just look at our history. We’ve had a different captain leading the team at every World Cup since 1992. Eight different captains for eight World Cups! Can you imagine? Even Wasim Akram was removed from captaincy in 1996, only to be reinstalled three years later for the ’99 World Cup. Yeh toh chalta rehta hai humare yahan (This has become a custom in Pakistan). I don’t support this policy.

Babar Azam brings out the drive (Photo by Andy Kearns/Getty Images)

Q: Which other player(s) do you think would be a good candidate(s) for the captaincy?

Latif: I think Babar Azam is a strong candidate. He is playing well at the moment. Let him mature more. There are other names also that are making the rounds, but most of them do not play all three formats. Hence, I think only Babar Azam is capable of leading the team across all formats, or else the captaincy can be split.

(Photo by Clint Hughes/Getty Images)

Q:  Your assessment of the work done by Mickey Arthur and his coaching staff…

Latif: He didn’t enjoy much success. His only notable achievement as Pakistan coach was winning the 2017 Champions Trophy. Some good players emerged during his stint though like Babar Azam and Imam-ul-Haq, but there are many others who were dropped such as Sohail Khan, Imran Khan Jr., Amir, Wahab Riaz, Usman Salauddin, and Usman Shinwari. I don’t think he was a good man manager; you can blame him for that. We did occupy the number one rank in T20Is for a while, but we didn’t play exceptional cricket during his tenure. Credit must be given to him for backing Babar Azam in Test cricket, despite him averaging 27 at one stage.  

Q: What are the qualities do you think a candidate should have to qualify as the head coach of Pakistan?

Latif: The most important criterion for a coach is that the system should be in place. Sometimes big names of yesteryear may not become good coaches. The team functions well when the captain, the head coach and the selection committee are on good terms with one another. Having a strong-headed captain or a strong-headed coach can have a bad influence on the team. You need a captain who knows how to win the confidence of his men and get the best out of them. Clive Lloyd, Vivian Richards, Imran Khan, Steve Waugh and M.S. Dhoni are prime examples of that.  Teams like Australia and India have become successful only because they’ve had such selfless captains leading their teams. A good coach would never impose his own ideas on the team. He should understand that it’s the captain’s team first and that his main job is to manage the players. He should also be innovative and open-minded in order to keep pace with the changing dynamics of modern-day cricket. It’s difficult to find a coach who satisfies all these criteria.

Q: In recent times, some of the former Pakistani cricketers have made some extremely disgraceful comments. Two such examples are Basit Ali and Sikandar Bakht, who claimed that the Indian team deliberately lost to England in order to deny Pakistan a semi-final berth during the World Cup. Since you’ve also worked as a TV expert, how does a former player draw a line between criticizing the team for just reasons and making distasteful remarks just for the sake of high TRPs?

Latif: There should definitely be a limit to making such comments. There shouldn’t be personal attacks on players. Some of us got involved in altercations with former players on digital platforms in the past, but I don’t remember having insulted any current player or any team.  Hasan Ali, Sarfraz, Shoaib Malik—these players were insulted by fans and experts throughout the World Cup because of the team’s poor performance. I don’t advocate dragging the personal life of a player into such things.

As far as I know, Basit Ali is one of the most knowledgeable cricket experts in Asia. He can tell you a lot of inside stories. But he should’ve selected his words more carefully. You shouldn’t accuse anyone without any proof. Both you and I know that we often have to say/write a lot of things just for the sake of high TRPs or high readership. Sometimes they do not have any relevance to the game whatsoever. This is ill-affecting the perceptions of the viewers in the subcontinent because former players are supporting the media more than the players.

Q: Do you think such opinions expressed by former players have a direct bearing on the perceptions of the fans? We saw how a young man abused Sarfraz in front of his child at a shopping centre in England…

Latif: Yeh bilkul galat hai (This is absolutely wrong)! How dare he insult the captain of his national team like that? As I said just now, players-turned-experts should be more humble in their presentations and should refrain from making unwitting comments.

Q:  What is the state of domestic cricket in Pakistan now like? Recently, Wasim Akram opined that the one of the main reasons why India has done better than Pakistan of late is because India has invested heavily on improving the domestic structure, whereas Pakistan hasn’t devoted much attention to the same. Is lack of a good school cricket system in Pakistan hindering the supply line?

Latif: Hum log na apna chaal bhul gaye hai (We’ve forgotten our own style). Sometimes we are following England’s domestic format, sometimes we are following Australia, sometimes South Africa, but when I was an active player, Pakistan’s domestic structure was far better. Back in those days, there were many players who became part of the national team even without playing domestic cricket such as Wasim Akram and Inzamam. They were god-gifted players. But ordinary players like me went through very rigorous seasons of first-class cricket before making it to the senior team. These days, however, players do not get to play a lot of first-class cricket owing to the rapid growth of T20 competitions. Accordingly, their quality has also declined. When our team plays in swinging conditions or on green tops, all their deficiencies are exposed. I’ve always believed that club cricket is the nursery of any country’s cricket system, but nowadays it is hardly accorded any importance in our country. Log sirf bahar se bolte hai ki domestic structure improve karo, par asal mein kuch nahi ho raha hai (People only say from outside that the first class structure should get better, but no one is willing to take the initiative). You’ll never get long-serving players unless your grassroots system is good.

Pakistan has never thought seriously about school cricket because most talents come to the fore through club cricket. School cricket has never been our nursery. Hanif Mohammad may be counted as an exception, but what is worrying me the most is that our traditional cricket hubs like Karachi and Lahore are diminishing.

Q: The FTP (Future Tours Programme) is packed with ample series and tournaments, including the ICC Test Championship. What according to you should be Pakistan’s roadmap for the next three-four years?

Latif: Firstly, it’s essential to have a strong think tank. There should be a fair selection committee, which will pick players on merit; a technical committee should also be appointed which would look into the technical aspects of the game such as reviewing the performances of the team series-by-series. It’s also important for the players to imbibe a winning mentality, irrespective of whether they play at home or away. Normally what happens is that we scrutinize the team’s performance only after a big event and then let things pass till another big tournament is close at hand. This attitude needs to change. We have a series coming up against Sri Lanka, followed by one against Australia. Each series should be reviewed separately. That will make a significant difference.

Q: The political tension between India and Pakistan is at its height at the moment. As a former Pakistani cricketer, who played so regularly against India, how much does it affect you to see such sparse contests between the two countries?

Latif: (Laughs) Aaj-kal toh tension kuch zyada hi badh gaya hai (The tension between the two countries has mounted considerably). Every Pakistan-India game that I had been a part of was full of pressure. But once the game starts, all pressure is released. You saw the first Ashes Test in Birmingham. What a fantastic game [it was]! I believe India-Pakistan games are more exciting than the Ashes. Unfortunately, the political situation is such now that we don’t get to play each other, save for the ICC tournaments.

All players are artists; we earn our livelihood by means of entertaining people. We can only hope for things to get better. Sirf sports hi azadi laa sakti hai yeh sab jhamele se (Only sports can liberate the people from these troubles). Sports have no boundaries. I follow India’s matches as closely as I follow Pakistan. You can see that on my YouTube channel. Yes, there are some hatemongers, who abuse the opposition team or the players, but I don’t support such radical form of fanaticism. Throughout history, opposing countries have often come to reconciliation. What about East Germany and West Germany? Such a resolution may never actually happen, but one can at least hope for peace to be restored. Only sports can improve the relation between the two countries. Let’s hope for the best, my friend.

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