Taming the beast known as the Pakistan cricket team is a job many would not relish. But that is exactly what Mickey Arthur took upon himself when he was appointed the Head Coach of Pakistan in May 2016.
Taking over after Waqar Younis’s slightly acrimonious departure after Pakistan’s humiliating form in the 2016 World Twenty20, Arthur was tasked with the restoration of the team’s unsatisfactory positions in all three formats of the game.
Whilst Pakistan, under the Test captaincy of Misbah-ul-Haq, had by and large kept up a good standing in world cricket, the situation in the shorter forms of the game was anything but dire. The issues facing Arthur ranged from indiscipline, to a lack of fitness, as well as the inclusion of players, who’s skills left a lot to be desired.
It wasn’t clear whether Mickey’s own reputation as a strict disciplinarian, especially on his last assignment with Australia, would be a hindrance in a Pakistani environment where frail egos could result in an opposite reaction to what he wanted to achieve.
In addition, the culture of nepotism which had been a bug bear of Pakistan teams of the past would also be a hurdle which he needed to tackle. This particular aspect of his position was a tricky as entrenched attitudes going back years would mean that the establishment would react vehemently to any attempts to change the status quo.
Anyone with some knowledge of Pakistan cricket would know that Mickey Arthur was not going to have an easy ride. But did he have the drive to overcome these problems?
Changing the norms
It was fortunate for Pakistan cricket that in the chief selector Inzamam-ul-Haq, Mickey found an able partner and ally who shared some of his ideals. Inzamam had himself been a batsman of some repute in his playing days and had strong views on selection by merit alone and could be relied to do his job right for most of the time. But the challenge for Arthur when handed a group of players was to ensure that they conformed to his own ideals of professionalism and to guide them to perform in line with the top teams of the world.
Arthur thus went to work and Pakistan cricket followers waited with baited breath. His first major assignment was the tour of England where Pakistan distinguished themselves in the Test series. The Limited-overs format was another issue as Mickey found to his distaste.
During Pakistan’s victorious 1992 World Cup campaign they had adhered to a style of wicket-preservation during the early overs of the game in an attempt at assault towards the end of the innings. It appeared that the rule-book for ODI games was unchangeable and to Arthur’s horror, the same techniques were being used well into 2016. The 4-1 loss to England where Pakistan also conceded the highest total ever in ODIs was a stark reminder to Mickey that the road ahead was not an easy one.
Coupled with outdated strategies, Arthur was also coming to terms with the lack of professionalism amongst the Pakistan ranks.
Concepts of healthy diets and fitness regimes which were taken for granted in most of the world’s top teams appeared alien amongst many Pakistan players as did the idea of adhering to plans set-up by Coaches and trainers.
The disappointments on the tours of New Zealand and Australia only went to strengthen his belief that a major change in attitudes would be needed and now settled in his job, Mickey Arthur started to demand transformations from his team. The initial honeymoon period was over and some hard lessons learnt, but Mickey Arthur was equal to the challenge.
The Pakistan Head Coach had seen enough and endured enough. The message to his team was now clear. You, as a player would only be in his team if you had something to offer to the team. Gone were the days when a player’s past performances or promise of talent or connections would be reason enough for inclusion in Pakistan teams.
What was now needed of players was a firm commitment to the goals and brand of cricket that Pakistan would play. An aggressive brand of cricket where batting, bowling and fielding would be treated with equal importance and where physical fitness would be a pre-requisite for selection.
Running a tight ship
Arthur was not shy to praise his players like he did when he compared Babar Azam to Virat Kohli but then he was clear that if you ever stepped out of line, you would be history. Case in point was Umar Akmal who failed various fitness tests and was dropped for the tour of West Indies for that reason. He supposedly improved his fitness and was sent with the Pakistan squad for the Champions Trophy to England.
Under any other coach, Umar Akmal would have been a sure-fire selection for Pakistan games based on his reputation alone but Arthur was having none of that. The Pakistan Head Coach wanted proof of the fact that Umar had turned a new leaf in terms of his fitness. The batsman, though, failed two fitness tests whilst in England. Back went Umar Akmal on the next flight home despite protests from his loyal band of friends in the media and elsewhere. Mickey Arthur had drawn the line in the sand.
Apart from the discipline, what Mickey Arthur seems to have instilled in his team is the belief and determination which is crucial to success at this level. A horrible dispiriting loss against India in the first game of the tournament could have resulted in a downward spiral for a team with many youngsters. But with a mixture of a frank exchange of views, changes to personnel and the ability to instil confidence in the team, Arthur along with Pakistan captain Sarfraz Ahmed turned around the fortunes of the team to the point that they now stand a match away from lifting the Champions Trophy.
A man who wears his heart on his sleeve when it comes to his team’s well-being and performances, Pakistan are fortunate to have a man of principles and integrity guiding their team as it rebuilds and attempts to claw back its stature in world cricket. Past glory and reputations or seniority means nothing in Arthur’s world. The message is simply, perform or leave. All that matters is what the players can bring to the team today and tomorrow. The proof of that approach is in Pakistan’s remarkable turnaround during the Champions Trophy with more successes just a matter of time if the PCB and players can support Arthur on his mission for Pakistan cricket.