Geoff Lawson has played a significant role in the History of Australian Cricket. As an opening bowler, he was the one regular in the Australian side throughout the 1980’s (with Allan Border being the only regular batsman), having played 46 tests and taking 180 wickets between 1980 and 1989. He came in to Test cricket when the Lillee-Thomson era was winding down and was there to help establish the Hughes-McDermott combination as he left.
Apart from this he captained and then coached NSW for over 15 years, and was largely responsible for the development and progression of some of the most well known Australian players over the last 20 years including the Waughs, the Taylors, the Lees, the Matthews (one could be excused for thinking that there was more than one of THEM) and the Slater!
It was with great anticipation therefore, that after the sad passing of Bob Woolmer in 2007, I envisaged Lawson playing a similarly significant role in Pakistani Cricket when he was appointed coach of the Pakistan National team.
Unfortunately, the corrupt politics that infests Pakistani cricket – as is the case with most aspects of the country – meant that Lawson was never given a fair go in completing the job he was hired to do. Personally, I couldn’t believe how the PCB could allow such a golden opportunity – to not only improve the quality of the players but to improve the standing of Pakistan as a cricketing nation – to be thrown away. Incredibly, Lawson has never been known to be bitter about his axing and still follows the fortunes of the Pakistani team with great interest – to the extent that in the recently completed Pakistan Tour of Australia, Lawson was almost by design the ‘Pakistan Correspondent’ during the ABC radio broadcasts of the matches. During the 2nd day of the Boxing Day test, Geoff Lawson generously made himself available to have a chat about his time and observations whilst he was coach of Pakistan. This is first part of his Interview.
Naeem Mohammed: Thanks very much for your time, Geoff. First of all, How did you get the coaching job with the Pakistani Team?
Geoff Lawson: Well, I got a call from someone asking, “Would you be interested?” I said, “No, not really”. I hadn’t really thought about (doing something like) that. I was doing a lot of work in the media with Fox Sports Cricket and ABC radio, and I was doing a fair bit of coaching with NSW state team and under-age squads…I mean I love coaching…so I was quite busy at the time so I virtually dismissed it out of hand when the first phone call came. The call itself came through somebody who knew me in Sydney who sort of recommended me to Pakistan. He knew they were looking…it was a sort of ‘mates of mates’ thing…but I just sort of dismissed it.
But then they said, “We’ve got 3 Australians (under consideration)…We want an Australian, who’ll bring the Australian way of doing things.” I said, “Well, I’m VERY particular about the way I go about doing things. They said, “Oh well, why don’t you come over and have an interview?” They were also interviewing Dav Whatmore and Richard Done who I’d actually played cricket with at NSW.
I thought, “Well all I can do is go there and tell them how I do things. It’s likely they won’t like it because it’s a very forthright way which would deal with changing the culture of the hierarchy that they had there, the people……it would be about empowering players. The players don’t get treated particularly well in Pakistan…and that’s what I’ll tell them.”
I hadn’t been to Pakistan since 1982, so I thought it would be nice to at least take the trip and have a few days over there and take a look at the place! The meeting was at the Pearl Continental Hotel at Murree. I went there and gave a presentation. Mudassar Nazar, who was head of their national cricket academy at the time, was on the selection committee as was the CEO, a business style of guy with an MBA, running Pakistan Cricket as a business. I just told them exactly what I would do. Then I went to Abbottabad and met the players who were there on a training camp. I knew a couple of them – didn’t know too many of them. I knew OF them, of course but not personally. I told them the same thing. I said, “This is way I plan to go about it, this is what we need to do, we’re going to change some attitudes etc.” Apparently they (the coaching selection panel) were pretty happy with what I was saying so they told the Chairman of the board that they were happy…and…Next thing I knew I was offered the job. It took me a bit by surprise actually!
NM: There’s been a trend over the last decade or so for sub-continental teams in particular to appoint (as coaches) players who have played for Australia. Did you consult any of those other ex-players or did you feel the need to consult Richard Pybus (the first non-Pakistani to coach Pakistan) before you took the job?
GL: No, I didn’t consult Richard Pybus, but I spoke to Greg Chappell who’d only just come back from India. We had a long chat about what was going on in India and the challenges. I’d been to India many times, I’d done some coaching there and been there commentating so I was fairly familiar with not just the country but with the cricket setup. We had a good chat about that and so (in the end) it was mostly Greg who I spoke since he’d had some very recent experiences in India.
NM: As an outsider, Greg Chappell’s stint with India seemed to have a bitter end. In your discussions with Greg, is that the feeling you got and if so, did that deter you in anyway in taking the Pakistan job?
GL: No, I think Greg was quite philosophical about it. Greg also had certain ways in which he wanted to do things. My view from the outside, looking at Indian cricket while Greg was there, was that things improved a lot. There were a lot of conflicts but you had to have those. I think that they came out of that as a much better team and a much better unit. I think also that Gary Kirsten (the current coach of India) has actually benefited from what Greg did there. Greg did all the ‘hard yards’. He tried to make changes, move on older players, and change attitudes. Lots of people resisted that as they do in many walks of life but if you take the medium to long term view, I think Greg was very successful there.
NM: Was it a cultural shock to you while you were coaching Pakistan and living in Pakistan or was it something that you looked forward to as a new experience in life?
GL: Yeah, well I’ve been around the world, I’ve been to India multiple times, I love Asia, I love the subcontinent. So, no, certainly not a culture shock. I quite enjoy being in a different culture and taking it all in, seeing what I could do there as you would do. It’s probably an advantage being an atheist that you take everything in and judge people for who they are and what they are rather than come from some position of prejudice, I guess. But Look, I enjoyed everything about Pakistan. The people were fantastic. Even the times in the evening particularly when the call to prayer was on and the Imams’ voices are coming across, it’s actually in many ways quite haunting and quite special – except when they all start competing against each other and then it’s just a noise, then someone starts a little be early because they want to be in before the others! And so, it becomes a part of what you hear everyday and you look forward to it.
It doesn’t matter how we dress and eat, we’re all human beings. We just do things a little bit differently. Australia is a very open, free sort of culture, a fairly secular society with its religions. We just get along. I don’t know, it might be a culture shock for a lot people who grow up in Australia and don’t see what’s overseas but I think when they get there they understand that everyone has their own views in life and in the end it’s just mothers and fathers going about their business, looking after kids, essentially doing the same things. They want health, they want education, they want good lives. That’s nothing different to anybody else.
NM: I think you were coach for about 18 months, is that right? GL: Yes, That’s right. The original term was 2 years which would have ended in August 2009
NM: What was the reason for the early termination? GL: Well, it was just classic Pakistan, Wasn’t it? There was an election…which shocked everybody! It was fairly democratic in which Musharraf’s party lost badly. So there was a new government. Because it was a shared government – it wasn’t a majority government – it took many months to sort out their portfolios and of course the president of Pakistan appoints the chairman of the PCB so everybody knew the board was going to change, the chairman was going to change, simply because of the politics. The new president of the country and/or his representative WASN’T going to look at Pakistan cricket and say, “Oh, Look, that’s fantastic. They’re doing a great job!” He was just going to look at putting his friends in, and that’s what happened – which was expected. That’s just how it operates there, it’s not a particularly good system but that’s how it’s done. So, the new Chairman was officially appointed who happened to be the Minister of Defence’s brother-in-law – not a man totally familiar with contemporary business or contemporary sport. He had no idea. Without even speaking to me – even to say that I was useless for Pakistan – he proceeded to change the coach. It had nothing to do with the job I was doing or the prospects we had, it just had to do with “one of my friends wants to be the coach, and I’d rather have a Pakistani in that position – not a foreigner.” That’s the way it goes.
NM: When you took over as coach, was there anything that surprised you or disappointed you about the team’s standard of cricket played or their training methods or work ethic?
GL: One of the reasons I took the job is when I saw them at their training camp at Abbottabad, I was quite impressed. They were going really hard. They were training really well. They were preparing for the 2007 Twenty20 World Cup and they were playing a few practice games and they were really hard at it, very competitive. Even though they were practice games it looked like it meant a lot to them. So, yeah I was impressed with that attitude.
I took my fitness trainer from Sydney who’s still with them, Dave Dwyer. We then started to go through piece by piece how we were going to improve this team, and fitness was a big issue. There was a long way to go to reach international standards. Our motto was, “A brick at a time”, so everyday we just put another brick in the wall that was going to become Pakistan cricket. Other issues included not worrying about what the media says, having some confidence in players, trying to get proper selection processes in place, selecting the best players, identifying talent…all the things you need to do in a professional line-up so we set about doing all those sorts things…and changing some training habits – certainly in relation to fitness.
With cricket practice – you DO take some of your own ideas with cricket practice – but at least the guys DO like practising, they like batting, bowling and fielding. They’re not heavily into the other stuff but it was just a matter of refining a few things they were doing and making sure proper techniques were put into place and then ensuring everything was 100% the right way – not 85% or 90%. Players had to learn that to do things correctly 9 times out of 10 was not good enough – it had to be 10 times out of 10. If you want to be the best you have to set a level of excellence, not a level of mediocrity or level of self-satisfaction.
NM: Leading into the series a lot has been made of Pakistan’s poor fielding standard and we’ve seen why over the last day and a half. Not apportioning the blame at any particular coach because it seems to be part of the Pakistani culture that fielding is almost something you do on the side and that everyone is there to bat or bowl; Is that a philosophy you observed in the team, and if so, did you try and alter that to try and make the players aware of the importance of being absolutely top-notch fielders?
GL: Oh, yeah. You base a lot of your game on what you do in the field. Personally, I think the guys get a bad rap, I mean every time they do something vaguely wrong, everyone jumps on them whereas when other teams do it, it doesn’t seem to be an issue. I know they dropped a couple of catches on day one. One of them came off the keeper’s glove – I mean no one’s going to catch that. It LOOKS bad but it wasn’t bad. Guys like Misbah and Kamran practice hard and are very good catchers. Umar Akmal has young eyes, he normally catches them. I checked with him afterwards and (that one he dropped on the first morning) he ‘lost it’ in the crowd. Everyone drops them. Even the Australians will drop them but it seems when Pakistan do it, they cop a bad rap for it. Having said that they weren’t very good in New Zealand – they dropped a lot of easy ones in New Zealand. Maybe that’s because it was cold….I don’t know.
NM: So you don’t think it’s a cultural problem that they have?
GL: Well, when you field on hard grounds, you don’t dive around because you WILL get hurt. In Australia, we get spoilt – we get beautiful grounds. Even in under 15’s our kids get to play on good grounds so they learn to dive around at young ages. In Pakistan you can’t DO that. Even when Australia teams have toured India and Pakistan they’ve had to stop diving otherwise they’ll take skin off their arms and their legs and hurt their shoulders. So, when you don’t grow up with that, it’s hard to learn that. Having said that, a lot of Pakistan first class grounds aren’t too bad. You’ll find if you play at Lahore or Karachi or even Multan, there are better grounds there these days, so you’ve just got to spend more time practicing on them. Also, Pakistan doesn’t quite have the athletes that Australia does. They’ve got players with skill but they’re not necessarily athletes so you need to work on a whole range of things. Generally, I can’t believe what people have been saying the last day and a half. OK, a couple of blokes dived and missed but (for example) Yusuf was FANTASTIC at mid-off yesterday. He continually dived and saved but I haven’t heard anyone mention how good he was. People are quick to criticize but very slow to praise.
NM: A lot has been said about Kamran Akmal’s keeping. I heard you talking on the radio about how much work you’d done with him but one of things I’ve picked up on and I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – I raised this with Bob Woolmer also 5 years ago – I actually think he stands a bit too far back. He’s somebody who likes to take the ball somewhere between his shins and his knees, whereas the Australian Keepers like to take it next to their hip…
GL: Yeah as matter of fact I was at a level 3 coaching camp in Dacca recently and Rashid Latif was there and we were talking about exactly those sorts of things. Sub-continental keepers like to take the ball ‘on the down’ and Australian keepers like to take it ‘on the up’. I asked, “Why IS that?” He said, “Oh, I’m not too sure. That’s just the way we do it.”
It could just be that as a young kid growing up in Pakistan you see where everyone else stands and that’s where YOU stand. But it WAS actually discussed at this level 3 course, “Where do we tell our keepers to stand?” Australian keepers generally like it on the up even though they play on generally faster bouncier wickets, Indian, Pakistan and Sri Lankan keepers always like it on the way down. I’m not sure why that is and I leave it to the wicket keeper.
We did a lot of work on his footwork. He had a bad end of ‘07 in the Indian series, but he’s too good a batsman (to think about replacing him)…you know…he’s made hundreds. He opened the batting when we had some injuries, and he got a hundred. We got into trouble in Calcutta, we had to save the game, and he got a hundred. You want that sort of gutsy player in the team. We certainly looked at what he was doing, his footwork, his balance and he works SO hard and I reckon his last 12 months have been fantastic. He’s moving well, he’s caught well and he’s worked hard enough to get that right.
NM: The reason I raise the issue about positioning is because the keeper effectively sets the position where the slips subconsciously decide to stand. And I’ve seen even in this match a couple of balls not quite carry whereas you’ll probably find that the Australian slips cordon will stand a little closer, due to their keeper being prepared to take the ball at hip height, and be more likely to take their chances..
GL: Yeah, a bit of that DOES happen. We had one here today, first over, didn’t carry – did it? It’s usually an individual thing, and a tricky thing. As a bowler, I liked them standing up a bit further – nothing worse than getting a regulation edge and not carrying. You’d rather they stand too close and drop them!
NM: While you were coach of Pakistan, who were the players you saw improve significantly and who in current team do you think can take them forward?
GL: I saw improvement in a lot of guys. I certainly saw improvement in Kamran Akmal as a keeper but he was already a permanent fixture in the team and having a keeper-batsman who can always be there is a really nice thing to have. I’ve seen Salman Butt play well and then play not so well – he should be one of the best players in the world, I think, but when you don’t play a test match for a full year it’s hard to get used to the pressures of Test Cricket. Right now this is the best run Pakistan has had in test cricket for 3 years, having played 3 in NZ and now having 3 in Australia but they are still way behind those teams getting 15 tests a year so they could still do with a lot of hard first class cricket but at least they’re in a much better position than they have been for a while.
Who else have we got – Saeed Ajmal only came onto the scene when I was there – I saw him at a ‘Promising Players’ camp. Guys like Danish Kaneria have also suffered from playing no Test Cricket. He’s got 240-odd Test wickets – he could have 500. He’s got virtually the same record as Abdul Qadir – more wickets but at the same average – and much better than Mushtaq Ahmed yet he doesn’t quite get the recognition he deserves mainly because they haven’t been playing a hell of a lot of test cricket. Obviously Mohammed Aamer’s been terrific since he got into the team. I saw him at an under-19’s camp 2 years ago. It’s great to see him running in in a Test Match and bowling fast – not having a lot of luck but bowls fast.
To be continued next month…….