In white-ball cricket, Umar Gul was a force to reckon with at the death for Pakistan. Before the importance of a ‘death overs specialist’ became the fad, the towering Gul was his team’s preferred choice for the make-or-break overs.
While his ability to bowl a pinpointed yorker made him a key member of Pakistan’s World T20 winning side in 2009, an unfortunate turn of events, a knee injury sustained in 2013, spelt the end of his playing career.
But not one to watch from the sidelines, Gul, shortly after retiring from cricket, donned a new hat as the bowling coach of Afghanistan. With a renewed sense of purpose, Gul hopes to hone new talent and produce a couple of quality pacers for Afghanistan who can match up to the highest level.
In a conversation with Sportstar on Thursday afternoon at the Junction Oval, Gul spoke about how fast bowling has evolved in T20s and also touched upon Pakistan’s current pace bowling line-up.
Afghanistan is known for its spin domination. But being the bowling coach, how are you planning to improve the fast bowling department?
Over the years, we have managed to have a world-class spin bowling attack with Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Zadran. They are all performing regularly, and even in franchise cricket, every team wants to get the two on board. Earlier, the focus was on the spinners, but being a fast bowler myself, I want to produce a couple of good fast bowlers from Afghanistan. The target is to create fast bowlers who can create pressure from one end.
Thankfully, our pacers have been performed well over the last few months. It is about giving more opportunities to these bowlers because the more they play, the better they will get. Our fast bowlers Fazalhaq Farooqi and Azmatullah Omarzai have a lot of potential, and they are taking all the efforts to improve their game and find breakthroughs early on. That’s a very good sign.
You were also part of the Pakistan team that reached the final of the inaugural edition of the World T20 in 2007. Over the years, how much has the T20 format changed?
When we started in 2006-07, it was a new format, especially the teams from Asia did not have much idea about how the new format would pan out. Back in those days, we did not have so many facilities as compared to the other teams. But eventually, we picked it up quickly, and as a result you had the Asian teams - India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka - dominating the first couple of years in the ICC events. As time went, England paced up its game, and slowly the focus changed to T20s from just playing four days of county cricket. So, the more they played, the players realised how to adapt to T20s and invented newer techniques and shots to be more suited for the shorter format. So, change was inevitable.
With the increase in T20 cricket and a tight international schedule, how challenging has the format become for the fast bowlers?
It is a huge challenge. The ODIs and Test cricket allow a bowler to bounce back even if a spell goes wrong. But in T20s, if you concede 20-25 runs in one of the overs, it puts you in a cocoon, and there is very little time to regroup. At that point, you start thinking how to concede less runs and how to finish your remaining overs. That has a huge impact mentally, and is a big challenge. So, being a fast bowler, you have to be calculative right from the start and walk into the pitch with a clear mindset. Neither can you doubt yourself, nor can you be complacent - you have to be in that zone right from the start.
Over the years, the pitches have changed across the globe, and I think the fans want to see high-scoring games. As a result, most cricket boards end up preparing flat decks. T20 cricket is a huge revenue generator, and factoring in everything, wickets are flatter these days. That certainly puts the bowlers under pressure. Adding to the bowlers’ woes, there have been so many rule changes. But if you look at the positive, all these challenges actually motivate them to come up with a good ball and prove their mettle.
What are your thoughts on the current Pakistan bowling line-up?
We have a tagdi (strong) bowling line-up, and people have been talking about it. Especially when you have three or four bowlers who can bowl 140kmph-plus, you obviously have an advantage in the Australian conditions. The more they play, the more they will improve. These are young guys who don’t have too much experience. Some have been around for about five years, but they still lack that experience of playing enough Test cricket. If you play the longer format, it helps you learn a lot.
The team certainly has the potential, and I am confident that if they can keep the momentum going, Pakistan cricket will benefit from the young pace battery in the longer run.
You have worked a lot with Naseem Shah. How do you see his transformation?
Naseem has been with me for two years, along with [Mohammad] Hasnain. I have worked with them and am happy to see Naseem improve so much over the last two years. I am not saying he has improved because of me, but it was nice working with him as he responded well and was willing to learn and implement the learnings.
What are your thoughts on Shaheen Shah Afridi? He is yet to find his rhythm after returning from a long injury lay-off. Do you think that Pakistan rushed him into the squad?
If you are a fast bowler and constantly clocking 140-plus, it puts a lot of load on your body. You take a long sprint, so it certainly adds to your workload, so you have to be careful.
Shaheen was away from international cricket for quite a while, and when you suddenly come into a big-ticket event from an injury, it definitely puts you under pressure. The more you play, you get your rhythm back, and since Shaheen was away for quite a bit, he did not have enough training sessions leading up to the tournament. So, such things can happen to a fast bowler. If you don’t even bowl for two weeks, it has an impact on your game, whereas for Shaheen, it has been quite a long break. In the T20 World Cup last year, Shaheen was in devastating form, and naturally, everyone wanted to see him in that avatar now. But you have to give him some time. He is young with immense potential, and I am sure, slowly, he will get his rhythm back.
With the progress of T20 cricket, the death overs have become even more significant these days. Being a senior bowler, what should be the mindset while bowling at the death?
In T20s, the first PowerPlay is important because it all depends on how you start. Whether you bowl first or defend a total, the last few overs eventually become most important because the results depend on those three or four overs. If I talk about Pakistan bowling, I think Haris (Rauf) bowls well at the death and has developed over the years. The fact that he has played enough franchise cricket and T20 cricket has helped him improve as a bowler. Shaheen is undoubtedly one of the best new ball bowlers, but he needs to work more at the end overs. That’s where he is struggling.
The best way to tackle the death overs is to play to your strengths and focus on that particular aspect of your game. You need to have command. That’s the only way to come out of the crunch situations.
Pakistan has a huge talent pool in the bowling department. But there is also a perception that many youngsters struggle at the highest level because of a lack of communication with the overseas coaches. Do you think it is important to back home-grown coaches more so they can understand the psychology of the players?
I am sure the bowling or the batting coaches for each and every team have their own planning in place. Shaun Tait, the bowling coach of Pakistan, also has a plan for sure. But I think communication does become a factor. If you look at most players from Asian teams, when they work with the foreigners, language becomes a big issue. Even here, the Afghan players are comfortable with me because I can communicate with them easily. For the youngsters who break into the team for the first time, communication actually becomes a big obstacle. They cannot communicate properly with the foreign coaches as they would with a local coach. There are times when our local boys, who are not quite fluent in English, feel that ‘if I can’t speak properly, people will laugh at me’. And because of this, some players often fail to express themselves, so it is important to ensure that there’s no language barrier between the players and the coaching staff.
Pakistan’s fast bowling department went through a transition phase in between, but now with Shaheen and Naseem spearheading the bowling line-up, do you think this is slowly becoming one of Pakistan’s best bowling line-ups in the shorter format?
Bilkul, aap keh sakte hai (absolutely, you can say so). In white-ball cricket, we have a solid line-up with Haris, Hasnain also around. But when it comes to Shaheen and Naseem, they can be effective in all three formats. With the rise in T20 and franchise cricket, even players prefer T20s over the long form. But I am of the opinion that there’s any alternative to red-ball cricket. The more you play Tests or four-day cricket, the better you get. Those formats teach you to adapt to each and every situation. So, [my message] to all the youngsters in Pakistan, India and other countries is that you must play the four-day format and not ignore red-ball cricket. If you have to succeed in all three formats, it is most important to play four-day cricket.
What is your assessment of the Indian fast bowling line-up in the T20 World Cup?
Arshdeep (Singh) is a really talented bowler. Then you have the seasoned (Mohammed) Shami. He has proved himself again in the tournament so far. But I still feel that in the absence of Jasprit Bumrah, the Indian bowlers need to work a bit more on their pace. The batters are world-class, but I think bowling is slightly weaker in the absence of Bumrah. The expectations are huge from the bowlers, but players like Arshdeep are still young. He will certainly be good, but on one or two occasions when he has a bad day, it is important to have someone backing him. The fast bowlers need to be more consistent.