‘Always bowl to take wickets’

Mushtaq Ahmed is now the Delhi Daredevils' bowling coach. Here he is with Irfan Pathan and David Warner.-S. SUBRAMANIAM

“Twenty20 has its own skills and technique factor but Test cricket is supreme,” Mushtaq Ahmed, the leg-spinner of yesteryear, tells Vijay Lokapally.

He was the silent force behind the England bowlers doing well on their last series in India. With rich experience of cricket in the sub-continent, Mushtaq Ahmed, the wily Pakistan leg-spinner, who last played international cricket in 2003, not only guided the England spinners but the fast bowlers too, teaching them the art of reverse swing. England won 2-1 and Mushtaq was acknowledged for his role.

Here, as the coach of Delhi Daredevils, the 42-year-old Mushtaq, who has claimed 185 Test and 161 ODI wickets, shares his thoughts on various aspects of the game.

Question: How do you reflect on your cricket journey?

Answer: I am satisfied with my cricket. I played more than I deserved really. As a coach, with England, with Pakistan (as assistant coach to Bob Woolmer), I learnt a lot. You have different mindsets as a coach and as a player. As a player you think about yourself, as a coach you think for the players, for the management. I am enjoying it. I am passionate about cricket and I am still learning. It is about man management.

There was nothing called man management in your time…

Because seniors had time for the juniors. We got lot of lessons in the nets, no need for a coach. But there is too much cricket now. Today, the player needs more time to himself, selfish you may say, juniors don’t get that access and time with their seniors. I learnt so much from Imran (Khan) and (Abdul) Qadir. They would spare so much time for newcomers, teaching us how to bowl to the field, studying the opposition. They (seniors) were the coaches. Now cricket is played 12 months a year and seniors need to look after themselves and their family. They get tired. This is one reason why the support staff has increased in number. Earlier I never believed in this support staff system. But I think it is needed. It helps the youngsters. It is the need of the time and it has developed a lot.

You never had a video analyst or support staff, yet you could carry on for so many years, planning for yourself. Don’t you think we have too much of analysis these days?

You have a valid point. Sometimes, with too much analysis, we tend to confuse the player. There should be a balance. No gym in my days, take four-five laps, bowl in the nets, and you were fit to play. You had time to recover. Now you finish one and the next series is on your head. It can be complicated but you have to strike a balance. I retired recently (2009) and I am able to make the adjustments, read the game better.

What is the difference between cricket in the sub-continent and outside?

A lot. Environment, pitches, crowd, food and travelling makes a lot of difference. These things matter. Small things count. Food can make a lot of difference. Roti daal here and pasta there. I would worry about food. Thirty per cent worry is about food and 70 per cent about the rest. The pitches are hard overseas. But you are used to slow pitches in the sub-continent; in England it swings, in the sub-continent it doesn’t. These things distract you, by the time you adapt, the series is over.

How should one tackle these issues?

Youngsters should be sent overseas regularly. Look, in England, I would struggle to grip the ball, so circumstances worked against me. Before coming to India, the England team had a camp in Dubai, came for the series two weeks in advance, the players got used to the conditions. Players stopped pasta and ate local food. I always advocate local food because it will be served fresh. In my opinion, fresh food is fresh mind. Pitches can make a huge impact. In the sub-continent, the pitches are slow and you struggle to sweep, in England you can play the sweep. In England I can’t drive, here I can. This is very critical. In England, just bowl a good line. In the sub-continent, spin the ball. There I had to bowl good overs, not just a good ball.

What do you tell a spinner?

Bowl to your strength. I got wickets overseas because I looked to bowl good overs. I never concentrated on turning the ball, just looked to bowl a good line, create pressure. It helped. When I played county cricket, I learnt. That’s why I say we must send the youngsters on cricket tours more and more.

What are the challenges of modern cricket?

The mindset has changed. Look at Test cricket. 200 in a day was good in my playing days. Now the scoring ratio has changed. Scoring has become pacy, four an over. The quality of spin has gone down. Not much variation. We had brave spinners, being hit for a six didn’t hurt. Now you look to escape. When you look to survive you become an under-achiever. The basics have not changed. If your basics are strong, you will succeed.

Why are there very few quality spinners in world cricket?

Graeme Swann is too good. He has taken 200 wickets in three years. His ball turns and drifts. He can trouble anyone. In Asia, we are not investing in spinners. No talent hunt for spinners. They are not looked after. We are making grassy pitches. You have to encourage the slow bowlers. This can come from the coaches and the management. You have to bowl 20 good overs and not 20 good balls.

We are told you taught the art of reverse swing to the English bowlers. Is it true?

It’s a credit to the players, James Anderson especially. In bowling, the angles are important. You have to study the batsman, who hits on the rise, who has no backlift. If a player has no backlift, he will not be shaky against the in-swinging ball. So, I will go around the wicket, maybe leg-before no chance, but around the wicket he has to think differently; when you go over the wicket he is foxed by the in-swing. Credit to the bowlers who listened to and implemented what I suggested.

Do you believe Test cricket has a place in the future?

Test cricket has the highest place. The India-England series brought out the character of cricket, the quality of cricket. Test cricket has its fan club. It brings the best out of the player. Twenty20 has its own skills and technique factor but Test cricket is supreme. There are NO flukes in Test cricket.

What are your suggestions to a bowler in Twenty20 cricket?

Simple. Spin the ball. Don’t worry about being hit. Imran advised me not to worry about conceding runs. He would say, “Give me wickets. I don’t care if you give ten runs an over.” Look at all successful T20 spinners. They spin the ball. Batsmen may be strong but once the ball turns, it doesn’t come on to the bat. You have to keep it simple. Stick to your length, don’t let him cut or drive. If you get clobbered from that length, don’t worry, give credit to the batsman. If he hits me for two sixes and gets out, I am happy.

How would you tackle a batsman like Chris Gayle?

Swann has always troubled Gayle. Big player will need big bowler. Don’t hide your best bowler. Let him bowl against Gayle. I have to bowl my best overs to the best batsman. Meet fire with fire.

IPL, Big Bash…What is positive about these T20 leagues?

It gives employment, for some period, to players, past and present. People don’t have time. They want enjoyment after working 9 to 5. This is fun.

Don’t you regret playing just one Test against India?

Sad. We hardly played each other those days. Cricket was played at neutral venues, Sharjah mainly. It was unfortunate. By the time it became frequent, I lost my chance even though I was at my peak.

About your association with Delhi Daredevils…

I would watch IPL and enjoy it honestly. During the India-England series, TA (Sekar) and Aashish (Kapoor) offered me this chance to be the spin bowling coach. I was keen to experiment, see cricket from every angle. As a coach, I am teaching and also learning. I tell them give five seconds more to yourself, don’t rush, think, think. It is a big lesson. You have to plan. 56 in 5 overs looks tough, but 56 off 30 balls looks possible. A coach can only help, the rest is on the player.

Your advice to modern spinners…

Always bowl to take wickets, never to contain.