Saqlain Mushtaq: It’s important for a spinner to put his thinking cap on

Saqlain Mushtaq, the spin consultant of the England team, believes that India’s Kuldeep Yadav has the potential to emerge as one of the top spinners in the world.

“If you are a good spinner, you can survive in both the longer and shorter versions,” says former Pakistan spinner Saqlain Mushtaq.   -  Shayan Acharya

In his long and illustrious career, former Pakistan spinner Saqlain Mushtaq has seen many close games against arch-rival India. He still remembers how the two teams would leave no stone unturned to outclass each other every time they met. But things seem to have changed over the last few years. “Pakistan has been largely inconsistent,” he says while speaking to Sportstar at a plush Southampton hotel.

Saqlain, the spin consultant of the England team, also believes that India’s Kuldeep Yadav has the potential to emerge as one of the top spinners in the world.

India-Pakistan matches were once considered the clash of the evens with both sides having star players. Your comments...

India is playing very good cricket. It is one of the best sides in the world at the moment and has a chance to win the World Cup. It is much stronger than Pakistan. In our times, we didn’t have much of a difference as we had superstars on both sides. Now we see, in the world rankings, the Indians top the batting line-up. In the bowling department, Bhuvneshwar Kumar and Jasprit Bumrah are in the top-five in the world. It has a top spin pair (in Kuldeep Yadav and Yuzvendra Chahal) and the side is much better than us in the fielding department as well. That clearly indicates that India is better than us. Whatever rivalry and hype we had every time India and Pakistan met is not there that much now because it has mostly become a one-sided affair for India. Even though we won the Champions Trophy in 2017, I feel India was better than us. We were lucky and we all know that Pakistan is an unpredictable team. On the day Pakistan plays with full passion and with a street smart approach, it can beat any team. But I still feel that in the Champions Trophy, India was better than Pakistan.

Though Pakistan has a lot of talented players, something is not quite working for them. What do you think?

The players are very talented and skilful, but the problem is consistency. If you look at the Indian team, the batting unit is very consistent and they adapt to the situation very well, better than us. We play our home games in the UAE, whereas India plays at home. Playing home games away from home is another thing, which is not helping Pakistan cricket. The Indians have better infrastructure than us and they are putting in a lot of money. Their overall structure is intact but I think our structure doesn’t exist. We have raw talent, coming from local cricket, but we don’t have school cricket and our club cricket is almost extinct. We don’t have any idea of how to run domestic cricket. Most of the talent is coming from the local street cricket and the players gradually climb up the ladder. When I started playing cricket, we used to have three or four cricket grounds. We used to play club cricket, 40-over games. That was minimum; then there was college cricket, two-three days of grade cricket. Now, the cricketers only play 20-over games. That’s not helping anyone. The worst part is, we don’t have any clarity of our domestic fixtures. Nobody knows when the matches will be held and there’s not much money either. When the young cricketers get a chance to play club cricket or divisional cricket in England, the PCB invites them to play for their teams. Though there is enough talent, the financial aspect is a worrying factor. These are the areas the board needs to think about.

After the 2017 Champions Trophy, Pakistan has been inconsistent. Some fans have even taken to social media to express their displeasure not just on the players but also the foreign coaches. Do you think Pakistan needs to rethink on its appointment of foreign coaches?

You are right. There are multiple issues. We don’t have enough facilities, we don’t have enough grounds and we don’t have enough money. To be honest, we have no idea of how to run cricket. I am a bit harsh, but the truth is we don’t have the right system to run cricket. Communication becomes a major issue when it comes to the foreign coaches and they work only at the top level. There’s no one to look after the players at the lower level. I remember in our times, in one of the Pakistan under-19 camps, Rana Naved was bowling to Salim Ilahi and he hit a back drive and it hit Naved on his knee. It got swollen up and the physio put some ice and gave him some medicines. Our manager decided to take him to hospital and the doctor, after examining him said the medicines given by the physio were for stomach ache and not for knee pain. Imagine, that was the status! Even now, there are no takers for local matches. During my stint with one of the television channels back home, we had done a show on how negligence was affecting Pakistan cricket at the domestic level. Can you imagine, there were reports that food would be brought from somewhere and it would just be kept at one side! It’s so unhygienic. But even after all that, we have so many talented cricketers who can spring in a few surprises. That’s Pakistan!

“I like his body language, I like his work ethics,” says Saqlain of India’s Kuldeep Yadav.   -  AFP

India and Pakistan had many quality spinners. Today India has Kuldeep Yadav and Chahal and Pakistan has Shadab Khan. But the overall standard of spin seems to have gone down in Pakistan. What is the reason?

They are focusing too much on the shorter format. You gain confidence and develop your skill set only when you play the longer format. When you play the shorter format, you don’t use your tactics well. In the longer format, there are ways of getting wickets: to come up with plans to trap the batsman. You indulge in mind games. In the shorter format, that’s not the case. You are just trying to save yourself and in the process, you lure them to get out. Once the batsmen go big, you look at creating opportunities to just get a wicket. This strategy will not work in the longer format because there you don’t know how the batsman will play the next ball. You need to look at the batsman, understand him, notice his footwork and expression in a bid to trap him. There are too many things which the longer format teaches you. I always tell the bowlers to put their heart and soul. That will help you gain confidence and also come up with strategies on how to trouble the batsmen. By doing that, you put pressure on the batsmen. These are the key areas that our young spinners miss today. It is important not to be mechanical in approach but put a thinking cap on.

In the last few years, there’s so much talk about the wrist spinners. What are your thoughts on that?

These days the wrist spinners are in the market! (Laughs.) I don’t know why the batsmen find it difficult to read the wrist spinners or the finger spinners. India has two wrist spinners, then we have Adil Rashid in England, Imran Tahir, Adam Zampa and a bit of Rashid Khan. We also have a leg-spinner from Pakistan in Shadab Khan. That has become a trend but I think the batsmen are not watching the ball at the time of delivery and that’s leading to the whole problem.

Do you actually feel it’s easy to tackle them?

In my time, the batsmen who were known to play well against spinners actually enjoyed playing the leg-spinners. I believe that the eye can see everything. If you are watching the hand movement at the time of delivery, you can see everything and there should not be any problem. The art is how the bowler traps a batsman and makes him commit a mistake. But great players are great watchers of the ball and they know exactly how to tackle these things. In my time, we had so many of them... Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, Mohammad Azharuddin, Aravinda de Silva and Brian Lara. They all used to watch the ball and when you do that, you know what’s going on. That’s important and the other thing is, you have to trust your eyes as well. Sometimes you make mistakes but don’t trust your eyes and end up playing the wrong line. At the moment, because of the shorter version, the wrist spinners are very much in the game, especially in ODIs because they can turn the ball both ways, they have the flipper as well and that brings a bit of doubt in the batsman’s mind. I would again repeat that if you watch the hand movement, you can play them easily. Pitches are better now than before. They are flatter, the boundary is shorter, so they think that the finger spinners only spin on one side and come up with the arm ball, which goes straight. But leg spinners can turn both ways and come up with flippers and they can do better than finger spinners. But I feel, if you are a good spinner, you can survive in both the longer and shorter versions. In the longer version, you learn how to watch the batsman and you actually work against him and it also teaches you how to get away and how to win the battle against him. You know both sides, but if you play just T20, you just bowl to get away. You may get the odd wicket but you are just protecting yourself and finishing your quota of overs.

The spinners are doing well in the World Cup, that too in the English conditions. Are the batsmen not reading them right?

No. Joe Root and Jos Buttler scored centuries against Pakistan despite Shadab bowling well. The good players are watching the ball. Everybody is talking about wrist spinners, so the batsmen tend to get into a zone where they fear that the wrist spinners have more variation and that they may not be able to read them well. This is leading to a change in mindset among the batsmen and the spinners are making the most of it. The batsmen are sceptical and that’s affecting their game.

Who are the bowlers you enjoy watching?

I really like the Indian spinners, especially Kuldeep Yadav. I like his body language, I like his work ethics because last summer, he was here with the Indian team and I watched him closely. We also exchanged a few thoughts. He is that kind of a bowler, who you got to pick hard. He doesn’t bowl flat all the time. He bowls proper and tries to spin the ball both ways and also knows how to bowl the flipper. I know it’s still too early, but I can see him emerge as a top spinner. Even Chahal is good but he is a bit quicker and knows his game.

What are your suggestions to succeed in Tests?

The longer format is slightly different where you need to have more patience and temperament. You need to have a clear plan for the batsmen. I always give this example that if you want to catch a lion or a mouse or a snake, you trap differently. Similarly, when you are bowling in Test cricket, you need to have a plan ready on how to trap the batsman. The more you play the longer version, the more you learn. You will become a complete bowler, different from others, get to the top, may be even become the best in the world.