x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Mohammad Hafeez, Pakistan's bold and dutiful captain

He has been in and out and seen it all, yet held his own as leader of a fickle Pakistan side, finds Osman Samiuddin.

Criticism should be constructive, says Hafeez.
Criticism should be constructive, says Hafeez.

Mohammad Hafeez's voice had deserted him the morning after Pakistan's electric but enervating Super Over win over Australia in Dubai. That victory gave Pakistan the Twenty20 series, a rare series triumph of any kind over the Australians.

Now, Hafeez is a talker even during times of relative calm and in a game as tight as this, you can imagine the strain he must have put on his vocal chords. So he was struggling that day. And feeling pretty vindicated too, enough to have a prolonged pop at some media back home.

It was an unspecific counter prompted by the kind of unspecific media jousting that is the lot of every Pakistani captain.

Some idle speculation about unhappiness inside the team, tension between Hafeez and other senior players and, well, you know the kind: little balloons of speculation floated up to rile and attract attention equally.

It was nothing really, a welcoming of sorts, a rite of passage confirming he has arrived. Most captains do not bite back, at least not until much, much later.

Hafeez was only four Twenty20s into his leadership and it was getting to him. He had already brought this up at the post-match press conference.

Now, to a question about his recent dip in form, he chose to raise the issue again, unprompted but heartfelt. "We have an unfortunate scenario that some in Pakistan are born only to criticise. I'm telling you with my heart and have no hesitation in saying so because I don't believe in those [that nonsense].

"There are some, not everybody. I always listen to professional criticism whose purpose is correction. See, you have to be criticised if you don't do well but it needs to be constructive. But there are guys in Pakistan who are debating cricket who haven't ever gone to a shop to buy a bat or ball."

He insisted that I write this down. "It is an unfortunate scenario that such nonprofessional people have a platform where they can sit and say whatever they want about anyone without any accountability."

Eventually, he did answer the question of his form. Yes, his batting had dipped over the past six months.

No, it had nothing to do with the captaincy. He was now, during this series, feeling better with bat in hand again.

And, anyway, "when I look at myself, I was still playing my role for Pakistan, with my bowling".

Just a few days earlier a conversation with a former Pakistan captain had come to a conclusion that seems relevant to recall. To be a successful Pakistani captain, he said with a kind of cackle, you cannot be a nice, straight guy. You need to be a little clever, cunning even, because there is always going to be someone trying to take you down.

And a captain needs to develop, we may safely add, a thicker skin.

Pakistan cricket can be said to be living through the revenge of the rejected. That is not derisive. Maybe "revenge of the resilient" sounds nicer, but that would excuse the administrative follies of a cricket board that has not known what to do with the talent it has sourced.

Hafeez is one of a group who have spent the better part of the last decade being told alternately that they are not good enough to play for Pakistan and might never be, and that they are, and might even make a good captain.

When they have played it has invariably been in the wrong role. Other than his earliest appearances, nobody was quite sure what Hafeez did best. (If you're Australian, imagine a generation of Steve Smiths.) Was he an opening batsman, who bowled handy off-spin? Was he a handy off-spinner who was a useful middle-order bat?

Only in his last recall in 2010 did he come as what he always thought himself to be: an opening batsman all-rounder.

It is these men, the rejected, avenging Hafeezes and Misbah-ul-Haqs, who are now in charge. And in a land where most players can expect to be treated thus, it is not a bad thing.

"My entire career I've been in, out and, OK, my own performances at the start weren't so good when I was found out," Hafeez said.

"Then I had a three-year gap after which I came back so I've been through all this and as a player I understand these things because they have happened to me. I know how it works, as a player if you have that tension.

I want to ensure all players get that comfort level, they have that confidence from me.

He then lists - bristling again - some players, most of whom have had an impact on the Australia series, and ones he has pushed for like Abdul Razzaq, Nasir Jamshed, Kamran Akmal, Imran Nazir, Raza Hasan and Umar Gul, justifying their inclusions. (There was not ever really that much debate over most of them.)

"I'm not saying it's all because of me but what I am saying and doing as captain is giving them all the confidence they require as far as selection and their game is concerned. You can see the attitude of the players, all hungry to perform and that is especially pleasing."

Hafeez is plenty tough, but it is hewn from a weird, uneasy mix of insecurity and forthrightness. His particular strain of the latter quality might eventually prove troublesome given that it is close to - but is not really - cockiness.

Hafeez has always just been, in or out of the side, very sure of himself, his skills, his decision making, everything really.

"I'm always very sure about my decisions, about who to play, whether to bat first or chase. I do not ever put any doubt into my decisions. Whatever I have to do, I do and I back it full-heartedly."

It is actually the kind of forthrightness that is often maddeningly absent from some of his shots, particularly the drives and clips.

He has never blamed anyone but himself for his exclusions. He has never complained. He has just made himself better and returned.

These are admirable traits, especially because in many instances the reaction to this kind of mistreatment is to burrow further into self-doubt, become excessively pragmatic or plain defensive.

But he is also an exceedingly earnest man and though that is admirable, it is the kind that could consume its host, not because of how he is necessarily but because of where he is placed.

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It is incorrect, and probably a little belittling, to say Hafeez is a Twenty20 player. But it is the format in which his impact can assume a magnitude many times more than anywhere else.

A swift and pretty 25 or 30 - a specific Hafeez failing in the longer forms - holds greater value here. With the ball he has been world-class, over four, 10 and 20 overs.

Now there is captaincy and he is unfazed. Naturally. "See I'll tell you, in my first-class career, I've been mostly captain," he said in explanation. "Handling on-field matters, strategies, having plans A, B, C, D, the execution of these, I've been through all this and done it.

"The biggest thing is actually handling players because each has a different attitude and comfort level. Obviously, in international cricket, there are different pressures but because I have the confidence and experience that I've done this before, I'm using that here."

He talks repeatedly of boldness in his leadership, either already exhibited or further required. In the second T20 against Australia, he was advised by teammates to chase. "But I said I wanted to bat first. Whatever planning I have, like in the first game the decision to chase was mine and the players backed me up.

"These are the bold decisions and everyone has given me 100 per cent backing. Nobody is saying, 'No, we should chase here', or 'You've taken the wrong decision'. That is giving me more confidence to make the right and bold decisions for Pakistan."

Then, talking about the pace of decision making in T20, boldness again. "Look, in Tests there is planning and strategy, as in ODIs. T20, because it is faster, even the smallest error can lose you the match. In Tests and ODIs you have a chance to recover. But in this, just one over, a few balls can change it. So you have to be constantly on your toes and take bold decisions. You have to think out of the box."

There's something about using the word "bold", something old-fashioned and inscrutable maybe. But it is his application of it on to himself that is more striking and, ultimately, revealing.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae

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