Getting Mickey Arthur’s number was a breeze, not unlike the one that blew over the Premadasa Stadium as his troops prepared for their next international engagement that hangs in the balance given the coronavirus. After a few pleasant exchanges over WhatsApp, Mickey finally settled in to speak to me over Zoom in his suite at the Shangri-La Hotel not too far from the aforementioned stadium. A beige painting hung in the back and Mickey seemed in a jovial mood with his Fred Perry polo on and his black earphones plugged in.
With the initial pleasantries out of the way, I remarked how nice it was to see a fellow bald man in a world full of thick-haired specimens. He chuckled profusely and proceeded to pronounce my name accurately, something his fellow countrymen and my South African professor at college could hardly ever manage. Alas, he had spent three years with Pakistan, which by his own admission was a generously long time in our cricket. Prime Ministers have had shorter regimes. He recounted that he was terribly grateful for the three years, which according to him were an essential appointment if he was to go down as one of the great coaches of his generation.
Straight off the bat, I asked the veteran coach and ex-cricketer what drew him towards the Pakistan job. Especially, I quizzed, given the fact that an ex-coach had passed away on the job and Geoff Lawson was, well, Geoff Lawson. Let us just say that Lawson’s name alongside Ijaz Butt and Nasim Ashraf’s will go down in the annals of Pakistani cricket history as ones that were not exactly celebrated from Gilgit to Gwadar.
"Mutual trust is important to take the player to the next level" ©AFP
Unfazed by the Bob Woolmer reference, Mr. Arthur began to explain how it was the Pakistan Super League appointment with the Karachi Kings that drew him towards Pakistan cricket. Below are excerpts from an hour-long midday conversation that John Michael Arthur and I had. It remained well-natured throughout with my interviewee gliding from question to question like Dimuth Karunaratne going from tackling fast bowling to leg-spin in the space of six deliveries. Seeing as how brevity is the soul of wit, like any interview, the quotes are not verbatim but they remain true to what either party was trying to express.
Mickey: “After the Australia job I went and joined a number of T20 gigs and one of them was Karachi Kings. The Kings job triggered my interest in Pakistan cricket when I saw the skill levels of the players involved.
(Mind you, Babar Azam was still an Islamabad United player back then)
I enjoyed my interaction with the players and I felt that they were crying out for a bit of direction and leadership.”
Zarnaab: “A recent Forbes article called you a disciplinarian whose work ethic led to greater fitness and better fielding. Do you agree with that assessment?”
Mickey: “No, look, disciplinarian is probably too strong a word because I like building relationships with players and the key to a good relationship is gaining the player’s trust. Mutual trust is important to take the player to the next level. I certainly have some non-negotiables. I just work in an environment of excellence all the time. Mediocrity just won’t cut it. We have to maintain a certain level of intensity, it’s not a switch that can be turned on and off. How you train is how you play! So I operate and create an environment of excellence and such an environment often weeds out the ‘comfort zone player’ So if you want to call that disciplinarian then that’s fine. But at the end of the day, I love banter, I love a good joke. But when it’s time to work, it’s time to work and that’s how I always operate."
"We didn’t have a brilliant World Cup because that would have meant winning it but we did not have the shocker that so many people said we had"
Zarnaab: “Comfort zone player, I like that. I’ll make sure to throw that in the article. So, you were axed following the World Cup and the same Forbes article contends that the political maneuvering in Pakistan cricket would make for a decent sub-plot in the 'West Wing'. Seeing as how it is the only major sport we have in the country it has a tonne of politics. You have obviously conveyed to Osman Samiuddin on the Stump Mic Podcast and elsewhere that you are an adult that does not feel let down by the sack but there were perhaps some people in the review committee and on the governing board that might have let you down. I know there were reports that you were very distraught about being shown the door. But would you have done the World Cup differently with regards to the selector and certain commentators being there?”
Mickey: “I’m not bitter at all Zarnaab. I felt that one thing that put us under pressure was the fact that we played our second-string team against Australia in the U.A.E. right before the start of the World Cup. We rested all our players that were gonna go to England and with that, we lost the ODI series five to nil. Such an approach was antithetical to the culture that I and our support staff had cultivated. Losing that series after making such good ground was disappointing because the defeat put us under a lot of pressure going into the World Cup. I’d like to clarify; people say we had a shocking World Cup. We played very poorly in two games. The West Indies game which ultimately cost us dearly given the hit our NRR took and then we did not play well against India. Other than that we beat both finalists and tied fourth. We didn’t have a brilliant World Cup because that would have meant winning it but we did not have the shocker that so many people said we had.”
Zarnaab: “And the rained out Sri Lankan game did not help your cause either. Just to lastly clarify on this point, do you think the people in charge of your sacking had Pakistan cricket’s best interests at heart or do you think they were driven by selfish and sinister motives?”
Mickey: “I’d like to think they were driven by the motives of taking the team forward. There was a groundswell of emotion which meant that they were gonna make a change. My issue was never that change was made. I realise that every coach has a shelf life. I was not distraught as Geo said but I firmly believed that having met Chairman [Ehsan] Mani and MD [Wasim] Khan after the World Cup in England that I would be retained for another term. They are both wonderful people and I hate to use the word but they are bringing a Western-style influence to the way things are run at the PCB which will prove beneficial.”
"Even today when I walk down any street anywhere in the world, Pakistani fans stop and thank me for what I have done for the team"
Zarnaab: “You said that Mani and Khan are alive to the demands that a tight T20/T10 franchise calendar puts on players. Do you stand by that statement?”
Mickey: “I definitely think they are good administrators but I was disappointed because I had a plan for the team and I knew that the players we had at our disposal were growing every day and I had a plan for the next eighteen months. But everything worked out perfectly because I sit here in SriLanka now incredibly happy with the job I am doing. I see it as a new challenge as I did with Pakistan but I certainly have a lot of respect for Pakistan cricket.”
"Mr. Sethi was very helpful for me when I came to Pakistan" ©PSL
Zarnaab: “You talked about Wasim Khan. Given his foreign accent and upbringing, he is often seen as unwelcome by certain sections of the cricket administration because of this foreign-ness. I know you were brought up in South Africa and are alive to the effect that the colour of one’s skin can have. Did you ever feel unwelcome in Pakistan because of your foreign-ness?”
Mickey: “I look back fondly at my time and had a good relationship with the players and administrators. I must mention Mr. Sethi who was very helpful for me when I came to Pakistan and I think Wasim Khan will do a fantastic job as will Ehsan Mani. I just hope they do it their way and they are not influenced by some other people but I don’t think they will be.”
Zarnaab: “You talked about the love you have received from Pakistan. I can proudly tell you that a close friend of mine, and as a result all of my friend group calls you 'Chachu' Mickey. Chachu being the Urdu word for uncle.”
Mickey: “That is a term of great endearment and makes me very happy. Even today when I walk down any street anywhere in the world, Pakistani fans stop and thank me for what I have done for the team. Even a few months ago when I was back in Rawalpindi for my first few games with Sri Lanka I took to the field in my Sri Lanka jersey and fans applauded and chanted my name, so I am very grateful for my time with Pakistan cricket.
From there the conversation went to the Roti gang, comprising Hasan, Shadab, Faheem and Fakhar. I asked about their dip in form and why most of them have not lived up to their true potential. Arthur opined that these four were still in his best 15 for Pakistan but there needs to be consistency in selection. He firmly said that they need tuition and hard love. He recalls that when he first came in as Pakistan coach and gave his first speech to the players, the majority responded with “Oh but Coach, this is Pakistan”. He said that when a player is not assured of his selection he tends to go into self-preservation mode. He recollected how he persisted with Babar Azam for many Test series before he finally put runs on the board.
I remarked that socio-political uncertainty was part and parcel of being a Pakistani. Be it the next election or our next World Cup or wondering whether that Mohammad Amir's no-ball was a spot-fix, uncertainty is deeply embedded within our psyches. Mickey agreed wholeheartedly and said that the one thing he promised his players was honest feedback and that they will know where they stand.
Another interesting topic we touched upon was how he felt that the excessive respect afforded for seniors in Asian teams is sometimes detrimental to the development of young players. In this exchange, he mentioned two players, both southpaws. Usman Khawaja, whom Mickey called ‘anti-establishment’ and more importantly for our purposes, Shan Masood. He said Shan is one of the most professional cricketers he has ever seen. He remarked that he trains the house down and leads by example and is unbelievable with his fitness regimen. I replied that he did not fit the mold of a Pakistani cricketer simply because his upbringing was hardly ever in Pakistan. Both of us agreed that the Multan Sultans making him captain was a good move.
Mickey Arthur served as the Australia head coach from 2011-2013 ©Getty Images
Moving on, Arthur talked about how you don’t have to be best mates with everyone in your team or go to dinner with them every night as long as you have mutual respect. Mickey opined that as a cultural value, such respect for elders was an asset but not necessary in a cutting-edge cricket team. We both spoke fondly of Amazon’s The Test and went over the Homeworkgate infamy. All his answers were explained in lucid detail but on his time in Australia, the answers were terse and crisp. When I pointed this out a smiling Mickey remarked that was the type of person he was and where his passion lay.
When prodded on whether he felt his coaching style was more suited to subcontinental teams he brought up Gary Kirsten’s example and how he got an excellent team bursting with talent. Many might recall Kirsten from the nasty blow he suffered at Shoaib Akhtar’s hands in a Test match many moons ago. Mickey remarked that it is important to understand the culture of a team before settling into the role fully. Failing to do this was one of his shortcomings when it came to Australia. I jokingly asked whether he was in the running to replace Justin Langer down under and he laughed and said no, he loves building teams and feels that Sri Lanka will be a good project for him.
Furthermore, we spoke of Haider Ali’s class and how Arthur had said that Chris Lynn who will never play Test cricket, drives around Brisbane in a Lamborghini and Babar was chuffed at getting a Honda. We both agreed that Misbah was aware of the issues that plague Pakistan cricket. Mickey called his successor ‘a lovely human being’ and the short chit-chat closed out with talk on Pakistani media. An interesting quote from Mickey was how we Pakistanis love our news with some masala and he also talked about the presence of a 24/7 news cycle and how certain sectors of the Pakistani media were reporting complete falsehoods. He admitted that he was cross after the South Africa loss but never did he throw cups around the dressing room. I replied that we don’t like our food or our news without masala. Arthur laughed politely.
“If somebody disrespects me or reports on facts that are untrue then I very quickly have beef with them, some sectors of Pakistani media I would go the extra mile for but others have made me suspicious and I don’t have time for them.”
We closed the conversation out with the pros and cons of foreign influence in Pakistan. A few years ago, Mickey penned a book about his time with South Africa with Neil Manthorp. God knows we could use one about Mickey’s time with Pakistan. Someone who gave everything to Pakistan cricket deserves a tightly written piece. If Wajahat Saeed Khan and Shahid Afridi can cook up one, what is stopping a publisher giving Arthur the time of day?
Nasha Pila Ke Girana To Sub Ko Ata Hai
Maza To Jab Hai Ke Girton Ko Thaam Le Saqi
Everyone knows how to throw down people with intoxicants
The fun is to convert the intoxicated one to sanity, O cup-bearer