Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, RAMIZ RAJA assesses Mickey Arthur’s tenure as Pakistan coach, the deteriorating pitches in South Africa and if the tourists will prove more competitive in the ODI series.
Sport24 asked: How have you enjoyed your stay in South Africa?
Ramiz Raja: It has been a wonderful experience. I have come to the country in various capacities - first as a player and then as commentator - but this time has been different because I have been able to see some sights with my family, which has been wonderful. When we were in Cape Town, we visited Chapman’s Peak, Table Mountain and Boulders Beach and we have also done a safari during our time in Johannesburg. I have absolutely enjoyed commentating in South Africa for SuperSport. After a very long time, I have felt completely at home on an away gig. The environment has been superb, the team camaraderie has been so good and the coverage has been brilliant. I feel you make a good team if you know each other, and most of us have been on the circuit a long time together.
Sport24 asked: Your assessment of the three-match Test series?
Ramiz Raja: It was clearly very disappointing from a Pakistani perspective because the onslaught of bouncers, short-pitched and fast bowling on green tracks was on the cards. I thought Pakistan were ill-prepared and they obviously weren’t sufficiently acclimatised. I’m disappointed that the three-Test series against South Africa wasn’t prioritised. You make a name for yourself as a cricketer when you beat teams on away tours on their home turf. It’s good in a way that Pakistan were exposed in a three-match Test series against a quality side because the coaches now know exactly which players they can work with moving forward and which personnel can be side-lined. It’s about learning from the series and putting it right heading into the future. Pakistan produced horrors with the bat and their bowling was one-dimensional in terms of pace. Against top-quality batting sides, the attack in its current guise would struggle to roll them over. They need to find bowlers who can bowl at 145k p/h and if they can do that their attack will become more potent even on away tours. I hope Pakistan learns from the pasting they got and put it right the next time they walk out in their whites.
Sport24 asked: Your view of Mickey Arthur’s coaching tenure?
Ramiz Raja: Since assuming the head coaching position in 2016, Arthur has experienced ups and downs. He has done well in the 50-over format and his side has been outstanding in T20 internationals. However, I think he would himself admit that his stint as a Test match coach has clearly been below par and, from that point of view, he has totally disappointed. But Mickey is a passionate guy and he works hard. The team has always responded when Mickey has asked them for an extra bit of effort, but it’s just that he hasn’t been on top of his game when it comes to building a unit and progressing as a Test match coach. In terms of Mickey’s long-term future being with Pakistan, I’m not too sure. (Arthur’s contract expires after the World Cup). It is really for the Pakistan Cricket Board to decide, but if I had the choice I would keep Arthur on because you want to him to remain in the system owing to what he brings to the dressing room environment. However, perhaps the correct route to go would be to appoint Mickey exclusively as a limited overs coach. My suggestion would be to have two coaches in place - one for limited overs and another for Test cricket. The fact of the matter is there is very little to fault Mickey on when it comes to limited overs.
Sport24 asked: Your take on the state of South African cricket?
Ramiz Raja: South Africa have been very good under Ottis Gibson and much of that is down to his maturity and how well he understands the game. For example, not playing a spinner for the last two Test matches was beautifully read by South Africa and Gibson as well. He has a good playing unit to work with, but as a coach it’s about giving the team direction. I’m sure Gibson will take South African cricket to new heights. In the Test matches, South Africa were absolutely outstanding and now the challenge will be to see how they do in the limited overs format. Duanne Olivier (who was the leading wicket-taker during the Test series with 24 scalps) was outstanding and deserves his ODI call-up. For South Africa, the entire fast bowling unit was terrific and it reminded me of the West Indian fast bowling battery of the 1980s. On a batting front, I thought Faf du Plessis and Quinton de Kock batted beautifully on a very difficult pitch. De Kock will be missed for the first two ODIs (he is being rested along with Dale Steyn) but South Africa boast a good mix of batsmen and bowlers contributing. I played against South Africa at the 1996 World Cup and the South Africans have always been very difficult to beat. They have strong minds, play with plenty of passion and always seem to produce great fast bowlers. From that point of view, the standards have not slipped, which is heartening to see. Right now South Africa probably possess the best fast bowling attack in the world. At times, South Africa need just a little bit more solidity with the bat, but these were difficult wickets to bat on. South Africa have always been a high-quality outfit and enjoy a cracking record at home.
Sport24 asked: Have the South African pitches deteriorated?
Ramiz Raja: I think the pitches used during the Test series were difficult for sure, and especially for the openers. If you have quality fast bowlers then it becomes doubly difficult. At times, it was literally a matter of survival because the ball would jump on a good length. I believe more work can be done to improve the standard of local pitches and because South Africa have such a good bowling attack, I feel they don’t need so much grass on the pitch and variation of bounce. It becomes an issue once it starts to go up and down and then it is difficult. It’s fine if the pitch starts to do something on day four or five, but if the pitches start to do something devilish on the last session of day one or on day two then it becomes a question mark. I feel that if South African groundsmen produce good quality pitches, the hosts’ batting will improve because once you get in on a good deck there is less chance of getting out. During the Test series, even when batsmen were 50 not out they were still struggling to survive and that shouldn’t be the case. I asked Mickey about his comments and he said, “On merit I made a statement having been involved with South African cricket and I feel the pitches have gone down in quality.” That was his personal view of the pitches, which I agree with, but it was also good how he was deflecting pressure from the Pakistani batsmen.
Sport24 asked: Is Test cricket under fire from limited overs?
Ramiz Raja: I’m a big believer that Test cricket is here to stay. I only wish that the Test Championship wasn’t dragged out and needs to be established as a robust product. I would be more keen having it showcased for five months with all other cricket not being played over that period. Test match cricket is making something of a comeback and I believe we need to protect the format. However, Test cricket needs to be better promoted and it’s a major issue in Asia when it comes to viewership because there is no proper scheduling of Test cricket. For instance, at times, you have a Two-Test match series slotted in between the ODI or T20 series. In Asia, Test cricket is seen as filler rather than the main event, which can’t be right. We have to give Test cricket the respect it deserves because if you want to become a good T20 or 50-over player, the base has to be five-day cricket. I hope and pray that the latter format is in good hands and that the stakeholders are working on making sure that Test cricket remains the most important format of all. Of late, Test cricket has become really interesting to watch and if you ask all the superstars of the sport, they want to be involved in the longest version of the game because it produces results. During the South Africa-Pakistan three-Test series, it was mighty exciting to watch because there was entertainment galore.
Sport24 asked: Will Pakistan be more competitive in the ODIs?
Ramiz Raja: I’m sure Pakistan will prove more competitive in the shorter formats of the game. The playing XI is different and there is more all-round strength. However, I don’t foresee Pakistan having an easy time of it in the ODI and T20 series against South Africa. Fresh from the Mzansi Super League, some of the South African players are in the shorter format frame of mind. Pakistan will really have to bring their A-game to beat South Africa. With the World Cup from May, the current ODI series are important for all the cricket playing nations. In terms of South Africa, they have a mental block when it comes to World Cups. It’s about believing in themselves and not being worried about what happened on previous occasions. South Africa should concentrate on what they have and get the combinations right. The upcoming five-match ODI series against Pakistan offers them the opportunity to do that. (The opening ODI will take place in Port Elizabeth this Saturday from 13:00).
Sport24 asked: Who do you fancy as World Cup contenders?
Ramiz Raja: Identifying favourites ahead of the 2019 World Cup is a difficult one. Australia and South Africa are always in the hunt but, for me, England start as favourites because they are playing at home. I also feel that teams from Asia are in with a shout, evidenced by the 2017 Champions Trophy where three of the four semi-finalists were from the subcontinent. As the tournament is managed by the ICC, there will be plenty of neutral pitches and so we shouldn’t discount the Asian block at all.
Sport24 asked: Who would be your three dream dinner guests?
Ramiz Raja: I would invite Roger Federer, Imran Khan and Sir Viv Richards. I terms of my first guest of honour, I absolutely love Federer. His tennis, aura and the champion that he is is second to none. I also admire how he has conducted himself and what a great example he has been. Meanwhile, Imran and Viv were my childhood heroes. The one was a great captain and leader and the other was the most lethal batsmen ever produced. It would be a great evening if we mixed cricket with tennis.