Both as batsman and as captain, Shoaib Malik eschews extravagance and unapologetically espouses a policy of risk reduction. It is a choice which, so far in 2019, has paid rich dividends. Additionally, swimming steadfastly against the regional tide, he has often opted for finesse over force, for six singles rather than a single successful swing, for steady flow over leaps and bounds.
He has clearly taken to heart this seminal message of one poet of the 1970 February Revolution:
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Power alone will never make us strong.
The heart must also sing the human song.
In an ocean of West Indian flamboyance, the 37-year-old Pakistani is content to be a sea of tranquillity, an oasis of Asian restraint in a sprawling desert of Caribbean overindulgence. It is a choice which, in 2019, for the currently cock-a-hoop but usually post-playoffs despondent Guyana Amazon Warriors he leads, may well be bringing rich rewards their way. At last.
To be fair, some of the credit for the new performance highs must obviously go to new coach Johan Botha and his backroom staff. When new recruit Brandon King was blasting the Barbados Tridents bowlers to all parts of the Providence ground in Sunday’s Qualifier, Botha got all emotional as he was interviewed on TV. It seems that there had been questions about the coach’s judgement in selecting the 24-year-old Jamaican as a Warrior. That innings, however, a boundary-studded record-breaking century, which essentially put the game beyond the opposition’s reach, provided complete vindication.
Indeed, it is to Botha that King had implicitly given the credit for his success after earning the man-of-the-match award in an earlier BT game.
“I was able to bat till the end,” he said. “[Opening the batting is] a new role for me and I’m just trying to contribute. […] Coach always wanted me to do this as an opener, bat deep and, if possible, bat all the way.”
Still, in 2019, the impact of Shoaib’s leadership is there for all to see. And, in a recorded filler aired during the rain break in last week’s Trinbago Knight Riders v GAW game, it was unabashedly acknowledged in words by several of his young charges. These included the 21-year-old Sherfane Rutherford, the 22-year-old Shimron Hetmyer and the 24-year-old Nicholas Pooran.
Incidentally, of the 13 players who played most often in the 10 league games, only three are over 30 and only five over 25. For young players whose team has been repeatedly frustrated at the last hurdle and who are thirsting after success, Shoaib’s elder statesman’s status is, therefore, a real positive.
But what exactly has the Shoaib regime brought to GAW that might not have been there before? In my view, there are half-a-dozen elements that may not all be new, but which are currently working together to make Guyana the best Warriors they can be.
Cricket the T20 way, I have argued, is primarily about living in the moment and responding appropriately to each of the maximum 240 legitimate deliveries—and the extra ones!—that a game may involve. The spontaneity and flexibility we see characterising Dwayne Bravo’s captaincy, for instance, are obviously key elements but, uninformed by a solid theoretical architecture, they become mere laglee captaincy, the tendency to respond to stimuli which, in terms of the big picture, are really of little or no significance.
For GAW, Chris Green has bowled the first or second over in all 10 games, four times paired with Imran Tahir and three times each with Chandrapaul Hemraj and Keemo Paul. Flexible within a firm framework with a vengeance.
At the other end of the scale is the inflexibility, the wooden rigidity and the foolish fondness for formulae which we saw torpedo West Indian chances at the recent World Cup. The records show that only once in the 10 league matches has the GAW batting order been adjusted, Pooran coming ahead of Shoaib in the first TKR game. The TV commentary, however, told us that if a wicket fell after the tenth over, Pooran would come in next. This suggests that we’re dealing with careful planning rather than inflexibility.
Such careful, off-the-field planning spawns player clarity, making both on-the-field management and execution much easier. In his man-of-the-match interview after the BT game, Pooran had this to say about the 2019 GAW set-up: “Everyone knows what they have to do.”
Hetmyer, MoM in the first St Kitts & Nevis Patriots game, concurs, saying: “Everyone in our team knows their role.”
Just before that, he had said: “We need to go step by step. We will try to keep it simple,” gratuitously revealing, I submit, what the team plan is.
And Green (C), interviewed after being named MoM in the first St Lucia Zouks game, offered this detail about planning, player clarity and individual execution:
“It was a collective team effort and [I’m] proud of the guys. You got to put your balls on the line in the second-last over.”
The same elements emerge clearly from MoM Imran Tahir’s post-match comments in the game against Jamaica Tallawahs:
“With the new ball, I try to use my variations. The guys will look to hit me straight; I don’t like that and want to get them hitting square.”
If more evidence were needed of a team that is working like a well-oiled machine, here is Romario Shepherd, the outstanding performer against TKR with a vital 13-ball 32 towards the end of the innings:
“When I was going out to bat, I was told to hit the ball as hard as I can and that’s what I did. I backed myself 100% and it came off. […] we know what we had to do on this ground.”
Clear though the players all seem to be about what the team needs to do and what the team needs each player to do, one needs to remember that cricket matches are played in the minds of the opposing captains. That means that the ideas that, on any given day, are in the players’ heads need to be translated into a specific set of actions in a specific context. Shoaib is both sharing his own ideas and, unobtrusively but consistently, gathering information about what his bowlers are—or should be—thinking. And, equally importantly, he often leads the way as far as execution is concerned.
“When I was batting and saw that they were giving pace,” he explained after his team won the away game against JT, “I was just using it and placing the ball into gaps. That was the key to my batting. […] I knew that if we bowled spin later on, they could struggle with the dew and so I brought them early on. […] Just need to execute plans well, irrespective of whom we are playing against.”
It comes as no surprise to discover that even while as batsman he is focused on keeping the runs flowing, as captain, he is already planning what he needs to do when his team takes the field in the next innings.
That perhaps also explains how GAW were able to recover from a potentially disastrous 8 for 4 in the penultimate league game against the same side.
“Nothing was going on in my mind,” Shoaib said in the post-match interview. “I was just thinking about spending some time at the crease. I asked Rutherford to play cricketing shots and not go aerial. He gave us the momentum with that knock.”
As is the wont of good leaders, Shoaib gives the public credit to his team. It was not his leadership that won the game; it is what they had in their heads and were able to deliver at the execution phase.
“I’m very pleased,” he said after the final TKR game, “and credit goes to the guys. They are consistent with the ball and bat.
“There was no message, the batsmen in the middle knew what they had to do.”
Shoaib ended one of his interviews this way:
“We have many stroke makers in our dressing room while my role is to anchor the innings.”
Sixth on the list of scorers in the current season, Shoaib is the only one in the top 10 whose six tally is still in single figures, 20 less than Lendl Simmons’ 26. But the TKR opener only averages 42 while Shoaib’s average is 50% greater than Kieron Pollard’s, in second place.
I do not have the stats to show how often in the current season alone the five other captains, including Pollard, have lost their wickets attempting to power their way over the boundary.
But show me another CPL captain able—or even willing—to accept that anchor the innings bit part and I’ll show you a team which has the wherewithal to stop the GAW juggernaut in 2019.