Pakistan batting coach Grant Flower admits he has “seen happier dressing rooms” than the one he finds himself in with the team right now. Speaking to ESPNcricinfo in the wake of Pakistan’s defeat inside three days at South Africa’s hands in Centurion, he also warned a lot of the players’ places would be under threat following a collapse that saw Pakistan cede a commanding position at tea on the second day to succumb to a tame six-wicket reverse.
“The atmosphere isn’t the best at the moment,” Flower said. “Not many losing teams’ atmosphere will be the best. No one likes to lose. You don’t want to become happy losers. I’m not involved in selection, but there are quite a few guys with their places under threat. It’s not just one or two batsmen, you could point fingers at a few players.”
Evidence of a breakdown in the morale of the camp further emerged following stumps on the second day, the one which oversaw a Pakistan collapse that all but put them out of the game, with a dressing room leak reporting coach Mickey Arthur had lost his temper with the players, in particular giving some of the batsmen an earful. Although the PCB later issued a statement denying Arthur so much as became angry, there is little doubt he did make his displeasure known, with Flower saying the real problem was the incident being leaked to the media.
“We don’t know who it is [the leaker]. But they’ve got to look at themselves in the mirror. It should never happen. On tour it’s all about teamwork, you’re supposed to be a family and trust each other. But I’ve been with the team over four years and there have been constant leaks all the time. It’s nothing new for me, so it doesn’t really come as a surprise.
“Mickey had some strong words with the players; there was quite a bit of honesty from him. I think the guys were a bit shell-shocked, but they’ve heard Mickey, everyone knows he can come down harshly on the boys at times. But sometimes that’s needed and the guys needed to be told a few home truths. Mickey won’t be the first or last coach to do that. If the guys do have strong character, they’ll bounce back from it and take that as a challenge.”
Much of Arthur’s wrath, ESPNcricinfo understands, was directed at the more experienced middle-order batsmen in the camp. Despite Pakistan’s perceived batting weakness lying at the top of the order, Imam-ul-Haq and Shan Masood had manged to give their side a solid foundation by tea, with the score reading 100 for 1. And in a session where the middle order might have built on the start and given South Africa a daunting fourth innings target, a string of poor shots saw the visitors lose nine wickets in the session, bowled out by stumps.
Arthur’s mood had not improved by the following morning, and when Dean Elgar seemed to be dismissed in the slips by Azhar Ali, the third umpire overturned the soft signal of out to give him a reprieve that saw him score a half-century and kill off any Pakistan hopes. Arthur went to the third umpire to remonstrate, earning him a demerit point in the process, but Flower found himself in agreement with the coach.
“In my opinion, it was the wrong decision. And the on-field umpire gave that out. And there was no conclusive evidence otherwise, so he should have upheld that decision.”
The Pakistan middle order found itself under severe scrutiny over the past few days, and Flower felt the dismissal of Asad Shafiq, in particular, showed what pressure could do to Pakistan.
“He’s one of the strongest guys mentally, but when you’re under pressure, things can change. Technically, that ball that he hit in the second innings, his back foot didn’t go across at all. There’s no weight transfer towards the delivery. That’s what pressure does. He had a big call the ball before, and when you’re under pressure, your reactions aren’t as quick as they need to be against the best attack in the world at the moment. Whenever people seem to be writing off Asad he comes through with a big hundred. If he is given that chance again I’d back him. He’s definitely good enough and should be playing for Pakistan.”
The issue of Sarfraz Ahmed’s declining fortunes had long simmered in the background as an itch to be scratched, but of late has emerged front and centre as a borderline crisis. With the Pakistan captain struggling badly for runs sporting a technique that looks unlikely to flourish in this part of the world – he appears to be crouching far too low on what are almost tennis ball bounce pitches – Pakistan have been left with a captain out of form and no obvious captaincy replacement.
“Anyone would agree being a captain, batsman and wicketkeeper is probably the hardest job in cricket,” Flower said. “And probably too hard. I’m sure it would help his batting if he didn’t have the captaincy pressure, but that’s how it is at the moment. If that’s going to continue, then he has to find a way of coping with those pressures technically and mentally.
“It’s a tough one. Saifi’s a really good bloke who’s having a bad run. Technically, just trying to work on being able to leave the ball and not defending outside off stump, getting underneath the short ball. I thought we were progressing, but obviously the results show otherwise. It’s a tough one, when you’re in a rut.”
Flower also revealed Mohammad Rizwan had been looking very good in the nets, and came to the tour on the back of good form, with the caveat that these pitches were worlds apart from the ones where he had prospered recently. He also singled out Fakhar Zaman as a player who would have to adapt to conditions here in South Africa, and understand he couldn’t play the way he had been doing back home.
“Mickey is quite a big Fakhar fan, and so am I. He’s got to realise, though, he can’t play the same way on these South African wickets as he does in the UAE because the bounce is totally different. He’s got to adapt and be mature enough to know that. Regarding that second innings dismissal, it’s a bit hit and miss. You can’t just tee off and hope it’ll land in no man’s land. In Test cricket you’ve got to be more circumspect than that. I told him, and he’s admitted to that. So hopefully he’ll improve.”
Pakistan also may find themselves deprived of having all their players back, with Flower disclosing Haris Sohail was still struggling with the knee injury that plagued him in Centurion, and the Cape Town Test may come too soon for him. That would suggest an unchanged top three for the second Test, where pace hasn’t been quite as hard to combat as Pakistan found it in Centurion.
“Quite a few of the guys struggled on these wickets. Even the South Africa players who know these conditions said this track was bloody hard. People can say whatever they want, but they’ve got to bear in mind these are tough conditions. But good players adapt, and our players have to adapt quickly before the Newlands Test.
“The track isn’t quite as bouncy there, and we have got a good team. They’re used to fighting hard and coming out of the corner so we’ll see what happens at Newlands.”