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Desert to main course

From bowling first-change after the two Ws to being Pakistan’s long-time assistant coach, Aaqib Javed has always played the second fiddle.

Published: March 16, 2014 1:28:56 am
Under Aaqib Javed, the UAE team has changed from a bunch of unfit, middle-aged amateurs to a competitive unit that has qualified for two ICC events. Under Aaqib Javed, the UAE team has changed from a bunch of unfit, middle-aged amateurs to a competitive unit that has qualified for two ICC events.

From bowling first-change after the two Ws to being Pakistan’s long-time assistant coach, Aaqib Javed has always played the second fiddle. Bharat Sundaresan discovers how the former pacer finally got a lead role in the UAE’s cricket reawakening.

As first days in office go, Aaqib Javed had just experienced an absolute nightmare. Only a month earlier, he had been part of a Pakistan setup that had swept England, the then No.1 Test team in the world, 3-0 in the UAE. Now, he was back in Dubai once again, having accepted an offer that had left many in the cricketing world, and more in Pakistan, in shock. After all, being the UAE’s coach wasn’t really the most-coveted job in the cricketing world.

The first impression that Javed’s new team left on him, however, was one that made him cringe. He went home depressed, ruing his decision. What the former Pakistani-pacer encountered, was not a bunch that inspired him with any confidence to back up his own proclamation that he would lead the UAE into three World Cups. Instead, it was a team made up of overweight, unfit, middle-aged amateurs with an attitude that, as Javed puts it, was ‘pathetic’.

The offer itself had originally come from former new-ball partner Kabir Khan, famous for having led Afghanistan’s cricketing revival. What sealed the deal though was a passing mention about it to his daughter Uqba, who insisted that her father take the gambit for her sake.

Despite the persuasion from his family and a growing desire to create his own identity as a head coach, the 41-year old had set upon his new assignment with trepidation and a Bulleh Shah couplet for company.

Chal chal Bulleya, chal utthe chaliye jitthe saare anhey,Naa koi sadi zaat pechaaneh, naa koi sanu manneh.

Loosely translated, it reads: Come, let’s go to the land of the blind and the pure, where nobody will inquire about your caste and nobody shall judge you.

Moving on

It was in these words that Javed found solace the pugnacious pacer made the audacious move to the Middle East.

In many ways, it rang true to his imminent mission. He was, after all, heading to Dubai aiming to start afresh — having left all his baggage behind. In the UAE, he was not just seeking an elusive oasis but also embarking on a journey of self-discovery in the desert.

This would eventually culminate in him guiding the UAE into the 2015 ICC World Cup — not to forget the U-19 World Cup, which finished last month — and the World T20 in Bangladesh. Along the way, he also earned the title of ‘Thakur Sahib’ from his players, an assorted group of expats from India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka — assimilated into a crack unit fighting towards a common goal. It would also help him create his own niche, one that had eluded him for a majority of his cricketing life.

For way too long, Javed had to be content being the perennial bridesmaid of Pakistan cricket. As a bowler, he was among the finest exponents of swing but unfortunately, remained the third cog of a formidable pace-attack behind the illustrious pair of Wasim and Waqar.

As a coach, he churned out an assembly line of fast bowlers during the 2000s — from Umar Gul and Mohammad Asif to Mohammad Aamer, Mohammad Irfan and Junaid Khan. He also led the Pakistan U-19 team to World Cup glory in 2004. Javed though, still continued to linger in the background, one of the many support staff jettisoned to the rim of team photographs either as assistant or bowling coach.

In an alien land, Javed, finally, was the man in charge. Having taken the bull by the horns, it was time to tame it. Once the astonishment of his first meeting with Khurram Khan & Co had sunk in, Javed chalked out a plan to get his house in order.

“The bowling attack was basically four ordinary spinners and one medium-pacer who was their all-rounder. I told them point blank, ‘if you play like this outside you will be smashed,’ “ he says.

In the search for genuine fast bowlers, he scoured the land, travelling to every nook and corner of the country, from the smallest of clubs to academies in the big cities. When it came to choosing them, he adopted an Imran Khan-esque approach, one that he knew well, considering he too had been picked out of oblivion in similar fashion as a 16-year-old back in 1988. But it wasn’t easy to convince the selectors, mainly senior businessmen with limited knowledge about the game.

“I told them I can select a fast bowler even by seeing him bowl with oranges. A fast bowler just needs speed, the rest of it I’ll fix,” he explains.

Coaching by example

Today, the UAE boast of four to five seamers, including Kamran Shazad who hit speeds of over 140kph. Javed, however, does take great pride in the drastically-improved fitness levels of his present lot. Not a man of many words, the seasoned coach opted for a more ‘hands-on’ method.

“The turning point was when I started training with them. If they ran two rounds, I ran 10. If they lifted 5 kg in the gym, I lifted 40. Being amateurs, they would come up with 100 excuses but since I was doing it, they had no option but to follow suit,” says Javed, before breaking into a guffaw.

“The current routine is 10 rounds in 18 minutes. Some of the guys are doing level-12s in the bleep tests, which is like professional South African level,” adds the proud coach.

Javed though, had to keep telling himself that cricket was always going to be a secondary passion for the players he was dealing with. These were men who were still working nine-to-five jobs to earn a living — some in banks, others on flights and one loading cargo at the airport.

“Can you believe it that I have never had a day or morning session with my team? I salute them though. Some live as far as Abu Dhabi and Ajman. So they leave their homes at 7 in the morning and don’t go back till 11.30 in the night,” he says.

Sailing over the hurdles

Long before he moved to the UAE in  March 2012, the Sharjah Cricket Stadium had been a sort of second home for Javed. At the historic venue, the lanky pacer with the silky locks would often come into his own — like the time he took a hat-trick against India — and briefly outshine his more celebrated peers at their own game.

A lot has changed in terms of cricketing infrastructure in the Emirates since then. It started with the ICC shifting base here followed by Pakistan being forced into adopting the UAE as their home base. The Arab nation has also seen an infusion of state-of-the-art stadiums in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. But Javed believes the immigration laws of the UAE have curtailed the infusion of talent into the team despite the boom.

“The qualification rules are too stringent. At times I have to wait for three years after a very talented player has been spotted. There is a fast bowler who won’t be ready for another nine months,” explains Javed.

Despite having had the last laugh, Javed still believes in living his life based on the couplet that has been an ally through many challenges. The line in the sand might have gotten smudged over time, but what he’s achieved with a motley crew of eager amateurs will remain etched forever in cricketing folklore.

Even having taken an obscure team from the brink of oblivion into the biggest event in the sport, the hurt of not having gotten his due back home does rankle him at times, though not as acutely as before.

“Look, I took charge of the Pakistan team before the first World T20 in 2007 and worked with them for three months. Then, two days before the event, they hire Geoff Lawson as coach and say my job’s done. It doesn’t matter now. In my head, Ab wahan chaley hai jahan sirf andhe rehte hain.. na koi jaat poochega na koi judge karega.”

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