Practise ugly, play fearlessly – Mark Coles’ mantra for Pakistan

Mark Coles with the Pakistan team. © Mark Coles

Plan, practise, repeat.

It’s often this loop of activities that decides how a team fares in a series. The rigours and alien conditions on an overseas tour mean that the said loop needs to be done well over a longer duration.

Pakistan’s last tour to South Africa, in May 2019, can be termed as successful, given the results they returned with – a tied ODI series and a narrow 2-3 loss in the T20Is after being 2-1 up. Going into that series, their ‘away’ record was dismal – their last away ODI series win coming in March 2018 against Sri Lanka, and T20I series victory in October 2018 against Bangladesh.

However, come May 2019, Pakistan managed to begin their South African sojourn positively, bowling the Proteas out for 63 in the first ODI – their second-lowest in ODIs. Although they went down in the second game, Pakistan miraculously came back from being four down for just 91 runs chasing 266 to tie the final ODI, thanks to Aliya Riaz’s heroics.

What exactly did Pakistan do right on that tour?

“We used to practice making mistakes, I think that’s really important,” beams Mark Coles, then coach of the side, reminiscing about that tour in a chat with Women’s CricZone.

“Practise playing reverse sweeps, hitting over the top, not [being] afraid to get out… The point of the exercise is to be able to gain confidence in practice so that you can play those [shots] in the game. One of the things that really pleased me and made me so pleased for Aliya is the one shot over cover. We were practising that and to see it in the game, not only gave her a great thrill but also gave us, as a coaching staff, a great thrill because we knew how hard she was working at it.”

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Nida Dar flicks one on the leg side. © PCB

“To see Nida Dar play reverse sweeps again, to see it in a game is such a great thrill. It needs to be practised without fear.”

During the course of our chat, “practise ugly” was a phrase Coles used a lot, stressing how vital it is not to worry about aesthetics. but instead focus on getting the act right – be it fielding, batting or bowling.

“[We aimed to] get out there and practise ugly. Our attitude was everything to fielding. You can’t escape it; you can’t just bat and say I’m not fielding; you can’t bowl and say I’m walking off now,” says Coles, who took over the reins of the side in October 2017, explains.

“We used to [do] a lot of things on centre wickets and I used to have (a) whistle. If we didn’t think that we attacked the ball low enough, the whistle would blow and we would all have to do press-ups or burpees for 30 seconds – all of us, myself included, which was a real battle from time to time for the old man here.”

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“It just gave us the feeling that we are all in it together. It wasn’t so much that we might make a mistake. It was the fact that we didn’t quite execute it properly.”

Pakistan had gauged that South Africa would rely on Lizelle Lee, Laura Wolvaardt and Marizanne Kapp to provide them with the batting firepower. As a result, the plan was to deny them pace at the start.

“We came up with some really good plans, we came up with Sana (Mir) opening the bowling, which wasn’t new. We knew pace off the ball would be a real key factor probably against the likes of Lee, who likes the pace on the ball as well and so does Laura.”

It seemed as if Pakistan had begun the road to the next T20 World Cup on a positive note, playing an attacking brand of cricket. It was something that Coles had inculcated in the team. However, he then stepped down from the role due to family reasons in October 2019.

That winning feeling. © Mark Coles

“I saw a change in them and didn’t enjoy the change, to be honest,” says Coles, talking about the way the side have played since. Pakistan tied the ODIs against Bangladesh before winning the three T20Is and went down to England in Malaysia in both the formats.

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“I thought they’d gone back to that pre-ODI World Cup in England scenario, where it almost looked like they were frightened to get out rather than play their natural game. I didn’t see a lot of development and saw a bit of fear come back into their cricket which disappointed me.”

After the group stage exit in the T20 World Cup in Australia last year, Pakistan appointed David Hemp as their new head coach in October 2020. The upcoming tour of South Africa will be his first at the helm.

“I think he’s on the same wavelength, he’s really positive and excited about the role,” said Coles, sounding optimistic about his successor’s stint.

“He’s got to put his own little style to it and how he wants to play the game. I think he’ll come in with his Australian style of play where he’s aggressive and he’ll be relying on a few of his players to get through to the senior players.”

Hemp would have gotten a fair idea about the players at his disposal during the camp and will also have some time to gauge their preparedness once they land in the Rainbow Nation. And he’d know that only three things will come to his aid…

Plan, practise, repeat.