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How Pakistan became a world-class fielding side

The likes of Faheem Ashraf are among the new breed of Pakistani players who are no less athletic than their international counterparts Getty Images

As 2016 gave way to 2017 and Pakistan found themselves in Perth, Mickey Arthur made up his mind.

A few months into a stint that had begun reasonably well - Pakistan had ascended to the top spot in the Test rankings soon after he took charge - he saw his side whitewashed by the team of his former employers.

That was when Arthur, who had constantly beaten the drum of Pakistan's fielding not being nearly up to scratch, decided enough was enough. "It kind of came to a head," he tells me over coffee on a blistering June day this year in Lahore. "The Test series had finished, and we'd been flogged. We wanted our one-day players with us at the Sydney Test match [third Test]. But when we looked at them, they were incredibly unfit.

"It was embarrassing. It was there and then that myself and our support staff took the decision we were going to have a non-negotiable policy to fitness and fielding. We put certain standards in place, and if you don't meet those standards, you don't play, regardless of who you are. You can't field, you don't play.

"Then we had to implement it. Guys not making fitness tests were left out. The guys that couldn't field were quickly marginalised and pushed out of the side because we realised we weren't going to make any headway in white-ball cricket if we didn't have the fitness and fielding standards to go with it."

Pakistan's fielding since that ill-fated tour of Australia has soared to such heights it has silenced even the most inveterate cynics. Led by a young crop of players who look set to form the backbone of the team, Pakistan as a limited-overs outlet is almost unrecognisable from the one that, less than two years ago, was pummelled for a world-record 444 in an ODI at Trent Bridge. Perhaps most remarkable has been the ultimate simplicity of the formula with which Arthur and his staff have helped bring about the transformation.

"We had the responsibility to create an environment where players perform to the best of their ability, and they can only do that if they're fit and they can field, bat and bowl. Not bat and bowl, field, bat and bowl" Mickey Arthur

When Arthur was appointed in May 2016, he promised he would make improving Pakistan's fielding standards a priority. But you could have forgiven Pakistan fans for being sceptical; they had heard that tune sung one too many times before. Bob Woolmer had championed the fielding cause through his tenure, without ever getting much traction from his players (Inzamam-ul-Haq was the captain of the side then, after all). He had even gone so far as to hire Jonty Rhodes as a short-term fielding coach, but that went nowhere, with Inzamam later publicly criticising Rhodes for not contributing much to the side.

But the appetite for an overhaul this time around was different. Pakistan had just ended a calamitous World T20 campaign where they were eliminated in the group stage. It led to Waqar Younis quitting as Pakistan coach and Shahid Afridi retiring from international cricket (a retirement that, somehow, still holds). Waqar produced a scathing report after Pakistan's exit in which he criticised the PCB for not giving him a say in the selection process, and lambasted Afridi's style of captaincy. Presciently, he also said players like Umar Akmal and Ahmed Shehzad needed to be made to re-earn their places in the national team.

Pakistan were desperate to turn over a new leaf, and Arthur began to lay the platform for what was later to become known as the HP (high-performance) culture he wanted to implement. He quickly made Pakistan's fielding ineptitude a cause celebre, and repeatedly emphasised how important it was that they improved their fitness standards along the way. "Those were the two non-negotiables, fitness and fielding, because the skill levels of Pakistan are outstanding.

"I got Steve Rixon in, and Steve is a tough taskmaster, and he has worked the boys incredibly hard in that discipline."

Crucially, support was forthcoming from the highest levels of cricketing governance too - both PCB chairmen Arthur worked under - Shaharyar Khan and Najam Sethi - were on board, and chief selector Inzamam and his panel were similarly encouraging. And the results that have followed appear to vindicate their faith in Arthur.

The numbers that tell the story of Pakistan's fielding over the last year and a half would have been dismissed as the stuff of Rowling-esque fantasy had you offered them to Pakistan fans a couple of years ago. Since February 2017, Pakistan's overall catching rate has been 85.9%. This is up from 81.3% in the two years prior, and better even than the 84% catching rate Australia and South Africa can boast during this period. And while an increase of 5% might not sound too significant, consider that it was achieved despite the retirement of Younis Khan (in May 2017), one of the best slip fielders cricket has ever seen.

Younis converted 30 out of 37 chances (81%) that came his way in the slips. So even as Pakistan's slip-catching has deteriorated slightly, presumably owing to the absence of a slip fielder of his calibre, the overall improvement suggests Pakistan are moving firmly in the right direction. If you exclude slip-catching, the contrast is even more stark: a catching rate of 85% since February 2017, up from 77.4% in the two years prior. Pakistan have effectively gone from living in a broom cupboard to Hogwarts Castle.

The fans have picked up on this, too; there is little else people can talk about when the conversation turns to Pakistan cricket these days. Shadab Khan, Hasan Ali and Faheem Ashraf in the circle, prowling like a pack of wolves and appearing to enjoy themselves is a sight that could define the legacy of Arthur's time in Pakistan cricket. Dropped catches are now met with furious remonstration, not resigned shrugs.

It would be simplistic to conclude that Arthur has managed to pull this off by himself (and he would be loath to give off the impression that that is the case).

"What Steve did incredibly well was, he didn't miss anything," Arthur says. "He watched the game closely, and if something happened in the game he didn't like, that player would be out the next day at the next training session, working on that, whether it be a throwing technique, diving technique or catching technique, and doing some individual work with him.

"Steve could tell the number of ones or twos saved. He always had a rubbish bin - a misfield or an overthrow would go in there, and at the end of that game, in our debrief, we would look at our rubbish bin and see how full it was."

Rixon speaks of the sheer tenacity and single-mindedness with which he embraced the challenge, like he did others he was assigned. Describing himself "like a dog with a bone", he points to his stints with New Zealand and Australia, who he says were arguably the best fielding sides in the world at the time.

"I'm probably the most relentless guy in world cricket. I need to get the job done," his booming, jovial voice tells me over the phone. "I haven't been in Pakistan for a long period of time, but I think I've done close to as well as I could do there.

"If I can't get it done in one way, I have to come in from a different angle and try to get it done. But with these players, they caught on to what was going on and they actually embraced it and they enjoyed it."

"If you make three very good saves in a T20, you're a long way in front, because you may not get a bat or bowl, but you've now contributed maybe eight or ten runs to the scoreboard" Steve Rixon

That last might not necessarily have been true when Rixon first came on board. "They were definitely well below par as a fielding unit. And I was shocked at how far behind the eight ball they were, because even at grade level in Sydney, our kids all know how to field. As youngsters at the ages of six to ten, they're always taught how to field. And for the Pakistan boys, it wasn't ingrained into them at a young age. It was quite a job that had to be done."

Rixon quotes precise statistics in his conversational stride, and it is clear the message about the importance of fielding have been sent out to the Pakistan players several times over the past few years; some of them may even know his talking points by heart by now.

"We had to make everybody understand exactly what one misfield meant," Rixon says. "In a game of T20, in particular, you might only get three balls to come to you. And if you make three very good saves, you're a long way in front, because you may not get a bat or bowl. But you've now contributed maybe eight or ten runs to the scoreboard by the efforts you've put in the field.

"The other thing we introduced was making sure the most appropriate fielders were in the most appropriate positions - to have people in what we called 'hot spots' in the field. So let's say Hasan Ali, Shadab Khan, or Babar Azam, any of those guys who were among the more agile of the younger group that we've got - I needed them to make a decision out on the ground to run to where the ball had a fair chance of going. So if you're bowling the right lines, you've got a decent idea of what quarter of the ground it's going to. They started to do that very well and understood why they were doing it and the importance of it."

Arthur and Rixon both use the word "non-negotiable" for fielding standards multiple times; it appears they have needed to over the last two years with Pakistan. Arthur says it has taken a while for the players to understand he wasn't joking when he said a player's fielding could be the difference between them making the international side and falling short. It is only as several big names have indeed fallen by the wayside that the realisation has dawned that this time around, the fielding revolution would be seen through to its end.

The most high-profile of these was Umar Akmal, because of the manner in which he was - there is no other way to describe it - thrown out of the side. After failing a fitness test in England on the eve of the Champions Trophy last year, he was sent home in ignominy. When Pakistan went on to win the tournament a fortnight later, it appeared Arthur and Co had been vindicated. Two months later, having lost his central contract, Akmal was ordered away from the National Cricket Academy by Arthur in a fiery confrontation, and he looks exceedingly unlikely to play for Pakistan again as long as the South African is in charge.

Others have also been sacrificed at the altar of fielding and fitness. Recently, Wahab Riaz was dropped ahead of a tour to England owing to fitness concerns, with Arthur scathingly suggesting Wahab had not won a game for Pakistan in two years. Earlier this month, when the PCB announced central contracts for the next 12 months, there was no place for either Sohail Khan or Sami Aslam, two players whose lack of match fitness has regularly frustrated Pakistan's backroom staff.

Johan Botha, who was fielding coach at Islamabad United in 2017 and played under Arthur for South Africa, believes what is coached around the world can work in the subcontinent. In his PSL stint he focused on changing the mindset of fielding being a secondary skill, deficiencies in which could be compensated elsewhere.

"That's why these franchise tournaments are so good. You have these different inputs from different players and guys who might be not really good fielders, but they've also played with some great fielders and they learn from those guys, and those are the little points that you hopefully bring to the table and improve those younger players. Fitness has also become a huge thing, and the players are certainly fitter than they have been in the past and that plays a big role."

"Even at grade level in Sydney, our kids all know how to field. For the Pakistan boys, it wasn't ingrained into them at a young age" Steve Rixon

The coming of the PSL has helped Arthur and his support staff drive through a change that Pakistan cricket had been intransigently resistant to for decades. Along with the debacle of the 2014 World T20, which sent fans to the end of their tether, the inaugural season of the PSL, Pakistan's first global T20 franchise competition, exposed local players to those from around the world in an excruciatingly cutthroat format. The levels at which the likes of Brad Hodge, Luke Wright and Dwayne Bravo operated in the field was quite unlike anything domestic cricketers in Pakistan had seen. Here it was in full international view, the lid on the culture of complacency that had festered in Pakistan's domestic circuit for decades blown clean off by the international exposure the PSL brought.

More pragmatically, the PSL brought with it money that domestic cricket in Pakistan was unlikely to ever provide. For Pakistan's international cricketers, who earn less than their counterparts in just about any other Test nation in the world, this was an exceptionally lucrative opportunity - also because they are effectively barred from playing in the wealthy IPL. It isn't hard to see why players didn't need much extra motivation to edge ahead using whatever means necessary to make it in the PSL.

In fielding they saw a scope for an obvious upgrade, and the change in local players' fielding in the PSL over just two seasons has been palpable. Serendipitously, a young group of athletic Pakistani cricketers had burst through onto the international stage at just the right time. It's fair to say Arthur and Rixon inherited a situation that was particularly amenable to their uncompromising, no-nonsense methods.

Be that as it may, there's no denying the extent of the change involved. "We've come in to change the culture. We had to," Arthur says. "It was going nowhere. As a head coach and a coaching staff, we had the responsibility to create an environment where players perform to the best of their ability, and they can only do that if they're fit and they can field, bat and bowl. Not bat and bowl, field, bat and bowl."

Atiq-uz-Zaman, who played a handful of games for Pakistan in 2000, and was the fielding coach of Lahore Qalandars this year, credits Arthur for the transformation. "Getting Pakistan to a high level of fitness has been an aspiration for many coaches that have come here, but almost no one has succeeded. So Mickey, having brought this culture here and stuck with it till the players understand there is no way to work around it, has achieved something worth recognising and lauding."

Still, this is a Pakistan cricket story after all, and those rarely follow straightforward upward trajectories; the speed at which good work can turn to dust in Pakistan cricket is a defining feature. And here hangs a crucial question: can the culture Arthur has built last after he leaves?

Arthur himself isn't quite sure how bullishly to answer that. "I hope that's a legacy of ours - mine, Steve, Grant's [Flower], Azhar Mahmood's - as a coaching staff and a support staff. If we can sustain this for another couple of years, it means then that it's inculcated in the players. And these young players will keep driving it for the next generation, and they'll drive it for the next generation. So I hope when this coaching group is not here, people will look back and see us field and say, 'During these guys' time, we revolutionised our fielding culture, and this is what we still have to show for it.'"

But while many may be reassured to hear Arthur wants to stay on in the job, Rixon has already taken his leave, after announcing in May that the tour of the UK would be his last with Pakistan. With the World Cup less than a year away, it was a strange time for a departure from the ranks of a settled backroom staff, and it was initially put down to personal reasons. Rixon denies that, saying he would have loved to go to the World Cup with Pakistan, but had issues with the PCB.

He also describes himself as being "horrified" at the possibility Pakistan would quietly slip back into their old attitudes to fielding, saying he saw "laziness in the field" from them. The statistics bear him out - as there's a good chance he'll know. There was a marked deterioration in Pakistan's fielding on the Zimbabwe tour, their first assignment in two years in Rixon's absence. They dropped eight outfield catches of 37 on the tour, a conversion rate of 78.3%, slightly worse even than before Arthur and Rixon took over. It might just be a coincidence, but Rixon thinks it reinforces the need to have a fielding specialist constantly in the ears of the players, particularly at this nascent stage of the cultural overhaul Arthur wants to implement.

"These boys need to be pushed. They've got to understand these standards come with hard work, not just turning up and hoping it works out. I would hate Pakistan to go into a World Cup just hoping to be the fielding side I know they can be."

That sort of guarded optimism does little to ease fans' nerves. If the central figures in the turnaround are so wary of being optimistic about being able to sustain these standards a mere 12 months on, what are the chances the change of culture will remain ingrained a decade from now?

There is, however, a more uplifting outlook. The young players who have made their name under Arthur's stewardship have only ever seen one way of operating, and it's the HP culture Arthur never misses a chance to emphasise. Hasan, Shadab, Faheem and others are set to be the bedrock of this team for the next decade or so, and surely they will take on the mantle of driving standards that saw them attain such great success, demanding the same high standards from their peers in the years to come?

"We've got everything going in the right direction," Arthur says. "I want Pakistan cricket to be the best it can be in all aspects. From where we were when me and my support staff started to where we are now is a massive, massive improvement. Our T20 side is brilliant - we're No. 1 in the world."

It's nearly time for a training session. He has just guzzled down a strawberry chiller - heaven forbid if he'd seen one of his players drinking that - and moments later, he's out in the scorching June sun. Soon, he'll be the unlikely conductor on a training ground at the NCA, looking to modify the movements of a Pakistani orchestra that has finally begun hitting the right notes. While many look upon the 2017 Champions Trophy win as the magnum opus of Arthur's Pakistan, the masterpiece of this story may yet to be written.