Optometrist Geoffrey Francis Lawson, son of Wagga Wagga and known throughout the continent as plain old Henry, recently accepted a lucrative offer from the Pakistan Cricket Board to coach the national squad for the next two years. It is a curious decision for both parties.
When first approached some two months ago Lawson scoffed at the offer. “A 1000 planets would have to align” was his curt response when asked if he was interested. His concerns were many and serious.
At the time rumour and innuendo were rife about the nature of Bob Woolmer’s demise. Lawson spoke of “safety being a big factor” and no-one doubted whose safety Geoff was referring. Once the police investigations were complete Lawson warmed a little towards such a prominent appointment stating, “Once the Woolmer event was resolved, that made me feel better about things”.
There were, however, other fears that needed assuaging. Most of them concerning the Pakistani players. Chief amongst these worries was the attitude of the cricketers. There is a discernment throughout the cricketing world that Pakistan are unfit, ill disciplined and poorly motivated. There is plenty of evidence that this is indeed the case. The recent World Cup debacle and the petulant forfeiture at Kennington Oval in 2006 are two of the more publicized attestations of recent years.
Their opening bowlers Shoaib Akhtar and Mohammad Asif were pulled from the 2006 Champions Trophy after producing a positive urine test for nandrolone. Taken predominately by post menopausal women to treat osteoporisis, ingesting the banned anabolic steroid earned the meretricious Akhtar a 24 month ban, and in a somewhat perplexing decision, the equally guilty Asif a 12 month stint in the nets. These convictions were soon overturned in controversial circumstances. The players were found not guilty on appeal not because they were innocent but because of a legal technicality from the original case.
Lawson. as befits a country squire with a liberal education, adores the moral high ground and this situation disturbs him. Ethically, Henry sees the world mostly in black and white and his attitude regarding performance enhancing drugs is well known. Pakistan officials have been told in no uncertain terms that if there is a repeat indiscretion Lawson will resign immediately. Considering that players take these substances in the shadows away from prying eyes, and knowing that Lawson is an intelligent, experienced and skilled media performer, it is an obstreperously ill directed public ultimatum that will undoubtedly bear a bitter fruit in the fertile political soil that is Pakistan cricket.
It is anathema to an Australian sportsman to not give total effort when competing in a team environment. It is linked to the mythical and ephemeral ANZAC spirit affectionately and colloquially known as mateship. “Not having a go” is the greatest sporting sin an athlete can commit. Three seasons back on Pakistan’s last tour of Australia, Lawson in the employ as cricket analyst at the publicly owned Australian Broadcasting Commission routinely described the visitors cricket as abysmal and their efforts disgraceful. Always the public diplomat Henry balanced his views with the diametrically disguised diatribe along the theme that the team was brimming with talent.
Now a rookie international coach Lawson has stressed the importance of pride, mongrel and respect on every occasion available. In a lengthy interview with Cricinfo’s Assistant Editor Nagraj Gollapudi, the new coach put forward his philosophy for turning around Pakistan’s pusillanimous performances.
“As a captain or a coach or even as a spectator or a selector or a board member you expect the players to give 100 percent every time they walk on the field; now that 100 percent might vary if they are injured or tired but if they walk on to the field and give their maximum all the time then everyone walks away satisfied. That's what Australia do so well: they treat every single game as very important. They never go at it half-hearted, they never go at it three-quarters, they are always doing their best to win every game. That is a great approach to follow - that every game of cricket you play you have to treat it like it's your last one.”
It would appear obvious to most that the Pakistan Cricket Board have appointed Lawson with this philosophical paradigm in mind. Only three coaches were interviewed and all were Australian. Despite his inexperience and the natural language barrier - only 4 players within Pakistan’s squad understand English - the PCB chairman Dr Nasim Ashraf has admitted that it is the quintessential Australian sporting nature of Lawson that got him the nod over his vastly more successful and qualified compatriot Dav Whatmore, “He is an educated no-nonsense fellow with a positive outlook and that Australian attitude we are looking for”. Lawson concurred, “I think they appreciate how the Australian approach to playing cricket is a successful one and that's what they're trying to tap into”.
Lawson, before accepting the poisoned chalice, also expressed concerns about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in mainstream Pakistani culture and the fact that the Pakistan Cricket Board’s patron - the real boss - is military dictator General Pervez Musharraf. He cited reports that the players infatuation with Islam was affecting their cricket, even stating that he had heard that fielders were substituted during international matches to allow them to kneel towards the Kaba and pay homage from the prayer mat. For a secular cricketer like Lawson this recent development in Pakistani society and sporting culture is barely comprehensible. “I’ll be having none of that” was his final comment on the situation before appointment.
Coronated King Henry in the Pakistani media, Lawson has now softened his tone, "I believe they have overcome those obstacles," he said. "I think the board, the players and maybe some religious leaders have set out some conditions for when players can pray during matches, and how much work they can do during Ramadan. They are professional athletes, and as a coach you are looking for them to maximise their own potential.”
It is ironic that in a country that prohibits gambling that the PCB would plunge so heavily in entrusting Geoff Lawson with the stewardship of the national side. He possesses a mediocre decade old first-class coaching record and has no international experience, he understands very little about the changing nature of Pakistani society and he proudly possesses the natural lack of empathy required of an Australian Test quick. He said upon his appointment, "I don't suffer fools and I don't put up with second best”.
Combine Lawson’s quirks, insecurities and forthright attitude with the fractious nature of the Pakistani administration, an out of the loop and outspoken ex-player lobby, a newly appointed untested captain, a caviling squad with a poor work ethic, in addition to the widening linguistic, religious and cultural divide between the West and Pakistan, all under the unsleeping eye of an unpopular and tottering military dictatorship and it is not difficult to imagine some tough times ahead for the man affectionately known as Henry.