For a man whose 15-month coaching tenure was marred by player defections, suicide bombings and a rampantly political board, Geoff Lawson was in a remarkably sentimental mood as he packed his bags in Lahore and prepared to fly home to Sydney after learning of his sacking on television.
"I am sorry to be leaving these guys," Lawson said just after striking a financial agreement with the Pakistan Cricket Board on Monday. "I went into this thing full of hope and enthusiasm. I just needed to get a few more pieces of the puzzle together and I won’t get a chance to do that.
"But I think I am probably much better off than a lot of other people. I get paid out and I get to go home. There are so many other staff who have been sacked or are leaving and I don’t think they got paid an awful lot." The bizarre manner of Lawson’s dismissal would suggest his hopes for a less-volatile Pakistan are unfulfilled. He recounted to the ABC on the weekend how he saw his sacking detailed on a TV news bulletin, then tried to contact the new board chairman Ijaz Butt to ask if he had anything to tell him. Butt said, "No, not really," and hung up before a board official appeared sheepishly at his door with a piece of paper and a cheque.
Lawson gave it back, and has since negotiated a better settlement. Job security was never high among the attractions of the Pakistan posting, which became even more tenuous when the opponents of former president Pervez Musharraf formed a new government in March.
Pakistan’s new president, Asif Ali Zardari, appointed the 70-year-old Butt, who played eight Tests for Pakistan and is the brother-in-law of a senior government minister. His opening pronouncement? "We have no utility for Lawson. We will suffer a huge financial loss if we terminate his contract now. Since we cannot afford a heavy loss, we will continue with him."
That undertaking lasted less than a week. "It didn’t have anything to do with coaching," Lawson told the Herald . "When the government changed everyone knew the [cricket board] chairman would change and when that happens, a lot of things change. So it was always a possibility rather than a probability. That is just how things work over here. I am very philosophical about it. There is no other way to be."
He was presented with obstacles almost from the moment of his arrival. An entire team of the country’s top players fled to represent the Lahore Badshahs in the rebel Indian Cricket League. He bonded, one paceman to another, with the tempestuous Shoaib Akhtar only for his lapses in fitness and discipline to result in a protracted legal battle with the board.
And the frequency of terrorist attacks in major cities led western nations, including Australia, to avoid Pakistan and forced the postponement of the Champions Trophy. It meant he coached for only five Tests (for two losses and three draws), and that the national team has not played a Test at home this year.
Lawson has been adamant throughout that it is safe to play in Pakistan, and the players who stayed to represent their country have the commitment and talent to succeed. "It [the terror threat] feels so peripheral when you’re here. I still maintain that this is a safe place to play cricket. What is disappointing is we didn’t get a chance to prove how good we can be. I have seen what talent there is in this team, and it’s enormous. There are 25 players who could eventually be really good players if they are handled properly."
Lawson dealt with a hostile local media, took Pakistan to the final of the World Twenty20 Championship and experienced an exhausting Test series against arch-rivals India, with all its accompanying stresses. As he prepared to fly home to "let the dust settle", Lawson said he was neither disillusioned nor burnt out. "It has been a tremendous experience. It was never going to be just about the cricket but about life, living in a Muslim culture, and that is something very few people get to experience."
The 50-year-old has been replaced by Intikhab Alam, the 66-year-old former all-rounder whose appointment will please the factions of Pakistan cricket that have resisted foreigners like Lawson and his predecessor, the late Bob Woolmer. Lawson has never been more convinced an overseas coach is precisely what the national team needs. "They need an objective hand."