HD Ackerman: 'Afghanistan don't just want to compete against big nations, they want to beat them'

Ackerman with legspinner Shafiqullah Ghafari at the U-19 World Cup: "I couldn't believe how good some players were" Getty Images

In January 2020, former South Africa cricketer HD Ackerman was announced as Afghanistan's batting coach, but he had spent less than a fortnight with the team before the Covid-19 pandemic sent the world into lockdown. We spoke to Ackerman about his new role, his ambitions for Afghanistan and his dreams for South African cricket

Your only time with the Afghanistan team was the ten days spent in India while playing Ireland in March 2020. How did you approach that first interaction, and what were your initial impressions?
Yes (laughs), the virus got in the way!

I think it would have been wrong for me to go and say, "All right, this is how we will operate," because Lance Klusener, the head coach, and his team had already been there for a few months, so I needed to just see what was required by him. But I enjoyed being in the group and thanked them for the way they included me.

The talent they have is unbelievable. I have never seen teams hitting the ball out of the ground as efficiently as the Afghans. They don't just want to compete against the big nations but want to beat them. They don't want to flounder at the wrong end of the rankings table. I quickly realised that. Apart from that, not much can be done in ten days, other than building relations.

What was your opinion of Afghanistan cricket as a former player and broadcaster before you signed up for this job?
I had watched Afghanistan play the 2018 U-19 World Cup in New Zealand, and I couldn't believe how good some players were. Mujeeb ur Rahman looked a good prospect then; now he's gone on to become a great spinner. I can't think of another nation that has as many good wristspinners as Afghanistan.

I hadn't really done any TV broadcasting with the Afghan team as a whole, so I didn't know about the passion and hunger that these boys have. We think that cricket is big in India, Sri Lanka and South Africa, but we don't know that the game of cricket is so massive in nations like Nepal or Afghanistan for that matter. So actually I'm privileged to work in this new environment.

"When we are in trouble, we tend to hit ourselves out of it, but you can't simply hit Mitchell Starc or Kagiso Rabada or Ben Stokes for two sixes in a row"

As batting coach, where does the immediate focus lie with Afghanistan?
The difficulty Afghanistan face is that they have grown as a cricket team a lot faster than a lot of other nations. We have been hindered by that - getting to play matches against other nations is difficult because the Future Tours Programme got pencilled in a long time ago. I don't know what the correct term is, but we're our own worst enemies by showing the improvement we've shown. (laughs)

This year the focus is on T20s, with the Asia Cup and World T20 scheduled later. It's easy to say we should focus more on long-form batting, but there are other problems there, since Afghanistan play more T20 than ODIs and more ODIs than Tests. The more they play these other versions, the better they will become, and focus will transition there.

We've got a Test scheduled against Australia after the two T20 tournaments, so we need to focus on Test batting too. But the critical thing is that we need to play more Tests against the likes of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa. It can't always be games versus Ireland and Netherlands. And I think those nations would say the same thing. You learn so much playing against and with great people. That's why you see the improvements in Rashid Khan, Mujeeb, Mohammad Nabi and Qais Ahmad, because they play in leagues around the world. We need more batsmen getting that exposure and only then will they understand what is needed in top-flight cricket.

ALSO READ: Lance Klusener: 'It's not about learning to defend or attack, it's about knowing when to defend or attack'

Is there a need to re-educate Afghan batsmen to deal with the challenges of elite cricket, especially in ODIs and Tests?
I wouldn't want to say re-educate, because the one thing I don't want to do is take their natural flair away. I would encourage them to play how they do, but pick up the art of how to build an innings. When we are in trouble, we tend to hit ourselves out of it, but you can't simply hit Mitchell Starc or Kagiso Rabada or Ben Stokes for two sixes in a row.

So they need to find the twos or threes in bigger grounds - that will be where the focus lies. Fours and sixes, [they can hit] as well as the best of the world. They will surprise many people in the near future; it's just a matter of how quickly they can embrace it. In the short period we've worked, the team already understands that.

When it comes to technique, look how long it's taken India. For decades, India would struggle in Australia and South Africa, barring the odd player, but they now play easily in these countries. So it's a process. The more South Africa tours India, the better they'll get at spin. You see how Faf du Plessis and AB de Villiers play spin compared to my time, because we never saw pitches with so much turn. It's the same for Afghanistan. The more they are exposed, the more they'll adjust and become accustomed to play in these different conditions.

Lance Klusener was always the silent type. Were you surprised at seeing him bloom as coach? And how do you two intend to build a working relationship?
You'll probably find that Lance the coach is very different to Lance the player. So, no, I wasn't surprised to see him become a top coach. Because he's a very competitive man, he wants to be with a team that wins, and that's why he loves being with Afghanistan.

As part of the Afghan team, we have felt that it's time we have a base in Kabul, along with the other coaches, to work more intensely. We know Afghanistan is a cricket-mad nation, and despite the problems of the past, we thought it was right to be there and show the team that we want to be there. But that's fallen through due to the lockdown. Lance was working overtime to add more fixtures to the calendar so that we are even better prepared for the T20 World Cup and the Asia Cup, but now that needs to wait.

ALSO READ: Reeling financially, Afghanistan Cricket Board to cut coaching staff salary first

During your broadcasting stint, you helped coach emerging teams for Cricket South Africa. But then you left the country, and your relationship with CSA soured a bit. What happened there?
Circumstances really. I retired in 2009 and SuperSport, who are a big broadcaster in South Africa, hired me as a commentator immediately. Simultaneously, Corrie van Zyl asked me if I wanted to work in Cricket South Africa's High Performance Centre in Pretoria, and SuperSport were comfortable with me working there on the side. That commentary gig aided me tremendously, because I ended up working on a lot of domestic games and you get to learn so much from observing players from close quarters. But yes, I then left South Africa.

It wasn't something I wanted to do - I still love my country, I'm a South African citizen - but I managed to get Australian residency due to my broadcasting. When I left, I got myself into a spot of bother because I had said "South Africa has an uncertain future" and many frowned upon that. I didn't mean to offend anyone, I was just being honest. And if people are honest to themselves, many will agree that South Africa, perhaps, still has an uncertain future. I had two young kids, so I thought I'll give them a great opportunity if I took the offer in Australia.

However, what it did do was set my career backwards. I don't want a halo around my head, but that was the sacrifice I was prepared to make for my children. I am very sad that I left under that sort of cloud, and hopefully time will heal all of that.

Did life in Australia turn out how you imagined?
Well, Australia have some of the greatest players to walk the planet doing commentary, so it was very difficult for me to break into that side of things. Tom Moody helped me get a coaching job at Guildford Primary School, in Perth. At that time, I thought coaching at a school wasn't ideal for me, but it taught me about managing people. If you deal with parents on a daily basis, you develop the patience to deal with anyone!

But after three and a half years at the school, I got some broadcasting opportunities abroad. Then Moody took me as his assistant at the Global T20 League in Canada, and I realised this is where I want to be - top-flight cricket. Broadcasting exists on the side, and that's well and good, but you really want to be in the development of top cricketers.

"The critical thing is that we need to play more Tests against the likes of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and South Africa. You learn so much playing against and with great people"

You've coached South Africa emerging players, at school level in Perth, briefly worked with Namibia, and now with international cricketers. How does coaching differ across all these levels?
What differs is the time at hand. When you're at a school, you don't get a lot of time with them because they are scholars. So we work together maybe twice a week.

With Namibia, again, it was time. They are not paid the money professional cricketers get, so practice becomes a 5pm-to-7pm routine. Some of them are batting when it's dark. Those circumstances make things very difficult for Associate teams to progress. But when I saw Namibia's quality in World League Division Two, it was very rewarding.

With the emerging players in South Africa, it was more about making youngsters understand that playing for your country is the pinnacle, but for that you need to be physically, mentally, technically and emotionally strong. That's where we try to make them understand what makes an international cricketer, because not everyone makes it.

How would you define a coach then?
I ask myself that question every single day. I can show you the amount of coaching books - from football, tennis and cricket - I've read. There's no right style. I know now there's a big focus on empowering the players, because what could a Gary Kirsten teach a Sachin Tendulkar? Very little, so he became his friend.

I'll use Moody as an example, since I asked him the same question. A coach has to be like a chameleon. You need to change according to who is in front of you. I don't think a coach can go into a team environment and say it's my way or the highway.

In your playing days, you were one of the earliest players to take a Kolpak contract. Why did you take that route, when the concept of Kolpak was still quite new?
Yes, I went to Leicestershire in 2005, at 30, with my international career behind me. I don't think there was a great deal of understanding of what Kolpak was back then. It was easier for me to do it since it was unlikely I would play for South Africa again. So the question comes down to whether my exit was politically motivated, and by that I mean the quota system.

Was it?
Not at all. It was about financial security. As a married man, I felt I had some responsibility, and wondered how I could be financially secure once I retired. Those were really frightening questions back then. However, we weren't villainised like Kolpak players are now.

What's changed then, from Kolpak players being looked at as harmless now being called traitors?
I think saying "political motivation" or "protesting against the quota system" is a very easy tool to use against players when they go, rather than looking at the bigger picture. Finance is a big thing. Why is it okay to play in the IPL but not to be a Kolpak? At that time, as a county player, you could earn 12 times more what we were getting in South Africa. Now it's nearly 20 times more.

South Africa should remember that Paul Harris went Kolpak before coming back for South Africa again. Faf du Plessis too. But we've got very short memories, calling guys like Rilee Rossouw, Kyle Abbott, Simon Harmer as traitors. Rossouw could have come back at 30 and been a Michael Hussey. The one reason they're getting villainised more now is because you're getting all sorts of age groups going. But it's good to see Graeme Smith engage with those players now.

Speaking of Smith, former cricketers like him and Mark Boucher have returned to the Cricket South Africa system. Does that open a door for you to be involved with cricket in South Africa once again?
I'm just thrilled that a man like Smith is leading South African cricket because his stature globally can hold us in good stead. He has played at the highest level, he's a leader of men, he's got a presence when he walks into meetings, so that's the kind of person who should be involved.

As for me, I've never not wanted to be involved in South African cricket. My father was involved in South African cricket, in the initial walkoff in the '70s, saying that they wanted to play cricket with people of all colours and cultures. He was part of the series that was aborted due to apartheid. So I've been involved with South African cricket since the day I was born and it will always have a place in my heart.

Has South African cricket hurt me at times? Yes, but hey, I have also hurt South African cricket at times. But I remember that it has given me, my dad and my family a lot of things. I would be honoured if something from CSA asks me if I'd like to be involved. But I haven't gone away.