Thursday, 4 September 2014

JOHN BRACEWELL: TALKING CRICKET


Sometimes when preparing for an interview, you have an inkling that the interviewee is going to be insightful, forthright, a quote-machine. Having previously spoken about John Bracewell with Staffordshire lads Kim Barnett and Jeremy Snape, both members of the New Zealander's Gloucestershire team that swept all before them in limited-overs cricket between 1999 and 2001, winning six trophies, that was the impression I had when preparing for our chat. I wasn't disappointed. In fact, he was probably the most interesting cricketing interviewee to whom I've yet had the chance to speak.

However, the full 6,300-word transcript of our chat was a little too long for ESPNcricinfo, who felt that he wasn't a big enough name to merit a two-part piece of 3,000 or so words each. So, I sent them 4000 words – slicing, compressing and re-arranging the original Q&A sequence – which they subsequently trimmed some more.

The final piece is, I think, still a fascinating read for those interested in group dynamics, man-management, and tactical and technical innovations in limited-overs cricket. Nevertheless, several nuggets had to be excluded from the version I filed. So, below you can find the full transcript, in the original sequence, and, before that, a link to the cricinfo version (and, judging by the comments below the line, it's fair to say he's thought of far more fondly in Bristol than back home in NZ). 


Talking Cricket: John Bracewell 




After a 41-Test career for New Zealand, John Bracewell became coach of Gloucestershire and helped propel an ‘unfashionable’ county to six limited-overs trophies in three years with his forward-thinking methods. After five years coaching the New Zealand team, during which they reached three semi-finals of ICC events, he returned to Bristol. 

Is it fair to say that you first made your name as a coach in your first spell with Gloucestershire? 
It was all part of a journey as a coach. Like a lot of coaches, if you hit the right people at the right time you break lucky. I was very fortunate to come across a group of guys who were in their prime, ready to launch themselves onto cricket. They just needed some direction as to what that was. They were ready to perform. 

Did you have a blueprint about how to play the one-day game and find the players to fit that, or did you look at the players and develop the gameplan? 
That’s a good question, because it’s almost an economic question. There are certain clubs that can get the blueprint and then go and buy the players, and there are other clubs that are not so fortunate to be in the financial situation where they can do that. I just happened to have a group of players that had their own blueprint. They loved playing games, so even when you were in a net they turned it into a game; they couldn’t wait to go and have a game of football at the end of the day’s play as a way of keeping themselves fit. And they knew their way around games, so they had what I call ‘game sense’, and they just needed some direction in how to utilize it and put it into something that was going to produce the results that they were employed to get. 

Aside from that competitiveness, what sort of cricketing ingredients do you think are crucial parts of a successful one-day side? 
I think the ability to understand the game itself. You’ve got to understand the pressure points of a game, to understand the set plays. And really, 50-over cricket is just a series of set plays. And then you produce a model that gives them a greater understanding of what their particular role is. They will then understand the clarity of that role, and therefore it’s less pressured. And it’s more repeatable. We had guys who really only did one or two things. But they did them extremely well and they knew that when they were called on by their captain, they were able to perform those. 

Ian Harvey

Of course, not every match goes according to the gameplan. So, there must be times when carrying out a pre-defined role is less important than adapting quickly to fluctuations in the match situation. 
Yes, but you don’t necessarily need all your players to do that. You can have some guys who have their singular role, because it’s almost like a mathematical equation – 50-over cricket and short-form cricket. There are some guys you can use who can change a game, but you don’t need a whole team of them. It’s the balancing of the chess board, really. You can’t have everyone just attacking. You’ve got to have guys who understand what their particular role is, and utilize that. 

We had some extremely creative players. And we had some guys who, basically, once they understood and knew their role, they felt less pressure in actually performing that. We had guys like Ian Harvey and Mark Alleyne, who were actually capable of playing many, many roles. They were multi-skilled, multi-talented, tactically very aware, and incredibly adaptable to any situation, but if you’ve got a whole team of those players you can end up with chaos. So you need to have order as well as artistic licence. 

Kim Barnett’s job as opening batsman was to assess the par score for the conditions, wasn’t it? 
We had the bowlers to be able to defend a score. But equally, Kim’s mind was very, very mathematical. He was one of the few guys I had ever seen who could work out, in his head, Duckworth-Lewis. Before Duckworth-Lewis could! It was incredible. And as an opening batsman with vast, vast experience, and having a mind that worked that way, he was pretty accurate most of the time on (1) what we could get, and (2) what we could defend. And then, if we were chasing, the pace at which it needed to be got at. So that was his particular skill that he brought to the team. 
 
Kim Barnett

How detailed was your assessment of the opposition and your pre-match briefing? 
That particular time was more about us. It was about the group being relaxed, and knowing its particular roles. There wasn’t a great deal of research done in those days. The game has changed enormously in terms of computerisation and the Moneyball concept. With New Zealand, the first time we really used statistical analysis in depth was when we went to the World Cup in ’07. And once again that was more about where we needed to be as a group – what was expendable, what wasn’t expendable. What were the rates that needed to be achieved in terms of par scores? Hence the reason we were reasonably successful in that particular venture. 

Were you hands-on in formulating plans? Bob Woolmer once suggested a radio link between coach and captain. Would that be something you’d go for? 
I was hands on in formulating the ideas to bring to the side. So I was slightly the ‘mad scientist’ who threw ideas at them. But with Gloucestershire I had an audience who was open-minded to it, and certainly a captain, tactically, who I never had to worry about on the park. I had total trust in Mark Alleyne’s ability to make decisions, so therefore once they crossed the line it was not my concern. I felt like a nervous spectator like everybody else, and to be honest I ended up just enjoying the ride. 

So you never felt compelled to send out twelfth man with a message, something you could see from a detached position? 
Well, it was never my role. And one of my strict rules has always been that once the twelve has been named, then the captain makes the choices. It’s never imposed on him by me. I’ll argue with him up to the point that we get the twelve, and then once that’s done, he makes the decisions. 

Mark Alleyne

The innovative approach to 50-over cricket also included factoring in boundary size and measuring wind speed, didn’t it? 
Yes, but in the end, when you think about it, it’s just common sense. We always used two spinners, and our spinners were key to the management of the ‘dead overs’ in the middle. So, where we used them, and at what ends, was actually vital. They were different spinners who got the same result, so to us it was common sense to factor in the wind and the boundary. 

I guess the set plays and structuring of the 50 overs would have to be adapted to conditions. At Bristol, you were almost unbeatable. How did that general plan vary when you went away? 
Well, to be fair we were almost unbeatable at Lord’s as well. We only lost there once in six or seven goes. So, that’s where game-sense comes in. That’s where the licence of a player to say “my role now becomes…” comes in, but with the discipline to actually adhere to that. So, as well as game-sense, they need an understanding of the game of cricket itself. I had a group of guys who had that understanding. They knew their way around a dartboard, they understood their way around a card table – any games we actually played, they knew how to manipulate them to their advantage, and to win. And that just doesn’t apply to one sport. You almost have to have the ability that they identify now as ‘emotional intelligence’. And we had a group of guys who had good emotional intelligence. 

I believe during your first stint at Gloucestershire you had psychometric tests done, and Jack Russell, Mike Smith and Kim Barnett all fell into the same category: gnarly, argumentative, obstinate. That’s probably a good thing when directed toward the opposition, but did it ever present you with resistance you had to work against? 
I think the strength of it is when things are going along smoothly. It’s historical, in terms of the make-up of any group depends on the people constantly agreeing with the future ambitions of where it’s going. And while it’s a collective ambition then things motor along quite smoothly. Once individuals want to have individual ambitions outside of that box – let’s say playing for England, or wanting to get paid more, or greater recognition for their particular part – once that comes in the man-management of that becomes a little bit more difficult. Sometimes you have to find more money, and if you haven’t got it you’re in a bit of trouble. Sometimes you have to push them towards international selection and if they don’t get it their ambitions shift toward something else. Sometimes they’re coming toward the end of their lifespan as cricketers and they start to panic a bit about what they’re going to be doing next. And therefore their goals shift, individually. So you’re constantly balancing up their own individual needs and desires and aspirations with the collective ambition, and every society goes through that. 

Mike Smith

That must be extremely hands-on, then, as I’d have thought those lines of communication need to be open constantly in order for you to pick up on where those divergences might appear. Or do you look for signs that aren’t directly divulged to you? 
It’s my ‘why’. It’s why I coach. It’s because team dynamics – the understanding of how a society, almost, works, in the dynamic of a sports team – is the thing that interests me. How you get a balance between individual desires and team needs is the constant challenge. It’s the thing that scratches my itch. It’s probably the reason I gravitate toward the underdog-style appointments, because of the challenge of how to make a team, as opposed to how to make a wealthy team work. I’m interested in how to grow a team and make it from scratch. 

On that note, is Moneyball applicable to cricket? In my understanding, that concept is about finding untapped potential that conventional wisdom doesn’t see. Is that right? 
It’s pretty much adaptable to cricket, although not wholly applicable. The model is based around the purchasing of players. He had a budget and he looked at players who could get the right result, whereas we in cricket tend to have a fixed group and fixed contracts. They can buy and sell them; they can get rid of players at the drop of a hat, and they can get them in. So, in cricket we have to get guys to fit the model, rather than buy other players in. And that’s the challenge of coaching: how to adapt players to the model, as opposed to buy players in to fit the model? How do you get guys to role-play and convince them it’s in the team’s best interest and not necessarily their own best interest? That is the challenge for cricket as a sport. In rugby, it’s clear: No1 pushes, No5 gets lifted – their roles are well set out. In cricket it’s not necessarily the case. 

When it comes to researching the opposition, or recruiting players using Moneyball-like ideas, that will obviously be dictated by the amount of resources you have available. But, in preparing your team, do you have to be wary of ‘information overload’? 
Very much so. I’m a great believer that science is a tool that fits in your kit-bag. And if you end up with only one tool – let’s say it’s a hammer, everything becomes a nail. And you’ve got to be wary of that. It’s one tool that exists. One of the greatest tools is the understanding of your players, and they are not ever an exact science. Different players’ make-ups make up great teams. And if you’re only producing one model, you’ll only get results for a short period of time, until someone cracks the code. As with England and Australia last winter – then you often see there’s no depth behind that model, no resilience. It was a one-size-fits-all bowling attack, and the Australians picked the code and revealed it as a fa├žade. They attacked Swann in the first innings. They attacked them higher than a pull shot – they made them hook the ball – and they took their feet away with those bouncers, making Johnson quite dangerous, where if you really analyse it he was actually quite wayward. 



Was putting together that ‘tool-kit’ something you factored into selection? With a county you have more or less a set pool of players that you have to develop, but with New Zealand you could, in theory, pick a team with half an eye on the blend of personalities. 
Pretty much so. Funnily enough, New Zealand is very much like Gloucestershire. It’s a low-budget, small selection-group structure. With Australia, they can decide on a plan and then go and find the players to fit that. Generally in New Zealand, you’ve got, at most, throughout their history, eight or nine Test players, and then you make up the numbers after that with whatever you’ve got available or ready to come into the side. So you’re often developing a player on a tour, because that’s what makes up the numbers. At times you’re taking away players who aren’t really Test players at all but you need to fill that gap. So when you haven’t got someone who immediately replaces a player, like for like, that’s when personalities really are important, as they are in New Zealand. Because they have to hunt as a pack, as do Gloucestershire and lower socio-economic sides. 

With regard to that pack mentality, was there a systematic approach to applying psychological pressure? I think of Jack Russell, for example, getting in batsmen’s physical space. Was it something you discussed?  
Yes, it was. It was certainly something I discussed with Jack. Whilst Jack had always been somewhat of an irritant as a keeper, and it was part of his style, he was also reasonably conservative about how he kept, as he still had international ambition. Therefore, if he didn’t make mistakes he had a chance of beating Alec Stewart into the side. So he put himself in a slightly defensive rather than offensive position. Instead of him being the drummer in the band, sitting back there and keeping the beat, I said to him “No, I want you to conduct the orchestra. Come forward and run the show”. And it suited that gnarly mentality. It brought the best out of Jack. The moment Jack retired from international cricket I think he did become the best keeper in the world. Undoubtedly. While he was still wanting to play for England he was still good but he was too conservative. 

Jack Russell

A lot of people would say that Jack gave that team its x-factor, standing up to 80mph bowlers and pinning them to the crease. 
The x-factor was Mark Alleyne. I’ve never, ever met a man who was more astute on a park, who gave belief to every player that he gave the ball to. Jack became the conductor of a performance. 

One of your charges in that team, Jeremy Snape, latterly a ‘performance director’ with the South African cricket team, said not so long ago that “the last fifteen years have been about developing the body, the next fifteen years will be about the mind”. Would you agree with that? 
Well, I would have a sports psychologist in my group all the time, as a matter of course. One of the biggest problems with sports psychology is that most people who commentate on the game are generally ten years behind where the game is. And therefore they’re always resistant to the immeasurable of sports science and psychology, because you can’t truthfully get inside the person’s head. And that’s the bottom line of it. I think people fear it, almost as Salem did with witch-hunting, because it’s all speculative and you cannot really put your finger truthfully on it unless the player is truthful. It’s a player-truth thing. 

After fitness and sports psychology, where might be the next place of competitive advantage-seeking in cricket? 
We did a little bit of investigation into neuroscience when I was with New Zealand. The problem is resourcing it. I could see enormous value in it but as it was something of a fledgling discipline in terms of penetrating the sporting world. It was an extremely expensive exercise. There are few people who have that expertise who can share it, or who are willing to share it to the sporting world. I know it exists in the motor racing world, but that’s pretty much endless budgets. You’re working with New Zealand Cricket and Gloucestershire. It’s stuff you look at and then you say: “No, I can’t afford it”. 

Jeremy Snape, while working with South Africa
Are there any other walks of life from which you draw lessons and apply to cricket teams? 
I draw a lot from reading about history – the history of societies and the repeating of errors. It’s just a subculture of culture, cricket. It truly is, because it’s individuals within a team. How do you get to create a socialist environment, a kibbutz? And how do you cater for those individual needs. My apple’s redder than your apple, and therefore I should be getting a greater profit for my individual apple. Those sorts of things exist throughout society, so lessons don’t just come from a cricket source, or a sports source. It comes from a historical source. I’ve always been a socialist at heart. But, I say, aren’t all coaches? 

You often get managers in football who try and engender solidarity and togetherness through the creation of external enemies, even when they’re not there. Jose Mourinho, for instance, does this regularly. Is that something you ever did in order to create the same intense unity of purpose? 
I’m never a great fan of siege mentality. I think it can be used once or twice, but in the end it just wears your own players out. Because, generally, you’re asking the group to be totally resilient all the time and people aren’t like that. By nature, people don’t like to be disliked. Rejection hurts. Isolation is something that can be really vicious. So if you set up a siege mentality you’re welcoming it into your own group as well, and then you’ll get isolation groups. So, it’s something that can only work in one-off situations. And it’s very short-term. 

What about leadership: is that something generic that can be systematically learned – either over several years or intensively, as a ‘crash course’ – or is it more or less inherent in an individual? 
I think there are traits of leadership – as opposed to captaincy, and there’s a big difference – there are traits of leadership that exist in everybody, and it’s about identifying those and using those. So, with Kim Barnett, his leadership basically was the team trusted his maths. Therefore, that was his role: “Kim, what’s the maths?” Martyn Ball and Jeremy Snape used to run that middle session. The captain would give them ownership of that middle session: how to keep a side beyond the point of no return, because we knew that Ian Harvey, Mike Smith and James Averis would nail them in the death. They owned that, and their leadership became that they shifted the field where they wanted it. Now that’s a great art of captaincy from Mark Alleyne: to give them ownership. And, therefore, ownership creates leadership. 

James Averis and Jack Russell celebrate at Lord's
You have been an innovative coach with Gloucestershire and New Zealand. There have also been many very astute, innovative and perhaps unconventional New Zealand skippers down the years: Geoff Howarth and Jeremy Coney, Martin Crowe at the ‘92 World Cup, Stephen Fleming, right through to Brendon McCullum. What did you take from your time as a player that fed into your approach to coaching? 
It was probably the fact that we didn’thave coaches, mostly, through the eighties. For a lot of the time, the Chairman of Selectors travelled with you. That was pretty much your coach. I think the first coach we had was in the mid-eighties, which was Glenn Turner. And he was something of an innovator in one-day cricket, with the chip shots and those sorts of things. So we were probably a side that talked about cricket a lot, captained our own positions a lot. And as a nation, we always felt a bit of a legacy from the War period, where we were nicknamed “The Number 8 Wire Society”, where a piece of fencing wire, from farming, could fix anything. So that adaptability was always part of what we thought of as our street-smartness. 

Both your Gloucestershire and New Zealand teams used accurate medium-pacers with the ‘keeper stood up, often on slow pitches: for the Black Caps, Gavin Larsen and Chris Harris in the 1990s, Nathan Astle, then Scotty Styris and Craig MacMillan. Is that style of cricket becoming obsolete, due to bigger bats and bigger batsmen? Is it still a viable method? 
I don’t think it’s as viable as it once was. In county cricket it’s still viable, because you’re playing on variable sized grounds all the time. You’re also playing on variable paced wickets. International pitches are becoming very bland in the way they’re produced. They’re becoming very much the same. The only thing that really influences things is overhead conditions. As we’ve seen, playing 50-over cricket with two new balls in England is pretty hard work, whereas in New Zealand, with drop-in wickets on small rugby grounds, two new balls means you’ve got a good chance of getting 350. I think MS Dhoni said you may as well have a bowling machine there. It’s making it tougher at international level, there’s no doubt about it. However, there’s also been the advent of the mystery spinner, with his carom balls and doosras and those sorts of things. They have almost been the replacement for the Chris Harrises, the take-the-pace-off-the-ball types. 

Chris Harris (right)

As New Zealand coach, your record in ODIs of 61 wins from 106 games, with three semi-finals in three 50-over tournaments, was pretty good. However, you won seven out of seven semi-finals with Gloucestershire. Notwithstanding the knock-on effect of winning an early semi-final, was there a different approach to the games from those teams? 
I think the balance I had with the New Zealand side was reasonably similar to the Gloucestershire side, really. We were a good fielding unit. We were pretty resourceful as a group. We had a captain who the team looked to for good tactical decision-making, so they trusted his choices. We were reasonably well researched on the opposition. We were very well researched on what our roles were. We pretty much just ran out of numbers. In West Indies in ’07, we played extremely well in that tournament in an area of the world where, traditionally, we weren’t – and shouldn’t have been – that good. We played on slow, low, turning wickets, and sides that had good spinners should have tipped us over. As it turned out, Sri Lanka did. They blocked us from the final. We played them on a wicket that may as well have been in Sri Lanka. But we played and rehearsed for those tournaments pretty well, and guys understood their roles. 

But, again, it’s never as straightforward as ‘player x’ has ‘role y’. Sometimes other players have to adapt to fluctuating circumstances and play roles they may be uncomfortable with, right? 
Yes. It’s positional, and it’s about talent. You can have an ideal, but then you’ve got to face reality. If you were selecting an England side or an Australian side, you could say “What is the ideal that fits the numbers?” And you could then almost go and pick that side, because of the depth that’s around. With Gloucestershire and New Zealand, you’ve got your best players and that’s it. So you’ve got to find the best role for that player. 

For instance, finding the right role for Brendon McCullum – both him and Jacob Oram were essentially great finishers. But Brendon felt then that at some point he wanted to express himself more, as an individual, and therefore only batting for eight overs at the end of a one-day game wasn’t necessarily putting himself in the position that he wanted to be in for his own personal ambition. So, you constantly got those challenges. Again, you had someone like Nathan Astle – and we looked at his statistics – and while he scored a high percentage of hundreds, he was slowing down when he got to 70. Basically, it was his job to continue at the same rate. Once we got through the powerplay, we had players that he needed to trust were going to score quickly anyway. So his job wasn’t to slow down. It was to accelerate. He therefore became expendable to the total cause, and that creates challenges in itself: another hundred from me, or get out trying to get 300 for the team? That always becomes the dilemma. 

Nathan Astle

Would he have argued that there weren’t enough people around putting their foot down, and been resistant to that analysis? 
Well, resistance comes in many ways. There are my individual statistics, which are constantly a burden to one-day cricket. It’s a selfless form of the game but traditionally everyone looks to individual statistics. And I think they are poorly measured. It’s the one thing about Moneyball that I really like: statistics towards the result rather than statistics towards your individual career. Those are the ones that are important to me. So you’ve constantly got that battle with players and your man-management. You don’t always win them; I can assure you of that. But sometimes your best players are your best players. 

On a man-management side, is there ever a point where you don’t tell the truth, then, where you engage in an ‘emotional tactics’, psychologically massaging the player rather than giving them the cold, hard truth as you see it? 
I think there’s always a case for telling the truth in a way the player can relate to, so he gets it. Some players can take it brutally, from the hip, and some players need a lot more cajoling, a lot more smoothing. But often the more words you use, the more confused the message. We can all use a thousand words where perhaps two would have done. But you also have to recognize there are times when the whole truth and nothing but the truth can actually kill a guy off for a long time. You’ve got to think about the next step. You may not need all the truth because you might need them next week. 

I suppose fielding is a good example of the necessary selflessness of a cricket team – Steve Waugh called it “a true test of players sacrificing themselves for the interest of the team because it’s the only facet of the game where you don’t get statistically rewarded for your efforts”. But might not individualized fielding metrics interfere with that, creating insularity and ‘self-preservation’? 
That’s something we used for quite some time in the New Zealand side. We looked at fumbles, knock-ons, assists, yardage off the ball – so, if the ball went into the offside, what were you doing on the onside? They were getting feedback. And funnily enough, because it’s a criticism that’s not measured, it’s something that’s easily adjusted. A criticism on your batting, because it is measured, historically, becomes harder to change. But a criticism that you didn’t get off the fence becomes easy to change because it’s just straight out criticism, you know. “Oh, so I’m not supporting the team”. So, it’s not a statistic so much as an attitude. 

Shane Bond

What have you made of developments in 50-over cricket since your first spell with Gloucestershire, which was pre-Twenty20? Has T20 created a sort of ‘evolutionary leap’ in the 50-over game? 
First of all, I think 50-over cricket had created an ‘evolutionary leap’ in terms of Test cricket, in terms of the shots available to players since the eighties, when Test cricket turned pyjamas. As we know, any innovation that’s introduced is met with ridicule at first – think of Mike Gatting with that reverse sweep. At first it’s seen as insane, but now if you haven’t got a reverse sweep then you’re not going to play international cricket. It’s as simple as that. If you can’t manipulate the field to where you want it, then you’re not going to play. And there are some really good players around that only hit in certain directions, which is one of the main reasons they don’t play much international cricket. They’re too easy to stop, once people have worked out the code. 

So, that’s changed Test cricket, and Twenty20 cricket has shifted 50-over cricket as well. There’s no doubt about it that all the games are more exciting for what’s been added to them in terms of shot selection. And then you get the changes that come from how you try and stop that shot selection: reverse swing is now second nature to all of us; we’ve had doosras, slower-ball bouncers and those sorts of deliveries brought in. I can remember our New Zealand group talking about it: Shane Bond used it in the ‘07 World Cup. He pretty much invented it. Because he had the pace to bowl a really quick bouncer, it immediately became effective. And for Jacob Oram, because of his height, the slower-ball bouncer became a really effective weapon on the slower West Indian wickets. 

Team fielding, pairs fielding, are things that we introduced way back with Gloucestershire: guys picking the ball up and giving it to another guy who’s in a better position to throw. Funnily enough, I saw it as a kid watching Happy Days. At the start of the show, in the titles, Richie Cunningham pops up a ball to someone and I thought, “Why aren’t they doing that in cricket?” That’s where you get stuff. From anywhere. 

Jacob Oram

So, how did you practice the fielding – not just the individual techniques, or the combinations, but the strangling effect of the whole inner ring that was the hallmark of that Gloucestershire side on those slow Bristol tracks? 
We used to work with the inner field, and some of our guys wanted to become the best in certain positions – Matt Windows, for example, who was a talented fielder, but a lazy fielder. All of a sudden, he said: “Right, my contribution to the team is I am going to guard this area”. Him and Mark Alleyne used to patrol cover and mid-wicket to our spinners, and were almost impregnable, in terms of being able to track a shot. Then we worked on what the players in the outfield did in terms of covering that, so that the risk of them diving was a risk worth taking, because the sweeper – that’s his job, to cover you. So, take the dive. And they enjoyed getting dirty. They enjoyed getting physical. And the New Zealand side was pretty much the same. They enjoyed the physicality. 

But we also used to have things like ‘Go MAD’ sessions. ‘Go MAD’ means go and make a difference. They were sessions where you were coached but not judged. What did you want to practice that would make a difference in a game? That slim chance of this coming off, one in fifty games, but you can do it if you need to be able to do it. That started range hitting, switch hitting, all those sorts of things. 

What do you think the next fielding innovation might be? Ambidextrous fielders has been suggested. 
Well, Matt Windows used to work for hours practising being able to throw right-handed. Ian Harvey already could – he used to play tennis left-handed so could throw over reasonable distances fairly accurately. That spread through our team, guys trying to do that, but it’s something that needs to start at a very, very young age. You’ve got this motor skill that you’ve overloaded on one side and it’s very, very difficult to get that message across to the other side of the brain. At the moment, I’m trying to sling left-handed with the dog thrower so I can give the guys practice against left-arm bowlers. It’s not an easy art, but it’s something you’ve got to practice. 

Brandon McCullum

Has T20 revived the role of the specialist ‘keeper – particularly in county cricket, with bowlers generally between the high 70s and low 80s mph – who may only bat at No10 but can stand up to the seamers? 
I think it was the original thing. T20 was very much a specialist skill-set. You had to pick your best ‘keeper, regardless of whether he can bat or not, whereas I think you can get away with it in 50-over cricket. The ability and courage that a keeper needs in Twenty20 cricket is enormous, so he needs to know the skill inside out. You can’t just stick a brave man in there and expect him to perform, with the scoops and the ramps, because basically he’s a goalie. It doesn’t matter how pretty he looks, he’s got to be able to stop the ball. 

Of course, New Zealand played the first ever T20 international – in retro beige kit, with wigs on, and Glenn McGrath reprising the Trevor Chappell underam ball – but then, with India’s inaugural World Cup win, that format exploded. Did you have any inkling it would take off as it has done? And what did you learn from that World Cup? 
Well, you have to remember that I’d been involved over here, when Gloucestershire made the Finals Day of the first Twenty20. So I had a bit of inkling about what it was, and I immediately became a bit of a fan, in terms of where cricket could go. And it hasn’t disappointed me in terms of what it’s given to cricket – the improvement in batsmanship; the desire to want to score runs; the skill-set of bowlers to want to try and defend that. It has been a gift to the other forms of the game, regardless of what traditionalists might think. It’s speeding the game up. The only shame of it is that not enough really good cricketers now come over here and play county cricket, because they don’t need to financially, and English cricketers are losing those mentor overseas players that they once had within their structure. And I think that is weakening English cricket. 

One of the knock-on effects of Twenty20 has been the perception by teams of what are achievable targets to chase down. Do you think that if those numbers keep going up, then potentially it becomes quite a dull spectacle, too loaded in favour of the bat? 
Yes. T20 has been a gift to other forms of the game, but it is becoming too predictable in itself. The set plays are so predictable at present, and its shortness is creating a predictability in it that’s not as exciting as the hype may make it be believed. I’m actually a big fan of 40-over cricket. I think it’s a really good distance to be able to combine 20- and 50-over cricket, in terms of there being no dead parts of the game. It’s constantly moving, but less predictable in its outcome. So you’ve therefore got greater space for tactics and tactical variety. 

Bob Woolmer

Finally, what have you found to be the major differences between county coaching and international coaching, and the best and worst of each job? 
The best of county coaching is you get to go home! You are dealing with a smaller and less critical environment. You’ve probably got greater tolerance of the development of players, based on your budget. The great thing about international coaching is the complete adventure of the pinnacle of what you’re doing. So, you’re measuring yourself as a coach in the same way you measured yourself as an international cricketer: on a big stage against the best. And having coached against the Bob Woolmers and John Buchanans of this world – for want of a better way of expressing it – was an absolute privilege for me. They were two incredible minds on the game and it was a privilege just to go to a meeting where they spoke, to listen intently to what they had to say – and they both came at the game from completely different angles. To have played in a New Zealand side against Australia, when Bobby Simpson was the coach, and for him to throw out tidbits while I was on a slip fielding machine – those sorts of things are why you want to test yourself at international level. 

So, to return to the question of New Zealand’s semi-final losses, do they support the idea of there being an “acceptable defeat”, when you left nothing on the park? 
Yeah, I think when we lost in Jamaica [in the 2007 World Cup semi-final], it was an acceptable defeat. We were down to nine players by the time the game had finished. We went into it with ten. And we played Sri Lanka on a surface that suited them. But we competed. And if it hadn’t been for Mahela Jayawardene – he played a magnificent innings which made you sit back there and say, “Man, this guy’s got skill. He’s taken this game by the scruff of the neck with skill”. We gave it our best shot, and it was a great journey. If I had my way I’d still be in the West Indies playing that World Cup, I loved it so much. It was just a bloody great tournament, for me. But it did break my heart at the end.



MINORS' STRIKE: WHEN SHROPSHIRE BEAT YORKSHIRE


For a while now I have been working on a book project about Minor Counties cricket, during the course of which I've spoken to many stalwarts and, yes, legends of this tier of the English game. A side project that's emerged during the course of my research has been the 'giantkilling' matches: the 10 occasions when an individual Minor County defeated first-class opposition in the Gillette Cup / NatWest Trophy; the six games in the Benson and Hedges Cup when the Minor Counties XI managed the same feat; and the eight games when an international side were upset by the MC's Rep' XI.

These are great underdog stories, of course (one of which I told here), but tracking down participants is a lengthy process. Nevertheless, I was lucky enough to spend 25 minutes chatting to Geoffrey Boycott in 2012 about the two occasions in which he was part of a Yorkshire team tipped up by Minor County opposition: in 1973, against Durham, and 11 years later against Shropshire. He was surprisingly gracious about the games ("we were roobish; best team won"), and courteous in answering my questions.


The second of these games was the subject of a feature in the latest Cricketer magazine, for which I also managed to speak to the former Yorkshire and Shropshire batsman Kevin Sharp, as well as six of the successful Shropshire team: Rotherham-born skipper, Steve Johnson; John Foster, whose sons have both played for the county; Steve Gale, currently a first-class umpire; Andy Barnard, whose sons have recently played for England U19s; all-rounder Brian Perry, Man of the Match against Somerset the year before; and the former Liverpool, Shrewsbury Town and Coventry City goalkeeper, Steve Ogrizovic. I'd have loved to have spoken to Man of the Match on the day, Mushtaq Mohammad, the former Pakistan batsman-leggie, and to Malcolm Nash, the left-arm medium-pacer most famous for being the hapless bowler when Garry Sobers hit his 6 sixes in an over at Swansea in August 1968, but it wasn't to be.

Even so, it was one of the more enjoyable pieces I've done, although I wasn't initially sure it would ever be published. I'd offered it to All Out Cricket first, but they said finding images was proving too difficult. Then a couple of snaps emerged and The Cricketer took it (publishing it under the headline: 'Down the Salopian Tube'!!) – pleasing for me, but especially so for the players involved, whose moment in the sun deserved such recognition.

Here is the text I filed:

---


Oggy

It may be stretching things to call Yorkshire’s 1984 season ‘Orwellian’, but the eighties had seen something of a permanent war up there in that most politically totalitarian of cricketing shires. While you didn’t need Orwell’s foresight to predict Scargill and the Miners’ Strike, no-one, but no-one foresaw witnessing Shropshire’s Minors strike. Yet that’s exactly what happened when David Bairstow took his team to St George’s, Telford for the first round of the that summer’s NatWest Trophy, the annual banana-skin ordeal faced by the first-class counties right up until 2005. In the Shropshire ranks was Steve Ogrizovic, an FA Cup-winning goalkeeper with Coventry three years later who would also feel the wrong end of a giantkilling.

Ogrizovic: Sutton United beat us in 1989. When you’re used to playing at Old Trafford, Anfield, Highbury, to suddenly go and play on a non-league ground is difficult. It’s exactly the same for county cricketers. Not just the pitches but the facilities.

John Foster (Shropshire): The dressing rooms were barely big enough for three or four coffins. It wasn’t a pretty ground – more a social club in an old mining area. Cricket is an afterthought and only a tiny portion of the pavilion building. If you were to ask any player in the league at the time, it was probably the least favourite places to play. But when it was decked out for NatWest it was totally different.

Yorkshire’s apprehension – they were coming off an innings-and-153-run home defeat to Essex, the heaviest for 11 years and worst ever at Headingley – was perhaps indicated by their decision at the toss. Shropshire sensed vulnerability.

Brian Perry (Shropshire): We had a good side. Well balanced. We believed in ourselves. Usually when you play a side that’s a lot stronger than you, you put them in so at least you have the 120 overs. I was a bit surprised they put us in, to be honest.

Foster: They were going through one of their flat spells. Although they had Boycott opening the batting, the rest of the side was steady county cricket rather than exceptional, so we always thought we had a chance – if they had an off day and we played exceptionally well. We always put up reasonably sound performances but never actually got particularly close to an upset.

Yorkshire batsman Kevin Sharp, who would later both play and coach Shropshire, was adamant there was no complacency.

Sharp: You were playing against some good players, some quality league cricketers, and if you’re not on your game an upset can happen. Yes, it was a no-win situation for the pros but there was no real nervousness. You played a lot of cricket. It was just another game. It was a matter of treating it with respect. We’d all been around long enough to know that these things happen.

Steve Gale, with David Bairstow looking on

Foster and skipper Steve Johnson fell cheaply. At 62 for 3, the innings was rescued by a 105-run partnership between Mushtaq Mohammad (80) and current first-class umpire, Steve Gale (68).

Johnson: Bryan Jones started it, then Steve Gale joined Mushtaq and played probably his best ever innings for Shropshire. He did bat well, and obviously Mushy was an outstanding cricketer.

Gale: We were three down for 60, so possibly in a bit of trouble, and what you don’t want is to get bowled out for 100 or thereabouts with a big crowd on. I think Graham Stevenson had a terrific shout for lbw against Mushy that looked … well, it looked very close. He used to sit on the crease a bit, Mushy. After that I thought, ‘it might be our day, here’.

Andy Barnard (Shropshire): Steve had limited shots but had a gameplan that he used week in, week out, that got him runs, particularly on those slowish surfaces. He had a good record against the first-class sides.

Geoff Boycott: It was a goodish pitch, but slow. But that was okay because Mushy was brought up on good pitches which are slow. He was wristy. He manoeuvred the ball well. A fine player. If you were picking a best Pakistan team of all time, I would put him in my team. And I did.

Foster: Great bloke, Mushy. Always willing to share his knowledge and put his sixpence in. You couldn’t wish for a better bloke in the dressing room.

Johnson: That partnership set things up, then Brian Perry chipped in in his inimitable way and that gave us a reasonable total of 229, which doesn’t sound much in this day and age.


Shropshire were happy with runs on the board.

Barnard: We felt that was a good score. They didn’t really have any people in form and we had a good bowling side, so felt we’d do well.

Johnson: The one person I thought would be okay was Steve Ogrizovic, because of his football experience, but he did seem nervous and sprayed it about a bit. He did manage to strangle Martyn Moxon, caught at square leg by Mushtaq.

Ogrizovic: The year before, I actually got Viv Richards, but it was a no-ball. I’ve got a picture of his leg peg cartwheeling out of the ground. But Geoff Boycott, along with John Snow, was my cricketing hero growing up, funnily enough.   

The consensus was that the battle between Geoff Boycott and Malcolm Nash would be pivotal.  

Johnson: Boycs was very circumspect. It was, in some ways, quite amusing. There was no way Malcolm Nash was going to give Boycs any width. There was no way Boycs was going to get himself out to Nash. I don’t know whether there was any history there, but Nashy was a bit of a wind-up character, in a nice sort of way. He’d got quite a brain on him.

Barnard: Nash and Boycott seemed to just play out some sort of ‘Well bowled, mate’, ‘Well played, mate’ first-class scenario. All Boycott was worried about was not getting out to him. He was a good bowler but he wasn’t as good as figures of 12-6-16-1. Clearly, Geoffrey paid him a lot of respect that day and unduly put pressure on the rest of the team.

Malcolm Nash

Foster: The mindset in those days was completely different. Nobody went out to target a bowler, they just went to play an innings. Nashy bowled straight at him, wicket to wicket, and Boycs played it on merits. It was always said that he had a bit of a weakness against medium-pace left-armers, such as EKA Solkar from India.

Sharp: Boycs spent a lot of time not scoring runs off Nash. In the modern game, you wouldn’t allow him to bowl like that. We got well behind the rate. Their score was about par, but it wasn’t insurmountable. All the time Mushy was bowling at me I can remember feeling ‘we need to score, we need to score’.

But Boycott sensed vulnerability in his colleagues.

Boycott: Mushtaq bowled his overs for 3 for 26. They couldn’t pick him. At times we’ve had exceptional teams, but in the seventies and eighties we weren’t a very good batting side. We had some lovely lads, great kids to play with, but you look at their records and we were a bit thin.

However, the Daily Express intimated that the great man’s mind wasn’t entirely on the game.

“Shortly after a loudspeaker announcement proclaiming a collection for the Geoff Boycott Testimonial Fund – an unheard of occurrence at an away game! – the old master was caught and bowled by seamer Brian Perry for 27 in 25 overs. Boycott had a bonus of £97 to show for his away-day collection”.

The Yorkshire Post added:

“Subsequently, another announcement indicated that Boycott was signing autographs and this came with Yorkshire making a desperate effort to retrieve a lost cause. Although players were reluctant to become involved in any controversy, several privately felt that everyone’s effort should have been directed towards winning the match.”

Mushy

After Boycott fell, Bairstow was bowled round his legs, sweeping, and Yorkshire were truly in the mire at 81 for 6. Not that Shropshire felt they had it won.  

Johnson: The old butterflies started going and you start believing you’ve got a chance here. But, you know, these first-class boys, there’s usually someone down the order who can get them out of jail.

Barnard: I don’t think we ever thought we were over the line. But we were experienced enough just to sit back and let them try and make the game. I picked up some wickets at the end, just through skiers, really. We suddenly realized that our score was above par, how difficult even first-class players were finding it to get the ball away.

Foster: We just had to hold our nerve, really. Andy Barnard’s a really, really reliable bowler, so having him to come into the attack to finish things off worked well and was just what we had in mind.

Sharp: You never felt as though we were going to get there. Someone would have had to play a special innings.

It was an especially poignant day for Shropshire’s Doncaster-born skipper, whose died-in-the-wool Yorkshire-supporting father was terminally ill and unable to test his split loyalties at the game. He listened on the radio and had “mixed feelings”. The players’ post-match emotions were more predictable.

Foster: The Yorkshire players packed up and left fairly sharpish. I think they got read the riot act by Dave Bairstow, but before we’d even come out of the dressing room, having opened a few bottles of bubbly, they’d all departed. That was disappointing, but understandable. We adjourned to the bar for a few drinks, as you can imagine. 

Sharp: The dressing rooms were tiny. It was not a good place to be after we’d lost. There were a few choice words flying about in there.

Boycott: We won many, many times by eight, nine, ten wickets. On paper, you’re supposed to be better than them. But sport’s not played on paper. That’s the beauty of it, and it should still be played now. Every year. If you had eight Minor Counties in, seven of ‘em would get rolled over but the eighth might be the one that lights up the whole cricket scene. That’s what it’s all about. Giantkilling. That’s the romance, the spice, the inexplicable.

Sharp: It’s one of the worst memories I have. It’s an embarrassing feeling. You’re a paid professional and you’ve lost to amateur cricketers.

The Daily Express and Daily Star ran identical headlines: ‘Flopshire!’ Natural order was restored when Shropshire lost to Warwickshire by 103 runs in the following round, but their feat was there for eternity. As for Yorkshire, any hopes of a mid-season revival were stillborn on the fourth of July.



RICHARD OLIVER: HITTING THE BIG LEAGUES


Last month, I did a short interview with Richard Oliver (no relation), formerly of Woore CC, who has enjoyed quite a summer. He started the season as a player with Reigate Priory in the Surrey Championship, and as skipper of Shropshire in the Minor Counties, for whom he blasted 148 off 82 balls in the opening MCCA Trophy fixture against Lincolnshire. 

He was then given a couple of trial games with Worcestershire, invited by their new batting coach, the former Yorkshire batsman Kevin Sharp, until recently the Shropshire coach. He made 107 against Derbyshire (and a first-baller in the second innings) in his first outing, enough to convince Steve Rhodes that he was worth throwing into the revamped county T20 competition. He started well, with three scores in four innings in the pinch-hitting role. 

A few weeks later, having made an unbeaten 292 in a 2nd XI friendly against Warwickshire, he was given a full contract. To date, his first-class batting has gone as follows: 13 and 65, 78 and 37, 62 and 18, 52 and 179, 1 and 0. That's 505 runs at 50.5. Pretty steady start. 

It's a great tale – the passage from Minors to majors – and one that seems increasingly rare these days. It wasn't always the case. However, the lack of the annual shop window games provided by the old NatWest / Gillette / C&GTrophy, has largely closed it off. The Unicorns was an ersatz replacement, but the Minor Counties game has been transfigured. Does Richard Oliver give hope, then, to MInor Counties players in their mid-twenties? 

That's the question I posed in a recent piece for All Out Cricket, pondering whether the new, Friday night T20 schedule, re-opened that possibility.

Hitting the Big Leagues (AOC 119)