Michael Jeh March 21, 2009

Coach or boffin?

Judging by Dyson’s miscalculations today, he is certainly no statistician or mathematician

What exactly is the role of a head coach © AFP
Every time I stay up all night to watch a game from the West Indies, it ends in farce. It happened in the 2007 World Cup final and it happened again last night. What a waste of a good night’s sleep!

On the subject of waste, I have often wondered what role the coach actually plays at this level of the game. What is his role? Is it to literally “coach” the players in the skills of the game, is it to help with slips catching and fielding drills or is it as tactician/strategist/statistician? John Dyson’s confused actions in last night’s farce begs the question: Was it Dyson’s fault and what exactly is his role?

I have long wondered what value a coach brings to a team at this level of the game. I can see why an individual coach who knows the player well can make little changes to that player’s technique and performance (eg: Gilchrist and the famous squash ball example in the WC Final of 2007). Whether a team coach can honestly help players of this calibre to improve technical aspects of their game is a moot point. In 25 years of senior cricket, I have yet to come across a coach who has made any significant difference to a player’s skills or technique in a team environment. Personalised, one-on-one coaching is a different matter altogether – I’ve seen that relationship work quite well.

To confuse the argument even further, teams at this level have specialist batting, bowling, fielding and fitness coaches. So what does the Head Coach really do then?

Perhaps he is not a ‘coach’ at all in that sense of the word. Perhaps his role is to analyse opposition strengths and weaknesses and to offer strategic or tactical direction. In which case, he is not a coach at all – he is more like the Manager of a football team. Except for the fact that in cricket, the coach doesn’t usually have a direct role in selections and usually leaves tactical decisions to the captain once the game begins. So, by that definition, he is not really a Manager either.

Perhaps he is a psychologist, counsellor and personal confidante to the players. In which case, what are his qualifications for that role? Do you need high-level coaching qualifications to perform this role or are you better off with expertise in other areas?

Judging by Dyson’s miscalculations today, he is certainly no statistician or mathematician. I’m sure he would claim no expertise in this area so why was he then left with the responsibility of making those decisions? Is that the coach’s job, to read complicated Duckworth-Lewis tables and then pull the strings accordingly? If so, why bother with cricket coaching qualifications? Hire a boffin instead!

I’m with Shane Warne on this issue – I’m not convinced that the coach has any significant role to play in teams at this level of the game. If they need other specialists around them, how do they justify their job? Are they merely managers of that human resource environment (in which case, hire HR experts)?

Warne apparently had an instinctive genius for reading the play on the field and cricket has always held a special place for the role of the captain (or other senior players) acting on those instincts on the field. Unlike many football codes which virtually rely on the coach or manager to run game strategy and selection, cricket’s charm lies in the tradition of the captain making those decisions with minimum interference from outsiders. It’s part of the game’s unique character.

This essay is about exploring the role of the Head Coach of a national team and trying to pinpoint exactly what role he is meant to play. There’s no definitive answer I suppose, just a matter of opinion, based on personal experiences. I’m in the Shane Warne camp - those who believe that a coach (at this level) is something that transports you from the hotel to the ground. Right now, Dyson must be wishing that he was the driver of that coach instead of being the person who had to interpret the D/L charts and then decide if the light was really that bad or not.

If Dyson realised that his team was behind the run rate, you can bet he would have thought the light was still good. Perhaps it should be left purely to the umpires to make that decision. Left to coaches or players, it appears that the definition of bad light depends on where your team is in relation to D/L. That sort of cynicism has no place in this great game - either the light was good enough or bad enough but the definition should not rely on whether you're ahead of the rate or not.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane