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Couch Talk with Richard Pybus
Subash Jayaraman: Today's guest is Richard Pybus who has served as national coach of Pakistan and Bangladesh, and is now the director of cricket with the West Indies Cricket Board. I want to talk to you about your coaching stints in Pakistan, Bangladesh and elsewhere. But first about your new job as the director of cricket with the WICB: what is the job description and what are your duties and responsibilities?
Richard Pybus: The job as it stands now is quite global from the West Indian cricket perspective. It includes schools cricket at entry level, called Kiddy Cricket, when kids get introduced to the game, all the way through the system to the West Indies international team. So it's an oversight position but with a remit to get into the detail of how the different sections of the system are working, to see how efficient and effective they are with a view to improve the system that we have got.
SJ: You come from a coaching background. How did you fit into this role?
RP: My background from the coaching perspective is… I went out to coach in one of the boys schools in South Africa as a professional coach. It was when South Africa was coming back into the game in the post-apartheid world. It was quite exciting and I got a really strong sense of the cycle a young cricketer goes through from the six- to seven-year-olds to leaving high school at 18. I did that job for four years. From that job, I took a post with Border Cricket, which was at that time the home of Mark Boucher and Makhaya Ntini. They came through the youth structures.
My next stage was working for the first-class Border board, overseeing their cricket with a slightly more global role for the province. One of my roles was coach education - create materials for the coaches at schools to set up the talent identification process for 13-, 15-, 17- and 19-year-olds, and appoint professional coaches for that, so that we had a player pathway.
The next stage after that was staying at the Border Cricket Academy and taking on the first-class role at Border. It was quite a long journey and it allowed me to see through each of those cycles - from the primary-school child entering the game to the young player in first-class cricket, then understanding the player at the back end of his career, and their transition phase back into the next stage of their life. Then my international career, primarily with Pakistan.
SJ: West Indies cricket at the international level has been in a prolonged funk, notwithstanding their victory in the World Twenty20 in 2012. But people assume - wrongly if I might add - that the line of great Caribbean cricketers will continue. In your position as director of cricket, how do you go about rectifying that situation?
RP: I think there are some key things that we need to do. My staff are directly responsible for youth cricket, looking at the system of schools cricket, evaluating the health of club cricket in the region. There are some regions that have got very vibrant, healthy professionalised set-ups all the way through the system - good schools-, club- and first-class cricket. There are other regions where they are a little bit under-resourced. We are going to need to put structures in place to help them to grow.
Perhaps nobody has evaluated from the perspective of how the players were really coming through, what was creating these great players. I think there is always a tendency - when there is success over a period of time, it can lead to complacency. Going to Garry Sobers' time of captaincy, when he had a highly successful team pre - Clive Lloyd, that window of ascendancy was for about 30 years, which is incredible for any one team.
There is still a lot of talent in the Caribbean, there are good players coming through who have done pretty well in U-19 World Cups. There is a talent base there. What has become apparent is that there are parts of the system that have really struggled to catch up with developments in the top countries with regards to the first-class game. I have used the analogy of getting to the start line where other teams are starting five yards ahead, in a straight 100 metre race. We are just handicapped like that. We need to professionalise the game properly because I don't think the game is a long way off the levels of professionalism which I would expect to produce elite cricketers.
SJ: What are the things that you would like to be in place that would give you confidence that West Indies are at the same starting line with the other teams of the world"?
RP: The West Indies have lived off a very short domestic season for several reasons. One of them is being handicapped financially. Very difficult transporting people around the region by air. It is an expensive part of the world to fly players around. That is a real limitation, getting around the various islands and territories.
Another challenge has been the lengths of the first-class season. The restrictions on the number of games that you can play has stymied the development, which happened after the exodus of West Indies cricketers to county cricket. For a very long time, you would find West Indians plying and learning their trades in better leagues in England as professionals, in county cricket, and for social, demographic, historical, economical reasons, those doors are not as open as they used to be. Once Australia became the ascendant side, they became the players of choice to go to the counties. Kolpak players came in, which took away some of the opportunities. A lot of the cricket that the players would have got in the past, they have not been able to get. And with a very short first-class season, players are not getting the volume of games that they really need to push through.
So I've made some recommendations to the board on the goals and actions that we have to take to get up to the starting line. I've had discussions around it, and I'm hoping that these will be well received.
SJ: West Indies does not have a shortage of stars. You have Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Sunil Narine, or Dwayne Bravo, who are all well known not only in the region, but around the world. How do you convince the Gayles and the Pollards to play in the first-class game?
RP: The board needs to make decisions on the involvement of international players in domestic cricket and the availability of players. Historically there have been issues with the players' association, which has created challenges from a legal perspective with regards to being able to call on players to be able to play. I wasn't part of it, wasn't part of that time. I need to look at the state of the game now and make recommendations based on what I believe is the best for West Indian cricket going forward. As you say, if you want to get sponsorship, you need to have your best players playing in the competition, you need that from a selection perspective as well so that you have a full complement of players fighting for spots and competing hard, including pressure for every spot in three formats.
SJ: What are your performance benchmarks?
RP: The key thing from the WICB perspective is for me to really assist in turning around the game. It is getting stuck into the detail of the national side and professionalisation of the game. The key things going forward with regards to the professional international set up is looking at the quality of players we bring through. We have to get as good first-class wickets as possible, and not see four-day first-class games get over in two and a half days. That it is really about playing on good surfaces, and bowlers have to work hard to get wickets.
Bottom line, I have got key priorities, that is to assist in driving the game forward. We have a system that is producing cricketers, particularly through first-class cricket. Looking at the selection process, what is apparent is that we really need to look at how we are developing and managing the talent in the region. We need a strong coaching education and coaching support system whereby the junior territorial coaches and senior territorial coaches get a high level back-up and get continuous education. That is a real priority. Talent and the management of the talent are two key things for the turnaround in the next 24-36 months. Clarifying systems so that everybody knows what their responsibilities are, so that we get a clear measure of our goals, and a clear measure of what we are getting out of our actions.
SJ: How do you intend to overcome any resistance that you are likely to face?
RP: People are resistive to change. Even if you are No. 8 team that you are now, the status quo is a comfortable place to be. What I have picked up here is that there is an incredible desire to move forward. There is a real will. I think the people I speak to on both professional and public level, there is a huge level of frustration. Frustration is interesting, because it is also a key stage of learning. When you get to that point, there is a dynamic in place - I think I mentioned the word complacency - but a lot of the people want to move forward.
SJ: You served as a coach at two separate times with Pakistan and also had a short stint with Bangladesh, in addition to coaching several domestic sides in England and South Africa. The Pakistan team was loaded with talent, especially the 1999 team and the 2003 team. Some of them are all-time greats even though they didn't see eye to eye at all times. How did you manage to get the best out of them as a team?
RP: It was more than two times with Pakistan. I think I hold the record with Javed Miandad for the number of times we have coached the national team. I think a couple of my tenures with Pakistan were - in English football talk they call it "ambulance jobs", where you get a call and you are going to do a job because things have been falling apart.
I loved my time in Pakistan. I wasn't under any illusions particularly after my first full-time stint as to what it was about, because after working with the side in the 1999 World Cup and being offered the job for two years, within 24 hours of signing there was a military coup and that was the end of my contract. Three weeks later I was out of the job. I was not under any illusions after that. It was an interesting time.
The 1999 group of players, going through to 2001, it was a group of players strongly shaped by Imran Khan. They were - I don't want to say an easy group of players to coach, because there were challenges, but they were a fantastic group of players to work with both from a personality perspective and as a group of guys. They were at that stage, as a mature team, in a good space, and they hadn't got to the point where, I think in my last tenure, going up to when I was asked to take over in 2002 till the World Cup, there were a lot of guys that really were getting to the end of their careers. A lot of the differences had been overcome by having a unified focus of facing the challenges in front. There were some pretty strong divisions in the camp. There were some issues to deal with with the board as well and it became quite a challenge. They were playing very mediocre cricket in that period going up to and including the 2003 World Cup.
SJ: Especially in the subcontinent, the players' persona can be larger than life. Someone like Wasim Akram or Waqar Younis, or anyone like that. When there are divisions within the team, what can you do as a head coach?
RP: The interesting thing is that I got along really well with both of them. They are magnificent cricketers. That is why I enjoyed working with the side. They were both very strong individuals, and they were both captains. I have had a good, harmonious relationship with both of them. That was quite important because there was no personality division on my relationship with the captain and the other parties. That was always pretty healthy. They were great players, and they were big players on the world stage. They were really good guys. From that side, I didn't have issues with any of the big names in the team. Teams go through life cycles and when those guys were on the verge of exiting the game it was a challenging time and it was a time where there was not a lot of clarity on the board level on what they wanted going up to the 2003 World Cup. That lack of decision making created uncertainty and that is a really poor place for a team to be in while playing a very important tournament.
SJ: There is a question from a listener, Ahmer, and he wants to hear from you some of the tactical set of plans that you dealt with, especially the 1999 World Cup side.
RP: One of the key things to that is that there was incredible variety in the bowling attack. There was Saqlain [Mushtaq] at the heart of the attack. We had fantastic spin with Saqi, and we had Mushtaq Ahmed, "Mushy" in reserve, from a legspin point of view. We had Wasim, left arm quick. We had right arm quicks. Waqar couldn't get a game, he was on the bench. Shoaib [Akhtar] was absolutely phenomenal at that time, before injures started to set him back. Azhar Mahmood, Abdul Razzaq... you have got swing, seam, pace, every variety that you would want. I think Wasim, the captain of the side, was very aggressive. The side had wicket-taking bowlers, that was the key. There were no holding bowlers there. Wasim had that option that consistently broke open the game.
It was early season in England. There was a bit of movement around, using the Duke ball. That was borne out by the performances. From the batting perspective, because there was some early movement with the new ball and that was the reason why Razzaq went up the order. He was a little bit of a biffer. It wasn't the Razzaq that we saw later in his career, the fantastic power finisher. It was somebody who could be very orthodox against the moving ball and just suck up the early pressure with the new ball to get some overs from the Duke to allow the middle order to get in and control the game. We just didn't want to get into a situation where we are three down at the end of the 15 overs. Abdul did that job pretty well.
SJ: But the way the World Cup ended in 1999, that must have been pretty disappointing for the boys, as well as you.
RP: It was horrible, really horrible. It was fascinating - you look at the tournament and you evaluate and review what were the mitigating factors that led to such a terrible performance in the finals. The interesting thing is, it must be one of the things that you learn as a coach - control of the environment. We had a very set routine before every game to set the players up, who worked incredibly hard between games. Our batteries were fresh going in to each game and we had really good focus. Going up to the final, we lost control of the team environment, which was I think one of the reasons for the implosion at Lord's.
In all the preceding games, all the way to the semi-final, that routine had held its way, but when we got to the final, and we were in London… I don't want to go into the detail because it sounds like a blame game and it is a long way past it. From the management point of view, you need to have a hold on things for 48 hours before the finals and immediately after. Little things like security at the hotel, fans at the hotel wanting access to players, hadn't been planned well. I always said to players that managing distraction and holding focus are two things in making sure that you are in a good place before the game. The 48 hours before the final were very poor from the team point of view.
SJ: You coached for the Titans franchise in South Africa, then coached Middlesex, the Border team, and national teams. How is coaching a national team different from coaching a domestic side? How do you scale up or down?
RP: One of the challenges is that when you go on the road it can become a very insular environment. When you are coaching domestic sides, 50% of your games are at home, and that keeps it balanced and keeps you very real. A lot of the times, you are not playing in front of crowds in domestic cricket. You start to see the crowd when you get to the semis and finals. Domestic cricket is all about players being on a journey where they are playing for the team but the better players are challenging themselves to grow, to get through to international cricket because they want to prove themselves. Most frequently in domestic cricket, there is a lot of good energy. A lot of the guys are trying to get somewhere.
In international cricket, it is a bit different. You're stuck with the same group of players when you are on the road and you see them day in and day out, you see them far more than your own family. You are in a bubble where when you are playing that consistently, you are playing other international sides, you don't know what is going on in domestic cricket. Both from a support staff point of view and players' point of view, the real challenge is to keep it as real as possible, stay as grounded as possible. It is quite an illusionary world. It is very easy for young players to get caught up in the glitz of it, thinking that they have arrived at that stage, or they have got to that stage of their career where they can start to get comfortable. That is the challenge, really. When you watch the players come through, and the great players who come through, just the ones who can stay grounded and manage that process as well as possible go on and tend to have long and successful careers.
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Subash's introduction to cricket began with enduring sledging from his brothers during their many backyard cricket sessions. His fascination with the game took hold in 1983, but mostly it was the cricket commentary over All India Radio, about the water-tight front-foot defence of Gavaskar that did it. @thecricketcouch