May 10, 2013

'If Brendon and I agreed always, it would not be a functional relationship'

Mike Hesson looks back at an eventful ten months in charge of New Zealand, including the Ross Taylor controversy

How does it feel to be the youngest coach in international cricket?
I started coaching when I was 21, to grow into the director of cricket at Otago. When you start young, you tend to progress through the ranks at a relatively young age.

I do not consider myself young from a coaching perspective (although I still like to keep a youthful appearance!) I have been a professional coach coming up for 19 years, so I have gained a lot of experience along the way. Coaching New Zealand was a dream and it was exciting to get the opportunity.

It is nearly a year since you took over the New Zealand job. Are you beginning to settle down now?
Yes, it is fair to think so. You start to build the culture within the playing group and also get your support staff together, and people that you feel will work well together, so we are developing that. Certainly had some challenges along the way, played some good sides, and had some good results as well. It has been a tough introduction.

When you moved back from Kenya, what did you perceive would be the challenges?
When I left Kenya I did not have a job. So when I arrived in New Zealand there was a lot of uncertainty. And when John Wright resigned I had to go through the (recruitment) process. Once I was appointed, the first six months were on the road: Test series in India, Sri Lanka, followed by the South African tour. So I did not have a lot of time to get the group together.

Those first few tours were really an observation period for me, getting to know the people and the environment and how the people operate within the environment. I knew most of the players, having worked with them in domestic cricket or on A tours, but the pressure and challenges are completely different in international cricket and it has been good for me to understand the differences.

Players have always spoken of the gap between playing in domestic cricket and at the highest level. As a coach have you noticed a similar difference?
The gap is the mental one, really. It is about allowing the players to trust what they have and trust what they have done to be successful at the domestic level. If they can just narrow the focus down so that all they are doing is watching the ball and reacting, they give themselves the best chance to succeed at the international level. It is when you start to feel like you have to reinvent your game to go up a little - that is when you start to go around in circles and probably never really find yourself.

How difficult is it for a coach like you, with not much of a playing history, to convince players to come along, as opposed to someone who was a great player?
If you have played Test cricket you automatically arrive with a level of respect. You have a grace period before the players find out what your ability as a coach is. When you don't have that, you are respected purely on your coaching ability. So you start from zero and you earn respect through your ability.

"We can't disagree with New Zealand's ranking. We have earned that ranking over the last five or six years. We cannot hide from that"

It is different but as long as you know the environment you are entering, if you can coach, and players find you have things to offer, you gain respect that way. I am quite comfortable being judged on my coaching ability.

Do you now feel you are no more the outsider?
I never felt that way. It is unconventional to have a non-Test player coaching an international team. It has happened a few times but it is still not traditional.

There is always the perception that you are too young or you do not have the skills required. And that is where you need to trust the skills you bring to the group. You also need to have people around that have other skills to complement the ones that you have, because one coach does not often have the ability to serve every player.

You spoke about sharing your coaching philosophy in your introduction to the group. Could you expand on that?
I try and create an environment where every player feels comfortable that he can contribute. And also allowing players to leverage off other players. I do not know everything about cricket, far from it. But within our playing group and coaching group, we have a lot of the answers. So my aim is to try and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to create discussions which can help us learn from each other.

The drawn Test series at home against England must have been a morale booster. What was the biggest gain for you as a coach?
The biggest gain was, we introduced new players. Hamish Rutherford and Bruce Martin came, and we recalled Peter Fulton. The fact that we had players who had just played domestic cricket mostly and came in and made an impact straightaway gave the whole group a lot of confidence.

You alluded to the fact there is a huge gap between domestic and international cricket, but Hamish and Peter - one is just starting while the other is experienced- both of whom had largely played domestic cricket, proved that it does not matter as long you trust the talent.

Was it a conscious decision to persist with an unchanged squad for the three Tests?
It was. We need to provide some stability. Firstly we need to think we have the right players. And then we need to have them for the right period of time to allow them to show they can make a major contribution.

I would not put a number on how long a rope I am willing to provide. As long as they are trying to do the right things, are sticking to the team-first mentality, and are making decisions in the right interests of the side. As long as they are willing to do that and train well, we will have a high level of patience. But there is no set formula as such.

Is it important that a coach needs to sit on the selection panel, and have voting rights, as you do?
I think as a coach you need to be on the selection panel, without a doubt. You need to give your input because you are trying to create stability within the group and giving guys confidence of the playing opportunities and trying to assist them in terms of being successful. It helps control the direction you want the team to go.

What changed between the South Africa Test series and March?
Mainly we changed the balance of our squad. We went in with six batsmen as opposed to having an allrounder. We felt we needed to strengthen one area of our game. By doing that we asked different questions of our bowling attack. We always struggled to score enough runs, so by having six specialists and one wicketkeeper-batsman, we had depth. It showed during the England series - even when we lost two wickets in quick succession, we were still able to fight back.

How impressed are you with Brendon McCullum's leadership skills? Have you seen something that was not there previously?
Brendon is a very good captain, on and off the field. I have known him for a long time, though I have not worked with him as a captain for long. He has certainly changed as a person and player. He is in a really good space personally, and within the group he is a calm leader. He is a risk taker: he is not afraid to go with his gut on the field. And I like that.

Are you the same?
No. We are very different personalities. I am a little more conservative. So we challenge each other on a lot of things. Whenever we sit down to discuss the next session or talk about the team composition, we have good debates.

If we just agreed and rolled over, it would not be a functional relationship

There is this picture of McCullum in this year's Wisden, being bowled by Vernon Philander in the first Test against South Africa. His bat is pointing towards mid-on while his feet and torso are directed towards cover. Were New Zealand exposed technically on that tour?
I do not think we were exposed at all technically from a batting perspective. We played against an exceptionally good seam bowling attack, especially in Cape Town. We lost three wickets in the first half a dozen overs in the morning, so our middle order was exposed to the seaming ball.

There was a lot of uncertainty around that tour. You had seen Australia and Pakistan getting out for low scores in South Africa. They ask different questions from any other international side. They are outstanding in helpful conditions at home. And no doubt we got under the pump early on and got bowled out in a session. But in the next three innings with the bat, against the same tough side, we showed ample fightback.

We needed to go through that, not so much as start again but peel back the layers in terms of how we prepare and the fact that the guys do have to work on their individual games.

It was your third Test series as coach. It must have hit you in the face?
We had just won a Test in Sri Lanka before the South African tour. Ross [Taylor] had played very well, Kane [Williamson] had got a hundred, Tim Southee and Trent Boult had bowled superbly. But that was in very, very foreign conditions, in the subcontinent, where we played four Tests. And then to go directly to Cape Town, where the ball nipped around all the time... we were exposed.

Are New Zealand as bad as their No. 8 Test ranking suggests?
The rankings are there for a reason. We can't disagree. We have earned that ranking over the last five or six years. We cannot hide from that.

From the individual player perspective, we have players that we think can move up that ranking, but it will take time.

Is man-management one of your stronger suits?
It is. I pride myself on building relationships with players, about getting to know them, and trying to find people within the group that can help service them and help them get to be as good as they can be.

Not every player needs to be treated the same way. You find that over time and through experience and also through a few mistakes along the way.

Have you managed to repair the relationship with Ross Taylor?
We certainly are developing our relationship nicely. The circumstances have been well documented. We have been working well together.

"I do not know everything about cricket, far from it. But within our playing group and coaching group, we have a lot of the answers. So my aim is to try and create an environment where everyone feels comfortable to create discussions which can help us learn from each other"

Was that a mistake, in terms of what happened?
Whenever you make a decision like changing a captain, it is difficult. All I want to say is that at no stage during that process do you want to upset anybody or put someone in a difficult situation. That obviously occurred, which was unfortunate.

Did the strength of the feeling back then make you think of walking away?
It was a difficult period - tough for myself, for my family, and tough for a lot of people. As I said, when those decisions are difficult, when you make such decisions you do not intend to hurt anybody.

After scoring a century against England in the Napier ODI, Taylor said he felt like he had never left. How did that make you feel?
Ross is a huge part of our group. He is our premier batsman and he has performed very well in Engalnd in the past. We are a far better team when Ross Taylor is in the team and performing well. It is great to have him back.

Is there a particular responsibility you have given him or want him to take?
It is important for Ross to impose himself. He is quite an imposing batsman. Once he has got that level of confidence he is actually quite hard to bowl to. So it is a matter of getting the confidence, getting that imposing nature at the crease. Also, he works with some of the younger batsmen as well. So the more comfortable he can feel about his own game, the more comfortable he will feel helping others.

Before resigning, John Wright, your predecessor, spoke about the need to be brutal in self-analysis. Has that begun to happen?
Players in this group are very responsible, very self-analytical, and very hard on each other as well as on themselves. But there is always the balance factor. Balance is something you are always trying to find as a coach. You are trying to make sure that when the players enter a game they are confident about the skills they have and that they have prepared accordingly.

Can you talk about the strength of the domestic game in New Zealand?
We have a lot of very talented youngsters but they tend to mature late for international cricket. A lot of that is just based around the environment we live in. What I tend to find with our guys is, once they have entered the first-class scene and experienced a couple of tough seasons and then come back to the national squad, those are the ones ready for international cricket as they are stronger mentally.

Stephen Fleming spoke of New Zealand's problems of funding, and of not having a pool of players like other countries have. Do you agree?
Absolutely. Because we have got such a small pool of players, we have to make sure we do not try and service everybody. We have to identify players that really have got the qualities to be successful at the international level and then give them the funding so that we can put a programme in place. Then more of them are going into international cricket.

What have you learned about yourself through this job?
It has been a huge learning curve in terms of the amount of time you spend away from home. The empathy that you have with players, that they have got partners and wives and children at home as well, the issues they have to deal with... It is a tough job. You have to believe in your philosophy and you have to trust in what you have to do.

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo