Bob Woolmer speaks freely on coaching, August 2004

'The fun is trying to be one up on everyone else'

Bob Woolmer spoke to Chandrahas Choudhury back in August 2004 in an interview for Wisden Asia Cricket

The most influential coach in the modern game along with Bobby Simpson, Bob Woolmer returned to coaching an international side after a gap of five years when in June 2004 when he accepted the Pakistan Cricket Board's offer to coach the national team. Woolmer achieved great success with Warwickshire in the early nineties and then with South Africa between 1994 and 1999. In both instances he took not only his team but the game itself forward, pioneering innovative approaches that other teams were quick to adopt. Woolmer demonstrated what a difference a good coach could make to a side: these days, when a team underperforms, the coach comes under just as much scrutiny as the captain. Shortly after taking over as coach of Pakistan, he spoke to Wisden Asia Cricket about his career in the game and about the demands of coaching and its various aspects

'My career was interrupted by Packer and by [the rebel tour to] South Africa. To turn to the coaching angle, the sort of success I achieved during my stints with Warwickshire and South Africa came from a desire to coach as I would have liked to have been coached when I was a player' © Getty Images

To begin, a personal question: is success in coaching as fulfilling as success while actually playing the game? How does the second life in cricket compare with the first?

It's difficult to fully answer that one from my angle. I thought I had a reasonably successful cricket career. Obviously you can always achieve more. My career was interrupted by Packer and by [the rebel tour to] South Africa. To turn to the coaching angle, the sort of success I achieved during my stints with Warwickshire and South Africa came from a desire to coach as I would have liked to have been coached when I was a player. I looked at the areas where I would have liked to have been taken as a player, and then I thought that maybe other players would like to be taken in those directions as well. So that's how I would link my career as a player and as a coach. As for success, that only comes by achieving the process.

There are a lot of things that go into winning a Test match or a one-day international, or any game of cricket. You've just got to play better than the opposition, and you've got to keep finding ways in which you can do that, and the players have got to buy into your method, and sometimes you've got to buy into their methods as well. In the end it's the players who succeed on the field, and the coach who provides the process for success.

The understanding of the coach's role in the side has come quite a long way over the last two decades. What were coaches in the old days like? What did they see as the ambit of their duties, and how has coaching evolved?

My own experience of cricket coaches in general - of course there were some better than others - was that they were people who pushed you, shoved you, and if you didn't make it, ditched you. Coaches were more autocratic, more bullying. They'd say "Don't play forward, don't play back" and so on - they were very negative in their approach. Slowly all that changed into a more hand-on-your-shoulder, how-can-I help you kind of approach, and I think coaching nowadays is a joint effort between coach and player or coach and team to buy into a strategy that will take you forward. The coach has to find ways in which to make players better - it's not rocket science, but part of it is learning how to use technology and science to the benefit of the players, and learning how to do so without overcomplicating things.

Where did you do most of your learning as a coach?

It's been a long process. I started coaching in 1968, which was the year I started taking my courses, and I started learning to coach with youngsters. My understanding of coaching has accumulated gradually over all these years of coaching at different levels, and it has been based on the philosophy that I talked of earlier - of wanting to coach as I would have liked to have been coached, and finding the way for each person rather than telling him, 'This is the way'. I think that I'm a better coach now than I was when I took over Warwickshire in 1991. One of the things that helped me was my teaching background - I taught at a school for three or four years. That experience proved valuable to me in getting what I was trying to say across to players.

You speak of respecting the fact that players are individuals and cannot all be treated in the same way. Could you illustrate this with some examples from your experience?

As far as the top players go, Jonty Rhodes is the prime example. When I began to work with him during my time as coach of South Africa, he was used to playing in a very different style. He played across the line frequently - he was very much a hockey player. But he had wonderful hand-eye coordination, and it was just a matter of finding a way for him, to suit him and his style - of telling him that if the ball pitches here you can play it there but also there and so on. Some players are receptive to this kind of suggestion, others less so. A lot of it is about a player's ego - can he accept it when the coach is telling him something that he doesn't want to hear?

The challenge for the coach is persuading the player that there are different ways of doing something, and encouraging him to find out for himself what he is capable of doing. I call it discovery learning, though it's hardly an original concept. There is in the end only one way to learn - the hard way. The hard way is by practising a lot. But if somebody is there to give you real options, you can frequently get there quicker.

There are a lot of things that go into winning a Test match or a one-day international, or any game of cricket. You've just got to play better than the opposition, and you've got to keep finding ways in which you can do that, and the players have got to buy into your method, and sometimes you've got to buy into their methods as well.

You are credited with bringing about huge improvements in the limited-overs cricket skills of both Warwickshire and South Africa. When did you start to think seriously about the specific demands of one-day cricket and how to answer them?

I think it was while I was with Warwickshire, between 1991 and 1994, and I owe a lot of it to their captain at the time, Dermot Reeve, who had some super ideas about the shorter game. The first major idea was that in one-day cricket in England at the time, teams were allowed more than five fielders on the leg side. So they could actually dart the ball onto middle and leg bowling offspin, and dry up the runs with six or seven fielders on the leg side. Dermot decided that it was important that we got the ball into the off side in order to score more quickly, and the best way of doing it was with the reverse sweep. We talked it over and got the whole team to buy into the strategy, and practised reverse sweeping till we'd got the hang of it, and then used the strategy in matches. Within a year we'd won three one-day trophies. It was that sort of experience that led me to continue seeking these kinds of innovations.

I think a coach has himself got to be a learner. He has to listen to other people who have good ideas. In this instance we ended up scoring far more runs off opposition spinners than they did off ours, and the difference was a win. It was the same with having a brilliant fielding side and saving 40 runs in the field. Many one-day games are decided by a margin of 10 or 15 runs, so if you save 40 runs in the field and the opposition saves 30, you've got a 10-run advantage that can often be crucial.

A similar kind of evolution in skills was when Bobby Simpson, who was coach of Australia when they won the World Cup in 1987, got them to concentrate on singles. Now, with the 15-over field restrictions, you have to concentrate on both boundaries and singles. Every time you have some new rule you have to adapt to it.

I think that the spread of Twenty20 cricket now will advance the strategies of hitting in the next five or six years. There are all these little things you can look at. Strategies will evolve with new rules, strategies will evolve the fitter we get, the stronger we get, the more we practise, the better we practise. Techniques aren't necessarily better these days, but techniques at doing certain things are better these days. The fun of cricket, the whole fun of coaching, is to try and be one up on everyone else. It's being at the forefront of these developments that I think was one of the main reasons why I decided to get back into coaching at the highest level.

'The fun of cricket, the whole fun of coaching, is to try and be one up on everyone else' © Martin Williamson

You had two very successful coach-captain partnerships - with Reeve, and with Hansie Cronje in South Africa. What made these work as well as they did?

The good thing about those partnerships was that each of us bought into the other's ideas quickly. I've worked with captains who mostly see the negative side of things and keep saying "We can't do this, we can't do that." Having a good relationship with your captain doesn't mean the two of you agree on everything, but if you establish a certain understanding and are open to each other's ideas, then you can go forward. The captain is important because he's the one that gets the players on your side.

On your first assignment with South Africa you played a one-day tournament with Pakistan, in which the team lost all six games it played. What work did you have to put in to turn around from such an inauspicious beginning?

It was quite clear to me after that trip to Pakistan that a lot of the things we'd done between me and Reeve at Warwickshire were not being done with South Africa. We needed a new strategy, we needed all the players to buy into it, and I wanted to bring those in, but I wanted the players to bring them in. Like reverse swing - some of our bowlers were resistant to learning it, but it was something we had to do to succeed on the subcontinent. Hansie Cronje stood out in his enthusiasm for new ideas and approaches, and slowly the team got better. We learned to reverse swing the ball, to bowl more yorkers and slower balls, to play different kinds of shots, to improve our fielding drills, and within a year we were off and away, and we won far more games than we lost. We had a great chance at both the 1996 and the 1999 World Cups but unfortunately we couldn't win either.

Your South African team enjoyed great success in the one-day game, but one criticism levelled at them was that they were somehow too well drilled, almost robotic, and that this was where they was vulnerable. Dean Jones suggested in WAC recently that the Australians looked to get them into an area where they couldn't use their discipline, and then they were lost.

The idea that we had no flair was a misconception. Our flair in the field was absolutely brilliant. Our bowling was - I wouldn't say robotic, but disciplined. And our batting - we had some great hitters there. If that wasn't flair then I don't know what was.

The battles between the South African team you coached and the Australians were some of the best of that era - the two clashes at the 1999 World Cup are perhaps the greatest one-day games ever - but the Australians somehow always seemed to have a slight edge. How would you analyse these contests?

I think there was a period in which we beat Australia in seven or eight straight games, and Steve Waugh actually came up to Hansie Cronje and said "What're you doing differently?" I suppose there was a period in which we might have got ... I wouldn't say complacent, but we'd say, "Well, this is right, therefore we'll stick to this." The games we lost to Australia in the 1999 World Cup we lost by the narrowest of margins. I don't think they were necessarily any better than us. In crucial situations they had that little bit of luck that every team needs. I remember in one of those games Hansie Cronje played forward and was given out caught off his boot.

So one or two things went Australia's way and not our way, though I agree that their belief was so strong that maybe that's why it went their way. Also, I think our team was still growing at that stage - Herschelle Gibbs was still young, Jacques Kallis was young. But there was a time we had the edge over the Australians for quite a while. Even after that World Cup, when Hansie Cronje had to resign the captaincy and Shaun Pollock was hastily appointed in his place, South Africa beat Australia in a three-match series. So it isn't correct to make those deductions from just one or two games.

After your coaching stint with South Africa you returned for a while to Warwickshire and then began a stint with the ICC as director of their high performance initiative. Your initial task was to help Canada, Holland, Kenya and Namibia with their World Cup preparations over the 18 months leading up to the tournament in 2003. Why were you so keen to do this?

Well, at that time I'd spent five years coaching South Africa, and four years and three years coaching Warwickshire either side of that - about 12 years of high stress levels on the trot. I thought that if I went and worked with countries just below the top rung, I could give them the benefit of all the information I had. They had their own coaches, so I'd be offering them a kind of specialised service, as opposed to having all the stress of coaching. I really enjoyed that role. Unfortunately the ICC's development budget has remained static for the last few years. It was frustrating for me, though it's not the fault of the ICC - they're doing a huge amount for the growth of world cricket.

The budget of any of the smaller sides is only a fraction of that of any of the top international sides. That's the problem the ICC is wrestling with. My role as high performance manager was rewarding, but I couldn't see us taking another step forward at that point, and that coincided with talks with the offer to coach Pakistan, so I took that up, because it seemed like an exciting challenge to me.

Hansie Cronje stood out in his enthusiasm for new ideas and approaches, and slowly the team got better. We had a great chance at both the 1996 and the 1999 World Cups but unfortunately we couldn't win either

You speak of the stress of coaching. Is it that, as with captains, you have to be on the job practically all the time?

It is. As a coach you can't afford to be distracted at any point. It's a competitive world, and every other side is looking to get just that slight edge on you and beat you, and you always have to keep working on how to stay ahead of everybody else. The coach has to be like the ultimate computer: he must have all the statistics, he must know the strategy of the game, the science of it, the biomechanics of it - he must have all these things available for his players to use. But that's also the challenge and the fun of it, which is why I was pleased to return to coaching an international side. Pakistan has great reserves of talent - there are probably enough good players in countries like India and Pakistan for one to be able to pick three or four competitive sides. It's working out how to use those resources to the fullest that's the challenge.

What sort of authority should a coach have in matters of team selection? Some say that coaches shouldn't be part of selection panels because players on the fringe get to know whether he supports them or not ...

I think that if a coach doesn't have a say in team selection then he can't really be held accountable for results. He must have a say if he is to be responsible. On tour, when you have 14 or 15 players, then the coach and the captain must be involved principally with matters of selection. At home, your selection panel is more involved - sometimes it picks a form player from the domestic competition, and it keeps its eye on wider selection possibilities that the coach, who is concentrating on the national side, cannot possibly notice.

A player can't afford to be suspicious of a coach - the coach is there to help him, and they have to work hand in hand. It's important, too, for a coach to be involved with squads - not just teams, but squads of, say, the 30 players who're likely to play for the country in the next 10 years. If you identify these players and work with them then they're receiving the same sort of coaching and advice that the national team is getting.

You are one of the coaches always spoken of for "bringing the laptop into the game". Now most teams have their own computer analysts. But some people argue that anybody who observes the game closely could pick up the kind of things that computers reveal after processing data - a batsman's preferred scoring areas, a bowler's preference for a certain length, and so on ...

I agree with that on a basic level, but you have to understand that when you work with good players it's much better to take hard evidence to them than opinions that they might think are just your own ideas. Earlier you could go up to a player and say it would be better for him to do such a thing in such-and-such way, but sometimes you found yourself asking: does the player believe you? With computers and information processing you can tell a bowler, say, that's he's drifting onto leg stump exactly these many times for every ten overs he bowls. You can support all your contentions with evidence, and players find this persuasive - it's hard to ignore the facts.

Greg Chappell has written in WAC about structured and unstructured coaching methods. He argued that coaching methods have become too regimented and complicated, and this actually hampers learning. What do you make of this?

This might sound obtuse, but I agree with Greg Chappell in one way and yet also disagree with him. It depends quite a bit on the players themselves. I don't think you could do a lot to coach a player like Ian Botham; he had the skill and the ability to get things done in his own way. But certain players require structured coaching; they benefit perceptibly from it. There is a science to cricket, though of course it is not an exact science, and it is possible to apply it to players and get them to improve. There is room for the kind of coaching that exploits a player's natural flair, but structured coaching is vitally important in improving those skills.

'There are times when the players are going to find it tough; you're the one who has to push them and you're the one who's got to first show the enthusiasm' © AFP
Who are the other coaches you've worked with and learnt from?

I've learned something from all the coaches I've worked with, whether good or bad. But if I had to pick one, then I'd say Bobby Simpson was an inspiration. I remember speaking to him in 1994, when he'd been coaching for eight years, and the one piece of advice he gave me was to get out of bed every morning and be enthusiastic. There are times when the players are going to find it tough; you're the one who has to push them and you're the one who's got to first show the enthusiasm.

One learns from other coaches all the time. I could learn something from the opposition's fielding drills and incorporate that into the drills with my own team. One learns from books as well. I buy books by coaches from other sports - there's a great book called The Winner Within by the LA Lakers coach Pat Reilly that I've found very useful.

You are writing a book on coaching right now. Could you tell us some of the specific things you deal with in this book, and why you wanted to write it in the first place?

The book is called Discovering Cricket, and I'm writing it in conjunction with Professor Tim Noakes from the Department of Sports Science at the University of Cape Town. We'll be putting in accounts of all the latest methods of fitness, nutrition, and general physiology. It'll also deal with cricketing technique, and highlight the differences between the longer game and one-day cricket. It'll have accounts of different coaching methods and styles, learning methods and styles. It'll have comparative accounts of the techniques of one or two cricketers from another period and a couple from the modern game to show how things have changed over the years. I see it as a very comprehensive book on cricket coaching and on cricket in general.

There aren't that many really good books in the field - the two that most immediately come to mind are Don Bradman's The Art of Cricket and the MCC Coaching Manual - and so much more is now known about certain aspects of the game, like the biomechanics of it, that I felt a new book would be valuable. We hope to have it out early next year.

Chandrahas Choudhury is a former assistant editor Wisden Asia Cricket