June 3, 2013

'I want us to go into the 2015 World Cup ranked No. 8'

Andy Waller, Zimbabwe's new coach, aims to have his players become the fittest in international cricket in six months

As far as international coaching assignments go, Zimbabwe's is the least enticing and most challenging. It involves much more than managing a squad, overseeing their activities, and finding ways for different personalities to gel together.

The coach also has to deal with a complex system of social and political issues that range from whether there will be enough balls at practice and whether certain players will be able to afford bus fare to get there, to a sparse international calendar and a complicated country's ways of understanding each other.

When Alan Butcher decided not to renew his three-year contract after overseeing the team's successful Test comeback very few people put their hands up to replace him. The three candidates who made the shortlist were all Zimbabwean nationals. In a bid for a fresh start, Andy Waller was the chosen one.

He was preferred over current assistant coach Stephen Mangongo and batting coach Grant Flower, who were retained in their positions. The trio will lead Zimbabwe's new era. Waller spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his vision for the team and how he intends to make it happen.

Why did you decide to take the job?
I want to make a difference to Zimbabwean cricket. Ever since I started coaching, it was my dream to coach Zimbabwe. When I was asked to consider the job, I was very excited. I've worked with some of the players on and off in the past and I think I am the right person to take them forward.

Fill us in on the blanks between the end of your career as a professional cricketer in 1997 and the start of your time as Zimbabwe's head coach.
While I was still playing cricket, I also worked on our family's tobacco farm. That was from about 1987. I juggled the two but when I stopped playing cricket, I got completely involved with the farm. Things changed in the country, and in 2002, we lost the farm, so I decided to go into cricket coaching. It was something I was always interested in and I wanted to get involved.

I did some school's stuff and was then with the Zimbabwean Under-19 team. I moved out of Zimbabwe after that and worked at a private school in Johannesburg - St Benedicts. From there, I had the opportunity to coach Namibia, which was something I really enjoyed, and then I moved on to the UK. I was at Eastbourne College on the south coast and it was while I was there that I did the ECB's Level 3 coaching course.

Which experience in your varied coaching career most shaped your ideas of managing a side?
I don't think it was any one of them in isolation but I learnt a lot from watching other coaches. My coaching style is based more on the studying I have done myself. I watch a lot of cricket and when I do, it's not to support a team but to watch for ideas and see how people approach the game in different ways. I was always interested in tactics and always liked to work out my own problems, even when I was playing. That's what I do in coaching too.

How would you describe the coaching philosophy you will bring to the Zimbabwean team?
My main focus is going to be on making improvements. I'm not one for big team talks and discussions; I'm more about action. I'd like to impress on the guys to look at someone like Steve Waugh, who was less talented than Mark but proved to be a more successful player, because that could apply to Zimbabwe as well. We need to toughen up; some of the guys are a bit soft. Physically and mentally, they need to be tougher. If we want to have better performances, we need to get pride back. Then everything else will improve as well.

What will be the first step in doing that?
My big push is going to be on fitness and fielding. We've got some incredible athletes in the Zimbabwean set-up, but not all of them are at the level they need to be. In the next six months, I want to make sure we are the fittest team in the world and I don't think that's impossible. I also believe in the 1990s we used to be the best fielding side in the world and it's my goal that we regain that title.

"Some of the guys are a bit soft. Physically and mentally, they need to be tougher. If we want to have better performances, we need to get pride back"

Both those areas are spoken about as areas of the game a side can control, but what about the technical aspects?
We have to be realistic. I know we won't be the best in batting or bowling in the immediate term but we need work on both of them and we need to work hard. We have Grant doing the batting and I'm going to turn my attention to the bowling. If you watch our bowlers, they don't put enough balls in the right areas and they don't have that control. We need to get better at that.

There is no bowling coach at the moment, might that change?
I don't feel I need a bowling coach right now. I've done a lot of work on bowling in the past. When required, I will try to bring in specialists to assist, probably from South Africa, because they are just next door.

There's some suggestion that Zimbabwe's players may benefit from being more involved with their neighbours, perhaps by playing in one of the South African domestic competitions like they used to. Is that, or looking for other overseas opportunities, something you would encourage?
A lot of them already play in other countries because they need to find employment for the time of the year when they are not under franchise contract. It definitely makes them better cricketers and helps them develop skills, but I think we need to be careful.

We can't look to have our guys playing in South Africa, because their season is at the same time as ours and we would end up losing players. Even though the timing of the season in England is better, we have also lost some good cricketers there. I want to have a system where guys are encouraged to play for their country and to change the thought process so it leans that way, rather than pushing guys overseas.

Craig Ervine chose club over country recently for financial reasons and it put the spotlight on the depth in Zimbabwean cricket. Do you plan in getting involved in unearthing new talent, particularly from more remote regions in the country that don't often get exposure to the top level?
Definitely. I don't only want to work with the national side. I want to go around the country, meet with the franchise coaches and help them where needed. We have a team in Mutare and one in Masvingo and they may not have the facilities of the guys in Harare and Bulawayo but that's where we need to find cricketers too.

It's also important that we have a good schools' system in place. When I came back to Zimbabwe for two years in about 2008, we worked on improving the quality of coaches. We went around the country to about 200 teachers and did Level 1 and 2 coaching courses with them. With something like that in place, school kids benefit and we get better cricketers coming through from the lowest level.

Do you have any specific goals for the national team over the next two years given that Zimbabwe are scheduled to play a fair bit of cricket?
Like any coach, I want to win games, but I also want the team to be able to walk onto the field in every game with real intention and belief. In terms of Test matches, we're learning but I've got a vision for the 2015 World Cup. I'd want us to go into that tournament ranked No. 8 in ODIs. I think we can get ahead of Bangladesh and New Zealand - we have beaten those teams in the past - and if we can repeat that against a few other teams, we can get a firm hold of that No. 8 spot.

You will be the only current coach, and part of only a handful of others from previous eras, to take charge of a national team that includes your own son. How will you manage the demands of the job with your relationship with Malcolm?
I like to think we won't be any different as father and son but when it comes to coaching, I will treat him the same as everyone else and he knows that. The only issue is selection. I have already told the board and the other selectors that if there is ever a debate between Malcolm and only one other player, then I will excuse myself and leave them to make the decision.

Juggling fatherhood and international coaching will not be your biggest challenge. Zimbabwean cricket is going through tough times with its financial debt, an irregular schedule, and murmurings of racial tension. Have you thought about how you are going to deal with these problems and help the players through?
I know there may be some challenges and I am prepared to take them on. If I wasn't, I wouldn't have come back to Zimbabwe. I moved with all my things because I have no intention of going anywhere again. This is the place I love.

I have a good relationship with the board and I am prepared to talk to them if any problems come up. The racial question is a thing of the past. For a long time now, Zimbabwe has picked teams on merit and I am confident I have a squad of players who are all capable.

I'm currently having chats with all the players, getting to know them and discussing their own goals. I am going to be their spokesperson as far as the board is concerned. I know a lot of them from my days in Zimbabwe previously so we have relationships already and I'm looking forward to what we are going to achieve together.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent