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West Indies A coach Junior Bennett talks about mentoring a young Chris Gayle, and the challenges of training Caribbean cricketers at the grassroots level
Interview by Sidharth Monga
November 22, 2013
You are a highly successful coach without any first-class experience. How did that happen?
It began with the school system back in Jamaica, where I coached the school, won a lot of trophies. By virtue of that I got into the Jamaica Under-19 set-up and coached them for 12 years. We have a vibrant schoolboy cricket system in Jamaica, where we have over a hundred high schools taking part in the competition. We have done extremely well in it. People would have seen my work.
Did you face resentment from people who had played first-class cricket?
You are going to have that. If you look at cricket around the world, people believe that you have to play Test cricket, or at least first-class cricket, to be a successful coach. You will have that level of resistance. But you have got to know what you want. Nobody is above criticism. You just have to take it. Know what you want and move on.
You must have coached some big Jamaican players even at school level?
Jerome Taylor, Daren Powell, Nikita Miller, Brenton Parchment.
How close did you come to playing first-class cricket?
It was extremely difficult those days. Once you are from outside the city, in our time we didn't really get that opportunity. You had to leave your world and go to Kingston and play. The playing field is much more level now. Regardless of where you are from, you can make it to the national level.
You were a legspinner. How did you get into coaching?
I started at high school as a student. We were participating in the Headley Cup. Our coach there always gave the opportunity to students to help with practice in the evening. That's where my talent came through. I was the captain. I liked the responsibility of getting the guys together and starting the game. Started to do a few courses here and there. When I moved to St Elizabeth Technical High School*, Dr Donovan Bennett was instrumental. It took off from there.
What are the qualities of a good coach?
You have to be humble. You have to be a father figure. Especially at school level. You have youngsters coming from different backgrounds. You have very, very poor youngsters. Some might not have a pair of shoes. You have to be out there and sometimes ask somebody to come and support this talented kid. You have to try and understand these youngsters, because they are from different backgrounds. You have to treat them with respect regardless of their background. End of the day, you want the most out of them. They must be comfortable and they must trust your judgement.
What were the most difficult challenges at school level?
For example, you might have a school in town, and a student living 20-30 miles away, don't have enough to pay bus fares and all. It's better nowadays, because at least parents realise that sport can be a career. In those days people believed you just play a game. It is no longer just a game, it is an investment now.
How difficult was it for you to be a father figure? You were so young yourself.
You go right back to Dr Donovan Bennett. He was the one doing all of this. He managed the school team. His office was 30km from the school. Someone got injured, I took him there. He looked after the kid. Wrote a prescription. Gave me the money to fill his prescription. Then gave money to pay back his fare to school. You had people like those who volunteered their services. You look at it and you realise at some point you have to play that role.
When you get to first-class cricket, you become less of a father figure. It's more about getting techniques right, more about how to win games.
Yes, it's more about techniques. From U-19 level and so on. In my case, I had been working with many of my U-19 and first-class cricketers from school level. Even if they were in opposition, I had seen their games, so the transition was much easier for me. I had seen Chris Gayle from the age of 13-14. If you have seen them from so young, it's much easier to deal with them. You understand everything about them.
Gayle and Samuels, did you see future West Indies cricketers in them?
Early out. I remember we were playing an U-19 tournament in Trinidad. After our training session, Chris and me sat down to talk. Chris said, "Coachman, I have 35 centuries now." He started from elementary school, primary school, everything. Backyard cricket. He count it. He turn to me and say, "Every level of cricket I play, I score a hundred." When he scored that first international T20 hundred, at the time I thought it was almost impossible. When he scored it, he told me, "I told you. Every level."
Did you work on their techniques?
Yes, you have to. Jamaica, for example, is a third-world country. Equipment and all those sort of things are not at your disposal. You don't have two or three coaches. An U-19 team has one coach. You have to do everything. Those days are long days, but those guys love cricket. At the youth level, that's where the bulk of work took place.
Anything in particular you worked on?
They are both different individuals. Chris has always been an aggressive player. As a coach, I always believed in working on their strength - don't try to curb him. Anyone looks at Chris now, you can say, all the coaches that worked on him did a good thing by letting him be.
|"Anyone looks at Chris Gayle now, you can say, all the coaches that worked on him did a good thing by letting him be"|
Have you seen changes in their games in their time with you?
Yes. For example, Chris, you might see him bulldozing balls, but what I cannot forget is one particular shot: where the ball is just short of a length and he goes back and punches it down the road. Now the same ball disappears over midwicket for a six. I remember when last year he played one of those shots, he turned to me and said, "I still have it, coach." Most people would turn up just to see him play that shot. That was his trademark shot, but I understand the reason now with T20 cricket and so on. He is conscious of the fact that he has stopped playing that shot.
What was it like being part of such a dominant team, winning five first-class titles in a row with Jamaica?
It was good. But the way I see life is, if I play a tournament now, I evaluate it, and I tend to move on immediately. Start planning for the next competition. I believe that's part of the reason why I am able to repeat championship wins.
Which was the most special title win?
The last one, to make it five in a row was special. We had lost the first innings in that game against Barbados. And we had lost some time due to rain. I remember this Sunday evening, the third day of the game, at tea time, we were having a discussion, we worked out a situation. If we could be 95 this evening, score some quick runs tomorrow, set them 230 or something and see where we can go. We scored 120 in the evening. Came back next day, pushed on, declared two or three overs earlier, and bowled out Barbados. It was a bit special.
Outside of that, I cherish the 13 consecutive outright wins. So many things can hamper that. To win 13 first-class continuous outright…
As you moved towards higher levels, what part of the job got easier and what part got more difficult?
I always believe that it is much easier at a senior level. At school, you have to do almost everything. At senior level, you have a physio, trainer, manager. At school, if someone gets injured, you have to find that physio. It is more difficult at the grassroots level.
What about dealing with egos at top level?
Yes. There are egos. And they are looking to move on to a higher level. As a coach you have to just create a level playing field. You should be impartial. I make it clear quite early, you move based on your performances. I always believe you can't scheme your way through life. You want to perform and move on.
What is your USP as a coach?
You have to be a balanced coach in the Caribbean. You are not going to get a fielding coach, you are not going to get a batting coach. You have to understand all the rudiments of the game, all facets of the game. You are not going to get the luxury of doing one thing alone.
How and where did you train yourself to understand everything?
From early out, you practise everything. I am a right-hander, for example. But I can use the left hand to bowl the orthodox offbreak. I can use the left hand to bowl the back-of-the-hand chinaman. You just practise those things for the purpose of coaching. I am a wristspinner, but if a youngster is a chinaman bowler, I need to demonstrate it. Some of the guys are amazed by what all I can do. In the Caribbean you can't just come and say, I am a fast-bowling coach.
How did the West Indies A job come about?
It came as a surprise to me. I was in Kingston working with the U-16 players. I had just signed on as assistant coach for Tallawahs. Two days later I got this email from the West Indies board.
It must have been really satisfying.
It didn't come easy. In that five-year period, we won two one-day titles too, which is important in the Caribbean. But when it comes, you look at it - I mean, when it rains, it pours. I had just signed with Tallawahs.
Now you are coaching the whole regional team with not just Jamaican players.
It is just a reunion. When I was coaching Jamaica U-19, most of these guys were playing U-19 for their teams. In the Caribbean, we play all the U-19 matches in one territory. So all the teams are in the same territory. And three-four of them in the same hotel. These guys, I know them from over the years. I understand them and their game well.
I quote from a piece in the Jamaica Gleaner, dated December 21, 2012: "He didn't go to the right schools, doesn't hang with the right crowd, doesn't speak with the cultured tones of the aristocracy. All of that shouldn't matter, but sadly, in Jamaica, and the Caribbean, it does." What do you make of it?
That is the writer's view. I also believe no one can scheme their way through life. I believe if you work hard, and you are supposed to move on, it is supposed to be done in a way where it is justice. I feel I should move on based on my work. I don't want anyone to scam through life. I want to move on based on my work and not other things. If it is a case where I have to hang out with certain people, I won't do it.
*November 23, 2013, 06:55 GMT: The name of the school Bennett coached was changed to St Elizabeth Technical High School
Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: Sidharth Monga
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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