March 3, 2014

Can the cricket coach be king?

The role is still evolving, but it's unlikely it'll become the centrepiece of the narrative like in football

Where is cricket's Jose Mourinho, its Pep Guardiola, its Sir Alex Ferguson?

I intend no disrespect to cricket coaches. But the question is unavoidable. The football manager has evolved not only as the boss - the "gaffer" - but also the central and controlling mind. He is the team's selector, its tactician and its figurehead. Compare cricket's separation of powers, a three-way division of responsibility. The selectors determine which players get onto the field; the captain sets the field, declares and changes the bowling; while the coach - well, hang on a minute, what does the coach do? This second question partly answers my first one: the role of the coach leads us to the absence of Jose Mourinho.

The original football manager was Herbert Chapman, whose first job was at Northampton Town in 1907. He pioneered a new style of play, rebranded his teams (it was Chapman who termed Arsenal "the Gunners"), and signed players at lower prices by plying rival directors with alcohol while he sipped ginger ale from a whisky glass. No wonder his nickname was "Football's Napoleon". That tradition of managerial control continues to this day. Arsenal's club captain is Thomas Vermaelen. You may not have noticed because he very rarely makes the team. The manager, Arsene Wenger, in contrast, is ever-present.

With occasional exceptions - meddling owners, egotistical chairmen, exceptional captains - there is no doubt who runs a football team: the manager. This has long made them the envy of the coaching fraternity. When the Welsh rugby visionary Carwyn James, who coached the British Lions, was asked if he had any regrets, he replied that he would have liked to be a football manager instead: they didn't have to put up with the interference of selectors.

Cricket didn't even have coaches when James was shaping his teams in the 1970s, let alone Chapman his in the 1910s. English cricket's first full-time professional coach was Micky Stewart, who took over as team manager for the 1986-87 tour of Australia. But Stewart and his generation of coaches were managers in name, not reality. They were more organisers than bosses. David Lloyd, who succeeded Stewart in the England job, put it like this: "The captain ruled the roost, he was the boss really, and you were there to support him. So I wouldn't cross either of the captains I worked with, Atherton or Stewart."

So history, clearly, is part of the explanation. The cricket coach is relatively new. There has not yet been much time for cricket's pioneering coaches to expand and enhance the role. One perfectly plausible projection is that cricket will become more like other sports and a single manager will assume control of the central decisions. Michael Vaughan believes that selectors are now superfluous and their role should been ceded to the coach. Sir Clive Woodward, who coached England to the rugby World Cup, recently accused cricket of being "stuck in the dark ages", with an over-mighty captain and a weak manager. Woodward was baffled that English cricket could sack Kevin Pietersen before the appointment of a new coach. Surely, Woodward argued, that decision was for the coach, not the captain and administrators? This line of argument holds that the cricket coach is still taking infant steps towards its logical evolution and that - in a decade or two - the coach will be king.

A football coach can alter the effect of individual players by tinkering with the structure in which they operate. Cricket, in contrast, is the accumulation of what statisticians call "discrete" events, actions that occur in a comparative vacuum

There is a counter argument. Ian Chappell and Shane Warne, among others, believe that the cricket coach should be held in check rather than allowed to launch a power grab. At international level, in Warne's words, "the coach shouldn't be coaching." The coach can certainly help create the right environment. But the Warne-Chappell approach remains suspicious of interventionist technical coaching once players have reached Test level. They believe it must be the captain, not the coach, who runs the team on the field.

This is the nub of the issue. Is there something about cricket, almost unique among sports, that makes it harder (perhaps impossible) for a coach to shape what happens during the match? We know it is the baseball manager who pulls off the pitcher and replaces him with a fresher arm. We know it is the football manager who devises the playing system and structure for each match. Why not cricket?

We now run into a parallel question: how central is captaincy? For if the coach wishes to become the defining figure, he can assume selection control from the selectors, but tactics he must wrestle from the captain. As a teenager, I was 12th man for Kent in a one-day match. I organised the drinks bottles while sitting next to the coach. When Kent took a wicket and I prepared to run onto the pitch, the coach pulled me to one side. "Tell the captain to change the bowling at the far end and move mid-off deeper. And tell him that has come from me!" I relayed the message. "Tell the coach to f*** off and let me captain the team," the captain replied, "and tell him that's from me." It was an early lesson in a familiar confusion about roles and responsibilities.

The structure of cricket may work against an off-field mastermind, certainly in the longer formats of the game. In a five-day match, the coach can only directly speak to his players at lunch, tea or the close of play. During each session, the captain must make his own decisions - as Bob Woolmer discovered when his coach-to-captain walkie-talkie system was outlawed in 1999. It is possible to imagine a T20 match mapped out in advance because there are only a small number of bowling changes to make. But a Test match is so fluid and unpredictable, with so many moving parts interacting and influencing each other, that a "planned" Test is a contradiction in terms.

In other respects cricket is anything but fluid. The ball is "live" in cricket for a very small percentage of the match. And for the vast majority of that time, only two or three players are involved: the bowler, the batsmen and sometimes a fielder. Crucially, their individual actions take place in perfect isolation. No one else can help you hit a cover drive or bowl a yorker. This truth is captured by the old cliché that cricket is a team game played by individuals.

That makes it very different from football. When an attacking player tracks back, the job of being a defender becomes fundamentally easier. When a coach devises a different midfield formation, the experience of being out on the pitch materially changes. The spaces are in different places, so it becomes a changed match. Not so in cricket. A coach (or captain) can change his batting order. But no coach can soften or alter the isolated examination that awaits all the batsmen when they eventually face Mitchell Johnson's thunderbolts. You can shuffle the pack, but the cards must be played individually.

This is the greatest challenge facing a cricket coach. A football coach can alter the effect of individual players by tinkering with the structure in which they operate. The presence of a good defensive midfielder frees up the playmaker to push up-field and express himself. Just ask the playmaker. When Real Madrid sold the defensive midfielder Claude Makelele and bought David Beckham instead, Zinedine Zidane felt the pinch. "Why put another layer of gold paint on the Bentley," asked Zidane, "when you are losing the entire engine?" These are managerial judgements, decisions about structure and strategy that affect almost every moment of a football match. Cricket, in contrast, is the accumulation of what statisticians call "discrete" events, actions that occur in a comparative vacuum.

Paradoxically, this makes it harder for cricket coaches to influence the shape of the match. They come up against an impenetrable wall: every player, with bat or ball, is on his own when it really matters. This, I suspect, is why cricket coaches, during periods of desperate failure, are so often reduced to the worst of all managerial failings: telling their players how to bat and bowl. It almost never works, but you can see how they end up there.

By my own logic, cricket coaching could evolve in either of two opposite directions. Given the technical and individual nature of the game, the trend may be towards individual coaches who work for the player, rather than vice versa - exactly as already happens in golf and tennis. Alternatively, cricket may eventually accept a version of the football model, despite its structural differences. One thing is certain. Unless that happens - and I'm not sure it should - I can't see a cricketing Jose Mourinho putting up with the constraints of the job. After all, pity the poor chief selector who relays the following message, "Jose, here's the team we've picked for you to play against Manchester City."

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on March 6, 2014, 12:53 GMT

    Ed - It's a thought-provoking question. No easy answers. Modern cricket - with its 3 forms, tight scheduling & diverse conditions worldwide - is far too complex & demanding for one man to handle alone. The coach's role is still evolving, especially in Tests. We can draw key observations by examining specific coaches, captains & teams. Surely coaching style is very important. Gary Kirsten succeeded in taking two teams - SA & India - to the top in Tests & a WC2011 India triumph to boot. With his "personal mastery" culture, he instilled high standards of accountability & flexibility. He drove his teams to success by creating leadership around a core group of senior players with smart captains. In SA, Smith led with Kallis, Steyn, AB, Amla & Co. Out of the box: Gary had his boys train hard in the Alps with Mike Horn the adventurer. Soon SA dethroned England. Gary's style was markedly different from predecessor Mickey Arthur, a control freak. Importantly, Gary showed SA & Smith how to win!

  • Jay on March 6, 2014, 4:47 GMT

    Let's turn to Clarke & Arthur. They looked stupid with the "Homework" saga in India. They suffered a 0-4 setback vs Dhoni & Co. In an earlier series, they created a "secret dossier" of specific plans to wage "psychological warfare" on key SA players like Amla & Kallis. Stupid again. It boomeranged! They were outfoxed by (who else?) Kirsten & Smith. Arthur was axed just before the England tour. The open-minded Lehmann was inserted to remedy the toxic team culture. It worked. Though OZ lost The Ashes 0-3, they rebounded later at home with a 5-0 thrashing of the Poms. The momentum carried over into SA (w/ Kirsten retired; Kallis too; a lame duck Smith): OZ won 2-1 closely. As to Flower & Cook, their stable era also came to an end, post The Ashes debacle. Flower resigned amid a "very English revolution"! KP was blamed for player revolt & axed. Such is cricket with its intrigues & challenges. As The Bard said: "Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown"! He had the cricket coach in mind, Ed!

  • Jay on March 6, 2014, 3:01 GMT

    Gary also led India to the top with captain Dhoni & a stable of experienced players - Tendulkar, Dravid, Laxman, Zaheer & Co. Again, he had Mike Horn conduct motivational sessions to boost team spirit: so India lifted the WC2011 Cup. Contrast Kirsten's style with Greg Chappell's "my-way-or-highway" approach. Chappell had to resign after a disastrous 2-year tenure & WC2007 debacle. A year later, Kirsten took over & rebuilt Team India with mostly the same players & captain Kumble & Ganguly (Greg's unfavourite). The real test arises when the chips are down. Look at the masterful job by John Wright & Ganguly in lifting India - out of the abyss of the 2000 match-fixing scandal - to an ascendant path. Good coaches & smart captains do shape team success: It's a coach's job (w/ staff) to get the team ready & develop strategy for each series & game. It's a captain's job to execute plan on the field & let each player do his job. Two minds are better than one. Gary is a uber-coach, not a king!

  • Clifford on March 5, 2014, 19:05 GMT

    Sorry, correction it was Jens Lehmann, in the 2006 Wold Cup against Argentina. But Kopke was the inventor.

  • Clifford on March 4, 2014, 21:19 GMT

    I think cricket coaches can be significantly valuable. He becomes the objective assessor and planner. A captain is too involved to be objective and has too much responsibility, as it is. You need a brain, who has the teams results completely in mind. Football is an ever reactive game and players who are unthinking, will not be able to adapt and will be unsuccessful. Plays can change instantly with a pass or a run. Cricket is more straight forward. Play each ball on it's merit. A coach can prepare each batter prior to going out as to what is required of him. He should be the chess master, pulling the strings. He should know who is susceptible to what type of bowling and should prepare the captain, as to a plan, before taking the field. Do you remember Andreas Köpke, with his notes in his socks, when the penalties were taken, World Cup 1990 Semi-Final England v Germany. That's what a cricket coach should be doing. Knowing the opposition completely. Players only have to execute, then!

  • Shakti on March 3, 2014, 20:54 GMT

    Cricket is about the players,not about the ego of a coach or manager.I prefer it the way it is,a captain leads his team to battle,a coach helps them prepare & steps out of the way.

  • jithender on March 3, 2014, 19:15 GMT

    contrary to what everybody believes a head coach is a baggage for test cricketers, has no bearing on the result at the highest level.however the professional cricketers need batting,bowling and fielding coaches to help fine tune their existing skills. they also need a good manager to organize and a physiotherapist to look after their fitness.rahul dravid won a series in england without a coach and anil kumble nearly won in australia without one, but for the umpiring fiassco.if the boards think they are needed one for their prestige go for retired test players who have been absolute fighters in their playing days.

  • David on March 3, 2014, 17:07 GMT

    Cricket in today's age needs both the captain and the coach. It is just not possible for the captain to run the whole show like he once did. But you need the right kind of coach and captain, and it's not a combination which is easy to get right. You want a coach who is technical, methodical, analytical, cautious a la Flower. The captain, on the other hand, should be bold, tactically astute and prepared to gamble. If the captain and coach are too similar in their approach, things stagnate; yet it is also vital that they get on. Nor should either side have too much power. I thought England got closest to this under Fletcher and Vaughan; Fletcher was a disciplinarian who still knew when to stand back. Vaughan could occasionally bawl a player out; Fletcher would later have a quiet word. Vaughan and Moores did not work because Moores was too much a control-freak. This what eventually happened under Flower, and England did not have a captain who was willing to stand up and challenge him.

  • Dummy4 on March 3, 2014, 16:35 GMT

    Wait, why compare football to Cricket. More apt comparison is cricket to american football OR baseball. This article goes over old arguments that most people who think deeply about the distribution of responsibilities already know.

    Ed, I'd urge you to think about the comparison between cricket and american football or baseball. Please let us know what you think on that.

  • Steve on March 3, 2014, 12:47 GMT

    The role of coach should be crucial, an informed set of eyes watching from distance able to see things not obvious to the players on the field. He has to work with his captain and players, not on restructuring their game, but pointing out what he sees, good and bad. He should have no say in selection, as that creates the wrong power relationship, but obviously he will inform the selectors of his opinions, ditto the captain should only have an advising role in selection for this reason. He should be coordinating and advising on opposition strengths and weaknesses, on field tactics etc. but not dictating. He needs to be a person of character, calmness and personal authority, influencing as much by his personality and knowledge as by given authority. Cricket as a game requiring individual decision making needs a constructive, nurturing coach the players can relate to, not be afraid of. Lastly the players should be at liberty to hire their own technical coaches.

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