August 3, 2014

Why West Indies lack talented home-grown coaches

An uncoordinated approach to coaching across the region has led to an influx of foreign coaches

Phil Simmons is the only high-profile Caribbean coaching export © PA Photos

Ian Chappell once described coaches as vehicles that ferry cricket teams from hotel to ground and back; by such a definition, the best coach would be a Japanese by the name of Toyota.

Times have changed. Somewhat behind all other sports, even cricket's sceptics have come round to accepting the idea of a team coach. Now every school, minor club and first-class and Test squad has one. Not only that. At the professional level, they have specialists to deal with bowling, batting and fielding. Melbourne Stars in Australia's T20 Big Bash even have a "chief hydration officer".

There are coaches of every nationality scattered across the cricketing map for every format of the game. The Caribbean Premier League is one such tournament. Unlike the IPL, the Big Bash, England's T20 Blast and others that are all run by their national boards, the CPL is Irish-owned, operating under a licence purchased from the West Indies board in 2012. For its second season it has assigned five new foreign head coaches to its six franchises and introduced the Australian, Tom Moody, as director of cricket.

In its first year, it used icons from the golden age of West Indies cricket - Sir Viv Richards, Sir Andy Roberts, Gordon Greenidge and Desmond Haynes - as head coaches. They have now been designated "mentors", a none-too-subtle difference. The only combination that remains the same is the West Indian pairing of Roger Harper and Sir Curtly Ambrose with the Guyana Amazon Warriors.

The Englishman Paul Nixon was the only foreign coach last year. His Jamaica Tallawahs took the title. He has been replaced by Mickey Arthur, one-time national coach of his native South Africa and of Australia.

Tim Nielsen, Arthur's predecessor with Australia, has taken over the Antigua Hawksbills. Simon Helmot, also Australian, with experience in the IPL and the Big Bash, is in charge of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel; Robin Singh, the Trinidad-born Indian, of the Barbados Tridents. Matthew Maynard was promoted from assistant with the St Lucia Zouks in 2013 to chief in 2014.

Their understudies are all West Indian. Among them is Carl Hooper, the batting stylist over 102 Tests between 1987 and 2002. He was flown in from his home in Australia to be with the Hawksbills.

Galling as it may be to West Indian pride in a sport that once typified the excellence of these tiny islands, such an arrangement is not surprising. Perhaps those who call the shots in a league prefaced with the word "Caribbean" would have preferred a few more from the region. They seemed unconvinced that such candidates measured up to their standards.

The problem is the uncoordinated approach to coaching from territory to territory in the West Indies. WICB's head coach, Ottis Gibson, complains that players arrive at the highest level brought up through an assortment of processes.

Last November, the WICB brought in a complete outsider with no preconceived ideas to make a thorough assessment of the domestic cricket structure. Richard Pybus, an Englishman with a solid reputation in coaching and organisation in South Africa, was made director of cricket. In preparing a comprehensive report, he sought advice and suggestions from dozens of those involved in every aspect of the game - past and present players, administrators, umpires, journalists, regular fans. On the strength of his research, he recommended the appointment of a coaching manager "to oversee and implement coaching programmes regionally"; in other words for everyone to be singing from the same Karaoke screen.

This would be complemented by what he termed "an elite coaches pathway", identifying current and former players for fast-tracking into the role. It is a start to raising standards. In the meantime, the only international West Indian coach apart from Gibson is Phil Simmons, the power-hitting opener of the '90s, with Ireland, the long-standing No. 1 among the Associate teams.

There is another motive for the CPL's preference. While it lacks the IPL's financial power, it is using it as a template. It does not have the IPL's benefit of a window free of international matches, as agreed to by the ICC, so its scope for raising high-profile foreign coaches and players is limited. Those it can contract stamp the CPL as an international brand. Added to the typically Caribbean carnival atmosphere that provides its slogan, "The Biggest Party in Sport", it makes it an easier sell to television networks.

Apart from its five coaches this season, it has again managed to find 21 players from Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Pakistan, England, Ireland and Sri Lanka (22 if and when Kevin Pietersen eventually turns up) to mix in with the West Indians.

Pybus has recognised a significant snag to outside coaches. The Australians Bennett King, David Moore and John Dyson successively held the position for West Indies between 2004 and 2010. It was a period that contributed to the rapid decline over the past 20 years.

"The introduction of coaches from other cricket cultures brought about changes in the team culture that manifested in a breaking down of the natural handling of Caribbean wisdom, senior player to junior player," he wrote in his report. "Informal coaching by elite cricketers was replaced by formal coaching from an alien cricket culture with a different values system. Confusion over the natural Caribbean way of playing and coaching emerged."

While it is a view widely shared in the West Indies, it did not refer to coaches "from an alien culture" assigned to mixed squads for a competition lasting five weeks, rather than on a long-term basis for West Indies.

The assessment by captain Dwayne Bravo of Simon Helmut's impact on the Red Steel is instructive. "He understands the players and knows how to get the best out of the them and this has really worked for us this season," said Bravo. "If you look at our team, everyone is performing and this is a result of a great working atmosphere created by the coach."

It is praise that has never been heaped on any West Indies coach by Bravo or any other player. It would hardly be the same were Helmut on a full-time contract looking after a floundering West Indies team under an often divided board.

Tony Cozier has written about and commentated on cricket in the Caribbean for 50 years