September 2, 2014

'I was the mad scientist who threw ideas at the side'

Former New Zealand coach John Bracewell talks man management, county v country, and the evolution of the game

"New Zealand is very much like Gloucestershire. It's a low-budget, small selection-group structure" © Getty Images

What did you take from your time as an international player that fed into your approach to coaching?
It was probably the fact that we didn't have coaches, mostly. For a lot of the time, the chairman of selectors travelled with you. He was pretty much your coach. I think the first coach we had was in the mid-'80s: Glenn Turner. And he was something of an innovator in one-day cricket, with the chip shots and those sorts of things. So we were probably a side that talked about cricket a lot, captained our own positions a lot. And as a nation, we always felt a bit of a legacy from the war period, where we were nicknamed "The Number 8 Wire Society" - where a piece of fencing wire, from farming, could fix anything. So that adaptability was always part of what we thought of as our street-smartness.

In five years as New Zealand coach, your record in ODIs was pretty good: 61 wins from 106 games, with three semi-finals in three 50-over tournaments. However, you won seven out of seven semi-finals with Gloucestershire. Was there a different approach to those games?
I think the balance I had with the New Zealand side was reasonably similar to the Gloucestershire side. We were a good fielding unit. We were pretty resourceful as a group. We had a captain who the team looked to for good tactical decision-making, so they trusted his choices. We were reasonably well researched on the opposition. We were very well researched on what our roles were. We pretty much just ran out of numbers.

In West Indies in 2007 [World Cup], we played extremely well in a place where, traditionally, we weren't - and shouldn't have been - that good. We played on slow, low, turning wickets, and sides that had good spinners should have tipped us over. As it turned out, Sri Lanka did. We played them on a wicket that may as well have been in Sri Lanka. But we competed. We played and rehearsed for those tournaments pretty well, and if it hadn't been for Mahela Jayawardene - he played a magnificent innings, which made you say, "Man, this guy's got skill. He's taken this game by the scruff of the neck with skill." We gave it our best shot, and it was a great journey. If I had my way I'd still be in the West Indies playing that World Cup. I loved it so much. It was just a bloody great tournament for me. But it did break my heart at the end.

"The one thing about Moneyball that I really like: statistics towards the result rather than statistics towards your individual career"

What are the crucial cricketing ingredients of a successful one-day side?
I think the ability to understand the game itself. You've got to understand the pressure points of a game, to understand the set plays. Fifty-over cricket is just a series of set plays. And then you produce a model that gives them a greater understanding of what their particular role is. They will then understand the clarity of that role, and therefore it's less pressured. And it's more repeatable. We had guys who really only did one or two things. But they did them extremely well.

There must be times when carrying out a pre-defined role is less important than adapting quickly to fluctuations in the match situation.
Yes, but you don't necessarily need all your players to do that. You can have some guys who have their singular role, because it's almost like a mathematical equation - 50-over cricket and short-form cricket. For example, Kim Barnett's mind was very, very mathematical. He was one of the few guys I had ever seen who could work out, in his head, Duckworth-Lewis, before Duckworth-Lewis could! It was incredible.

It's the balancing of the chess board. You can't have everyone just attacking. We had some guys who, basically, once they understood their role, felt less pressure in performing that. And we had some extremely creative players, guys like Ian Harvey and Mark Alleyne, who were actually capable of playing many, many roles. But if you've got a whole team of those players you can end up with chaos. So you need to have order as well as artistic licence.

Were you hands-on in formulating plans?
I was hands on in formulating the ideas to bring to the side. I was slightly the "mad scientist" who threw ideas at them. One of my strict rules has always been that once the XII has been named, then the captain makes the choices. It's never imposed on him by me. I'll argue with him up to the point when we get the XII. I felt like a nervous spectator, like everybody else, and to be honest I ended up just enjoying the ride.

During your first stint at Gloucestershire you had psychometric tests done, and Jack Russell, Mike Smith and Kim Barnett all fell into the same category: gnarly, argumentative, obstinate. That's probably a good thing when directed towards the opposition, but did it ever present you with resistance?
I think the strength of it is when things are going along smoothly. The make-up of any group depends on the people constantly agreeing with the future ambitions of where it's going. And when it's a collective ambition, things motor along quite smoothly. Once individuals want to have individual ambitions outside of that box - let's say playing for England, or wanting to get paid more, or greater recognition for their particular part - once that comes in, the man-management of that becomes a little bit more difficult. Sometimes you have to find more money, and if you haven't got it you're in a bit of trouble. Sometimes you have to push them towards international selection and if they don't get it their ambitions shift toward something else. Sometimes they're coming towards the end of their lifespan as cricketers and they start to panic a bit about what they're going to be doing next. And therefore their goals shift, individually. So you're constantly balancing their own individual needs and desires and aspirations with the collective ambition, and every society goes through that.

That must be extremely hands-on, then, monitoring those divergences.
It's why I coach. Team dynamics - the understanding of how a society, almost, works, in the context of a sports team - is the thing that interests me. How you get a balance between individual desires and the team needs is the constant challenge. It's probably the reason I gravitate towards the underdog-style appointments, because of the challenge of how to make a team, as opposed to how to make a wealthy team work. I'm interested in how to grow a team from scratch.

"Brendon wanted to express himself more as an individual, and therefore only batting for eight overs at the end of a one-day game wasn't necessarily good for his own personal ambition" © Getty Images

How detailed was your assessment of the opposition?
It was about the group being relaxed, and knowing its particular roles. In rugby, it's clear: No. 1 pushes, No. 5 gets lifted - their roles are well set out. In cricket it's not necessarily the case. But there wasn't a great deal of research done in those days. The game has changed enormously in terms of computerisation and the Moneyball concept. With New Zealand, the first time we really used statistical analysis in depth was when we went to the World Cup in 2007. And once again that was more about where we needed to be as a group - what was expendable, what wasn't expendable. What were the rates that needed to be achieved in terms of par scores.

Then we are back to adaptability of roles, both to the changing circumstances of the game and the limitations of the player pool, right?
Yes. It's positional, and it's about talent. You can have an ideal, but then you've got to face reality. If you were selecting an England side or an Australian side, you could say "What is the ideal that fits the numbers?" And you could almost pick that side, because of the depth that's around. With Gloucestershire and New Zealand, you've got your best players and that's it. So you've got to find the best role for that player.

For instance, finding the right role for Brendon McCullum - both him and Jacob Oram were essentially great finishers. But Brendon felt then that at some point he wanted to express himself more as an individual, and therefore only batting for eight overs at the end of a one-day game wasn't necessarily good for his own personal ambition. So you constantly got those challenges. Again you had someone like Nathan Astle - and we looked at his statistics, and while he scored a high percentage of hundreds, he was slowing down when he got to 70. Basically it was his job to continue at the same rate. Once we got through the Powerplay, we had players that he needed to trust were going to score quickly anyway. So his job wasn't to slow down. It was to accelerate. He therefore became expendable to the total cause, and that creates challenges in itself: Another hundred from me, or get out trying to get 300 for the team? That always becomes the dilemma.

Would he have argued that there weren't enough people around putting their foot down?
Well, resistance comes in many ways. There are individual statistics, which are constantly a burden to one-day cricket. It's a selfless form of the game but traditionally everyone looks to individual statistics. And I think they are poorly measured. It's the one thing about Moneyball that I really like: statistics towards the result rather than statistics towards your individual career. Those are the ones that are important to me. So you've constantly got that battle with players and your man-management. You don't always win them, I can assure you.

Do you always shoot straight, giving players the cold, hard truth as you see it, or is there invariably a case for psychologically massaging them?
I think there's always a case for telling the truth in a way the player can relate to, so he gets it. Some players can take it brutally, from the hip, and some players need a lot more cajoling. But often the more words you use, the more confused the message. We can all use a thousand words where perhaps two would have done. But you also have to recognise there are times when the whole truth and nothing but the truth can actually kill a guy off for a long time. You've got to think about the next step. You may not need all the truth because you might need them next week.

With a county you have more or less a set pool of players that you have to develop, but with New Zealand you could, in theory, pick a team with half an eye on the blend of personalities.
Pretty much so. Funnily enough, New Zealand is very much like Gloucestershire. It's a low-budget, small selection-group structure. Generally you've got, at most, throughout New Zealand's history, eight or nine Test players, and then you make up the numbers after that with whatever is available. So you're often developing a player on a tour. When you haven't got someone who immediately replaces a player, like for like, that's when personalities really are important, as they are in New Zealand. Because they have to hunt as a pack, as do Gloucestershire and lower socio-economic sides.

In terms of cultivating that "pack mentality", that fierce spirit of togetherness and solidarity, did you ever use that trick of engendering unity by focusing on, or even creating, external enemies?
I'd call that "siege mentality" rather than "pack mentality", and I'm never a great fan of it. I think it can be used once or twice, but in the end it just wears your own players out. Because, generally, you're asking the group to be totally resilient all the time, and people aren't like that. By nature, people don't like to be disliked. Rejection hurts. Isolation is something that can be really vicious. If you set up a siege mentality you're welcoming it into your own group as well, and then you'll get isolation groups. So it's something that can only work in one-off situations. And it's very short-term.

Was there a systematic approach to applying psychological pressure on the opposition? I think of Jack Russell, for example, getting in batsmen's physical space. Was it something you discussed?
Yes, it was. It was certainly something I discussed with Jack. Whilst Jack had always been somewhat of an irritant as a keeper, and it was part of his style, he was also reasonably conservative about how he kept, as he still had international ambition. Therefore, if he didn't make mistakes he had a chance of beating Alec Stewart into the England side. So he put himself in a slightly defensive rather than offensive position. Instead of him being the drummer in the band, sitting back there and keeping the beat, I said to him "No, I want you to conduct the orchestra. Come forward and run the show." And it suited that gnarly mentality. It brought the best out of Jack. The moment Jack retired from international cricket I think he did become the best keeper in the world. Undoubtedly. While he was still wanting to play for England he was still good but he was too conservative.

"One of the biggest problems with sports psychology is that most people who commentate on the game are generally ten years behind where the game is. And therefore they're always resistant to sports science and psychology"

Jeremy Snape, latterly a performance director with the South Africans, said not so long ago that "the last 15 years have been about developing the body, the next fifteen years will be about the mind". Would you agree with that?
Well, I would have a sports psychologist in my group all the time. One of the biggest problems with sports psychology is that most people who commentate on the game are generally ten years behind where the game is. And therefore they're always resistant to sports science and psychology. And that's the bottom line. I think people fear it, because it's all speculative and you cannot really put your finger on it unless the player is truthful.

Is leadership something that can be systematically learned?
I think there are traits of leadership - as opposed to captaincy, and there's a big difference - there are traits of leadership that exist in everybody, and it's about identifying those and using those. So with Kim Barnett, his leadership basically was: the team trusted his maths. Martyn Ball and Jeremy Snape used to run that middle session, the dead overs - how to keep a side beyond the point of no return, because we knew that Ian Harvey, Mike Smith and James Averis would nail them in the death. They owned that, and their leadership became that they shifted the field where they wanted it. Now that's a great art of captaincy from Mark Alleyne: to give them ownership. And, therefore, ownership creates leadership.

What have you made of developments in 50-over cricket? Has T20 created a sort of evolutionary leap in the 50-over game?
I think 50-over cricket had created an evolutionary leap in Test cricket, in terms of the shots available to players since the '80s, when Test cricket turned pyjamas. Any innovation that's introduced is met with ridicule at first - think of Mike Gatting with that reverse sweep - but now if you haven't got a reverse sweep then you're not going to play international cricket. It's as simple as that.

So that's changed Test cricket, and T20 cricket has shifted 50-over cricket as well. There's no doubt that all the games are more exciting for what's been added in terms of shot selection. And then you get the changes that come from how you try and stop that shot selection: reverse swing is now second nature to all of us; we've had doosras, slower-ball bouncers and those sorts of deliveries brought in. I can remember our New Zealand group talking about slower-ball bouncers: Shane Bond used it in the 2007 World Cup. He pretty much invented it. Because he had the pace to bowl a really quick bouncer, it immediately became effective.

Team fielding, pairs fielding are things that we introduced way back with Gloucestershire: guys picking the ball up and giving it to another guy who's in a better position to throw. Funnily enough, I saw it as a kid watching Happy Days. At the start of the show, in the titles, Richie Cunningham pops up a ball to someone and I thought, "Why aren't they doing that in cricket?" That's where you get stuff. From anywhere.

I draw a lot from reading about history - the history of societies and the repeating of errors. It's just a subculture, cricket. It truly is, because it's individuals within a team. How do you get to create a socialist environment, a kibbutz? And how do you cater for those individual needs? My apple's redder than your apple, and therefore I should be getting a greater profit for my individual apple. Those sorts of things exist throughout society, so lessons don't just come from a cricket source, or a sports source. It comes from a historical source. I've always been a socialist at heart. But I say: aren't all coaches?

I guess fielding is a "socialist" facet of the game, especially that combination work. How did you practise all that?
We used to work with the inner field, and some of our guys wanted to become the best in certain positions - Matt Windows, for example. Him and Mark Alleyne used to patrol cover and midwicket to our spinners, and were almost impregnable in terms of being able to track a shot. Then we worked on what the players in the outfield did in terms of covering that, so that the risk of them diving was a risk worth taking because the sweeper - that's his job - will cover for you. So take the dive. And they enjoyed getting dirty. And the New Zealand side was pretty much the same. They enjoyed the physicality.

But we also used to have things like "Go MAD" sessions. "Go MAD" means go and make a difference. They were sessions where you were coached but not judged. What did you want to practise that would make a difference in a game? That slim chance of this coming off, one in 50 games, but you can do it if you need to be able to do it.

What have you found to be the major differences between county coaching and international coaching, and the best and worst of each job?
The best of county coaching is you get to go home! You're dealing with a smaller and less critical environment. You've probably got greater tolerance of the development of players, based on your budget. The great thing about international coaching is the complete adventure of the pinnacle of what you're doing. So you're measuring yourself as a coach in the same way you measured yourself as an international cricketer: on a big stage against the best. And having coached against the Bob Woolmers and John Buchanans of this world was an absolute privilege for me. They were two incredible minds on the game and it was a privilege just to go to a meeting where they spoke, to listen intently to what they had to say - and they both came at the game from completely different angles. To have played in a New Zealand side against Australia when Bobby Simpson was the coach, and for him to throw out tidbits while I was on a slip-fielding machine - those sorts of things are why you want to test yourself at international level.

Scott Oliver tweets here