When Andrew McDonald arrived at Leicestershire as head coach last year, the Foxes were arguably English cricket's most troubled team. On-field and off-field problems had converged in what looked like a perfect storm that threatened to swallow up the club. However, strong work by the chief executive Wasim Khan has been backed up by McDonald's straight-talking approach, and this season the club are turning out strong results.
After the 2014 season you show up as coach and the team hasn't won a game in two years. What was your first reaction on the state of the place when you walked in?
Getting here on April 1, everyone was in reasonable spirits but you could just sense it was a side that had lost belief and there was probably too much focus on the negatives. And to me the quick win was to flip them into a positive mindset because as we know in sport, if we continually focus on the negatives, they tend to come to fruition more times than not. So it was about changing the language and getting some values; I don't think the guys had a framework to work off in terms of what a good team looked like.
We went through a couple of simple exercises in terms of identifying what good teams do and what ordinary teams do, and trying to get some behavioural attachment in terms of actions and what they may look like. And in particular, values - what they look like to that group in terms of bringing them to life in behaviour.
You mentioned that you have plastered over the walls in the change rooms your value statements. Is that a small but symbolic step to make sure that those values are embedded? In what other ways do you achieve this culture change?
I go back to what it looked like to me as a player: it is somewhere to call home. We want to make this a club of choice and the symbolism of putting those words that are ours - that this group has come up with (and importantly, the players have come up with a lot of it). We have worked together on bringing it to life, and to have those around the room is a reminder every day of where we have been and where we are heading.
"As a player the one thing I learned is, if you stay as level as you can through the ups and the downs, it holds you in better stead. As a young player I probably didn't get the balance right"
Do you have a big hand personally in the recruiting that occurred at the club after last season? Is that a major part of your role as coach?
Yeah, it is. The buck will stop with me. Recruiting comes down to balancing what you can afford and what you can't, and last year we knew that we were short in certain areas, and I identified that and I was allowed to embark on that with the help of Wasim Khan, which is always nice. So it was a major focus last year in terms of getting some quality people and some quality leaders and we feel as though we have done that in [Paul] Horton, [Neil] Dexter and [Mark] Pettini.
The next thing is how they integrate into the group. We had a pre-season this year to do that, the building blocks put that in place through the winter, and they have been outstanding. But also, the players who have been here have been outstanding in the way that they have embraced the new people coming in.
Those three experienced players you have nearly 25,000 runs between them and all have captaincy experience and pretty good first-class numbers without being exceptional. Excuse the cliché, but was there a Moneyball attitude towards this process?
I think they've got plenty of cricket left in them first and foremost, all of them are on three-year deals and I can see them playing on beyond that barring something unforeseen.
I understand the importance of having senior players in the dressing room. My great belief is that senior players are almost an extension of your coaching staff and have the ability to educate players while they are out in the middle. And we know the uniqueness of cricket is that once the players walk out onto the field, they're almost on their own to a certain degree, under the tutelage of the captain. So the more senior players we can get out there sharing their experiences, helping the younger players, accelerate their learning while in the contest, it is huge, and that's something we identified and why we went after those three players.
Before you came in 2014 the second team was very successful with a decent youth programme and big names produced over the years. With that in mind, is it a balancing act bringing in three senior pros and occasionally squeezing younger talent like Aadil Ali out of the XI? How hard is it to now have the space to develop younger guys as well?
It's a question that people ask any time - if you recruit at the top, is it going to stall the progress of your younger players? I don't think it will. What those [senior] players bring in terms of accelerating the learning is huge. Yes, [youngsters] may not get much exposure to first-team cricket, but having said that, they had plenty of exposure last year. Aadil has played the last three games, against Sri Lanka and two first-class games as well, so the opportunities are still going to be there. It is a matter of taking those as a player, and I think long term these players will be better off for having those conversations with the senior players and help them understand what it takes to be a first-class cricketer. As a coaching unit we'll have to help them with that. But there is nothing like that player-to-player interaction around learning out in the middle, I think that's invaluable.
What about the perception that Leicestershire is too focused on T20 cricket and not enough about first-class cricket? Was there much in that when you arrived?
I think the reason people think Leicestershire focused on T20s is probably the results. I was here in 2010 and 2011 [as a player] and I can tell you that we were trying just as hard in the Championship as we were in the T20. So I think that's just a perception from the outside. If you look at our squad in terms of who we have recruited, Mark Pettini is a fantastic one-day cricketer in his own right, and Neil Dexter contributes, and Paul Horton too to white-ball cricket. But we feel we've got players who can play across all three formats, and having a smaller staff, you've got to have three-dimensional players on your list. So we're targeting all three competitions.
Winning round one this year in really emphatic style, was that a catalyst for the performances you have strung together since?
I think it is. A lot of people don't see the hard work that is put in during the off season by the players themselves, and obviously the coaching panel that works for the players as well. There's a lot that goes into the first game, because it is the first game, you build towards it. So it's just really great to see the group gel as a unit; different people coming in. Sometimes it can take time to gel as a team but the way they did that, including the Abu Dhabi trip that we went on for 12 days was outstanding in terms of group dynamics. To get all the guys gelling and working together ahead of the first game was a testament to the work the guys had put in, and it shows the belief. There has been a tinkering in terms of the direction of cricket and style of cricket we want to play this year with the personnel we've got, and it was great to see them put on that show, and they did in the next three games as well.
Can you talk through how you respond to a big defeat like the one in Worcester? You had the football out before training - is that illustrative of trying to recover and get on with it as quickly as possible?
Yes, the game will provide setbacks and that's just the game we play. It is a hard game, it is a brutal game at times, and I suppose I have got the experience on the coaching panel now to deal with those. These guys have been through it and the players have got to understand that we are coaches who have played the game as well and we know exactly what they are feeling and thinking. The ability to bounce back is a true test of a group. It is easy to win games, but at the end of the day we debrief it, we still took a lot of positives out of the game, we had a batting collapse like other teams during that round had as well.
"If you start to look at the game and your career over a period of time then you realise that some of those moments that you thought were hugely significant pale into insignificance"
There seems a synergy there with your own setbacks and injuries with resilience. Are you able to provide insight to this team about your own learnings in the game? How do you articulate it to them?
The one thing I always say to my players is that I know what they are going through. I had a few setbacks on a personal front around injury. But it does put a dent in you in terms of your confidence. To come back from injury is one of the toughest things to do, especially long-term injuries. We have a couple of guys who have been injured this year, so I fully understand what they are going through. I think coaching is about sharing those experiences of what you have been through and others that you have played with, or seen around the world, to collectively bring those experiences back to the players.
I'm not saying that I did everything right in my career, and I'm the first to admit that, but I think the key thing is to stay level. As a player the one thing I learned is, if you stay as level as you can through the ups and the downs I think it holds you in better stead, and as a young player I probably didn't get the balance right. I think most young players don't get that balance right as a general rule: they think their next innings could be their last. But if you start to look at the game and your career over a period of time then you realise that some of those moments that you thought were hugely significant pale into insignificance.
This is your first coaching gig, but you're relatively young in it. Is this a career path for you?
Injury makes you think about what you may do next. In 2008 I did my Level 3, which is the highest coaching credential in Australia. And it was something that was always on my mind. I had a couple of shoulder reconstructions and then some nerve and hamstring issues later in my career that were significant. I suppose you're always thinking about what you may do, and my career could have ended in 2012 when I started those operations. I got a couple more years out that weren't that productive by any stretch.
In terms of philosophy, are you hands-on Buchanan type or hands-off Lehmann type? Do you consider your role more as a teacher and facilitator or are you in the nets offering technical advice?
I break it down into two parts. In the pre-season we have the ability to get fairly technical in terms of working with a player hands-on. But once the season starts I flip back into that tactical and mental side without delving too much into technique. Any time someone gets out it can look ugly and the technique poor, but once we get into matches I always like to reflect on the mental side of it, like, "What were you thinking at the time", as opposed to drilling into someone's technique too much because sometimes it can be slightly dangerous.
You're one of five Australians floating around, of those who grew up in the system. Is there an Australian renaissance here? And is that strategic on your part, consistent with the teachings you are trying to apply, adopting what you see as the world's best practice?
I think a combination of all the cricketing nations would give you the perfect outcome. Yes, we have a heavy Australian flavour here, but we are here to produce county players for the England system as well. In terms of my hand in Clint [McKay] and Mark [Cosgrove] coming here, I wasn't a part of that, they were here on the list. I have had a part in extending Clint's contract. He had a one-year deal and now we've got him for the next couple of years and he's been significant in terms of what he has brought to this group in terms of experience but also, his off-field impact is just as important. That's a bit like the Australian way - not to neglect the off-field impact that people can have around a group. We are big on culture, big on values. That is what we are trying to implement here and and Mark and Clint get that.
What are Mark Cosgrove's qualities as captain? What was the nature of your relationship from your time in Australian domestic cricket as opponents and teammates?
I've got to know him more as a coach/captain than as a fellow player. I only played with him for half a season in South Australia. He leads by example. He's a terrific batsman. I think last year tested a lot of people in terms of performance and for him to not only get through that but also to grow this season, there's been a remarkable improvement, and I think he feels a lot more comfortable after his first season in the position last year. This season he's got some great senior heads around him as well, so I think that's helped him. So I think he's improved immensely on the tactical and strategic front in four-day cricket.
"Any time someone gets out it can look ugly and the technique poor, but once we get into matches I always like to reflect on the mental side of it like, 'What were you thinking at the time', as opposed to drilling into someone's technique"
Can you discuss the importance new chief executive Wasim Khan and ECB's support with the new lights, the wall coming down on the far side, and any number of other improvements around the club?
It's great. I have spoken about the lights at length but the great winners out of that are the fans, the supporters of the club. They have been through a difficult time, but to see progress, even though it is a lick of paint or some lights, it is all progress. That's what Wasim Khan has brought to the table. He had a vision and he is living up to it. The important thing is that he said: "Okay, we're going to move forward as a club", and he's doing that, and he's giving us great confidence. He's an outstanding leader and he's put great faith in us in terms of the on-field stuff and he's rattling on behind the scenes, doing the off-field stuff. So it's great to have his support but that working relationship is hugely important, and he supports the players.
How's the involvement from club greats? You have quite a few of them. Do they have more of a foot in the club now relative to even when you played here?
Jonathan Agnew was here the other night presenting and he's still part of the club, and he follows the club. A lot of ex-Leicester greats still follow the club, albeit they don't necessarily turn up and watch, but I do think they follow from afar. So hopefully as time goes on those guys come back around and maybe have a visible presence. There was a great moment last year where Jonathan Agnew presented Aadil Ali his first cap.
Russell Cobb I've seen a bit down here, albeit his son is off playing for Northants. Paul Nixon floats in and out, he does some work in the indoor centre. Claude Henderson sends the odd text. There are some supporters behind the scenes.
You're 34 years old now, but you'd be seeing players much older like Chris Rogers, who are former team-mates, still playing professionally. How do you feel about having a career that was cut short due to injury?
That was just my lot really. No one means to get injured and my body - was it controllable or uncontrollable? I think there was a fair bit of uncontrollability about what happened to my nerve and the hamstring. So, look, am I interested that I didn't play on longer? Maybe, I don't really know. But I was dealt those cards and you deal with it. I got the most out of what I could out of my body those last couple of years. It was a frustrating time, but that's just part and parcel of sport and I am sure there have been a lot of other athletes whose careers have been cut short in terms of what they have been able to offer. To think that I would be able to play a four-day game tomorrow, no I wouldn't be able to. So I think I am pretty comfortable in the fact that I don't have to do that anymore. I had a fantastic career, I enjoyed every moment of it.
And your role as a Test player - a lot of people said you should have played in the 2009 Ashes where you were a squad member. Do you feel satisfied to have got the opportunity, or feel that maybe you had more to offer in Australian colours?
Selection is subjective. To me, there are guys who sit around a table and pick a side and you respect that and that's the decision they made at the time, so I fully respect that. They felt I wasn't good enough to play more. I played four Tests.
What this game has given me, it has been unbelievable in terms of where you think the game was when I first came in - in 2001 in Australia in particular, when you got your first contract and still had to work at the same time. So for the first four years of my career, I worked. And then to go into the fully professional side of it as an Australian cricketer, you take so many great memories away from the game. And I don't even really tend to reflect on whether I should have played more or whether I shouldn't have because it wasn't a decision that I could make.
All I can say is, those memories of playing in South Africa, they were fantastic. Then to tour with an Ashes team, to tour with some one-day teams to India - I had great fun, and what the game has given me I'll be forever in debt. And for the guys who picked me in the first place: thank you.