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Steve Rhodes: 'Don't overcoach to try and warrant your salary'

Former Bangladesh coach on his sacking: "The brave decision wasn't taken, they took the easy decision"

Mohammad Isam
Mohammad Isam
BCB president Nazmul Hassan believed that Steve Rhodes "did not match" the BCB's strategy or coaching style  •  Getty Images

BCB president Nazmul Hassan believed that Steve Rhodes "did not match" the BCB's strategy or coaching style  •  Getty Images

Steve Rhodes was Comilla Victorians' technical advisor in their 2022 BPL-winning campaign. Rhodes had a bigger role in Bangladesh cricket three years ago when he was the head coach of the national men's team, which ended with his unceremonious exit. Here, Rhodes opens up to ESPNcricinfo about his time as Bangladesh coach, his philosophy, which didn't quite sit right with the BCB, and how he believes things can improve in the coming years.
How was the experience of winning a BPL trophy?
I haven't won many trophies during my coaching career, (so) it was absolutely wonderful to be part of a trophy-winning campaign with Comilla. It was hugely important to win a trophy in Bangladesh. We had success in Bangladesh. I had a tiny bit of success in Worcestershire. I was very proud of the way the Comilla boys fought. [Fortune] Barishal were a very strong side during the campaign. It was fitting that we played against each other (in the final).
Two tough teams, however, didn't play very well on the day. There were lots of mistakes. I can only put that down to pressure of the final, and the build-up of the whole four weeks of intense cricket. I think that whilst, as a coach, you see so many mistakes, but to the public, what an entertaining game of cricket it was!
Your coaching debut in Bangladesh cricket was far from memorable, though.
I don't think anybody has had an international coaching debut like that. We lost the toss on a green bouncy wicket against some very good West Indian fast bowlers. We were 45 all out on the first day. But from then on, we nearly won the next Test. Then we won the ODI series in the West Indies. We were 1-0 down in the T20Is, but won the two games in Florida to win the series. Suddenly, we left the tour on a real high, winning two series and losing one.
"If you sit and watch from the BCB's president box, you wouldn't understand the workings of what's going on there (at the ground). You just say, 'Well, he didn't do very well, let's get rid of him'."
Steve Rhodes
Apu (Nazmul Islam), the left-arm spinner, started to call me the "lucky coach". By which he meant, maybe, things are going our way a little bit. We lost a lot of games in the journey towards the World Cup. But we also won some other series. We beat the West Indies here (in Bangladesh) where we didn't play a seamer in any of the Tests. Some of our tactics were clever. They were not all my tactics. I am not the egotistical coach who puts my hand down for everything. I had a wonderful captain in Shakib Al Hasan, who had some great thoughts and ideas about beating the West Indies. I think there were great things happening in the dressing room.
How would you describe the 2019 World Cup campaign?
If things went our way, we thought we had a squad that could possibly squeak a bit further than we got. So, we were all disappointed by how we finished. We started really well. I thought Bangladesh fought hard against a lot of good opposition. When some of those teams played their good game, we couldn't win. No matter how hard we tried, we weren't quite good enough. That came as a surprise to a lot of people in Bangladesh.
Our only bad game was the last one against Pakistan, but we were already out of the tournament. Against the likes of England, India and Australia, we got plenty of runs. Even in the bad games, we competed hard. We could have won against New Zealand. We had some great wins against South Africa and West Indies. The best win was against Afghanistan. We had a tremendous campaign overall.
I found it a little bit disappointing to be told that that poor performance in the World Cup is the reason why I was to be released from my contract. I felt it wasn't true. To me, it looked flimsy. There must be some other reason. Where we were at the end of the World Cup in the points table looked poor. But the truth was, we played so much better than what our end position showed. I wasn't there for arguing, because you can't argue with your employers if they want to get rid of you. To this day, I don't really know the actual reason.
What was your coaching philosophy?
I was trying to do something new in Bangladesh, to drive forward in improvement. It revolved around the style of the coaching and the support staff. It was how we could make the players grow by getting them to be more responsible for their own game. Trying to get them to think more on the field, so that when a situation happens, there's no coach around to ask "what do I do now".
It was quite a change from the normal culture of the way things are in the subcontinent. I accepted it was always going to be a difficult thing to drive through. You are up against a culture. But I have seen in the Indian team how it changed.
The coach is there to assist, help and push along. We are not there to totally drive their careers. I call certain coaches as "satnav coaches". To explain, you think about trying to go from Worcester to Newcastle in your car. I press in "Newcastle" in the satnav, and it tells me how to go, by giving me details about every turn I have to take, how long I have to go before the next junction. All you do is listen to the satnav and look at the map occasionally. When I reached Newcastle, it tells me that I have reached my destination. If someone asks me how I got there, I have not learned anything about that journey. I have been told, "do this, do that". In coaching terms, a lot of people in the subcontinent thinks that's how you coach. This is how you play the forward defensive, on this wicket you have to do this, on that wicket you do that, when you are bowling at him you do this. A player tries to do that.
Being in a high-profile position in Bangladesh cricket, my neck was on the line. So was Mashrafe [Mortaza] as captain. So were the senior players. If they decided the performance wasn't good enough, then somebody had to go"
Steve Rhodes
You'd say that's coaching. No, that's coaching to a degree. That's satnav coaching. The player won't improve. On the flipside of that, you go back to the time when we have to go to Newcastle. When I was a 25-year-old player, there was no satnav. The night before the journey, I'd open the map and take notes. There was no Google, so I'd ask winding the window down where Newcastle Cricket Club was. When I was on my way back to Worcester, I learned a lot more about the journey. I was responsible for my focus and concentration. Next time I went to Newcastle, I knew the route. I didn't need the map.
This is an example of how somebody improves without being told. Working things out for yourself. I was doing that style of coaching with the Bangladesh team. I encouraged the same with the other coaches. I even told them, "if you are unsure about saying anything, don't say it; you don't have to prove to me that you're coaching and earning your money". Sometimes, less is more.
A culmination of this was when I had a visit from one of the board members during the World Cup. He was saying that they were unhappy with my coaching style. I needed to be more like a satnav-type coach. I explained fully to this board member how my style was going to improve people quicker. I gave him an example with his son, who is abroad. He admitted that his kid was growing up fast being on his own. But he went back with the news that the coach won't change. I think that had something to do with it. I wasn't coaching in the manner they were used to.
Was there a feeling that you could lose your job?
As a Bangladesh coach, you are forever on a vibe of how long it will last. I think that's life. Nobody has the right to be cushy in their job.
We had a great tournament in Ireland as a build-up. We won the tri-series. I thought we were going the right way. At that stage, I didn't expect that I would be gone after the World Cup. When we couldn't qualify (for the semi-final), I thought there was a chance of change. I was, whilst surprised, not surprised as well. I really didn't know what to expect, to be honest.
Cricket is so big in Bangladesh that when a World Cup campaign is perceived as average, something has to go.
Being in a high-profile position in Bangladesh cricket, my neck was on the line. So was Mashrafe [Mortaza] as captain. So were the senior players. If they decided the performance wasn't good enough, then somebody had to go. Scapegoat, or sacked. I don't know what you want to call it, you are there to be knocked down in that sort of role.
You said yourself that something had to go. But did it go? Was it that bad? Could it be said that the way things had been building, winning around 50% of the matches, we were moving in the right direction? Apart from the Pakistan game, we weren't doing badly in the tournament.
Maybe a brave answer to those people calling for scapegoats would have been: we don't really need one at the moment, we are okay. We would have loved to go forward but we didn't. We played some good cricket. Shakib did brilliantly. Litton Das played a marvelous innings against the West Indies. [Mohammad] Saifuddin had shown his quality as well. But the brave decision wasn't taken. They took the easy decision: we haven't done well, so the coach is going.
From a Bangladesh perspective, why does the World Cup always feel like the end of something?
Wrongly, people expect too much. Now people are saying to me, Bangladesh are in the same place they were 15 years ago. It is probably true. Maybe the expectation of being a top-four side is beyond them. They ought to be looking at it a little bit differently. What about, let's get into the top six or seven first? The focus should be on general progression. Maybe the board and supporters should realise, are we going to improve first, than being in the top four?
What did you think of the BCB's approach, was it professional at all?
To a certain extent, yes. I got no qualms with the administrative staff. They were professional. They did a lot for me. I was very grateful. I think some things needed changing. The style of coaching was one thing. You need support from your board. They need to understand what you are doing. In this area, I wasn't given the support as they didn't understand it.
The other angle might be, the players play under absolute pressure and not trusting people. It can affect their performance badly. To bring out the best in the player, take pressure off them as much as you can. Only a few players revel in pressure. You have to get through most when they are under pressure. The coaching staff and I got to know the players so well, we knew what made them tick.
If you sit and watch from the BCB president's box, you wouldn't understand the workings of what's going on there. You just say, "well, he didn't do very well, let's get rid of him". Sadly, young players and medium-term players (those who have been around for a while but not quite done it) feel that pressure. There's an immense sense of "what will they do next, will I be the one dropped?" How can you perform your best when you have that in your mind?
"Maybe the board can sometimes also get out of the way when something good is happening"
Steve Rhodes
It comes down to whether the selection policy is right. I would question whether it is right. The president [Nazmul Hassan] does sign off the team. I think he is not a bad man. He listens to reason. Sometimes he'd say coach, or captain, "if that's what you want, let's do it". But there are other times, because of his power and veto, that he can listen to other people around him that might persuade him differently. You then question the cricketing knowhow of those people. That system isn't quite right.
Do you think if you had the right kind of time, you could have made the players more self-reliant?
I really do. We were doing something that India have done. It was to give importance to every person in the team. The likes of [Virat] Kohli, [MS] Dhoni and the senior players came to the conclusion that everyone is equally important in their team.
The proper analogy is whether the racing car driver is more important than the guy who puts one of the nuts on the tires. The answer is, there's nobody more important. If the guy doesn't put the nut on right, the wheel falls off, and the driver is no good. The person who takes that one catch is as important as the others. People might be surprised to know that it doesn't often happen in the Bangladesh team. I think it is holding things back a little bit.
What do you think worked against you?
I think they have had different styles of coaches in the past. [Chandika] Hathurusingha was a feisty character who got the best out of some people. I think it had more to do with the lack of understanding of how I wanted to coach. I think that's where they didn't really get it.
It could have been easier. It would have been nice if they (BCB) understood the way I wanted to coach. It wasn't the case, and you have to try to make the best of it. I wasn't going to coach in the way they wanted me to coach.
It was our way of getting the team and the players better. You must empower the players. They are out there batting and bowling for Bangladesh. They need to think clearly under pressure, and what's best for them and the team. It is not about getting instructions from the captain or coach. You take decisions by being given responsibility.
How was your relationship with the board president?
I did enjoy working with him. I had a better conversation with him one-to-one. There were two or three occasions when I had very, very good one-to-one conversations at his house. It was very difficult to get the president one-to-one. He had quite a few people who he works closely with. Then it becomes chaotic. You don't concentrate on each other's words. Too many people talk at the same time, and you don't really achieve anything.
We might not have agreed on some selection issues but I knew my place as well. As board president, they were employing me. I knew there were some fights you can't win, but there were some fights worth fighting for.
How do Bangladesh go forward, and get better given the present system?
I don't know if they will get better. They will always compete really well. One thing about Bangladesh is, they have gifted, wonderful cricketers. I have seen some tremendous cricketers playing in the BPL. But they are not given the chance to think for themselves. I think they have to do what I was trying to do.
The local coaches have to realise that there's another way of coaching, one that might be beneficial. I am not pointing the finger at the Bangladeshi coaches. They are just used to the system of doing it.
What do you make of Bangladeshi coaches?
Bangladesh have good coaches. I have experience with (Mohammad) Salahuddin, who has a good cricket brain. He keeps things relatively simple. There's definitely a Bangladeshi guy who could be Bangladesh's head coach. They would have to make compromises - the board and the coach - to make it a working relationship. Salahuddin could do the job really well. It could be the start of something.
It is wrong of me talking of new coaches when you have got one in place. But I am not so sure that international coaches is the way forward all the time. I was one. The poor players get used to a coach, and he is gone. Then they get used to another coach, and he is gone. The players then go back to their own local coaches from years ago. He is here all the time, and someone they trust. They try to trust the international coaches, but they get moved on. It doesn't give continuity, which doesn't do good for Bangladesh cricket.
Part of how Bangladesh are going to go forward, is how the careers of the five senior players are managed from this point.
I think they are all different characters. You approach them in different ways - that's the skill of man management. All of them were terrific. But the one area that used to wind me up, and it wasn't their fault, is that the media called them the Magnificent Five. I was quoted somewhere saying that we are the Magnificent Eleven. I think that's important: the team.
How can they help going forward?
They can play a huge part in driving the next generations. Shakib, [Mahmudullah] Riyad, Mushi [Mushfiqur Rahim] and Tamim [Iqbal] have a lot of cricket left in them. They have a wealth of experience. They are all good cricketers. Shakib has one of the most magnificent brains I have come across in cricket. But does Shakib get the right respect for what he has achieved in cricket? Or is he just our employee and we will control him?
He has so much to offer, so it will be such a waste if he finishes without giving more knowledge and experience. Mashrafe, too, has contributed a lot. He led from the front. He has been a passionate champion and warrior of Bangladesh cricket. He has lot of tactical nous. He can make people listen.
Maybe the board can sometimes also get out of the way when something good is happening.
Don't overcoach by trying to warrant your salary. The board member is watching, so I better coach, coach, coach. You are ruining players doing that. The same [sits] with the board. Don't over-instruct. If things are going okay, just relax. Don't get too involved in it all. You don't have to prove you are a board member. If things are going in the right direction, your worth as a board member might be to say less.

Mohammad Isam is ESPNcricinfo's Bangladesh correspondent. @isam84