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Denmark coach Jeremy Bray's journey: from 'going bananas' to being zen

Bray's first brush with fame was as Ireland's first ODI centurion, but over the years he's developed into a coach who has found moderate success with the Denmark unit

Denmark coach Jeremy Bray flicks a ball in the air as he gets set to begin warmups  •  Peter Della Penna

Denmark coach Jeremy Bray flicks a ball in the air as he gets set to begin warmups  •  Peter Della Penna

Out on the boundary stands a tall, broad-shouldered man who looks like he should be on a rugby field instead of patrolling a cricket oval. Growing up wearing the New South Wales blue, he switched to Ireland green in his adult playing career but now wears the bright red as coach of Denmark.
His team battles hard in the heat of the Omani desert, but they come up short each time. Rather than be completely dismayed, he sees the light at the end of the tunnel.
"If these guys can learn by playing more cricket, the more situations they're in and pressure environments they're under, the more they'll learn," says Jeremy Bray. "But I've got full confidence in the group of players we've got ability wise going forward, and good people as well."
In years past, the red of the Danish jersey might have paled in comparison to the red on his face. Such is his fury sometimes. But chastened by the mistakes of his past, Bray has taken a different approach over his four years in Denmark.
"I'm voracious about learning and getting better," Bray says. "I hate standing still and I'm always looking for ways to improve. That's not just the technical and tactics side. I'll never say I'm the bee's knees. The great thing about sport and cricket is you learn every day."
Living and coaching in relative anonymity is par for the course for one of the forgotten men of Irish cricket's rise toward Full-Member status. The Sydney-reared Bray played under Adam Gilchrist's captaincy in the New South Wales Under-21s before following his eventual first wife to Ireland. After qualifying for the national team on residency, he etched his name in history as their first ODI centurion, against Scotland in Kenya in early 2007, and the first to make a century in a World Cup.
I'd be the first to admit that my man-management skills weren't the best. My intentions were right but I was too direct. My man management skills were s**t
Bray on his early years as a coach
Few outside Irish cricket would likely be able to peg Bray's name as the answer to either trivia question though. His unbeaten ton in the 2007 World Cup against Zimbabwe has taken a backseat to the death-over bowling heroics of Kevin O'Brien and Andrew White in the same match, Niall O'Brien's 72 against Pakistan in Jamaica and Kevin's 50-ball ton four years later against England in Bengaluru.
After having some measure of success in his initial coaching stint with Ireland Under-19 - helping them qualify for the 2012 Under-19 World Cup - he coached Ireland A briefly before spending a year and a half coaching the Ireland women. But he was soon dumped in 2013 in favour of another one of Irish cricket's royalty, Trent Johnston.
"In all fairness, it was the right thing that they did," Bray says of Cricket Ireland's decision to move him along. "I'd be the first to admit that my man-management skills weren't the best. My intentions were right but I was too direct. My man management skills were s**t.
"It was a real battle for me especially when I started my coaching with the U-19s and the women. I was like a cat on a hot tin roof, 'What the hell? Why can't they do this?' Things that I found so easy and natural to do, I just couldn't understand why they couldn't do it.
"After the Ireland experience, I learned a lot. The big thing was about everyone is different and you have to treat everyone differently, try to find what makes people tick. How you treat a certain individual, you have to treat someone else a bit differently to get the required result. With the Under-19s and the women, I was just a one-shoe-fits-all mentality which certainly isn't coaching."
Without any meaningful prospects in his adopted homeland, Bray decided to pass his CV around through his network of friends in the coaching fraternity. One of the men in his batch for ECB Level III coaching course, Brett Mulder, was the head coach of Denmark at the time. Or so Bray thought.
When he reached out to Mulder to offer his services - as an assistant coach or consultant - for Denmark's campaign leading into 2014 WCL Division Four in Singapore, Mulder told him to apply for the head coach role. Mulder had just submitted his resignation but offered to put in a good word for Bray if he wanted to apply. After being flown in for a weekend, Bray signed on for an initial three-month stint, one which has now stretched into more than four years and has resulted in a major transformation in Denmark's playing approach on and off the field.
"The big thing I noticed is they were very talented but their fitness levels were rubbish," Bray says. "I said that to them straight up. I said, 'Listen you're as talented as the players that I've seen in Ireland but the fitness levels are nowhere near where they should be.' That proved right in Singapore when at the back end of the tournament, the guys who did really well at the beginning were smashed."
Denmark had begun the tournament beating eventual table-toppers Singapore and were 3-1 heading into the last day of round-robin play needing a win over 1-3 Italy to secure promotion. Instead, Italy needed just 42 overs to chase a target of 237, keeping Denmark in Division Four.
There was definitely talented guys, but a lot of guys who had done nothing thought they deserved to get picked
Bray on the Denmark side a few years ago
A similar scenario unfolded at WCL Division Four at Los Angeles in November 2016 when Denmark beat eventual champions USA on day four of the tournament to move to 3-1. But they slumped to defeat against Oman on the final day of group play to fall short of promotion again. That team featured former England Test bowler Amjad Khan but Bray says chemistry was poor and the results impressed upon him the need to emphasise what he calls a "culture change" in the squad going forward.
"There was definitely talented guys, but a lot of guys who had done nothing thought they deserved to get picked," Bray says. "My view was I was looking at guys underneath, putting in a timeline to bring in new guys. From that 2014 side, there are eight guys out of the 14 that are no longer part of the national set-up for various reasons. But quite a few of them we've moved on for cultural reasons, lack of performance and fitness. Guys thought they were better than what they were, without actually backing it up through performance."
Finding new players who fit his performance-based mandate required some outside-the-box thinking. Like turning 21-year-old Nicolaj Laegsgaard from a medium pacer to a spinner in 2016.
"I saw him in the nets bowling spin and I said, 'Jesus Christ. Forget that crap you're bowling. You're going to go nowhere there. You actually look really good bowling this. Let's go with it," Bray says. "I'm always looking into seeing guys in the nets doing something that's not what they normally do that if I feel that there's something there, let's work with it.
"If you've got good spinners and if your batters can play spin, you're going to go pretty quick up the Associate ranks. Definitely, when you hit the top level, you've got to have blokes that get the ball through as well and bowl good heat. But Nicolaj's 6'5", left-arm, and we all know how valuable left-arm spinners are to right-handers so it was a no-brainer for me. Left-arm spin is a massive weapon and he's a big tall guy, let's develop this instead of 70 mph pump that's gonna go nowhere. So I'm always looking for something, that bit of x-factor that's better than what we've got."
How do I get the best out of a player? By bagging them, which I used to do? Losing my temper like a crazed man swearing obviously doesn't work. The way I went about it wasn't going to get the best out of anyone
The infusion of Laegsgaard, among other emerging talents, under the new captaincy of Hamid Shah helped propel Denmark to promotion at Division Four in Malaysia earlier this year. Bray says it was one of his proudest coaching achievements and helped validate his emphasis on performance and culture over raw talent, which served to silence some critics back home.
"We had too many poisonous aspects in the side," Bray says. "They didn't give a s**t about the team. They just cared about themselves and it had a massive aspect on younger player development. The individuals were stopping the younger guys from flourishing, feeling part of the environment and that was clear. We might suffer losing out on good players but in the long run, I much prefer working with guys that want to learn and hopefully we can outperform.
"We had a better side in Los Angeles and in Singapore but we came in third both times because we didn't play as a team. There are no egos in this side nor in the side in Malaysia and the guys were fighting for each other. That goes a long way. Playing as a team instead of having one or two superstars who are playing for themselves."
The transformation of Denmark's culture on the field has also coincided with Bray's own metamorphosis off it. Once a hot-tempered brute with no filter on his mouth during his tenure in the Ireland coaching setup, he's now a gentler presence in the dressing room. Immersing himself through four years of daily living in the Copenhagen suburb of Brondby has also helped mellow him out, if only just a bit.
"Every now and then the blood pressure still boils but I'm a lot calmer now," Bray says. "How do I get the best out of a player? By bagging them, which I used to do? Losing my temper like a crazed man swearing obviously doesn't work. The way I went about it wasn't going to get the best out of anyone. The way I went around the boundary swearing, players see that and it puts them on edge.
"So I think about being a lot calmer and realising I need to behave in a certain way that's not going to affect their performance in a negative way. Every now and then I have my moments where I flip and be aggro but even in the first game against Uganda I just didn't show any emotion at all. We were beaten, it was a disappointing performance, but I said, 'These are the areas we need to identify' whereas before I would have just gone bananas."
With Denmark out of the promotion race at WCL Division Three in Oman, attention is now starting to turn towards their involvement in the newly formed Cricket World Cup Challenge League as well as qualifying for the 2020 World T20. Despite a winless record in Oman, Denmark have taken all but one of their four matches down to the wire and Bray remains positive on their overall outlook going forward.
"We've got a great bunch here in Oman, like we did in Malaysia," Bray says. "We might not be as strong a side because they're very inexperienced but we've got a well-gelled side who get on very well. I made that very clear to my bosses as well. We may be losing talent-wise with a few guys but what we're gaining is a better environment in which these guys can learn and they'll develop better."

Peter Della Penna is ESPNcricinfo's USA correspondent @PeterDellaPenna