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Interviews

Gareth Batty: 'Sometimes in cricket we get a bit stuck in our ways. We have to keep pushing the boundaries'

Surrey coach on his "progressive" outlook, improving county standards and why Will Jacks could be the next Moeen Ali

Alan Gardner
Alan Gardner
20-Apr-2022
Gareth Batty addresses the Surrey huddle, April 16, 2022

Gareth Batty addresses the Surrey huddle on day three of their match against Hampshire  •  Getty Images for Surrey CCC

"I'm very confident in my skills as a coach, I really am - far much more than I ever was as a player. I always had doubts as a player, and I suppose that was the thing that sort of drove me, it was fear of failure - which is probably why I was pretty bang average. But from a coaching perspective, I'm relatively confident…"
It doesn't seem long since Gareth Batty was scrapping for every inch in a Surrey shirt - mainly because it isn't. Last summer, the former England offspinner was still leading Surrey's T20 side, at 43 one of the oldest players on the circuit. Now he is suddenly one of the younger head coaches going, having moved swiftly on to the Oval backroom staff - initially as an assistant coach, then as Vikram Solanki's successor (albeit in an interim capacity).
He has hit the ground running, with Surrey collecting 35 points from their opening two fixtures to sit top of Division One; victory by an innings over Hampshire, who had begun their season with an equally emphatic win against Somerset, was particularly impressive. Not that Batty will be getting too up or down about results at this stage. "When we win like we did the other day, it's all down to the players," he says. "When we lose it's down to me for getting it wrong."
A healthy dose of self-deprecation sums up Batty's approach to most things, including overseeing the fortunes of a club he served with distinction for 16 seasons - either side of a spell at Worcestershire - during a career that also encompassed representing England in all three formats. Having retired towards the end of 2021, he joined the coaching set-up with an expectation of working with Surrey's spinners and strengthening ties with the academy, before Solanki's departure to IPL franchise Gujarat Titans opened up further opportunities.
"Being offered interim at Surrey was not something particularly that I wanted, or was aspiring to, I was genuinely happy with the second team work I would have been doing," Batty says. "It was the vocational part of it: okay this is going to be some graft, it's not the prettier side of things. A title [that of head coach] is a title, it's very pleasant, but with titles come responsibility. I still very much see that it's about the players, about whatever I can possibly do to make it about them. They're the ones that do the work on the field."
But he has been busy off it, throwing himself into the role, and ready to seek an advantage wherever he can - discussing philosophies with those working in other sports, including rugby, golf and football. Sean Dyche, until recently the longest-serving manager in the Premier League with Burnley, "gave me some wonderful information," Batty says. "I've definitely taken a few things and popped them down and tried to transfer it into cricket."
Surrey were County Champions as recently as 2018, but have not always managed to convert their strong playing resources into a consistent challenge for silverware. In recent times, that has arguably been as much down to England call-ups - and Batty is pushing for a "progressive" focus on how the entire squad can contribute, rather than relying on the old-fashioned notion of a best XI. That was in evidence at The Oval last week, as Jamie Overton came into the side, having sat out for "tactical" reasons at Edgbaston, and proceeded to take a career-best eight-for as Surrey won inside three days.
"We have to be progressive, we have to be thinking balance of teams," Batty says. "If we're saying back in the day, people used to bowl 500 overs, but they can only bowl 360 because of the other workloads, and other expectations, do we need to have more allrounders in the team to get more bowling options, so we're not going to deplete our best bowlers by bowling them into the ground? We need to look at everything.
"We have to have our eyes open, the world has changed, the world is changing, we need to be on the front edge of that - not copying somebody that is No.1 now. If we're just doing what they're doing, they're going to keep moving forward, we're not going to get to that level. We have to be doing more. And this isn't trying to change the wheel, most of it is really simple stuff, but sometimes in cricket we get a bit stuck in our ways and talk like it's always been talked. Well, if we talk how it's always been talked, we aren't going to get much better. We have to keep pushing the boundaries."
That pragmatic approach has manifested itself in a slightly unexpected area: in their opening two Championship fixtures, Surrey have lined up without a frontline spinner, Will Jacks taking on slow-bowling duties while stiffening the batting at No. 7, in preference to playing Amar Virdi, who toured India and Sri Lanka as an England reserve in 2020-21, or Dan Moriarty. Jacks has taken seven first-class wickets at 69.57, from 32 matches, but helped break Hampshire's first innings open on a green-tinged surface by bowling Ben Brown through the gate, then having Felix Organ caught off an inside edge.
"If we are saying that we want Will to emulate Moeen Ali, then we are asking a lot of him. Moeen is a wonderful cricketer, there aren't many who can do what he can do. So we're asking a lot"
Gareth Batty on Will Jacks
Batty raises the subject himself when discussing the need for better pitches to help improve England's Test standards.
"There needs to be a reset, and hopefully we're making that in county cricket, which will bring spin back into it. And I know damn well people will look and go, hang on a minute, you're not playing Virdi and Moriarty, your out-and-out spinners. [But] I genuinely think that Will Jacks is a genuine allrounder. Anybody that doubts that, just get them to look on a livestream, or on Twitter, and get them to look at the wickets [against Hampshire]. It was only two wickets, but it was a pitch with grass on it, and there was real quality in those balls. There is a real skill, and until people play, we're not going to know how good they possibly could be."
So while Virdi has been challenged to win selection on performances with the 2nd XI - "Knock on the office door and go look, I should have been picked, because I played my first game and got wickets" - Batty says Jacks currently has the spot on merit. "At the moment it is balance of team, but Jacko has bowled beautifully in pre-season, he really has. He bowls wicket-taking balls. I don't think we're being diluted in the spin department on that front."
He also suggests that Jacks could offer Surrey the sort of multidisciplinary impact afforded by Moeen Ali with Worcestershire, England and, currently, Chennai Super Kings at the IPL.
"Skillsets and development, there are parallels there, there really are," he says. "Moeen, I knew from back at Worcester. You could see for all that he was a very talented batter, wow, did he bowl a beautiful stock spin ball. His offspinner had lovely shape. The good and the bad of being such a good batter, is sometimes you bowl a bit like a batter, and you don't bowl like that frontline spinner. Moeen grew into, pretty quickly, the frontline spinner that could also get you a hundred. Tell me a team that doesn't want that asset.
"I don't say this lightly. If we are saying that we want Will to emulate Moeen Ali, then we are asking a lot of him. Moeen is a wonderful cricketer, worldwide there aren't many who can do what he can do. So we're asking a lot of him [Jacks], which possibly shows where I'm coming from with the perception that he's our lead spinner right now."
Surfaces at The Oval mean there is every chance Jacks and Virdi will end up in the same team as the season wears on; and that ties into Batty's view on how the Championship can better help to produce England Test players (though he declines to comment on the clatter of wickets that accompanied Essex's win at Taunton in the second round).
"I think the biggest fix for English cricket is we get rid of these two-and-a-half day finishes, six-session finishes - it's a nonsense. The odd time, it's fine. I understand it, and we will be part of one this year. But it can't be a consistent thing, because we're saying that 40 wickets in six-to-seven sessions, that isn't promoting an equal field for both bat and ball. It's loaded somewhere.
"I think we need games getting either into day four, or ideally - like Warwickshire winning it [Division One] last year, they won a lot of games with a session to go, the last session of the game. That is what is going to promote better international cricket. There's no quick fix from players, they have to work hard, they put their bodies on the line and they have to have a skillset that's enduring, which is four-day cricket."
Having spent time in the commentary box with talkSPORT as part of his transition from playing, Batty has a more rounded view on the game than most - and despite the doom and gloom around the national set-up, with Joe Root's resignation last week adding to the list of vacancies at the top of the men's game, he insists there is plenty to be positive about.
"I truly believe we have a wonderful product," he says. "I can't think of any other sport that has three facets to it. We have Test cricket/first-class cricket, a 50-over game and a 20-over game. And now even a 10 and a Hundred. No other game can flick between the different formats and touch different levels of people that want to support it. We should be able to touch everybody, but we have to champion everything. What I saw this week, 4500 people in at The Oval on a beautiful day, enjoying cricket. Yes, they're enjoying the social as well, and having some fun with their friends, but fundamentally it's at a cricket ground, and their kids are playing on the outfield. I don't see there's a better message."
His own coaching ambitions, for now, extend no further than Surrey and "trying to repay the faith that Alec Stewart and the club have put in me". Thoughts of whether England might one day want to draw on his nous can wait - as can the question of whether he might want to follow Solanki to the IPL.
"I like the graft," he say, deliberately. "I'm not bothered about the razzamatazz. I'm all about the graft."

Alan Gardner is a deputy editor at ESPNcricinfo. @alanroderick