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Interviews

Ireland coach Heinrich Malan: 'It's about inquisitively asking questions and getting people to think differently'

With 15 home games this summer, Ireland's new coach is hoping the players get plenty of experience ahead of the T20 World Cup

Coach Heinrich Malan leads the Auckland side through their warm-ups, Wellington, January 3, 2022

Heinrich Malan: "Ultimately it's not about telling them, it's about getting them to figure it out"  •  Hagen Hopkins/Getty Images

You have been with New Zealand A and the senior New Zealand side before. How is coaching Ireland different?
More than anything, what really gets me up in the morning is when I look at their potential. They have made huge strides over the last five-six years, and have also become a Full Member. It's understandable that there is going to be a little bit of transition. We haven't played any red-ball cricket for a period of time, which will be a challenge. But in the same breath, we need to use the work we've done in the white-ball space as a springboard to be consistent across formats. We can keep building on the white-ball success and lay foundations in place for some red-ball cricket.
Ireland couldn't make it to the Super 12s of the T20 World Cup last year, after which they moved on from Kevin O'Brien. But immediately after, they qualified for this year's T20 World Cup. How do you intend to rebuild the T20 side in the lead up to the tournament?
You've seen over the qualifying period - people like Paul Stirling, Andy Balbirnie, Josh Little and Andy McBrine all played their part. But it was also really exciting to see how different players stepped up at different times. Even in the [qualifying] semi-final [against Oman], Stirling and Balbirnie didn't really get going, and we had Gareth Delany and Harry Tector coming to the fore [after Ireland were 19 for 2].
Different players took ownership and responsibility, and that's the mark of the best teams - they have people performing consistently, but different people. We want to get players to dovetail - especially around the T20 circuit, where you need one or two players to be that X factor. We've seen that different players have done that over a period of time. That's something we are going to build on in our preparation in this upcoming summer, and hopefully get ourselves through to the Super 12s.
You'll be up against T20 heavyweights West Indies in the first round of the World Cup.
We've got West Indies and Scotland [in our group], and we'll be waiting to see what it [finally] looks like and who comes out of the second qualifying tournament [World Cup Qualifiers B, to be played in Zimbabwe in July]. It's a huge possibility that it could be Zimbabwe. The Ireland side has shown that it can beat Full-Member nations. A year ago they beat South Africa and England [in 2020]. The expectation is always going to be there for us to win as many games as possible, but it's also about making sure we follow the structure we want to play and the brand of cricket we want to build. Ireland have shown that they can compete - they just beat West Indies [in an ODI series].
Are you hoping for more active involvement of Ireland players in T20 leagues around the world?
That's something we've really wanted to give some attention to. It's about trying to find ways for our players to get exposed to those leagues, because the quicker we can get them there, the more experience they'll bring back. We've seen that with Paul Stirling and Josh Little playing in the Sri Lanka league.
What do you think of the ODI Super League? Ireland have played 18 ODIs since it started in July 2020, the joint highest so far. They have played series against major teams like England, South Africa, West Indies, and have New Zealand coming up.
It's playing more consistent cricket, which is key. You've seen from a selection point of view that it's the same names in that ODI side who have played over a couple of years now. And when players play, they gain the experience to play what's in front of them as opposed to trying to show that they can play. And that's a huge difference - once players go and play for the team, they play the situation, which you can only have once you play regularly.
This coming summer we have 15 international games at home. Once we do get to a World Cup, it just becomes another game since we have played these nations on a regular basis.
There's been a reduction in the number of teams at the ODI World Cup, from 16 in 2007 to ten in 2019 and 2023. Does it not then become difficult to qualify? And if you don't, you lose out on appearing on the biggest stage of the game.
As much as it is a challenge, that's the stuff we as coaches talk about most of the time - being adaptable, versatile and agile. We don't know how much cricket we are going to play. We have to be ready to play what's in front of us.
Learning from my time in New Zealand, that's what happened - they were okay in different tournaments, but then became consistent. Now everyone wants to play the Black Caps because they have been successful over periods of time.
But at the same time, there is going to be one ICC tournament every year until 2031. Is that a positive?
Yeah, 100%. The way it has been structured is that if you finish in a certain spot, you automatically qualify. It's becoming more and more important because then you know how to prepare for the upcoming tournament. You don't have to go to the qualifier, which is cut-throat. There are a few players in our squad who, over the next four years or so, will play a lot for Ireland, and hopefully these experiences over the last 18-24 months will stand us in good stead once we get down to Australia, and when we hopefully qualify for the 2023 one-day World Cup.
What are your plans to ensure Ireland become an active Test team?
It's well documented that Covid and the [bad] financial times have put a bit of a constraint around the focus area. There's obviously been a real focus from a white-ball point of view. But it's also for us as an organisation to think outside the box on how we best use our funding, get more players to consistently play three- or four-day cricket.
How do we create opportunities for some of our players to play in the UK? If you look back to when Ireland was building up to having the golden years, a lot of those players were playing county cricket and were hardened first-class cricketers by the time they played for Ireland.
How do we best use our training facilities? How do we best [organise] our domestic competitions, knowing we've got some iffy weather sometimes? Training in an indoor centre knowing that we are going to go to the subcontinent, where the ball is going to turn square?
Hopefully some of my experiences over the last ten years in New Zealand, which is similar in terms of conditions over winter, can help. It is only recently that facilities have changed in New Zealand,
Do you believe the absence of the Intercontinental Cup will affect Ireland's and aspiring Test nations' preparations for the longest form? Are you seeking a potential second division of the World Test Championship with a promotion-and-relegation rule?
There's a lot of white-ball cricket going on, and that's what the ICC is trying to use to grow the game. The overarching thing is the challenge around making sure that we keep pushing for more longer day games for players to grow and be competitive. Just like we've seen in the white-ball space, where your so-called Associates or lesser nations have shown they can beat some bigger teams. It's because they've had more exposure. If we can replicate that in the red-ball space - whatever that looks like - it'll be a win-win.
How do you plan to build depth with the Ireland A and Under-19 sides?
The Wolves - the Ireland A side - is becoming a real focus. We've highlighted the need to create a bigger pool of players. We've got to use our home internationals, building up to the T20 World Cup as preparation. We've also got to make sure that we keep challenging the way we go about building that squad. There's still a lot of work to be done.
I don't think our player pool at this stage is big enough to have two teams; you look at India, Australia, maybe New Zealand, who can literally put up two teams if they need. That's something for us to aim to for the future.
How will you get Ireland to be more consistent?
It's about understanding the way we want to play. Whether we are in trouble early on or whether we've got a really good start, players understand the way we want to operate. They can take ownership of that and keep each other accountable. It's also through playing and getting the opportunity consistently.
But it has to flow through the whole structure. It's about making sure that our A team and U-19 coaches have an understanding of the brand we want to play and consistently evolve and educate our players towards that.
Who are the players you see taking Ireland forward five years down the line?
Curtis Campher and Josh Little have already shown they can play and compete at this level. They are relatively young. Neil Rock, Ben White and Josh Delany have all started to show that they've got the ability to perform. Craig Young and Simi Singh, over the last 12-18 months in ODI cricket, have shown the ability to be prolific.
The more we create such opportunities from an Ireland perspective, the quicker they grow into the players they are ultimately going to become.
You are known to be interested in sports science. Can you tell us how it helps in coaching?
It's the individual piece that is more intriguing for me. What can I help a player with that's going to make him understand or connect to something, or want to do something differently? Sometimes that's biomechanical, sometimes that's stats-driven, and sometimes it's the understanding of the physical side of things. That's the exciting thing for me now to get into the environment of the Ireland and Wolves space - to get to know players, what makes them tick, and then start working towards challenging different people to be their best.
Has sports science helped you as a coach in the past?
There's numerous examples we can look at on how stats analysis or data analysis could come in and create opportunities. The match-ups, understanding conditions, and how does that impact the game formats or our game systems.
It's also about understanding the body. Where does recovery come into it? How does preparation aid us in performing at our best? How does workload management affect us - whether it's recovery, sleep patterns, nutrition?
I've always spoken about a cricket side as being a kindergarten: you've got a fat one, a thin one, one with sunglasses and one with red hair, and they all play together. Our challenges as coaches is to make sure that we get the best out of the group, and also understanding that they are all doing it differently. Some guys will love the sports science, some will hate it. It's about trying to find that balance and trying to make it relevant, so that they can use the information to perform. Sometimes, less is more. You just don't know that until you've actually spent time with people and get to know them.
For me, it's about getting to know those players who are on the cusp or have been in and out of the main side, and also starting to feel what the next generation looks like. The generation we work with have become the real Dr Google generation. You want an answer, you go to Google and you get it straightaway.
The coaching piece is really challenging in that space because there's no right way; it's about inquisitively asking those questions and getting people to think differently. Ultimately it's not about telling them, it's about getting them to figure it out. But you've got to know them first to know which questions to ask.
Former England analyst Nathan Leamon called Eoin Morgan an analyst's dream captain.
And that's the thing I like. You talk about targets as an example. If we've got to get 200 in a T20 game, some players want to know exactly how many we need to have at the end of the six-over powerplay. And there are players who are the total opposite: they just want to go out there and experience it themselves. It's about trying to find the balance, and we play a huge role in that. It's not about "This is the way we are going to do it." It's rather about "This is what's in front of us, and you tell us how you're going to do it." The "what" and "how" is a huge part of my philosophy.
The key point from a sports science and medical perspective for me is: how are we going to manage players' bowling loads when they have not bowled in multi-day cricket for more than two years? How do we make sure that bowlers are actually doing what's needed? It's going to be a real challenge. But we've got some experienced people in the sports science and medical field, and hopefully I'll bring a different view in the way I've managed my squads in New Zealand in the last ten years.
What's the most important lesson you have learnt in the last ten years in terms of coaching and player management?
I read that the only constant in planning is that it's ever evolving. That's something I've learnt massively over the last ten years - that you plan to change. A real strength of mine is being planned and organised. At the start of my coaching career, I almost felt like the world comes to an end when something has to change, whereas now that I've got the blueprint in my head or on paper, if things need to change, I'm really happy to change because I know where I'm trying to go to because I've got the plan.
Working specifically in a first-class and a high-performance environment is understanding that you plan to evolve and change every day. And that's a good thing, because you're playing what's in front of you.
Sometimes as coaches, we go the other route - "Say as I say, and do as I do". That's the fun piece. I'm only turning 42 this year, so I'm still very young at my craft. Trying to get better every day is as big a part of what I'm trying to be like as a coach, as is what I'm trying to challenge my players to do.
Have you spoken to captain Andy Balbirnie, or coach Graham Ford, who will be passing the baton on to you?
I've spoken to them, plus other players and support staff. Unfortunately, I'm a pretty diligent player organiser, which, to my detriment, doesn't allow me a lot of sleep! Then subtly, over time, once I've got my feet under the table, I build those relationships, start having a bit of influence and some more challenging conversations.
But I've had some really good conversations with Balbo. He's an experienced and a passionate leader. Graham has done a fantastic job over the last four years, and is very valuable to sit down and catch up with. He was really frank and open-minded - which I was thankful for - because it gave me an understanding of where he sees things.
We've got some real senior players who have played for Ireland over a period of time. How do we as a collective make sure we get this wheel to grow? And not just grow, but also turn quicker.

Himanshu Agrawal is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo