The tough, uncertain life of an assistant coach in T20
Never-ending travel, no job security, late payments, and lots of competition - it's no picnic working as support staff in leagues across the world
Former England keeper James Foster played his last first-class match in May 2018. In the 20 months since, he has had 17 coaching gigs. He is also a consultant with the Netherlands national side and a coach at Forest School in Walthamstow, London. When he isn't travelling, he spends some time with his three daughters, under seven years old, at home.
Foster's schedule is draining but it illustrates well the work required to launch yourself as a T20 coach right now. The franchise coaching system is a mix of decently paid gigs and lengthy periods of unemployment. It's like a former-player version of the lottery.
The best outcomes go to only a few cool-kid coaches. Foster is one. At one stage it felt as if Daniel Vettori had more jobs than there were leagues. Andy Flower has, in the last few months, picked up positions at the PSL, IPL and CPL. And as is now the law, Andrew McDonald is to be mentioned in all pieces about T20 coaching.
With many coaches picking up multiple jobs, it can be hard for the rest because there are so few positions out there. At last count, the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA) had 3162 men's professional cricketers. If we assume that for every 20 top-level players there are around four coaches, then there are probably over 600 top-level coaching positions in the world.
Players have shorter careers than coaches. Steve Rixon's first-class playing career lasted 14 years and finished in 1988. He began working as a coach in 1989 and he's still working as a coach at 66. John Wright, 65, was in charge of Derbyshire's T20 team in 2018 and is a Mumbai Indians scout.
When you picture a coach in your mind, it's most likely a head coach. But most coaches are actually assistants or specialist coaches. Many chase the dream of being in charge: head coaches around the world can earn between US$200,000-500,000 per year. But those roles are rare, and cricket isn't like football - people stay in the comfy jobs for quite a while.
There are supporting-coach roles in T20 leagues that only pay US$4000 per season, with no real assurance of those jobs being there next year or of them leading to any other opportunities. And those payments can come 12 months later, or - at times - not at all. FICA is only now looking to put pressure on the ICC to ensure all leagues pay on time. But as it stands, non-payment or late payment is a massive issue, and a normal feature of working in T20 cricket.
"I think numerous players and coaches always seem to have these underlying issues with remuneration," says former South Africa spinner Robin Peterson, who has worked for a few franchises. "There were issues for me. It is the risk you take, and it's a little bit unfair when you give up your time and skill and you don't get paid. That is the dark side of it."
We call these T20 teams "franchises", but the vast portion of the landscape is still not a year-round business like in the US. For a number of the newer leagues, beneath the more established ones, when we say franchises, we mean pop-ups because they are not robust financially. They wheel out salmon-and-eggplant flavoured milkshakes at one location and if they don't hit it big, the truck leaves, rebrands and sells French Polynesian smoked-breadfruit sandwiches in a whole new locale. There's little structure or consistency in a T20 franchise.
Working in this environment means you need a back-up option, which Foster has with his school coaching job. Steffan Jones, a former county pro and now an innovative fast-bowling coach (with his own company, Pace Lab) coached the Hobart Hurricanes and is now with the Rajasthan Royals, but he is also director of sport at Wellington School in Berkshire. Darren Berry won titles as an assistant coach at Rajasthan and Islamabad United, but he works at Xavier College in Melbourne as 1st XI coach. The various gigs means time spent at the school actually coaching may often be limited, especially for someone like Foster, but for the school to be able to say their coach is not only a former player but a current T20 coach is a big selling point.
"Definitely you have to have a back-up position," says Jones, and he means it for more than just financial assurance. "It will allow you the freedom to express yourself as a coach. You're not worried about getting things wrong."
One thing coaches don't have is a figure like Heath Mills, CEO of the New Zealand Cricket Players' Association, to rely on. Players and umpires have unions but there is no coaching union anywhere in the world. Most coaches are former players and many therefore had access to a union, but as coaches nobody has formed one. Unions provide strength in numbers.
"They haven't got themselves organised to do that," Mills says. "In NZ we have talked to coaches across rugby and cricket, but it hasn't come together. They didn't have a champion. With all these things, you need one or two people who drive it."
Player unions can't represent coaches as it would be a conflict of interest. They offer support to former players, but it's not the same as helping them in pay disputes, contractual advice or with legal matters.
"The way cricket is structured comes with inherent challenges, and jobs that don't come with security," says Tom Moffat, FICA's CEO. "That's what player unions have evolved to handle. Our role is to advise players and their agents, and where possible, talk directly to these leagues. The real answers lie in proactive global protections, though, which we believe should exist and be enforced at ICC level."
FICA grew out of domestic unions in England and Australia, followed by New Zealand and South Africa. "That path of growth is important," Moffat said. "A lot of the issues upfront for players and coaches are global issues, but starting a global union for coaches from scratch would be difficult. As a global body, a lot of our strengths still come from our domestic bodies and their members and organisations."
"I would hate to be involved in that short-contract world, in-and-out gigs. You're in Pakistan one month, then India, Caribbean and Australia"Fast-bowling coach Steffan Jones
Without a collective voice, coaches, especially assistants, aren't visible. Several assistant coaches didn't want to be quoted here for fear of upsetting their current employers or putting off prospective ones.
We often have a hard time even working out what coaches do because cricket is so captain-led. When Gary Stead had a week off with New Zealand mid-series recently, it upset some. But if he is a top-quality coach, with professional systems in place, the team should perform at a high level if he's not around for a week. One week of missing in-game situations while refreshing his overworked mind is actually a benefit to all concerned.
And it's not just those outside the game who misunderstand coaches. Even within the T20 industry there is a problem. I've been involved in a few franchises when they have been looking for coaches. The owners often allow the head coach to pick his friends, or they choose an assistant who is known to them. There's almost no due diligence done by way of looking at what a coaching applicant can bring to the team.
Peterson got all of his jobs (Barbados and St Kitts in CPL, Northern Warriors in T10) through head coach Robin Singh, a former India allrounder. Others charm owners or get agents to help them, but most agents take on so few coaches as clients that it's almost harder to sign with them than find an actual coaching position.
Many positions are taken up by celebrity coaches. "It seems to be that if you are a big-name player, you kind of walk into those jobs without any coaching experience," says Perterson. "Marketing or branding is probably what you would call it."
It is hard to argue. Brendon McCullum, Jacques Kallis and Ricky Ponting have been getting good jobs without having had to do much by way of apprenticeships. It doesn't mean they are poor coaches, just that because of their playing ability, they start at the top, making it harder for the others who were never so established as players.
Even empirical evidence - which is usually how we judge coaches in cricket - is rare for assistants. When you get a job, it's hard to do any genuine work. You have two weeks, maybe two months, to work with a player. And if two months sounds like a long time, once you factor in games, rest days and travel, you're lucky if you get eight full days to try to improve a player.
"Rahul Dravid told me a couple of years ago, 'You don't coach in the IPL, there is no time to coach,'" says Jones. "Last year [when Jones was with Rajasthan] we did 18 flights, so there is no time to actually coach. Team meetings are about how to bowl to each player. You can manage their workloads and talk to the strength and conditioning staff, but in terms of technical changes or sharpening them up a bit, you can't do it in the tournament."
How, then, do you work out if someone is a quality coach?
"You are just guessing," says Jones. "The head coach is just a facilitator. I don't think an assistant coach has any impact at all on a franchise, if I am being brutally honest. You probably end up either taking the mitt or doing throwdowns."
One assistant tells a common anecdote. The franchise hired an overseas player, who had a noticeable weakness against the spinning ball. They spent all season fixing the problem. The next season, the player returned. He still had the same issue.
The more traditional coaching jobs that allow for longer-term work improving players are more fulfilling. So why do former players chase after these short-term gigs?
Usually it's just to do with opportunity and what's available. Coaches stay around in first-class set-ups and academies for longer, meaning those jobs don't become vacant that often. T20 positions seem to arrive every seven to eight minutes.
It's also a financial issue. An assistant-coaching job in the IPL, for instance, can pay good money. There aren't many such roles that are lucrative, but adding together a few stints can make for a good salary.
For Peterson, currently the interim head coach of the Warriors in South Africa, it was about a future target. "My goal was always to coach South Africa one day. So I saw it as an opportunity to gain experience of working with international players."
"It is the risk you take, and it's a little bit unfair when you give up your time and skill, and you don't get paid. That is the dark side of it"Warriors coach Robin Peterson on the problem of late or no payments in T20 leagues
As Mills notes, coaches get better remuneration in the big T20 leagues, but they're more volatile than international jobs. "So what we're seeing is, the best coaches aren't even in international cricket. The smaller countries struggle to hold on to quality support staff." He points to New Zealand's strength-and-conditioning coach Chris Donaldson, who recently had his contract changed to allow him to work in the IPL as well. Many have to make a starker choice, and picking between a bigger pay packet and security is never easy.
New coaches are fighting for jobs against recently retired players and coaches from the '80s. Most start between the ages of 35 and 45, so they are likely to have a family and children. And after a long professional playing career where the axe was never far from your neck, it's the same in coaching. Except this time you can't go out there and score a match-winning hundred.
Franchises have brought more jobs, but they are fraught with danger, and the lifestyle, with all the travel involved, is not ideal. The holy grail, as Peterson says, is coaching in the IPL. Of course, the problem with holy grails is that they are not easy to get your hands on.
"I would hate to be involved in that short-contract world, in-and-out gigs - you're in Pakistan one month, then India, Caribbean and Australia," says Jones, "And it must be hard because you don't really coach. That's why I'm not a full-time, year-round franchise coach". Many franchise leagues are run poorly. The wild-west nature of the T20 league landscape means there's not enough oversight from the ICC, and often there is little to no accountability.
Mills worries for the welfare of T20 coaches. Moffat wants the game to show greater responsibility in protecting its own. But coaches won't be getting a union soon and they will have to continue navigating this freelance-coaching world alone. Along the way, cricket will lose who knows how many talented educators.
Peterson has ambition, but he's also like a lot of coaches, in that teaching runs through him. "Part of it is getting paid, but it's also about helping people because you love doing it."
Jarrod Kimber is a writer for ESPNcricinfo. @ajarrodkimber