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Robinson's project: challenge England

England Women's new coach is keen to help them regain their belief, by encouraging them to push their limits and win back lost ground

Mark Robinson, named England's new coach in November, has not had much time to work with his squad  •  Getty Images

Mark Robinson, named England's new coach in November, has not had much time to work with his squad  •  Getty Images

On November 11, after an exhausting morning of press engagements for his new role as England women's head coach, Mark Robinson, away from the cameras and dictaphones, sat down with captain Charlotte Edwards.
"I think he was quite cooked," Edwards remembers. She was also recovering from a gruelling, Ashes-losing summer that "felt the worst" of any defeat she had endured - something she reiterated to Robinson. She spoke of her disappointment and that of the team that they did not give a good account of themselves. That they let themselves down. She outlined some things they needed to work on - where they might go from here. There was anger, too, about how she felt she had been written off in the press. Her hunger was called into question, and she wanted to prove "them" wrong. In running through it all, the disappointments of the summer came screaming back to her.
Robinson took stock of what Edwards was saying. He had already made a mental note of the insecurity that had begun to creep into an England side that had once been at the forefront of the women's game. He was aware that Australia were moving ahead of England, while the peloton behind was gaining ground.
After Edwards had put her cards on the table, Robinson had one question: "Why don't you slog-sweep the seamers over deep backward square leg?" Edwards was taken aback. "You know," Robinson continued, "against medium-pacers that just land it on a length - get down on one knee and lap them over there."
"Yeah, I suppose we could," Edwards replied eventually.
This opening exchange typifies what Robinson is looking to do: challenge a group of players who need challenging. Edwards concedes that previous coaches have been afraid of making changes. But for Robinson's first official match in charge, an ODI against South Africa in Benoni, he shuffled the pack, moving Heather Knight and Sarah Taylor into the middle order, while Edwards was switched from opener to No. 3 for the first time since March 2009. Crucially, the players bought into it.
The renewed sense of enthusiasm is felt on both sides. Sussex's relegation last summer was a bitter pill to swallow, but Robinson's position at the club was not under threat. In fact, he was due to move into the role of director of cricket at the club in a bid to try something different. Twice he had applied for the England job, interviewing for it in 2014 and hearing nothing back, and in 2015, when Peter Moores was dismissed after a year in charge - a sacking that Robinson sees as "a knife for all English coaches".
"We needed one of our own to succeed," Robinson tells ESPNcricinfo. "My thinking was that the only way I was going to get recognition now was to work abroad to improve my CV. Or go in a different direction altogether."
It was his daughter, a cricketer at Sussex, who convinced him to pitch for the women's coaching job. Now that the role is his, she has been pestering him to pick her as a thank you. "I've warned the girls to watch out if she's around, in case she puts something in their food," he says.
"It's been really refreshing. I'm on the shop floor, coaching every day, and I love that. You can forget just how enjoyable coaching can be when you're doing budgets, sorting out transport and what not. When you've got those kinds of responsibilities, your one-on-one time with the players gets shorter."
Even as a player, Robinson spent most of his time on the shop floor, eking out every last drop of talent. His preparation was meticulous, with nothing left to chance. The cornerstone of his work as a coach is to offer such diligence to his players.
"The women don't play the volume of games that the men do, and so don't have the exposure to different match scenarios"
Mark Robinson
Whether it is access to statistics, a breakdown of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses, or practice facilities, Robinson ensured all were available upon request. The last bit is key: for a relentless thinker about the game - at Sussex he was not averse to calling up his captain in the evening to talk pitches, or to bringing up an erroneous shot as the bell rang for last orders - he appreciates that every player is different.
He draws on his own experiences to add layers of empathy to his work, which the England squad are "comforted" by. "He's been on the journey that we're on now," Edwards says. "Knowing that as players gives his words so much more weight."
To gain some insight on his nine years at Sussex, beneath the hood of the two County Championships and four limited-overs trophies, you only need to look at those who improved under him. Chris Jordan is the most high profile "project": he arrived at Hove before the 2013 season as a bowler out of sorts and let down by his own body, before making his England debut later that year. He is now part of the England men's World T20 squad, having worked meticulously with Robinson to develop and hone an action that has served him well. It was Robinson's ability to mould talent that the ECB looked to exploit by handing him the reins of the England Lions for the 2013 and 2014 winters.
His new project, without doubt the biggest of his career, has not had an ideal start. Last month's South Africa tour was the first time Robinson was able to have the full squad at his disposal.
With various players on winter assignments, such as the Women's BBL, he was only able to take half of the squad to Sri Lanka with the England academy before Christmas. The tour itself, featuring matches against sub-par opposition, taught him little.
Robinson then met the majority of the main squad just before the flight out from Heathrow to South Africa. Even then, another three were waiting for him at arrivals. The warm-ups were another set of mismatches before South Africa eventually pushed England in the ODIs and T20s, with the tourists winning both series 2-1. As a result Robinson didn't feel he was able to influence selection for the World T20 too much. When confronting any marginal calls in doubt, he went by committee.
One issue he did pick up and wants to address is the "lack of depth of knowledge" within the playing group. While it has surprised him, he understands the possible reasons for it.
"Already, I've seen there are a lot of things they can learn - the sort of things that can be addressed for easy wins down the line," he says. "How to package an innings, for instance: I want the batsmen to take the bowlers on, but that doesn't mean just throwing your hands at the ball. It's about how you get out of overs or take games deep.
"Even things like conditions: how you read a pitch, how you become aware of overhead conditions. These are the kinds of things you just pick up from being around good cricket people.
"When I delved into it, it started to make sense: they don't play the volume of games that the men do, and so don't have the exposure of playing in different match scenarios."
As such, Robinson regards many in the squad as raw, with high ceilings for improvement. And the challenge, he believes, is getting the players outside of the team's high-profile core to free themselves up and, in turn, learn more about their own game.
"There are three players, Tammy Beaumont, Lauren Winfield, Amy Jones - I can't believe their averages. I'm watching them practise and thinking there's something fundamental here that needs to be addressed.
"People have written them off and I'm looking at them and seeing what they can do. You want to get them through because they hit the ball well and differently."
It is early days, but the players seem lifted by Robinson's approach and the processes he is looking to implement. For starters, he wants them to embrace expansiveness: to shoot for 160 and 180 instead of settling for 130. Women's cricket is accelerating at such a rate that it is not simply about catching up - it's about leading the way.
The 15 players selected for the Women's World T20 have the first shot at showing they can do that. Some players will be able to play a more confrontational form of the game. For others, it might take a lot of work to change. Some may be unable to commit altogether, especially given the quick turnaround into a world tournament.
But one thing is for sure - in Robinson they have a coach with a track record in healing, improving and winning. In his own words, his role is to believe in the players and, in turn, give them belief and direction. That direction is back to the summit of the world game.

Vithushan Ehantharajah is a sportswriter for ESPNcricinfo, the Guardian, All Out Cricket and Yahoo Sport