'To know when to intervene and when to say nothing is an art'

New Zealand coach Mike Hesson talks about why a coach can be successful without having played first-class cricket

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Mike Hesson salutes the crowd, New Zealand v South Africa, World Cup 2015, 1st semi-final, Auckland, March 24, 2015

"If you can't pass on the knowledge that you have, it doesn't matter whether you played 100 Tests or none"  •  Getty Images

Mike Hesson is a self-described "pretty boring bloke". His is an ethos built upon emboldening his players while remaining unobtrusive. Yet if the New Zealand coach's eschewing of the media marks him out as an anti-Mourinho, in a sense he is also cricket coaching's nearest to José Mourinho. No one has done more to show that a paucity of playing experience need not be a barrier to a plum coaching job.
When John Wright quit as New Zealand coach in 2012, Hesson became one of the few full-time coaches of a Test nation not to have played a single first-class match. It was a breed small and undistinguished. Together with South Africa coach Russell Domingo, Hesson has proved that first-class, let alone international, experience need not be a prerequisite to international success.
"There's a preconception that it helps to have played to coach - that has some advantages, but it's not completely necessary. If you haven't played you need to be able to look, learn, watch and absorb - Mike's got those qualities," his predecessor Wright reflects. Hesson's three years as New Zealand coach have already brought them their first World Cup final and an ongoing unbeaten run of seven Test series, a record for them.
To Hesson, not playing international cricket deprives a new coach of "a honeymoon period" that illustrious former players enjoy. Not that he minds. "If you can't pass on the knowledge that you have, it doesn't matter whether you played 100 Tests or none. The players will make the decision whether they deem you to be useful or not. That's the art of coaching - making yourself as useful as possible. I'm quite happy to be judged on how I coach because it's been a long time since I played."
"For any coach, if you want to challenge yourself, you have to make yourself really uncomfortable, and I certainly did that travelling to Argentina and Kenya and learning different languages"
Indeed it has. Hesson is not yet 41, an age when most coaching careers are nascent, and he already has nigh on two decades' experience to call upon.
His coaching journey began accidentally. When he was a player for Otago A aged 21, he was offered a contract for a club in Cambridgeshire in England on the condition that he was involved in coaching too. "It was more a necessity than anything," he reflects. "I didn't realise it was going to lead to a career path, it was a short-term move." Hesson swiftly found he had a natural aptitude for coaching. In 1998, at the age of 23, he became the youngest person to gain a Level Three New Zealand Cricket coaching qualification. Otago appointed Hesson coaching director, working under Glenn Turner.
He remained there for six years. After taking up an offer to become Argentina's coach, Hesson returned to Otago a year later, replacing Turner as head coach. In 2008, Otago won the one-day trophy, their first silverware for 20 years; domestic T20 triumph followed in 2009. This success led to involvement with New Zealand A, but it was Kenya that provided Hesson's next international job when he was hired after the 2011 World Cup.
Only 11 months later he resigned, fearing for his family's security after his family fell victim to an attempted car-jacking and a grenade exploded near their house in Nairobi. Yet Hesson does not speak of his Kenyan stint with acrimony. "I loved it and loved the players - a really good group of guys, really keen to get better. It's a struggle in terms of facilities and there's quite a small playing group, so you had to make the most of everything you had and had to be adaptable."
Such experiences afforded Hesson a more rounded experience as a coach and, indeed, a man. "Sometimes in international cricket you forget where you've come from and you forget how hard it is for players at different levels to push their case. You have to be creative in how you train - there's no point in having excuses, you just have to try and find ways," he reflects. "I've been lucky enough to work in different countries around the world and been taken out of my comfort zone many times. For any coach, if you want to challenge yourself you have to make yourself really uncomfortable, and I certainly did that travelling to Argentina and Kenya and learning different languages. Those sort of things help to evolve you as a coach."
In his final months as New Zealand coach, before resigning after a power struggle with John Buchanan, Wright tried to enlist Hesson as team manager. "I valued his organisational and interpersonal skills very highly," Wright says. "He's got a good mind, he's well organised and not afraid to ask questions. He's an intelligent man with a strong capacity to learn."
When Wright stepped down, New Zealand Cricket soon asked Hesson to become the national team's coach. Some coaches without international playing experience who had succeeded in domestic cricket - like the headmasterly Bennett King (castigated as "one of the worst coaches" by Ramnaresh Sarwan when King left the West Indies job in 2007), and Peter Moores in his first spell as England coach - were criticised for failing to adapt their methods to Test cricket, where players are fully formed and there is less need for intense coaching. "At international level it's another type of job," Wright reflects.
Hesson has recognised as much. "I don't do as much hands-on coaching as I have in previous jobs, but I still do plenty," he explains. "There are some players that the last thing they need is some technical advice, but there are others who you need to intervene with." He cites Martin Guptill as a player he works extensively with. "That's the beauty of having coached at different levels - you understand the continuum of coaching and you know when to intervene and when best to say nothing. That's a big art."
As he is also a selector, Hesson is more powerful than many international coaches. Yet he has not been shy about hiring prominent coaches, including former players Shane Bond (who has since departed) and Craig McMillan. "You have to be across most things, but you also need to allow your support staff their heads. A lot of them have a huge amount of skill, and I trust and allow them to go ahead and do their jobs. As head coach you have to make sure everything's ticking over nicely, and you fill the gaps when it's required. My job is continually building relationships with players and making sure they've got the support they need and the skills around them to get better."
If it can be distilled, the Hesson formula boils down to the empowerment of his team. "The players have to make decisions out in the middle. A big part of what we do as support staff is try and give them as much support as we can, so when they go out there, they're capable of making decisions."
It helps, of course, having Brendon McCullum as leader. His appointment, coming after Ross Taylor had been sacked as ODI and T20 captain and then quit as Test captain, was controversial. Some even talked of the Otago mafia, as McCullum had batted with Hesson for Otago A at the start of his career.
"When you're in a job like this you have to make some really tough decisions. As long as you can refer back and make sure that whatever decision you made was in the best interests of the team, then it's far easier to justify," Hesson reflects. "Your relationship with any leading in the group is very important. I've got a good working relationship with Brendon and we've also got a really good senior player group that all contribute at different times, and we've had different leaders as well. It's hugely important that when the team goes out onto the park you've got someone that the players are really keen to play for and head towards that common goal."
From the transformation of youth cricket a generation ago to McCullum's leadership today, the reasons for New Zealand's revival are multifarious. To Hesson, continuity of selection has been critical. "Players are playing for the team rather than perhaps having to look after their own spot. That's made a difference." The head coach has also sought to achieve another type of continuity: in the team's mood, regardless of the most recent result. "What we try and do is be consistent day to day, the way we try and play the game and act and the way we behave. By doing that you try and get consistent performances."
Along the way Hesson hopes to do more than win cricket matches. Allan Border's mantra - "I'd rather be a prick and win" - does not sit easily with the current New Zealand set-up. "A big part of what we do is try and grow the individual as well. We talk a lot about the fact that we have some players come in when they're 18 or 19 and they don't leave for a long time, and they need to grow up as people as well. We take that responsibility pretty seriously."
Hesson might not get recognised in the street but his side's success is already helping to build New Zealand's team of tomorrow. "Post World Cup the number of participants is dramatically up this year. That's huge for us, in terms of having a sustainable team in the future. When you have a World Cup in your own backyard, you've got to make the most of that opportunity.
"It wasn't so much just the performance, it was also the style of play and the way we went about our business - it was able to capture the public. A lot of young players are choosing to play cricket for the first time and that's exciting."
New Zealand cricket will become cooler still if New Zealand can win a Test series in Australia for the first time in 30 years. "It's exciting for this group to test ourselves against our big brothers across the ditch - it's a big challenge for us. We've prepared well but we also know that Australia in their own backyard are particularly difficult to beat, so we know we're going to have to play well," Hesson says.
The final match of the series, in Adelaide, will make history: cricket's first ever day-night Test, something not all New Zealand players are overly enthusiastic about. "The players were initially a little apprehensive. The fact that we had a two-day trial just removed a little bit of doubt - not all of it, just a little bit. Come that third Test hopefully the series is well alive."
Other challenges can wait while there is a series across the Tasman to relish. "The beauty of the group at the moment is, we never look too far ahead. We're very process-driven, getting better every day. Rather than looking at a goal that's way over there we're very much focused on this series against Australia. If we do that right hopefully we can achieve some good things."
Hesson's words are rather less rabble-rousing than McCullum's clarion cry of "Dream big, New Zealand" during the World Cup. That's just how he likes it.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts