Feature

The backroom boys

They're the elves behind the scenes, the coach's best friends. Cricinfo Magazine profiles five support staff members and the work they do

Troy Cooley Bowling coach
By Andrew Miller


Troy Cooley: the reason for England's fast-bowling resurgence © Getty Images
Duncan Fletcher is not a man who wears his emotions on his sleeve, so when he bares his soul about the loss of a valued lieutenant such as Troy Cooley, you know it is an issue that cuts deeper than the average one. "It is very disappointing to lose a person of Troy's calibre," Fletcher admitted after learning that his award-winning bowling coach would be embedded in the Australian camp come the 2006-07 Ashes.
"We have worked hard to build what I thought was an ideal management team, so to lose a pivotal figure in that team is a great shame. His efforts have made a huge difference and he will be sorely missed."
It is hard to think of another specialist coach who has been showered with as many plaudits as the Australian-born Cooley. Since he joined the England set-up at the start of 2003, he has been credited with a transformation of the team's fast-bowling fortunes, to such an extent that when the Ashes were reclaimed after a 16-year hiatus last summer, it was his contribution that was cited as the difference between victory and defeat.
Cooley was the first bowling coach to make his mark at the new ECB academy, and benefited from the blank canvas that the organisation gave him. "When I walked in with Rod Marsh at the academy, Rod said: `Set up a fast-bowling programme how you think it'd work,'" Cooley says. "Basically, I'd been brought up in Australia, where I'd toured the country with Dennis Lillee and seen good things happening with the Pace Australia coaching programme. It was about having the best of both worlds - a good idea of what players want, and also of what they should have."
Though Cooley was never a cricketer of great note - he managed just 54 wickets in 33 first-class matches for Tasmania - he has long since outstripped his old mentor on the coaching scene. "Troy worked with me but knows more than me now," conceded Lillee. "He's fantastic."
In his diary of the Ashes campaign, Fletcher lavished praise on Cooley for the manner in which he tapped into his bowlers on a psychological level. "Fundamentally, it's a game and you've got to enjoy it," Cooley explains. "But once you've worked out your areas and moulded your technique so that you can do what your brain is telling you to do, the enjoyment comes from the excitement of fulfilling your role."
Archive footage of England's bowlers from the pre- and post-Cooley eras is quite revealing. Andrew Flintoff is now all about channelled aggression, where once he used to tear up to the crease and fling the ball with all his might; while Steve Harmison now stands so straight at the point of delivery that his knuckles seem to snag on the clouds.
"I'm a big believer that if you don't have an action that repeats itself, you're never going to make it," says Cooley. "I've never yet met a bowler who wants to bowl down the leg side, so all I try to do is harness the best qualities of a bowler from the technique side of things, then get them to that release point easier and more consistently."
Sandy Gordon Psychologist
By Nagraj Gollapudi
The World Cup, 1999. Australia had been defeated twice in their first three games and their captain Steve Waugh was having a few sleepless nights. The business end of the tournament was fast approaching and Australia were desperately in need of some motivation.
It had been a torrid time for them coming into the World Cup. On the tour to the West Indies immediately prior, they had lost two Tests in a row after being 1-0 up, before battling back to even the series. Even before that tour Waugh's troops had been showing signs of slackening. They made a shaky start in the Carlton and United one-day series, losing three of their first five games before going on to win the tournament.
The signs were not lost on the team management. Geoff Marsh, the coach, and Waugh knew the sort of pressure the team were under to win the World Cup and realised the problems were more in the mind than on the field. It was Marsh who suggested they take the help of the sports psychologist Sandy Gordon, with whom he had worked at Western Australia, a man who "had been a huge part of a very successful Western Australia Cricket team".
Waugh was enthusiastic about the idea. In his recent autobiography Out of My Comfort Zone, he writes: "Geoff Marsh and I had been strong advocates for Sandy to play a part in our preparations, especially for overseas tours, where potential problems such as homesickness, staleness, personal problems and personality clashes can affect individuals and break down the team unit."
As for Gordon, he was on a sabbatical from his job at the University of Western Australia, and "had a few lectures and research meetings in England and Scotland to fulfill." He was known to many players in the team already through his interactions with them in state games, and he was well aware of the challenge Australia were facing at the time in terms of having to catch up with teams like South Africa who were riding high. "Achieving even a final place in the World Cup was a fairly challenging goal," he recalls. "My role was essentially to get the group to decide on things. I just facilitated their thinking. Ultimately my goal was getting to each individual and helping him set his own short-term goals."
He started off by sitting in on training sessions to obtain at first-hand a sense of how the players interacted with each other, for that, according to him, is "the most reliable form of communication". Though a "very, very ordinary cricketer" by his own admission, Gordon's teaching credentials and his coaching certificates in five other sports came in handy when it came to identifying with the players and working with them.
One of Gordon's most important contributions, according to Marsh, was keeping things simple. "When players allowed things to get to them and allowed pressure to build, he was able to turn that around." The first thing Gordon pointed out to the team was that he couldn't motivate anyone but could help them "develop a keen self-awareness through reflection on what works and what doesn't".
"Like all atheletes, and coaches as well, we only tend to analyse failure," Gordon points out. "What I did was oblige people to analyse success a bit more - Why did you play well today? Why did you get a hundred? Why did you get a five-for? - and getting people to reflect. Very often there is a pattern of behaviour, a pattern of thinking, a pattern of emotions, which many are unaware of."
Players soon started acknowledging Gordon's inputs. Darren Lehmann, one of the members of the 1999 World Cup squad says, "He helped us stay focused on the job at hand, which was winning the World Cup. The best thing he did was calm us down, which allowed us to play our game."
On the field Australia were beginning to regain their touch. After the first-round hiccups they kept their heads high and held their nerve in the Super Sixes. When the toughest test of all arrived in the semis against South Africa, they didn't wilt. They managed to gather all their emotions together, all the stress and panic, and focus it all at just the right instant to emerge winners - even though the game ended in a tie. An eight-wicket win in the final proved that they were back to their best.
Gordon attributes Australia's success in the World Cup to the team. "I am certain that I contributed meaningfully to the team when I was with them; more certain was the behaviour of the players and the management and the bloody-mindedness of the team to never give up. They had this unshakeable resolve to follow through and win things."
Zach Hitchcock Video analyst
By Nagraj Gollapudi
Fresh off their landmark 2-1 away Test series victory against England in 1999, New Zealand were looking to refurbish their set-up. One of the items on the wishlist was a full-time video analyst.
Young software engineer Zach Hitchcock saw the job advertised in a newspaper and decided to apply. "I thought this would be a great opportunity, especially as I love cricket," Hitchcock recalls. The incentives were many, especially "the idea of international travel with the New Zealand cricket team, and to visit all the great cricket grounds around the world". There were some initial apprehensions about how he would fit in but the players were all very friendly and once the ice broke, it was smooth progress.
When he started on his first assignment, the home series against West Indies, Hitchcock came up against a hurdle. He realised that the Australian system Sportscode, which the team were using to log data, required a desktop Apple computer - which posed the logistical problem of having to lug the machine around on tours. Also, Sportscode was limited in its applications. Hitchcock decided to develop a new system from scratch, and built one called Feedback Cricket.
Apart from the fact that his system ran on regular laptop PCs, it was a lot more user-friendly: the players could run it themselves without having Hitchcock operate it for them.
Not that they were exactly queueing up to do so, though. Mark Richardson, one of the first to try Feedback says, "It took a while to embrace to the new technology, so there were a few takers like me and a few who would be slow and continue to do what we always did in the past."
All through his career Richardson had a thing about improving his backlift and shoulder position since a common dismissal for him was getting clean bowled, especially against straight, full deliveries. Feedback came in handy. "I would freeze the tape as the bowler was about to let the ball the go and then I would look at my backlift and shoulders."
The most common queries batsmen put to Feedback, Hitchcock found, were to review their dismissals so that they could see what went wrong and then determine if they needed to make changes or work on something in the nets. Bowlers would tend to look at their actions in slow motion or frame by frame, apart from reviewing individual deliveries.
The analyst's job is a tough one, especially on tour when he is on his own most of the time. On a match day he needs to get to the ground early to set up his equipment in time. Once the game begins, he needs to stay alert for every ball and can leave his computer only during drinks breaks or innings and session breaks. Hitchcock admits it was mentally tiring at times (he used to drink a lot of cola to stay awake), but his passion for the game kept him going. Looking back, he points to the 2001-02 tour to Australia, where New Zealand drew the Test series and made the final of the VB Series, as the one where he felt he made his most valuable contributions. "The players did a lot of work running queries on the system and looking at the Australian players in detail to work out strategies against them."
Alex Kontouri Physiotherapist
By Charlie Austin
Innovative pinch-hitting, Aravinda de Silva's breathtaking counter-attacks, Arjuna Ranatunga's cool leadership, and wily spin bowling are the most common explanations for Sri Lanka's out-of-the-blue World Cup triumph in 1996. But of equal importance, arguably, was the quiet dressing-room revolution that took place after the arrival of Alex Kontouri, the physiotherapist who transformed the team into the fittest force in Asia.
Muttiah Muralitharan remembers how things were back in 1992-93. "A few gentle laps around the ground was followed by a few star jumps and press-ups," Murali reveals. "It didn't last long and we were soon back in the board headquarters for breakfast, feasting on string-hoppers and curries. Our physical preparation was a joke."
When Kontouri, a Cypriot-born Australian hired from La Trobe University in Melbourne, joined the side for their 1995-96 tour of Australia, he had novelty value. Sri Lanka had only just become used to a full-time coach and a touring physiotherapist was a major innovation.
"When I arrived they were doing some fitness sessions but it was very unstructured," recalls Kontouri, who now works for Cricket Australia. "The guys worked hard at their cricket but there was no concept of strength and conditioning. Ex-cricketers and rugby players would organise the odd session, some road running or sessions on the beach, but it was not systematic. Fitness was not very high, which meant we were not competing on a level playing field. Good fitness won't win matches but it's essential if you're going to consistently compete with the best."
Kontouri was largely an observer during his first tour, building up a better understanding of the players. When he returned to Sri Lanka he had a couple of months to prepare the team for the World Cup and his first job was to persuade the cricket board to purchase 12 annual gymnasium subscriptions.
"The players took to it well," said Kontouri. "In fact, it was easy as we were moving from very low to moderate fitness levels and the benefits came quickly - everyone likes feeling fitter and stronger. They were glad to have someone offering a systematic programme. Dav [Whatmore] was fantastic, planning weeks in advance, and we were able to carefully individualise schedules, which was the key. Every team has different players with different body types - you can't make them all do the same things.
Even Ranatunga, he of the rotund waistline, embraced Kontouri's new regime wholeheartedly, losing 10 kilos in the first year. "Arjuna turned up to every session and he made sure everyone else did too," Kontouri vouches.
The Sri Lankans were less enthused about the revolution in dressing-room catering. Out went the mountains of rice, hot curries, and ice cream, to be replaced by boring low-fat carbohydrates and monotonous soup. "I made some mistakes early on with their diets, mainly due to a lack of understanding about their basic diets, pushing more western-style foods. But later I was able to incorporate more local foods and they started to eat more appropriately," Kontouri recalls.
Empowered by Whatmore, Kontouri engrained a new hardworking training culture within the team that made them one of the fittest sides in the world [especially from 2000 to 2002]. Their best players rarely missed matches, and recovery periods were remarkably fast. Over a eight-year period Kontouri became hugely respected by the players, playing a central role in the emergence of the island as a global force in cricket.
Mike Young Fielding coach
By Peter English


Mike Young has raised Australia's fielding standards © Getty Images
Mike Young's blond hair streaks and tall athlete's physique fit him perfectly into the Australian set-up. What makes him stand out is his American drawl as he barks instructions at a training session. The former Australian national baseball team coach's inputs have been important ones for the cricket side since he was called in by John Buchanan after the two worked together with Queensland.
Australia's fielding during last year's Ashes campaign was uncharacteristically poor, with numerous spilled catches and not one run-out in the five Tests. Young followed the series on the internet while coaching the Rockford Riverhawks in Illinois in the United States and when he returned for a stint before the Super Series, the situation was rectified.
"The guys have got to work on throwing because it's very habitual," Young says. "The improvement was really noticeable over the 10 days I spent with them before the Super Series. Some of them had gone back into bad habits. Coaching is mainly about reminding them of things.
"Andrew Symonds, Ricky Ponting and Matthew Hayden are great throwers," he says. "The thing you've got to remember about these players is they are tremendous athletes. They have the skills; it's just whether they are able to enhance them."
When Young joins the squad he likes to watch; sometimes he'll observe for two days before chipping in with a mix of cricket and baseball terms. "Fielding sets the team tempo and is the pulse of the team," he says. "Everything else, batting and bowling, is done one-on-one, so fielding tells you where you're headed."
One of his initiatives is a "runs-saved card" and he is determined to challenge thought processes as well as to restructure throwing techniques and ways to attack the ball.
"They say fielding is more important in one-day matches than in Tests. That comment is mind-boggling," Young observes. "Tests aren't as condensed but over five days you are going to get more touches than in a one-day game, although it's true that you may not push for runs so much."
After decades working in baseball, Young wants cricket to become his priority, but as a freelance coach - he has worked with Cricket Australia and the ECB Academy and would love a job in India - he has to mix assignments. "I'd do cricket full-time in a heartbeat," he says. "But two weeks [with the Australian team] here and there is not enough to do the stuff I want to do. I need security and I'm speaking to England and I definitely want to talk to Greg Chappell."
Baseball and cricket have different strategies but Young says they can help each other. Certainly, Australia's touch improves whenever he is around. "This sort of coaching is something new," he says "I don't think we've scratched the surface of this yet."