News Analysis

The secret to Cook's revival? A secret coach

What does Cook's decision to use a freelance coach say about Loughborough? What does it say about the value for money the ECB are gaining from all the millions invested

George Dobell
George Dobell
Alastair Cook scored plenty with the square so often, England v New Zealand, 2nd Investec Test, Headingley, 2nd day, May 30, 2015

Alastair Cook's Test form in 2015 has been back to somewhere near his best  •  Getty Images

Alastair Cook was quick to praise his long-term mentor, Graham Gooch, for his return to form in Test cricket, but it turns out there was another coach whose influence might have been just as important.
In the early months of this year, with his career seemingly at a crossroads, Cook made his way to a sports hall in Oxfordshire to consult Gary Palmer. Dropped from the ODI side and without a Test century for almost two years, Cook was far more concerned about his decline than his calm appearance may have suggested. The decision to work with Palmer was almost a last resort.
It was Gooch who suggested it. Having been contacted by Palmer, who thought he could help Cook, Gooch recommended the England captain explore the opportunity further. Many hours travelling backwards and forwards to Oxfordshire followed. Sometimes Palmer had to squeeze Cook's secret visits in between group coaching of school sides and one-to-one sessions with the kids of wealthy parents. A freelance cricket coach rarely has the opportunity of turning down work.
Palmer, the son of umpire and former Test player Ken, was one of the first 'new Bothams.' A seam-bowling all-rounder, he made his debut for Somerset as a 16-year-old but, perhaps due to a lack of height, perhaps due to a lack of pace, never quite developed as hoped. His playing career was over by the time he was 25.
His progress in coaching has not been smooth, either. Having developed his own techniques, Palmer, now 49, found himself on the outside of the cricket establishment. Despite gaining a strong reputation among professional players as a batting coach, he continually found himself overlooked for jobs within the county system. Like Ian Pont, the bowling coach, he has often seen players in secret and been dismissed as something of a maverick.
Palmer declined to confirm he was working with Cook - it was Cook who confirmed it - and declined to contribute to this article least he be thought to be betraying a confidence or seeking to capitalise on the development. He also declined to confirm the identity of the other England players he is currently working with, though ESPNcricinfo understands at least one other member of the current side is utilising him at present and one player on the fringes - Nick Compton - has done so.
In an age when it sometimes appears players suffer from over coaching, Palmer's methods are intriguing. Crucially, he believes in a slightly more open batting stance - a feature of Cook's modified technique - to aid balance and a full completion of strokes with the open face of the bat.
Insisting that cricket "is not a sideways game," Palmer believes the open stance prevents players from falling towards the off side - an issue for Cook throughout much of his career - and helps batsmen "complete" their strokes. He also believes that hours of drills against bowling machines set at relatively low speeds help engrain foot patterns and build 'muscle memory.' Neither he nor Pont are understood to favour prolonged working with the 'dog-thrower' that Gooch and co. utilise so often.
But what does Cook's decision to use a freelance coach say about Loughborough? What does it say about the value for money the ECB are gaining from all the millions - £4m a year in wages alone according to their own accounts - invested in the 90-odd people they employ in coaching and cricket development?
It certainly isn't a ringing endorsement. Equally, it doesn't reflect especially flatteringly on Mark Ramprakash, England's new batting coach who is out of contract in September, or the culture at the ECB that players feel the need to seek outside help in secret.
Palmer and Pont have, in recent years, been consistent in their belief that coach development in England is lagging well behind the development of the world game. Both have suggested that the ECB's reliance on coaching protocols that are out-dated is holding back its players and that there is too much emphasis on fitness and not enough on skill.
And the fact that neither have, to date, been utilised in an official capacity by the ECB might suggest that their theories - theories that rock the boat and threaten some in long-established positions at Loughborough - have been prematurely dismissed.
But if Palmer has enjoyed such success with Cook, surely it would make sense to utilise his knowledge more often?

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo