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Cricket needs more specialist coaches

The players are specialising more than ever. Why aren't the coaches?

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
Adil Rashid and Moeen Ali work with Saqlain Mushtaq, Mohali, November 25, 2016

Saqlain Mushtaq (right), who worked with England's spinners during the first three Tests of their India tour, has spoken out on the importance of full-time spin coaches  •  AFP

Darren Lehmann seems fond of his caricature as a coach who believes there are few problems in a cricket team that can't be solved over a pint or three. Asked recently whether one reason for Australia's poor Test performances is the absence of a full-time specialist spin coach - John Davison, a spin coach who appears to have a beneficial impact on Nathan Lyon, rarely tours - Lehmann guffawed: "So you want another staff member on tour?"
Lehmann's curt response was a window into an issue of growing tension in the sport: whether international teams, long mocked for being behemoths in which the players are outnumbered many times over by the support staff, actually suffer from having too few specialist coaches. Just as Australia have been criticised for their lack of a permanent spin coach, so England have been attacked for not having a spin bowling or wicketkeeping coach who always travels with the team; indeed, they now no longer have a full-time fielding coach either. Throughout international cricket, it remains the norm for teams to recruit consultant spin and wicketkeeping coaches intermittently; actual full-time specialist coaches in these two areas remain extremely rare.
Bill Gerrard has worked in professional sport, both in analytics and in coaching, across baseball (for Oakland Athletics), rugby (for Saracens) and now football (for AZ Alkmaar). In these sports, Gerrard observes a salient contrast with cricket. "I had assumed that cricket would have been more advanced in using specialist coaches. There is massive scope for specialisation."
As in most areas off the field, American sports have traditionally led the way in using coaching specialists. "It is difficult to put a time on how far behind cricket is, since coaching specialisation goes back a long way in both baseball and the NFL. Cricket seems to be only slowly catching up," Gerrard reflects. Even at Saracens, a leading rugby union club in England, but one with far fewer resources than Full Member cricket teams, Gerrard was struck by how specific each coach's role was. "Each coach had a specialist area of responsibility - attack, defence, kicking, scrum and line-out," he says. Never mind specialist wicketkeeping and spin bowling coaches, cricket's equivalent would be more like a range of batting coaches for different needs - say, attacking spin, defending against spin, attacking pace and defending against pace.
That would surely be going too far, and Lehmann clearly has a point when he argues against bloating the backroom staff for its own sake. Yet that cannot obscure the curious truth that while cricket is richer than ever, its financial and professional stakes so high that teams take nutritionists and even chefs on tour, many countries still do not bother with full-time specialist coaches for two of its most important skills. It is certainly not as if the wealthiest Test nations cannot afford specialists; the resistance, as Lehmann implies, is all cultural.
The fact that Saqlain departed England's tour of India after the third Test, when he had clearly aided their bowling of spin, seemed to touch the confines of lunacy
One only needs to listen to Lyon eulogise about the importance of Davison, or Adil Rashid praise Saqlain Mushtaq's role in his palpable improvement in India, for evidence of how the best specialist coaches can improve performance. Neglecting to bother with permanent specialists amounts to a bizarre acceptance that keeping and spin bowling are somehow of secondary importance compared to other skills in cricket: "third-class citizens", as Graeme Swann has lamented.
"We should have full-time spin coaches, not just for the main team but on the county circuit as well," Saqlain said last week. "It is not just to look after the spinners but it is to help the batsmen as to how the spinners think as well." His view is hardly surprising, given that he wants to become England's first genuinely full-time spin bowling coach. (Mushtaq Ahmed, who coached spin from 2008 to 2014, did not always travel with the team.) But the fact that Saqlain departed England's tour of India after the third Test, when he had clearly aided their bowling of spin, seemed to touch the confines of lunacy. Andrew Strauss, England's director of cricket, will soon review the coaching support for spinners, but is said to be unconvinced that a full-time coach is needed.
Cricket has made huge strides in embracing specialist backroom staff. Witness how only one out of 14 countries had a specialist fielding coach in the 2003 World Cup, but all 14 did by last year's tournament, and England's extensive use of specialists at Loughborough and on England Lions tours. Yet in international cricket teams, a certain lingering resistance to specialism remains.
Prospects for greater specialisation apply not only to roles within a cricket team, but also between the different formats. As more players specialise, Gerrard asks, "Why not have coaches specialising as well?"
Trials with specialist coaches for white-ball cricket have so far been mixed, with the overriding impression from the job-share between Andy Flower and Ashley Giles with England in 2013-14 being that the notion was a necessary evil, at best. Yet, as teams become more distinct in red- and white-ball cricket, a system of separate coaches will become easier to manage. In time, specialist coaches not just for different formats, but for different disciplines within the formats, could become increasingly common. There is almost no crossover between what batting and bowling coaches need to hone before a Test match and a T20.
And, given the saturated international schedule, specialist coaches will bring a clear benefit, making it easier for national boards to tie down the best coaches for longer, in the knowledge they will not have to surrender a palatable work-life balance to coach at international level. This could make coaching at international level a little more attractive relative to coaching T20 franchises, increasingly the favoured option for many leading ex-players.
Naturally, greater specialism will bring new challenges. Head coaches will need to adapt to a changing environment: more specialist coaches could mean that head coaches become a little less hands-on and adopt more of an overseeing role. Other sports suggest that this can be done without undermining the head coach's authority, but the scope for disagreement between coaches is certainly exacerbated if there are more of them around.
And the risk of simply overwhelming a player with a surplus of information and advice, some of it contradictory, will increase. Recall the Sun's list of 61 "guilty men" - including 29 non-players - involved in England's disastrous Ashes tour in 2013-14. Trent Woodhill, a leading T20 coach, warns that a bad appointment as a full-time spin coach could relegate spinners to being "fourth-class citizens".
But these dangers are no reason to ignore how cricket teams can benefit from moving towards the levels of coaching specialisation that are the norm in other sports. During a tour, such coaches might rarely actually coach in the classical sense of working on a player's technique. "Any technical change you make for a player is unlikely to hold up under pressure unless groomed for a minimum of six months," says Woodhill. "Specialists are most valuable when they're providing support and guidance around decision-making and game awareness. You can provide different training options, as a specialist, that can enhance and repeat good performance." Normally, then, the greatest value of a specialist coach on tour is simply in deep understanding of their craft, and being a voice to talk through tactics or methods, just as Saqlain has been for Rashid in India.
Batsmen and fast bowlers do not have to deal with such relationships being curtailed by their coach flying home midway through a tour. While cricket teams ruthlessly seek how to find any competitive advantage, it is perverse that wicketkeepers and spin bowlers still face being estranged from the coaches who can help them the most.

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