All the rage - overseas coaches in England, 2001

Motivation through self-belief

Scyld Berry



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Just as overseas players and coaches are all the rage in English football, overseas coaches have become the fashion in English cricket. The success of Duncan Fletcher with England and John Bracewell with Gloucestershire has fuelled the fad to the point where most counties have looked beyond the White Cliffs of Dover for someone, anyone no matter how poor his reputation as a coach in his own country. But Fletcher and Bracewell have succeeded because they are excellent coaches, albeit with the advantage of an outsiders perspective.

As coaching is an inexact science, the impact of a coach on a cricket team is impossible to quantify. But it is safe to say that neither England nor Gloucestershire would have come on as they have if they had continued to play as they did before their overseas coaches came along. By the time Fletcher took up his appointment on October 1, 1999, England had failed to get beyond the qualifying round of the World Cup, and just lost the home Test series 21 to New Zealand. Gloucestershire, since their unofficial Championships in the years of Grace, had not won anything except two one-day trophies in the 1970s and did not look like winning anything either when Bracewell brought over his family from Auckland for the 1998 season.

The two men were vigorous all-rounders in their playing days, but not so talented that they could not understand the difficulties of the game. They also have in common a southern hemisphere enjoyment of fitness, fielding and hard work; the ambition to prove themselves as coaches in the ultimate, international arena; a delight in creating self-belief, and the urge to improve, in cricketers prone to insecurity and complacency; and understanding wives who have let them follow the rainbow to England. But the nature of international cricket is so different from the county game that the challenges facing Fletcher and Bracewell had little in common, beyond the need to convert sceptics and make the most of the English talent at their disposal.

From the moment Englands captain, Nasser Hussain, met his future coach in the ECBs offices, they found they were on the same wavelength. Hussain had barely heard of Fletcher: Glamorgans Championship success in 1997, their first season under Fletcher, had passed him by in the course of the six-Test Ashes series. But he was struck by Fletchers strength of character and calmness, his never wasting a word or pretending to know what he didnt; he appreciated his manner of suggesting and advising, never dictating. Any Test cricketer is going to be sceptical about the opinions of someone who hasnt played at that level, even if it was through force of circumstance (Fletcher emigrated from Zimbabwe to South Africa in 1984). Soon, though, they evolved the formula whereby the coach would prepare the players to perform and Hussain would add the last ten per cent of mental insight into the forthcoming match. Through both the way he deports himself and his organisational skills, Fletcher brought calmness and stability to the volatile mass, or rather mess, that was Englands cricket. It was not surprising that, while he was serving out the 1999 season with Glamorgan, there was a media outcry that he ought to have been in the England dressing-room when they lost to New Zealand at Lords this before he had met most of the players. If anything rammed home the state of cricket education in England, that did. It was typical, too, of English thinking that, for the last Test before Fletcher took over, the outgoing regime brought in Darren Maddy, Ronnie Irani and Ed Giddins for an unbroken run of one whole match, and that Englands tail in that match at The Oval consisted of Alan Mullally, Phil Tufnell and Giddins.

Fletcher broke the cycle of chopping and changing and going round in circles. He implemented consistency of selection with an eye on the long term, against the English trend of picking a horse for a course because of the enormous difference between, say, Old Trafford and Headingley. He insisted on selecting bowlers who could bat and, through hard net-practice, made sure they did so. England could not have beaten West Indies at Lords, or reached parity on first innings against Pakistan in Karachi, if Darren Gough had still been swiping away with both feet together.

Fletcher took his time evaluating the players available to England, often by giving them throw-downs at practice and seeing how they went about their work. Once he made his judgment, the weak started to go out the window. What he looks for is players who can grow in the game: at Western Province he kept faith with Herschelle Gibbs when he was being written off as an ultra-talented waster. He has found that English cricket players as well as media attaches labels to cricketers far too quickly and unsympathetically. The ones branded too selfish have often been the ones he is looking for. In 2000, such characters as full of bravura as Gough and empty of it as Craig White, as cocky as Dominic Cork and quiet as Marcus Trescothick, were welded into a team who enjoyed each others success not as common as you would suppose among professional sportsmen. With a perception which nobody had brought to the job before, Fletcher identified the cricketers England needed, and had only the experiment of making Mark Ramprakash open to set against it.

Coming from Zimbabwe, where players were if anything fit and loved their fielding, Fletcher was disappointed that English cricketers, with their culture of getting by, were not the same. But he has come to see that playing too much is the cause, and has set about changing that culture. Whereas his namesake, Keith Fletcher, believed in quantity when it came to fielding practice, with players standing around while one of their number caught (or dropped, it didnt matter which because there was no penalty) a daily ration of skiers even if he was going to field short-leg Duncan made it short, sharp and fun. The units in which players practise fielding, simulating match situations, are never larger than four. His speciality is tens: ten difficult catches that have to be taken in a row, otherwise the player starts again. Perhaps where it has been most valuable for England to have a foreign coach is that Fletcher was able to come in without any vested interests or suspicions of bias. He was lucky in that central contracts were introduced before his first home summer, but he still had to stand up to carping from the counties whenever he decided that an England player, usually Gough or Andy Caddick, had to be rested. He was lucky again in that, by the timeEngland had finished beating West Indies in early September, almost all the counties with England Test players had settled their promotion and relegation issues. But even if Yorkshire or Somerset had been fighting to the end of the season, Fletcher would still have stood up for Englands interests.

His analysis of opponents has been a cut above what his predecessors managed. The traditional attitude of English cricket, born no doubt when they were the only professional cricketers in the world, has always been, Well concentrate on our own game. Without overloading his players, Fletcher watches videotape of forthcoming opponents and their techniques, talks to South African contacts such as Gary Kirsten, and compiles a one-page flip-chart on each of them, which is updated through a series.

He makes sure he is never seen whispering in a corner with his captain, lest the players insecurity is heightened. He is full of theories but chooses his words carefully, which is why he is heard when he does speak. If it has been a poor fielding practice, he has been known to observe with dry humour: Well done, England, thats 15 wickets well have to take, not ten. He never loses his temper, never dresses a player down in public, and always leaves the final decision to the captain. Although the ECB first targeted Bob Woolmer, they ended up with the best of the five full-time coaches England have had.

Bracewell, a New Zealander by birth but more Australian by nature, is younger and more overtly assertive than Fletcher. He was one of six brothers whose mother died young, so their father who played first-class rugby for Waikato at 16 and was a good club cricketer had to look after the boys and fulfil his sporting ambitions through them. Two sons, John and Brendon, played Test cricket, and another two, Doug and Mark, also played first-class cricket. John went on to develop his coaching skills in a range of jobs with Auckland until he found that half-a-dozen first-class games a season were not scope enough.

On his arrival at Bristol, Bracewell found that his chief problem was not something that applied to Fletcher and England, although it might have in the 1980s when Ian Botham was around. The team was over-dependent on one great player. It was no fault of Courtney Walsh that his 80 to 100 wickets every season guaranteed Gloucestershire a place in the upper reaches of the Championship and allowed everyone else to get by. However, the county committee was already thinking that one-day cricket might be the way to go, and Bracewell was pleased when an overseas player of far lower profile, Ian Harvey, took over for 1999.

Even then, no county looked less likely to become the overwhelming force in one-day cricket than the team with Jack Russell as the one player of real note and a tradition of being one of the poorest fielding sides. But at least Gloucestershires players were ready for the challenge unlike Middlesexs. They couldnt respond to John Buchanan, who went off to be Australias coach. Bracewell admits he was lucky to inherit a captain and young first-team squad eager to move forward. Far better coaches than me have come over here and not found a reception. Our guys are taking control over their own lives and destinies as athletes.

As one small instance, Bracewell asked his players to work out their own code on alcohol and eating. They agreed on a moderate amount of alcohol, because of the social element in cricket; they learned about nutrition from Bracewell, who had done several modules at Level 3 coaching. After Gloucestershire beat Worcestershire in 2000 in their NatWest third-round replay, they had to travel from Worcester to Leicester that same evening to play a fourth-round tie next day. The norm would have been to jump in the car, check in at Leicester, go out for an Indian, slump in front of the telly and feel lethargic next day. When the players decided of their own accord to eat at a motorway service station and digest en route before going to bed, Bracewell was as gratified as when they beat Leicestershire by ten runs.

Bracewell had to take a lead, and often be seen to finish first in training, followed by Kim Barnett and Russell, the two oldest players. It depends where the players are at, he said. When they're starting out, and arent sure of the standards theyre meant to reach, the captain and coach must set the example. As the team evolves, the coach can stand back. In the same way, Bracewell believes that a democratic structure is ideal for a cricket team, but the autocratic model usually has to precede it.

The first fruits came in 1999, when Gloucestershire won both one-day knockout cups, although they finished bottom in the Championship. In 2000, they won all three one-day trophies, which no county had done before, and missed Championship promotion by two points (only Division Two champions Northamptonshire won more games). Their strength was the defence of almost any one-day total, however small; accurate medium-pacers bowled a full length with plenty of changes of pace, supported by impermeable fielding and Russell standing up to the stumps to keep batsmen inside their crease. When playing for New Zealand in the latter 1980s, Bracewell was impressed by the way Bobby Simpson took over the Australian team, threw out players who werent going to grow, and drilled the team in the basics. He also borrowed the tactic, which Simpsons Australians used in their 1987 World Cup victory, of returning the ball to the keeper on the bounce to soften it. Again, as with Duncan Fletcher, it was not long hours of tedious practice that made Gloucestershires fielding the best. It was talking individually to each player, starting with what he wanted to achieve in life and narrowing it down to where he wanted to field. Now, Bracewells players usually practise in pairs, simulating the same angles as match situations. Wed have won the Championship in the eighties if hed been around, said second-team coach Tony Wright.

The appalling quality of most one-day pitches in England and the softer white ball have undoubtedly favoured Gloucestershire and their medium-pacers. But the games have still to be won. In 2000, Bracewell was pleased to note how his players continued to win matches after their triumphant cup finals, unlike the year before; and how, when a partnership was broken, the surviving batsman was less likely to follow. What scares me most about English sportsmen is their fear of success and hard work, said Bracewell. By winning five trophies in two seasons with a team which had won nothing, Bracewell like England under Fletcher is beginning to change this culture.

Scyld Berry is cricket correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph.

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