“You’re Getting Sacked in the Morning”: Cricket Coaching’s Cultural Shift

You can always tell once the eyes go. As England’s middle order dissipated for the final time in Sydney, the Channel Nine cameras focused in on a harrowed looking man in England kit. Not a departed batsman or the captain, but Andy Flower, England’s “team director” – i.e. the coach. It was a shot familiar to fans of football, the lens trained on the man off the pitch impotently watching his charges fail. The next day, as Manchester United conceded a late goal at home to Swansea, David Moyes, their manager, wore the same hunted, harried expression as Flower. In cricket, it seems, a new man has become culpable for failure.

International cricket has seen the rise of the manager. No-one now would risk the Warne/Chappell approach – only having a coach to get to the ground in. After all, a group of senior players can’t study laptops, diet plans, security and the rest of the detritus of modern sport. The rise of the coach came in the 1990s, when teams began to employ an expert to add useful information that those busy focussing on their individual games might not sport, or to add moral fortitude, as Bobby Simpson tried to for Australia in the late ‘80s. Ray Illingworth’s alienating spell in charge of England was a shoddy attempt at the latter; Bob Woolmer’s innovation with Warwickshire and South Africa a revolutionary demonstration of the former. Woolmer actively improved the teams he was in charge of, not by improving individual players’ games, but by showing how valuable a coach could be in changing the culture and priorities of a team. John Buchanan had similar success with Steve Waugh’s Australian team (note, like Clive Lloyd’s West Indians, a great team categorised by the captain), but was a more divisive figure. Some felt he made little practical difference and was simply fortunate to coach a hyper-talented team; some saw him as a crucial factor in its dominance. For many, your personal tolerance for pseudo-intellectuals spouting Sun Tzu defined your opinion on Buchanan’s influence.

One thing had become clear by the 21st century: the age of cricket coaches only being for public schoolboys was over. Duncan Fletcher took many of the plaudits for England’s increased success. Buchanan’s reign of martial philosophy continued. Other leading international coaches began to emerge. A new issue began to arise – the relationship between coach and captain. The captain was aided by the coach’s tactical input, but his traditional primacy was undermined. Was the captain setting the field in the spur of the moment, or executing pre-prepared plans, like a quarterback calling plays or a rugby lineout? England under Andy Flower especially seemed robotic – ruthlessly efficient but undermined by unforeseen situations, such as Tino Best’s 95 or Ashton Agar’s 98. Notable duumvirates arose as well: Fletcher and Vaughan, Arthur and Smith, Inzamam and Woolmer, Flower and Strauss. In other cases, dual power blew up, most notably with Kevin Pietersen and Peter Moores.

Moreover, a pool of recognised international coaches began to emerge – Gary Kirsten, Dav Whatmore, Mickey Arthur, Duncan Fletcher, John Dyson – as well as recently retired players and the roster of specialist batting, fast bowling, spin bowling and fielding coaches. The cartel of interchangeable coaches has come to resemble the situation in football, where a range of familiar faces swap between a number of jobs, scapegoated for poor form and sacked to provide the dead-cat bounce of a new manager. Despite this, international cricketers, increasingly contracted to their national team, serve their coaches, rather than coaches coming in to help a team. Regimes are now run by coaches, with captains as go-betweens for players and management. Captains can be left isolated and compromised, as Andrew Strauss was by Kevin Pietersen’s 2012 texting farrago.

However, a mutinous player has new options today. David Gower retired to the media when he fell out with Graham Gooch, his captain. If Kevin Pietersen was rejected as disruptive by Andy Flower, he could play in the IPL as a star player. The IPL has become resented by team managements, rather as club football managers dislike international football. Just as Alex Ferguson did his upmost to keep his players out of England squads, Flower is reluctant to allow players to play in the IPL. They would be under alternative jurisdiction in India; for players who are now serving a coach, this is intolerable. Interference, including from the players’ domestic teams, could compromise the plan.

The plan is another new feature. Like football managers such as Andre Villas Boas, Flower is an ideologue. He has a formula for winning matches, controlling percentiles, winning through accumulation and discipline. However, you don’t have to be a political scientist to know that ideology becomes a problem if it doesn’t work. Part of being a good coach is knowing how to recover from defeat; if you play with your plan and lose, you can’t change, because the plan is how you win. AVB was recently sacked by Spurs after a number of heavy defeats. Flower teeters after England’s recent Ashes thrashing. Flower’s plan has made it difficult for England to adapt. Furthermore, cricket fans, rather like football fans, are calling him to be sacked or resign. The inevitable result of making the players your own and making them play your way is you take the blame when they lose. The cricket coach has become like the football manager: helmsman, ideologue and scapegoat.

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