A quiet revolution
This feature was originally published in full in the official programme for the third npower Test against India at Edgbaston - click here to buy England match programmes online
Back-room staff used to be just that: in the background. now, coaches and their methods have never been more in the spotlight.
Traditionally, the coach’s job was to advise and support his captain, offer technical tips in the nets and place a consoling arm around a player suffering a loss of form. Seems nobody told Andy Flower that. England, under his measured, meticulous leadership, have the largest and best-resourced retinue of coaches, analysts and technicians in the history of the game. What’s more, England cricket fans can see the results – how better coaching has helped to produce better players.
The unprecedented attention to detail of England’s preparations – from fitness, diet and innovative fielding drills to an analysis of the players’ sweat to determine that Alastair Cook, as the least sweaty, should be their designated ball polisher – was clearly instrumental in the team winning the Ashes Down Under and now getting the No.1 Test ranking.
But what does this mean for the average club cricketer? There can’t be many clubs who can afford a battery of computer analysts or a job-lot of ice baths. What does England’s coaching revolution mean for them? The answer, surprisingly, is quite a lot.
And there couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of how the ECB’s coaching know-how is flowing down to the grass roots than a recent session held at The Kia Oval by Andy Flower, in which he worked with a group of local club coaches to discuss the latest techniques and how best to develop their respective charges, whether they are Andrew Strauss, captain of England, or Andy Smith, captain of the U15s.
One of the coaches was Chris Poil, who is already applying some of Flower’s strategies at his own club, Blackheath CC in Surrey. “Getting the opportunity to work with people like Andy Flower makes you more thoughtful about how you approach coaching and provides a great insight, because I can try to take some of what he had to say back to Blackheath.
"One of the things we’ve introduced this year, which I know is the model the England team use, is having [as well as the captain] one player in charge of the batsmen, one in charge of the bowlers and another in charge of the fielders. So we’ve got three more players thinking tactically, discussing bowling plans and fielding positions. By the end of the season, [my U12 side] were absolutely on it.”
Although Blackheath is a small village of just 65 houses, the excellence of its cricket club attracts young players from the surrounding area. As a result, the club’s colts section is thriving, with 16 ECB-qualified coaches and nearly 200 children taking part. This makes Chris’s week a busy one. He typically overseas adult nets on Wednesdays, coaches a group of children with special needs on Thursdays, Friday is colts’ night and then he’s on hand on match days, which for the U12s are Sundays and Tuesdays.
A talented and fiery fast bowler in his youth, Chris was inspired to return to the game as a coach by his son Harry. “I got involved in coaching five years ago when Harry was an under-seven. There was nobody to run the U7s so I put my hand up.”
Although there are clearly differences between coaching England and Blackheath U12s, Chris says Andy Flower’s thoughts on coaching still resonated. “Andy stressed the importance of keeping things simple. This is one of the challenges for all coaches at all levels: to keep things as simple and fun as possible.” Flower wasn’t just passing on tips, though; he also talked about the mistakes he’d made so that club coaches like Chris might learn from them.
“Andy said that one of the temptations as a coach – and one of the mistakes he made when he first became the England batting coach – is to try to change a player’s game too quickly. There’s nothing worse [for a player] than coming for a coaching session and being told you need to do this, you need to do that. I heard a nice analogy the other day: that coaching cricket is like polishing a diamond. And the diamond is the player’s self-confidence, their willingness to put the work in and progress.
"Perhaps some coaches are chipping the diamond rather than polishing it. You certainly don’t want to be damaging it: as with the England team, you’ve got to get kids believing in themselves.”