A different game in a different world: cricket coaching and leadership

A different game in a different world: cricket coaching and leadership

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Sir Ian Botham, in his 1987 book ‘It Sort of Clicks’ written by the late Peter Roebuck (in the days when the two former Somerset colleagues talked to one another), gives some clues to the way in which professional cricketers were treated in the early days of his career. 

He complains resentfully that some people talked about ‘Botham’ and ‘Allot’ (Paul Allot, now coincidentally one of the great man’s Sky commentator colleagues), as though they were discussing labourers on the farm. He remarks that he used to get angry as soon as he walked into Lord’s.

In the thirty years that have passed since Botham’s bitter observation much in society has changed, not least in the way in which we are managed and led at work. As it is in commerce and industry, so it is in professional sport.

To get some insight into the way in which the modern professional cricket coach thinks I talked to one of the youngest, newest and most promising: Gloucestershire’s Richard Dawson.

Before taking the reins at Bristol 35, year-old Dawson had an interesting career. A Yorkshireman, he bowled his off-breaks for his native county to such effect that he played seven Tests for England, the first one in 2001, just a year after he made his first- class debut.

After six seasons at Headingley he played for Northamptonshire for a couple of years before joining Gloucestershire as a bowler in 2009. He spent three summers as a player at Nevil Road, never recapturing the success of his early days, and remained at Bristol as spin-bowling and limited overs coach before moving back to Yorkshire as second team coach in 2014.

He succeeded John Bracewell as Gloucestershire head coach for the 2015 season, winning the Royal London One Day 50 over Cup in his first season, the county’s first trophy since 2004.

Dawson is quick to point out that his coaching philosophy is based upon the notion of empowering players to take responsibility for their own actions. This encompasses their own development and performance. His role is to be there as a guide, to provide a service to the players (‘servicing their needs’).

Having prepared them for a match it is up to them to take control of their actions. He is quick to point out that his view of the coach is quite the opposite of the all- seeing, all- knowing ‘gaffer’ that is the stereotype in professional football.

In his quietly spoken way he tells of how he was to keen to learn for all the coaches he played under, good and bad.

“The quote that always sticks in my mind is something that Wayne Clark, the Western Australian coach who led Yorkshire to the Championship title in 2001, told me. He confessed to me that he knew nothing about spin bowling so it was no good looking to him for guidance.

“Instead, he encouraged me to seek advice from former England off- spinner Eddie Hemmings. Now, as a coach, I never pretend to my players that I know something if I don’t. I’m learning in the same way as they are.”

Not that Dawson sees himself as ‘one of the lads’. When we sat to talk he was keen to sit in an area away from where the players were congregated. Indeed, he is aware that the changing room is the players’ domain. He prefers to keep a low profile during matches.

All the talk of empowerment raises the inevitable question about how players are made accountable for their performance and how that performance is measured.

This sounds easy: surely its runs and wickets? But Dawson is keen to emphasise that it’s much less straightforward. The priority must always be the team, not the individual. Obviously individual performance is important, but it’s the individual’s contribution to the team that is the key to good performance.

Here, Dawson cites an example from the Lord’s 50 over final win last season against Surrey: “Tom Smith was promoted to bat at seven to give the innings stability (it was 108/5) so that Jack Taylor could come in and smash it later on. (In the event Smith got 20 in 53 balls- Taylor 35 from 28 deliveries.) Jack got the headlines, and the man of the match award, but Tom did a great job for the side”.

Context is vital in cricket, says Dawson. “Once in April I bowled a lot of overs for Yorkshire and only took two wickets. But my job was to seal up one end for the quicks to steam in at the other. So I did a pretty good job”.

Decision-making is another aspect of Dawson’s leadership philosophy that he thinks of as important. He talked of a coaching programme he worked out with one of his players. It was a joint effort. Moreover, the way it was to be implemented was as much up to the player as the coach.

“One morning we assigned two hours to it but it was apparent that the player didn’t want to do it that morning, so we stopped it after ten minutes.”

Clearly Dawson feels imposition is not the way to foster effective learning and development.

This season sees another dimension to the coach’s role: the division of responsibility with the captain.

Gloucestershire’s white-ball skipper again in 2016 is Australian Michael Klinger, of whom Dawson speaks in the most glowing terms. While the relationship with Klinger yielded success in 2015, and seemingly needs little development, this summer sees the four-day captaincy handed on from the retired Geraint Jones to Gareth Roderick.

It is the young South African’s first spell as a county captain. Roderick is conscious of the guidance that the coach can give him, but doesn’t see the division of responsibility as clear cut. “Daws is prepared to leave it to the captain on match day, but it will take a little time to work out a balanced relationship between captain and coach. But I’m confident that it will work”.

Dawson’s enlightened people-centred philosophy is a far cry from the days when England’s greatest all-rounder for many years felt that he was regarded as a farm labourer. But thirty years on, it’s different game, set in a different world.

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