The ending of John Bracewell’s second period as Gloucestershire coach in January brought to a close an important chapter in the club’s history and the reign of a leader who played a key part not only in the development of his county but the way in which one-day cricket developed in England.
Bracewell had two spells in charge at Bristol, the five years between 1999 and 2003 and another further six years covering the period 2009-2014. Sandwiched between these two periods was a period in charge of his native New Zealand.
There is no doubt that Bracewell was a hugely influential figure at Nevil Road, his two periods in charge revealing two sides to his coaching personality. In his first coming he developed a team of largely experienced cricketers, lacking star names, into the outstanding one-day side of a generation. In later years he was forced by budget constraints to develop young cricketers in the early years of their careers. Silverware bears testimony to his glittering success in the first period. But it is too early to pass judgement on the extent to which his second spell with the county will be equally successful.
There were so many golden moments in that 1999-2003 period of unheard of success for Gloucestershire. Each Gloucestershire follower has a favourite, enhanced by both the passage of time and the knowledge that victories are rare and to be savoured. For me such a moment happened at Lord’s in 1999 at the NatWest Trophy final between local rivals Gloucestershire and Somerset. It was the second appearance at Lord’s that season for the Bristol outfit as they had beaten Yorkshire in the Benson and Hedges Super final earlier that August.
Gloucestershire had not won a trophy for 22 years before 1999 and were not expected to repeat their Benson and Hedges success. Somerset won the toss, bowled poorly and must have been pleased to see Gloucestershire compile no more than an ordinary 230-8. Few Gloucestershire fans thought this was enough, particularly as the Somerset openers Jamie Cox and Peter Bowler had made over 2000 runs between them in a highly successful season. But as Somerset replied things soon started going the way of the men from Bristol. Bowler was soon caught behind by the irrepressible Jack Russell off Ian Harvey for a single and then my golden moment as Cox was lbw to Mike Smith for three. Cox, now an Aussie Rules football coach, had a wonderful first summer at Taunton and was undoubtedly the biggest threat to Gloucestershire. From the moment of his dismissal a Gloucestershire victory seemed possible, and when Somerset were all out for 180 a marvellous five- year period for Gloucestershire had well and truly cricket begun.
Bracewell’s first summer of 1999 at Bristol was the forerunner to five wonderful seasons of one-day success. Following the two trophies in 1999, 2000 saw a clean sweep of all three one day trophies. In 2001 Bracewell’s team were losing Benson and Hedges Cup Finalists but in the following two years the team won the second division title in the 40 over competition and, promotion to the first division of the County Championship as well as the 2003 Cheltenham and Gloucester Trophy. This last piece of silverware, the sixth the club won in five seasons was Bracewell’s parting gift as he left to become coach of his home country, New Zealand.
Bracewell’s early 2000s team was a trail-blazing outfit. Based on the philosophy that the team was more important than individuals, it featured the first ‘attacking’ wicket-keeper in Jack Russell, the first purveyor of the art of death bowling in Australian Ian Harvey, the first team to ‘strangle’ the batsmen in mid-innings with the now ubiquitous ‘pace-off’ attack, then delivered by skipper Mark Alleyne and off-spinners Martyn Ball and Jeremy Snape, and above all, a marvelously athletic fielding side which never allowed batsmen to settle. It wasn’t always the most beautiful cricket to watch. It didn’t win many admirers among the purists, but it was supremely effective and revealed a ruthless streak in the Kiwi coach that didn’t always endear him to his those around him.
Indeed, 2002 was a season of internal turmoil at Bristol. Bracewell had never been a coach to guarantee selection to players on the basis of past performances, preferring to adopt a ‘horses for courses’ approach. This led to disputes with several senior players among them highly successful imports from other counties, Kim Barnett and Jeremy Snape. Both left the county at the end of the 2002 season. Barnett was rumoured to aspire to Bracewell’s job, something that was quashed quickly at the 2002 Cheltenham Festival as the county offered Bracewell a new contract. It was a demonstration of faith in Bracewell which few could doubt was richly deserved and his decision to return to New Zealand at the end of 2003 was a blow for the county.
Bracewell’s reappearance in 2009 had something of the return of the Messiah about it. But Nevil Road in 2009 provided a very different setting to that which he had left six years earlier. The priority was no longer winning county trophies but the much longer- term aim of securing the future of international cricket at Nevil Road by the development of what had become a tired looking ground (the recent announcement that the county will stage seven internationals before 2020 seems a vindication of that policy).
In the coach’s second period the county became a fixture in the second division of the County Championship, finishing bottom in 2012 and won none of the limited over trophies. But it would be harsh to say the Bracewell had lost his touch. A meagre playing budget, dictated by off-field ambitions, saw key players Steve Kirby, Jon Lewis, Gemmal Hussain, Chris Taylor, Will Porterfield, Alex Gidman and Will Gidman all leave for more lucrative contracts elsewhere. But at the same time Bracewell had overseen the development of the best crop of talented young cricketers from the club’s academy that had been produced for many years. In his farewell to the county’s followers Bracewell pointed out that the time had come for the likes of Chris Dent, Gareth Roderick, Craig Miles, David Payne, Liam Norwell, Will Tavare and the Taylor brothers, Jack and Matt, to develop much- needed consistency by taking charge of their own development.
John Bracewell will be missed at Bristol. Many have spoken of his dedication, intelligence, innovation, and the insight with which he reflected on cricketing matters. His mantle now passes to two of his former charges, Richard Dawson and Ian Harvey. Gloucestershire will be well-served if their tenure is as successful as the man they follow.