Dermot Reeve – County Cricket’s Missing Genius?

Dermot Reeve – County Cricket’s Missing Genius?

Someone once said that the nature of genius is to provide the rest of us with ideas twenty years later. And there is no doubt that many of the innovations that we take for granted in present day T20 cricket were created or refined by Dermot Reeve, Warwickshire’s captain in the early 1990s.

In 1994, Reeve led Warwickshire to a unique treble – the County Championship, the (40 over) AXA Equity & Law League and the Benson & Hedges Cup.

Now, 25 years on, it has to be a cause for regret that such an orginal thinker is not around to apply his mind to the issues facing English county cricket, the very existence of which is under threat.

Visiting the UK from his home in Australia to attend the launch of a book about Warwickshire’s achievements, The Greatest Season, by Pat Murphy, Dermot spoke to Deep Extra Cover’s Terry Wright.

Some may forget that, as well as that 1994 treble, Warwickshire were also that year’s losing finalists in the NatWest Bank Trophy. In fact, with a NatWest Trophy win in 1993 and then the double of the Championship and the NatWest again in 1995, the Bears actually won six titles in the space of 24 months, an unequalled record, and all masterminded by their shrewd and inventive captain.

As for those innovations and inventions, Reeve explained that they were practical responses to the challenges that the game threw up:

“I just did what I thought was logical,” said Reeve.

“Against spin, when there were six men on the leg side, it made sense to use the reverse sweep. I remember Dominic Ostler reverse sweeping (England left arm spinner) Nick Cook when there were seven on the leg side.

“Of course, by the next season, a lot of those leg side fielders weren’t there. But that opened up gaps.”

Dermot Reeve has the statistics to back up his team’s approach:

“Over the course of that 1994 season, in one-day cricket, we scored 258 more runs than our opponents against spin, even though we faced seven overs less. We lost a wicket to spinners every 40 plus runs, whereas our own spinners took a wicket every 16 runs

Many of the reverse sweeps, paddles and scoops were premeditated, which was another innovation that went against established coaching theory.

It didn’t stop there. As a batsman, he once avoided getting caught by close fielders on a turning pitch by throwing his bat to the ground. And as a bowler, he had a whole variety of slower balls long before they became de rigueur in T20 cricket.

As a captain, he brought in ideas such as flexibility in the batting order and the use of pinch hitters.

“Yes,” says Reeve, “Captains have got to use their batting order. You could decide that someone will be the first to go in after 15 overs, say, or first in after lunch.

“And we experimented with having a player who was primarily a bowler opening the batting. We used Neil Smith. Because he was played for his bowling, he had less fear of getting out.

“When I was playing for England, I encouraged them to use Phil de Freitas in the same way. He naturally hit the ball in the air and that’s the time to do it.”

Not all the innovations were conducted on the pitch. Much of his captaincy was about creating the right culture for maximum performance. This was something that Reeve learnt the hard way.

“My first season at Sussex, before I came to Warwickshire, was an awful one off the field. I was the butt of jokes, I got my kit thrown out of the changing room. So I learnt a lot about how not to have a good culture.”

At Edgbaston, Reeve did it his way.

“You only get to play cricket for a short amount of time,” he says. “What matters for life is your self-esteem.

“That’s not fuelled by winning cricket matches. That comes from knowing that you’re a good bloke, you did your best and you were thinking about the other guys in the team.

“You play best when you relax. So we didn’t allow players to say anything negative.

“When a player played and missed, in the old days, someone might say ‘Oh, what’s he doing?’ But we had all the boys going ‘Oh, bad luck, missed out on a four’. And you had to put a smile on your face when you walked through the changing room.”

Reeve was always one for knocking down barriers, so it was natural that when he became captain, one of the first things to go was the wall that separated the senior and junior players’ changing rooms. A young player no longer had to knock the door before going in to see the more established players. Even better, he could have a voice.

“Yes,” says Reeve, “Everyone was equal – and not just the players. The way you behaved towards the tea lady was important. It was a Club effort. Roy French, the dressing room attendant, was important. He was a happy, bubbly character.”

There were other ways in which Dermot Reeve and his team were ahead of their time.

“We had team hugs in the dressing room. They do it on the field now but we weren’t quite that bold.”

What about the role of the club coach, the late and much lamented Bob Woolmer? Like Reeve, he was an innovator who was way ahead of his time. He was one of the very few who, in those days, understood the value of a computer as a coaching tool.

And apart from his approach to coaching, he was another key figure in establishing the atmosphere and the culture. “Bob was a happy soul with such a jolly demeanour,” Reeve remembers.

It is only fair to say that all was not sweetness and light in the Warwickshire dressing room under Dermot Reeve. 2004 was the year when Brian Lara scored his world-record 501 not out against Durham and played many match-winning innings for Warwickshire. But Dermot’s relationship with his star batsman was not a comfortable one.

“It was tough. Not everything was rosy,” says Reeve.

“1994 was not my happiest or most enjoyable season. I found out later that Brian’s agent had told him that I never wanted him in the team, which wasn’t true.

“He was the best batsman I’ve ever seen, a genius; but the hardest bloke I’ve ever had to captain. Personally, in the field I felt under scrutiny from him. I felt undermined.”

There were some extenuating circumstances.

“Brian was tired and drained. He also had a sore knee,” explains Reeve. He cannot resist adding with a wry smile:

“But Brian would still go out and play nine holes of golf after close of play, which probably wasn’t too good for his knee.”

Philosophically, Reeve observes: “I kept the train on the tracks. But 1994 was tough. I enjoyed 1995 more.”

Reeve’s life since leaving Warwickshire has been full of ups and downs.

He coached Somerset and was a successful and popular member of the Channel Four cricket commentary team. But he left Channel Four after admitting to a cocaine dependency and has spent most of the last decade in Australia and New Zealand, with occasional coaching and commentating assignments.

Maybe Reeve’s mixed off-the-field fortunes go with the territory of being an innovator and risk-taker.

One of the features of a sporting genius is that he or she instinctively knows, on the field of play, what risks are likely to pay off. Sometimes, however, that risk-taking talent doesn’t translate so consistently well to everyday life. In English cricket, think Ben Stokes and, in earlier days, Ian Botham.

And Dermot Reeve, the risk-taking captain, may well be another example of this mismatch between the qualities needed for success in sport and in life.

For the moment, it would seem that Reeve’s future lies back in Australia.. But, now aged 56, he surely still has plenty to offer to the game of cricket. Maybe the right opportunity will arise in England. And there is no doubt that county cricket could do with an injection of the innovative and imaginative thinking that is second nature to Dermot Alexander Reeve OBE.

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