Darren Lehmann was asked recently if the absence of a full time specialist spin coah was one of the reasons for Australia’s poor Test performances. Lehmann’s curt reply was: “So you want another staff member on tour?”
Lehmann’s answer gives insight into a growing tension in the sport: whether international teams are suffering from having too few specialist coaches. Along with Australia, teams like England have been criticized for not having a spin bowling or wicket-keeping coach who always travels with the team.
Now, England no longer has a full-time fielding coach either. In international cricket, the norm for teams is to hire consultant spin and wicket-keeping coaches on a contractual basis; actual full-time specialist coaches in these two areas are rarely seen.
Bill Gerrard, a professional coach of baseball, rugby and football spoke about the scopes for specialist coaches, “I had assumed that cricket would have been more advanced in using specialist coaches. There is massive scope for specialization.”
As in most areas off the field, American sports have traditionally led the way in using coaching specialists. Gerrard further says, “It is difficult to put a time on how far behind cricket is, since coaching specialization goes back a long way in both baseball and the NFL. Cricket seems to be only slowly catching up,”
Cricket is now richer than ever. Its financial and professional stakes are so high that teams take nutritionists and even chefs on tour, many countries still do not bother with full-time specialist coaches for two of its most important skills.
It is certainly not as if the wealthiest Test nations cannot afford specialists. The resistance is all cultural.
If you listen to Lyon eulogise about the importance of Davison, Australia’s spin bowling coach or Adil Rashid praise Saqlain Mushtaq’s role in his palpable improvement in India, you will see the evidence of how the best specialist coaches can improve performance.
Negligence to bother with permanent specialists amounts to a bizarre school of thought that keeping and spin bowling are somehow of secondary importance compared to other skills in cricket: “third-class citizens”, as Graeme Swann has lamented.
Saqlain gave his two cents about the issue last week. He said, “We should have full-time spin coaches, not just for the main team but on the county circuit as well,”
The legendary spinner also said, “It is not just to look after the spinners but it is to help the batsmen as to how the spinners think as well.”
His view is not surprising considering that he wants to become England’s first genuine full-time spin bowling coach. But the fact that Saqlain departed England’s tour of India after the third Test, when he had clearly aided their bowling of spin, reflected on the twisted culture.
Andrew Strauss, England’s director of cricket, will soon review the coaching support for spinners, but he reportedly thinks that a full-time spin coach is not needed.
Cricket has had huge changes in embracing specialist coaches over the years. In 2003 World Cup, only one out of 14 countries had a specialist fielding coach, but all 14 did by last year’s tournament, yet in international cricket teams, a certain lingering resistance to specialism remains.
Prospects for greater specialization apply not only to roles within a cricket team, but also between the different formats. There are specialist format based players now. So, Gerrard asks, “Why not have coaches specializing as well?”
Trials with specialist coaches for white-ball cricket have so far been mixed, with the overriding impression from the job-share between Andy Flower and Ashley Giles with England in 2013-14 being that the notion was a necessary evil, at best.
In Tests and ODIs, teams tend to be much more different now-a-days. So, a system of separate coaches will become easier to manage. In time, specialist coaches not just for different formats, but for different disciplines within the formats, could become increasingly common.
There is almost no similarity between what batting and bowling coaches need to work on before a Test match and a T20.
Additionally, in the hectic international schedule, specialist coaches will bring a clear benefit, making it easier for national boards to tie down the best coaches for longer, in the knowledge they will not have to work overtime which will give them the vacation time they need.
This could make coaching at international level a better option than coaching T20 franchises, increasingly the favored option for many leading ex-players.
Naturally, broader specialism will create new challenges. Head coaches will need to adapt to a changing environment: more specialist coaches could mean that head coaches will become a little less concerned with the details and will have more of an overseeing role.
Other sports suggest that this can be done easily keeping the head coach’s authority intact. But the scope for disagreement between coaches is certainly a possibility if there are more of them around.
And the risk of simply populating a player’s mind with too much information and advice, some of it contradictory, will increase.
But these complications are no reason to ignore how cricket teams can benefit from moving towards the levels of coaching specialization that has been happening for a long time in other sports.
In a tour, such coaches might rarely actually coach in the classical sense of working on a player’s technique. Usually, the greatest value of a specialist coach on tour is simply in deep understanding of their craft.
They help players by talking about tactics or methods, just as Saqlain has been for Rashid in India. Batsmen and fast bowlers have full-time coaches. So, it is only fair that spinners and wicket-keepers also get that chance.
In an era where cricket teams try to garner any sort of advantage, it is baffling that wicket-keepers and spin bowlers still don’t get constant support from the coaches who can help them the most.