January 31, 2017

The voice from outside the bubble

Stuart Broad is gunning for a return in England's white-ball side for the Champions Trophy. If he makes it, Steffan Jones deserves some of the plaudits
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Steffan Jones is convinced Stuart Broad can return to England's white-ball side © Getty Images

It's hard to imagine a situation where a Premier League football club might call upon a teacher to provide some specialist coaching for a few weeks in their school holidays, but that's pretty much what happened to Steffan Jones.

Jones, the head of Sports Performance and Wellbeing at Wellington School in Somerset (and a part-time scout for Surrey), was invited to the Big Bash League for a short-term stint over Christmas by his former Northants team-mate Damien Wright, who until the last few days was head coach of Hobart Hurricanes.

Jones reckons it took him "about half an hour" to make an intervention that helped Stuart Broad recover not just some of the pace he has been struggling to regain of late but the away movement that was the key ingredient in many of his best spells.

"That's true," Jones says now. "I'd love to tell you it was some clever technical change, but it wasn't. It was mental more than technical.

"Stuart, I think, had become a bit worn down. He was caught up in thinking, 'This could be a long season' or 'This could be a tough test' and concentrating more upon aiming for the top of off stump than charging in and extracting that life from the surface which makes him such a special bowler.

"He was running in a bit slower than in the past, and as a consequence, spent a bit long on his back leg in delivery stride. As a consequence, the way he falls to the off side - which he will always have to guard against - was exaggerated and he was left angling the ball into the right-hander. He had lost not just some pace but that natural away movement.

"We soon had him running in harder, and as a consequence, he was taller at the crease and that away movement started to come back. There's no reason he can't bowl as fast now as he could 10 years ago."

He speaks highly of Broad's hunger to improve. "Some big-name players like that don't feel they need any coaching," he says. "But Broad was keen to listen and keen to work hard. He threw himself into all aspects of the team; no one is a better team man. He really was a credit to English cricket in the way he played and the way he went about things. And he's bowling quick. I can't believe it will be long until he's back in England's white-ball team."

All of which does raise the question: if it was so simple to improve Broad's performance, why had nobody corrected the problems earlier?

Nor was it just Broad who was impressed. Under Jones' tutelage, Dan Christian, who had developed a quirk in his action, where he was throwing his front arm towards fine leg just before bowling and losing both momentum and control, improved from a position where he wasn't bowling at all to one where he claimed 5 for 14 against Strikers and was trusted to bowl in the Powerplay and at the death.

Both Broad and Christian tweeted their thanks to Jones at the end of his stint. Broad suggested he was "right up there" with the best bowling coaches he had worked with, while team-mate Shaun Tait expressed the hope that Jones could be lured to Australia full-time in a coaching role.

It is, of course, simplistic to refer to Jones as a teacher plucked from obscurity and offered a coaching role. He was a well-respected county seamer and has gained a reputation as a thoughtful coach who has combined the physical method of his playing career with science, experience and communication skills that sweeten the message.

He remains close to many within the game - he was best man at Marcus Trescothick's wedding - and is adamant that he won't criticise other coaches.

He is, he says, a "specialist fast bowling" coach. That is not to suggest he isn't happy to work with medium-paced swing bowlers, but his methods (largely built upon the four-tent-peg model devised by the pioneering Ian Pont) are underpinned by a couple of basic principles. The first is that anything a bowler can do at 70mph will be more effective at 75mph ("And pretty much everyone can find another 5mph") and the other is that there is no conflict between trying to bowl quickly and bowl accurately. Quite the opposite.

So why the lack of opportunities in English (or Welsh) cricket?

To some extent Jones is quite happy with that. Offered a part-time coaching and playing role by Derbyshire during the 2011 season, he declined on the basis that he thought he required more experience before influencing another generation of players. He took the role at Wellington instead.

Flashback: Steffan Jones exults after removing Lancashire's Steven Croft for a duck © Getty Images

"Too many people go into coaching the moment their playing careers finish," Jones says. "Retiring players who go straight on to the coaching staff. It's meant to be loyalty but it can often mean they end up just repeating the same messages they were given. It can create a vicious circle which offers no fresh ideas or improvement. There's no voice from outside the bubble.

"I wanted to go out into the big bad world, learn from other sports - specifically javelin and baseball pitching - and put that knowledge together with my experience as a player and from my previous studies [he gained a BSC at Loughborough and a PGCE in PE from Cambridge University].

"Now, having had the chance to work with these top players, I'm confident I have something to offer that could be of real benefit to English cricket. I've proved to myself that my methods work."

The problem - and it is a problem that is far from unfamiliar - is that Jones' emergence might be perceived as a threat to those who already have coaching positions in the professional game. And while he insists there is no conflict between his ethos and the current ECB methodology, there are clearly a couple of areas where he offers alternatives that could upset the current order.

"I think there is too much emphasis on strength and conditioning," he says. "And I think workload management in young bowlers is the wrong solution. They should probably be bowling more but with better actions. They don't learn to understand the difference between unfit and stiff."

The viewpoint about strength and conditioning is something of a surprise coming from Jones. County cricket watchers of a certain age will remember Jones - who played equally high-level rugby alongside his cricket career - as a muscular fast-medium seamer whose search for a yard of extra pace was the catalyst for a lifelong affair with the gym. Imagine Rambo taking the new ball: that's pretty much it.

"In terms of gym work, I set records that won't be beaten by many cricketers," Jones says. "I could squat 200kg, bench-press 140kg and do chin-ups with 50kg weights on my back.

"But did it make me any faster? No.

"It may have helped me in terms of longevity - I played for nearly 20 years, after all - and it may have helped me bowl as quickly at 6.15pm as I could at 11am, but it didn't improve my top speed.

"I'm man enough to admit I got it wrong, and it bothers me to see another generation of fast bowlers doing the same thing. Some of them, I'm convinced, only do it to look better on the beach, but some of them are getting the wrong advice. They turn up in March, strong as oxen, and then they bowl outside and find it's no help at all. That strength doesn't transfer to bowling.

"I see some talented young quicks out there, but I worry they're not progressing as quickly as they should.

"Look, I love my current job. And if a job opportunity comes up in Australia, I'll think about it long and hard: it's a great country and the family would be up for it, for sure.

"But in an ideal world, I'd like to help English cricket. I'm not trying to show anyone up or prove them wrong. I think I can help improve our fast bowlers and I'd really like to help."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • cricfan21278003 on February 2, 2017, 22:29 GMT

    As for strength, conditioning etc. The Great Fred Trueman said, not unreasonably you may think, that to bowl fast, you have to get out there and bowl fast!!

  • OurMan on February 2, 2017, 15:42 GMT

    PWCRICKET I'll be honest the only game I've actually seen was the Hobart v Renegades and what I seen was between 122-133 kph(76-83 mph), which in my eyes would be Broad speed now days. I've seen him bowl a few spells in the 70's this year albeit at the end of a days test cricket. This is in no way bashing Steffan Jones, he really seems to know what he's at and if the players themselves see the benefits you know he's doing something right. I'll take your word that he is running in faster and bowling a bit quicker on average, maybe producing one ripper during a spell in the high 80's but no more then that.

  • Cricinfouser on February 2, 2017, 4:46 GMT

    FieryFerg - are you on the same planet ! Amazing interpretation !

  • pwcricket on February 1, 2017, 21:57 GMT

    @GEOFFREYSMOTHER The story goes a lot deeper. Kevin Shine has only (relatively) recently accepted many of the technical aspects of fast bowling that Jones and Pont have incorporated in their coaching. Until a couple of years ago, the ECB remodelled actions based on a flawed system of injury prevention first, everything else second. Extra pace was added by extra strength, which works to a degree until your body snaps, like Tremlett. Sometimes small things can make a big difference, as a bowler will be doing most of it right but needs to just make one change to become an international winner. Plunkett collapses his front leg at delivery. How much faster could he be if he kept it braced, like Broad, Woakes and Stokes? Can he change now? Unlikely, so make the best of what he's got. Put Jones in charge of our academy teams now and move on from there. The ECB fell into the trap of working to the lowest common denominator rather than aiming high.

  • FieryFerg on February 1, 2017, 20:00 GMT

    @ CRICINFOUSER If you are 'someone' as you claim, how about letting us all know rather than making unsubstantiated digs behind the veil of anonymity. Think Steffan would be worth a shot - can't be worse than the current regime under Shine who've ruined as many as they've helped.

  • GeoffreysMother on February 1, 2017, 19:37 GMT

    PWCricket: thanks for the reply. I can understand your opinion and I have no axe to grind against Steffan. I think though a few of the claims made here though are a bit over the top. His experience so far is restricted to schoolboy cricket and a T20 side who didn't do well despite playing in seamer friendly conditions in Tasmania. We have yet to see, as opposed to claim, that Broad's bowling has significantly improved. You have to put that limited experience alongside that of Ottis Gibson and other coaches whose records are longer and whose successes are more secure. The irony is of course is that go back a year or so and many of the wise heads above and below the line were complaining that the coaches at the Loughborough Academy were ruining bowlers by trying to get them to bowl 5mph faster! That argument of course lost ground when Chris Woakes came back 5mph faster and became a top international bowler and credited them with the work they had done with him.

  • pwcricket on February 1, 2017, 17:38 GMT

    @OURMAN If you hold by what the speed guns were saying in the BBL, then he was bowling between 138-142 kph, which is up to 88 mph. He was definitely running in with more pace and conviction and bowled pretty well in the couple of matches I watched, if with little success.

  • OurMan on February 1, 2017, 15:14 GMT

    There's no way Broad is bowling 88mph these days. Don't care what anyone says, show me a speed cam and I might listen. Doesn't mean he shouldn't be in England white ball squads. Often too much of this boxing players into one format business. Yes some players aren't suited to all formats but the best cricket players are the best cricket players and can adapt to the different forms of the game. Broad, as much as it burns me, is one England shouldn't be going about their business without. He brings a fiery competitiveness with him into big games, doesn't back down and will never turn the ball down. ECB afraid to have a tail of more then 1 these days, doesn't help and shows a lack of faith in their batters.

  • pwcricket on February 1, 2017, 14:25 GMT

    @GEOFFREYSMOTHER Jones has a real understanding of fast bowling in a way that others haven't previously. Here is an opportunity for the ECB to take the lead in fast bowling coaching. Alternatively, they could stick with what they've always done and produce the odd gem, the odd muscle bound speedster, lots of medium paced seamers and lots of lost potential, like Finn.

  • HadesLogic on February 1, 2017, 12:38 GMT

    @GWILL1990, I watched some of the BBL and Broad was indeed very good and usually was the go-to bowler in the Hobart team. Pace was around 140 but on either side of it, he found movement and bounce and troubled most bats. Made me wonder why he was not in the ODI setup for Eng and then I saw his batting :) Although to be fair, he did have a hand in winning a high scoring, almost lost match.

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