'We decided the plan was to be more defensive than attacking'
Allan Donald gathered 330 Test wickets, 252 ODI and 886 first-class ones in a career that lasted two decades, but there's another collection he holds just as dear: five international blazers from five coaching jobs and a decade of experience in overseeing elite sportsmen. His latest is a short-term stint with Sri Lanka, the only subcontinental side he has worked with, after England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia, and it has provided him with fresh insights into the art of man management.
Sri Lanka's set-up is completely different to the other four Donald has worked in. "The pool of players is not as big as most countries - I found in England, New Zealand, South Africa and Australia that they had immense depth, especially among pace bowlers - but Sri Lanka has got a lot of raw, unorthodox talent," Donald said.
An example came at one of the first training camps he attended. "We were in Kandy with the academy and there was a guy who came through who was about 6'2" or 6'3" and hit the deck really hard. He was the kind of bowler I really like," Donald said. "I asked if he was part of the academy and they said no, he was just a net bowler, but after we saw him there, he was included in the high-performance programme. So a lot of the time, finding the guys happens just by chance. Everything from Under-19 level downwards really needs somebody looking after it."
Unearthing talent was not really part of Donald's job description, though. His was just a two-month period of preparation for the Champions Trophy. From the outside, it would seem like Sri Lanka were looking for a quick fix and, having toured South Africa earlier in the year, decided Donald was the man to mend them.
Donald knew he did not have the time to overhaul anything, so he approached the job as that of a mentor. "Two months is not a lot of time to leave a legacy, so when I go into these kinds of roles, I don't look at things like bowling actions or technicalities," he said. "I am there to inspire them. The message I tried to get across is that we have to compete as much as possible in the Champions Trophy."
The trouble is that Donald was not always able to communicate that. The reality he faced was that English is not the language of cricket in Sri Lanka, and that presented him with a challenge he had not faced in any of his previous jobs. "It takes a while to build relationships and it's something that needs to be worked on on a daily basis. I tried to get to know personalities as much as possible but the major challenge was the communication gap," he said. "When you're coaching, you've got to be precise about delivering your message, and when you're not speaking the same language, you can never really be sure whether what you're saying is being understood the way you meant it to be."
Donald had to rely on bowling coach Champaka Ramanayake - who was not taken to the Champions Trophy - and captain Angelo Mathews as translators, and also leaned heavily on senior statesman Lasith Malinga. "He was just wonderful at training," Donald said. "As far as the attack goes, he is their spokesperson. They talk to him and they listen to him."
But Donald is as wary as anyone that Malinga is in his twilight years, and wants Sri Lanka to find bowlers who can take their cricket forward. Though both Suranga Lakmal and Nuwan Pradeep are already 30, Donald has earmarked them as the pair to take Sri Lankan cricket forward. "Lakmal is a very fast learner. He likes the battle, likes taking batsmen on," Donald said. "And then Nuwan Pradeep is a very impressive bowler. He makes things happen. Those are the kind of cricketers you need."
That is not to say that Donald advocated an aggressive approach to the Sri Lanka quicks in this tournament. "For this event, we decided that [the plan] was to be more defensive than attacking. If you look at the match against South Africa, we took them to a place where we could slow them down, and from there, they started losing wickets," Donald said.
Though South Africa have been particularly slow scorers at the Champions Trophy, they crawled to 32 in the first ten overs against Sri Lanka and scored just two boundaries in that time. South Africa had not reached 200 by the 35th over and Sri Lanka considered it a victory that they had limited them to 299 in the end.
That doesn't mean Donald thinks the go-slow will work in future. "Since I started coaching in 2007, I would say we have witnessed the birth of a new game. There is now pure and utter aggression in Tests and then you have these diverse skills in T20. ODIs have become very aggressive with two new balls," he said.
As cricket keeps up with the fast pace of today's modernising world, Donald believes coaching is doing a similar thing. "Gone are the days of regiments. These days as a coach you are facilitating professional cricketers and they want to be treated as such," Donald. "At school level, the role of a coach is maybe to tell kids how to do things, but as soon as you go higher up, it is actually about empowering people to make their own decisions. It's about growing individuals into leaders."
In the current game, he believes the main conundrum remains death bowling. "One area of concern, for all teams, is the last ten overs. Everyone is still trying to work out how to close the game out, especially if you are bowling second," he said.
"It's a mental thing. You really have to think about the approach and the decisions you make there. Quality decision-making wins games."
He hopes to be able to take that teaching into his next job as well. Donald, who could not take up a role with Kent this year because of visa complications, should be back next summer. He is currently completing his Level 3 coaching qualification, which will ensure he has the necessary paperwork to be allowed to work in the UK, and then he will have another kit to add to his collection.
"I consider myself extremely lucky to have had an insight into different international teams and then experience at the IPL, in the SA domestic circuit, and hopefully soon on the county stage," he said. "I have learnt so much from different coaches and about different methods. I've been writing it all down. One day it may make a book."
Watch this space.
Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent