'If you are going to play and succeed at the highest level, you've got to be ballsy'
Your job description is National Lead Batting Coach. Could you explain what that involves?
When I came in six years ago, the main part of it would be to identify - or play a part in identifying - the next batsmen who were coming through the system. So that will include Under-19s cricket, the Lions, and it obviously puts me out there in contact with the counties, watching county cricket.
And you're also often with the England limited-overs set-up, including the series in India.
I will be out doing the white-ball stuff, but, as so often with England, it depends on who's head coach. There might be a head coach who says, "No, we're fine", and if that was the case I would work solely with the Lions in the winter.
When [Andrew] Strauss came in as director of cricket, Graham Gooch had been batting coach for a long time. Last year we discussed whether the England team should have a batting coach with them all the time. My own personal view - and I suppose Strauss has been in that era as well, where we had to work a few things out for ourselves along the way - is that if you do play for England, you have to be standing on your own two feet. So we try and develop the player in that way, so that when he does play for England he doesn't have to look around and go, "What should I be doing?" He'd be quite an independent bloke. With the Lions' training camp in Dubai, we had lots of coaches around them so they could get as much information and feedback as they needed, but then we tend to cut the staff back for the competition side of things.
On top of that, I look at which batting coaches we bring into the system. So that might mean bringing in Mahela Jayawardene, say, in the same way the team management have brought in Saqlain [Mushtaq] this winter. I didn't want to be on the road all the time, either, having known what that's like as a player, but I like the idea of coaches being able to work throughout the system. Ramps [Mark Ramprakash] has been with the Test team before Christmas, and in the new year he'll be with the U-19s when they tour India.
So that's the job. Then we sit down with the England head coach and the selectors and say, "What are you looking for? This is what we've got. This is what's out there coming through."
There is no doubt it has been a tough winter, but we are generally trying to get all the players who come through to be efficient against spin and efficient against high-quality fast bowling, particularly the short stuff. County cricket doesn't always have the same intensity [as international cricket]. It gives you a certain amount of information, but that next level up tests you to the extreme. Those are the areas that we work hardest on - facing high-quality spin and fast bowling, because if you fall down at the highest level, there will be the gaps, and those are the areas where we try and push the players really hard to improve. Then we pass on that information to those above.
Underneath that, another part of the job is getting round to the county academies and saying, "Look, what are you doing on your Tuesday and Thursday nights with the young lads? These are the areas that we see as being key: can you develop them? Can you get them off and running with the movements facing short-pitched bowling, with improving their footwork? Can you give them the volume they need?" So we try and pass information down as well, through to the academy directors.
The player-coach relationship has moved on a little from the old model of teacher-pupil, where the coach possesses all the knowledge, passing it on to a player, who obediently absorbs it. Given this shift, how much scope do elite batsmen have in devising their own training regime?
Well, for instance, with the Lions this year, we would sit them down and ask, "How can we help you? These are the things that we believe you will need to be good at the highest level. Do you agree that if you can't play short fast bowling very well, you're not going to do very well in South Africa and Australia?" You throw that at them, and if they agree, you might say, "And how much work do you do on it?" I'll have a certain amount of information on them from county cricket - every game's recorded, all the data goes into the system. Every ball. I can press a button that tells me this player has faced 17 bouncers in three months' cricket. "How much work did you do off the field? Be honest." "Not too much." If they are honest then we can work out whether they are short or up to speed in that area.
But originally you do put it to them: "If you are going to play international cricket, what do you think you are going to have to be able to do? Where do you honestly believe you need to improve?" Let's say it was a few years ago: "We're going to put you out there against Mitchell Johnson, or in Colombo on a real turner: do you think you've got the required skills?" You're trying to engage them in an honest manner about their own games.
But what I will say is that in the shorter forms of the game, the guys who are at the top now, they have an enormous amount of knowledge. So yes, there's a difference between how you might work with the more established players and the younger ones coming through, who you could watch and probably say, "Okay, he's not great on the short ball, so how are we going to work those mechanics?" And if he's a little bit block-slog against spin, how are we going to develop that? We might throw drills in there for them - fun drills, but we're almost testing them as well. Can they hit 30 gaps from 30 balls? Show us your skill level. This will tell us how good you are, because you will do well at it if you know how to rotate, have good footwork and know how to hit both sides of the wicket against the turning ball.
Presumably there's always a delicate balance to be struck between challenging them and building confidence.
Totally, totally. Sometimes they will fall down on drills and I'll think, "Shit, I thought he was really good at that. I thought he was a really good player of spin." So you'll have to explain to them, "Look, you might play spin well in England, but this is Asia. It's different. It turns regularly, it bounces, it behaves differently." Then you cajole them: "Let's keep going. Let's do it again."
It's good fun. It's all part of experimenting, certainly on our training camps. We encourage them to make mistakes. It's about stretching yourself. If you're going into a net to work on the short ball, don't worry about the ones you top-edge over the keeper or splice up in the air. Remember the ones you nail in front of square. Same with spin: if you're going to practise hitting over the top then you're going to run past a few.
Just to pick out a couple of names from a tough winter, a couple of Bens: Ben Stokes really looked like he'd worked out a solid method, and played with a perhaps surprising amount of restraint. On the other hand, Ben Duckett, after a golden summer, was dropped in on a couple of dustbowls in Bangladesh and really struggled, as he then did in India. From a coach's point of view, does someone first need to fail playing their own game before you intervene, or do you feel you can look at their technique and pre-empt that failure, and be prescriptive about modifying their technique?
Ben Duckett really didn't have a winter, in terms of a training camp with the Lions. I'm not saying everyone has to do that. Haseeb Hameed, for example, went straight in from the U-19s. But from watching him in county cricket you could tell he had exceptionally good footwork against spin. You only had to speak to Jeetan Patel, Imran Tahir, even [Gareth] Batty. But that is county cricket; with the Lions, it is just about giving them confidence in their method.
With England this winter, watching from a distance, I felt as though our lads had a method. Ben Duckett had some struggles. That was unfortunate. You don't really want that to happen. You can lose confidence. But for Ben, all is not lost. Those hard experiences can really wake you up. If I look back to our generation a little bit, you used to occasionally run into the wall. You had to pick yourself up and look at your own game and say, "I'm not good enough against this."
When I look back at my own career, in 1993-94 I went to the West Indies and they blew me away in the first three Tests. I had to look at myself pretty quickly and go, "I'm off the pace here, so I better get up to pace, otherwise I'm not going to be playing for England much longer."
Should Duckett perhaps have counterattacked? If you don't quite have the defensive game to survive, then maybe you're better off trying to create problems for the opposition rather than waiting for one with your name on it. Or would that have been an admission of defeat? After all, it was an unconventional technique that got him his runs.
I thought that his last innings in Bangladesh - that is the way Ben generally plays spin. What he's found is that India is the hardest environment to play spin in: they'll block off your boundary shots and put three or four men around the bat. Now you've got to be able to use your feet, or carry on playing your way and see if you can compile an innings. Ben's young, and he could set himself up better just before the ball is released. He could be a little bit more proactive with his movements, which would help him be a bit more dynamic. He has got to maybe experiment a bit now, because he has got a lovely attacking game. You don't want to take that away from him. You just want him - if he plays Test cricket again - to be able to stay there for longer periods of time. It is for every player to look at and say, "Right, how can I now improve?" Even [Joe] Root, when he went to Australia first time round, had his issues. [Jonny] Bairstow, when he first came in. Stokes a little bit as well. Once they recognise the areas they can really work hard on and improve themselves, then they do it.
Ben Stokes' method seemed to be based on confidence in his defensive game.
He wants to be an attacking player, but sometimes you have to earn the right to be attacking and have to fall back on the skill of being able to construct an innings in some parts of the world, where you do have to sit in a little bit and rotate the strike so you don't come under pressure to go to a big shot too early. It's nice when you see a player constantly developing. Duncan Fletcher used to say you have to keep improving as an international batsman, because every year bowlers will watch and improve, and if you don't then it will shorten your career.
He was renowned as a good technical coach, particularly against spin.
He gave people a method who didn't have one to start with. You have to have a method playing against spin. It might be slightly different depending on your physical stature. Sometimes the taller batsmen - a Kevin Pietersen or a Graham Gooch - might rock a little bit in their stance, whereas the shorter batsmen might move their front foot a little bit into a press. I always encourage players to go and look at the best players of spin. A good example would be Virat Kohli this winter. What did he do just before the ball comes out of the bowler's hand? Is there any foot movement? Do you see it? It could be very quick, very light. You have to tinker. Experiment.
Kumar Sangakkara has said that there are days when the bat just won't feel right in his hands and he constantly tinkers with his grip and stance, just searching for something that feels comfortable. Likewise, Jacques Kallis would say there were days when he felt like an off-side player and days when he was a leg-side player. Doesn't this show that "technique" isn't this fixed thing but a toolkit to which you can keep adding - and even subtracting, thinking about Steve Waugh's hook shot, or Sachin Tendulkar refusing to cover-drive in Sydney?
Totally. You've got to be able to be adaptable, even to the day. People talk about technique and ask, "How do you play spinners?" Well, is it day one in Brisbane or day five in Mumbai? Is it Old Trafford or Colombo? You are trying to build an adaptable player. Same thing if you are trying to play a cut and a pull in Perth or Johannesburg as opposed to a low-bouncing pitch where a back-foot straight-bat punch would be a better option. It is not just the surface that alters your technique. If you face Chaminda Vaas from one end and Curtly Ambrose from the other, your technique will be slightly different, your thought process will be slightly different.
As Gooch has said: "I don't coach batting, I coach run-making."
Exactly. Having those detailed conversations with players is important. Of course, your technique can adjust. It can adjust through an innings. Some days you feel like you have got your rhythm, others you need to be scrappier. When everything really clicks, you think, "I can really throw some punches back at this attack today and put them under pressure much quicker."
I think we keep coming back to the coaching style. You can be a little more prescriptive underneath, with the England U-19s, but in the middle, with the Lions, you're trying to get a balance between being prescriptive and encouraging the player to experiment and not be fearful of making mistakes, so he can become more of an all-round player.
Do you have a Mumbai, day-five practice surface at Loughborough?
We have a nice hybrid surface over in Dubai, and there is something we are developing at Loughborough. What is very good is the tent that gets put up. The wickets turn square after a week of use on it. So even in October, when the new ones come in, they're starting to understand the difference between when a ball doesn't really spin and when it spins consistently and just behaves awkwardly - jumps at you, or rolls along the ground. You are having those thoughts: what would I do if that did happen? It's hedging your bets, understanding risk.
I guess it's like when Jonny Bairstow, say, plays back to that in-between length from the offspinner, initially looking to punch to extra cover, but the ball turns and he just about gets his bat down from that high backlift, turning it into the leg side. It looks on-the-edge, but he has to play it that way because propping forward means a probable catch to short leg. There is risk on both sides.
The one thing that Jonny would have worked out is to try not to cut off the stumps too much! You can't always, every knock, get everything right - you wake up with different moods, different feelings, the body might ache a bit more - but if you have been out a couple of times in that way then you can smell the danger. And if that happens, then you can impose yourself on a situation and play a dominant innings, which is what Jonny is really learning to do as an international player. He has had a great year.
When you talk about looking for an open-minded, experimental attitude among players on the way up, perhaps it can be difficult to go out and play that way when you are trying to establish yourself. Perhaps there is "a right way to get out". It always seemed that, for the English mentality at least, stumped is the most heinous way to get out, whereas blocking 20-odd balls, then, say, top-edging a sweep was somehow slightly more acceptable.
Absolutely, and that's one thing we try and get over to the players. If you are going to play at the highest level, and succeed there, then you've got to be ballsy. You're going to have to take risks. We want to see you run down and hit the ball over the top. We want to see you reverse-sweep. We also want to see you comfortable in defence, comfortable in rotation, to have the tactics of the game right. No one wants to be stuck down one end facing 24 balls off a good spinner. You want to keep being able to get off strike, and have a couple of boundary options where you can put him under pressure.
I guess there wasn't much "perception management" when you were stumped off Warne after Ian Healy's "Watch this selfish p***k play for a not-out"?
Yeah, you could say there were some players I played with in the 1990s who were more concerned about how they looked when they got out. My own personal view was: don't die wondering, and go down on your own terms. You've got to be comfortable in your own skin, and whatever you think someone might write in the newspaper, if you feel at a certain time that something is required, then you do it and live with it.
Despite that dismissal, one of the common adjectives for your batting was "nuggety".
I played some really bad knocks for England!
But I guess people were referring to those famously self-denying innings in Asia, those epics of concentration. Is that grinding attitude, which is partly driven by fear - the fear of getting out - being lost with the emphasis on "no-fear" cricket, which can in turn lead to recklessness? Or is all that just outdated thinking?
I think there has to be a balance. My own view was to try and be as annoying as possible to the opposition just by staying there. Not just that, but being able to get off strike, to find a boundary, knowing how to counterattack well, just the rhythm of what was required at different times. I used to get a lot of enjoyment from things once I understood how much it would annoy the opposition. But then, if it's your day then really try and make it your day. There are times when you get 30 or 40, even a 70, and you'll think you could have got so much more. Once your career really starts to develop then you try and make the most of those good days, for yourself and your team.
Can you build intensity into training so as to try and create that concentration?
Not so much. You can repeat something and repeat something, but you've got to make it fun. Of course, it has to be challenging. They really have to feel that they are developing their game, and try and make that a fun thing.
How easy is it for players to stay mentally fresh these days, particularly given the sort of itinerary that England have had this winter?
When you look back - I'm 47 now, and retired at 36 - you tend to think it's a shortish career. When you are in it, it can appear a bit non-stop. With players who are playing all three formats, we do have to look out for them, to keep their freshness and protect them a little bit. Sometimes that can just be a two-week break. When I look back at my career, unfortunately I did have my natural breaks, due to my personal circumstances, which in some ways kept me hungry to come back. But I do remember that you would put your bat down at the end of the season and after three weeks you'd be raring to go again.
"The mental side of the game" can mean the nuts and bolts of batting - decision-making, controlling your emotions - but can also refer to the wider pressures of being a professional sportsman in the spotlight of a media that is hungry for stories, good or bad. Do you offer much help on that part of the mental side of being a top batsman?
Well, I've obviously got a few mates working there - Nas and Athers [Nasser Hussain and Mike Atherton] and others - but we do try to explain to the lads that they had their own technical deficiencies, but they sometimes do have to talk about the game in a harsh way and they might have to be critical of you. Don't expect them to blow smoke up your arse if you played a bad shot. Don't expect to be wrapped in cotton wool.
I was rubbish with the media when I first started. We didn't have a great deal of training and I was probably a little shy. But what I would say is: if you're going to do interviews, give them an interesting interview. Even if you've had a bad day - if you've dropped an important catch or played a shit shot - go and front up, go and tell them that you're gutted: "Of course, I didn't mean to drop it, but you know what, I'll be back out there again tomorrow." I guess things will happen to them along the way and they will form their own opinion of who is in their corner and who isn't. But it is part and parcel of being an international cricketer and people are entitled to dissect your game from time to time.
This winter they will certainly have learned a hell of a lot about the harsh side of the game. They will start to get clarity about how you deal with the off-field downtime when you are losing matches, how you deal with success and failure.
Looking to the future, and the way cricket is developing, I guess it would be understandable for young lads at county academies to see the power game as the most saleable skill and perhaps just look to focus on smashing the ball. Do you think that is the way batting will evolve?
Well, it is certainly there. I would just tell players to learn batting skills: learn power and placement, learn how to use your feet against spin, learn how to play short fast bowling. It's all part of teaching. What I would say is, we try and teach general batting skills. Sometimes people say: "Am I coaching red-ball cricket or white-ball cricket?" I say, "Why don't we say we're coaching blue-ball cricket. Let's just practise our batting skills and give you some tools to use in whichever format." And there is no stigma these days with the format - we're quite happy saying about someone: "Well, maybe he's a T20 player."
So where is the future of batting coaching going, with T20 and data analysis?
With data, I would say just use it to the point it gives you the information you require. Don't ram it down people's throats. If you as a player feel that you want some information on a bowler, or vice versa, then go and seek it out. As you can tell, I don't believe in spoon-feeding, but to get the lads on the way up strong at that top level, then you've got to put a little bit of prescriptive work in there.
And I guess having data and video helps you justify being prescriptive?
If you feel you really have something that will make a difference, then go to that. I'll suggest an idea, I won't tell them. But you've got to be sure you're right and it's going to help. "Have a look. Do you think you're doing anything different now compared to a year ago?" You often don't have to over-analyse technique with the player. You need to get that really comfortable balance, trying to find the right way if a player is asking for assistance. "Do you want to hit more balls? Do you want to do a really uncomfortable practice session? Or do you want to go and read a book for an hour?"
Scott Oliver tweets here