Giving players ‘roots to grow’ and ‘wings to fly’ - Mickey Arthur unplugged

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Mickey Arthur eyes to take SL back to their glory days


Giving players ‘roots to grow’ and ‘wings to fly’ - Mickey Arthur unplugged

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Bastab K Parida


There have been a handful of coaches in cricket history whose work ethic has been as revered as that of Mickey Arthur yet very few were on the firing line as often as he was. It is probably a dichotomy but for the man himself, it is the past he looks at with great satisfaction.

Built an empire with South Africa? Check

Made Western Australia a team to beat in Shield Cricket? Check

Spearheaded Australia’s transition? Check

Coached Pakistan to No.1 Test and T20I side in the world? Check

Mickey Arthur’s success story as a coach is no less than that of a dream figure after he succeeded Ray Jennings and made South African cricket a team of superstars. Surely he was helped by the rise of Dale Steyn, AB de Villiers and the success of Shaun Pollock, Jacques Kallis, Heschelle Gibbs among others but at the centre of it was a unique philosophy from the backroom. It is not a coincidence that South Africa haven’t reached the heights they once did.

The gig with Cricket Australia might not have been as memorable as it was for his home country, but Arthur can credit himself for seeing through a phase of transition that wouldn't have been easier for anyone else. He had to put “his neck on the firing line” as the Homeworkgate struck but life hasn’t stopped growing for Arthur, who now has the responsibility of guiding Sri Lanka to a better tomorrow.

SportsCafe caught up with Arthur for a long chat on the past, present and future, laced with a bit of nostalgia and emotion. Excerpts:

SC:We all think this Mickey Arthur guy is a very tough character when it comes to coaching in South Africa, when you were in Australia, in Pakistan, in Karachi Kings, or Western Australia ― everywhere. I mean the tale of Mickey Arthur is very very splendid too. So, when it comes to Sri Lankan cricket, how much are you enjoying? Because, in a way, during the early days in Sri Lankan cricket, you didn’t have a lot of matches.

MA: Yeah, look, every situation is different. And people say, I’m a tough, hard, taskmaster. All I want is... I just try to create an environment of excellence. I pride myself on building massive relationships with players. And I think that’s the key. You get the best out of your players by building these relationships with them. I’m certainly not this hard, tough, uncompromising fellow. I love joking around. I love a calm dressing room as much as everyone else. But, I will not have mediocrity coming into our environment. That is one thing that I stamp out. I want to take young players and make them great players. 

I want our system to go from good to great. The first thing is, you come in and you look at all cultures. And you try and see what that country or that team needs at that particular time. And then you build your brand ― build your gameplans and your way ― around what you think that particular team needs at that particular time. I’ve done that with every team that I’ve got into ― some, a lot more successfully than others. But that’s the job of a coach, you know. So, I’m loving it here, in Sri Lanka. I’m loving the players. I’m loving their work ethic. I’m loving their desire to get better. 

We’re on a little bit of a low at the moment, so for me, as a coach, it’s a great challenge to come in and change the environment ― to change the system ― so that we can go from here to here. That’s my only objective and my only goal. Now, we’ve looked at identifying players we think can fit that mould of taking Sri Lankan cricket forward in Test cricket, in 50-over cricket, and in T20 cricket. And those are the young boys that we’re going to invest in. Those are the boys we’re going to take for the journey because if we stake on systems with our selections, and be consistent with the role-clarity that we’ve to these players, we’ll see them develop. 

I always say, ‘You give players the roots to grow and the wings to fly.’ ‘The roots to grow’ is: you coach them technically and give them clear role-clarity. And they need to understand what you want out of them at any given point of time. And ‘the wings to fly’ is their interpretation of the role you’ve given them within their own characters and you’ve got to allow them to go and express themselves. And that’s kind of what I love doing with all cricketers that I work with.

SC:Mickey, it’s excellent when you say that you’re trying to create the base and then you want to go from there. But what is the most satisfying experience for you when it comes to teaching budding cricketers ― those who are stuck at rock-bottom. Sri Lankan cricket had a glorious past. They are somehow trying to come out of it and trying to make themselves a name again. So what is the thing that is most challenging? 

MA: I’ll tell you what the players in Sri Lanka need. The players in Sri Lanka need consistency in their selection. The players in Sri Lanka need confidence ― they need to know that they’re backed. Because the skills are all there. Once you give consistency in selection and you give players confidence to know that you believe in them, you’ll start getting results. Because the minute you keep chopping and changing in terms of your selection, keep chopping and changing in terms of your role definition you give the players, the players start going into ― I always call it ― self-preservation mode. 

And then they start looking after themselves cause they don’t trust the system. They don’t trust the structure because they don’t feel like they’re backed and selections show that ― because one day, a team, one day another team, and everything’s a little bit inconsistent. And that’s when players start looking after themselves in terms of performances and that is terrible for any system. No system can thrive and move forward with that kind of temperament. 

For me, it’s about believing in them ― trusting in them ― and then showing that, in terms of being consistent with our gameplan, strategies, and selections, so that the players, then, play for the team instead of themselves. Once they play for the team because they trust the system, you get maximum output out of them and you get the best performance. 

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SC:In other countries - be it India or Australia - players are more technically adept… very sound, very copybook manual. In Sri Lankan cricket, normally, you see those unorthodox kinds of cricketers, be it Tilakaratne Dilshan or Lasith Malinga or Muttiah Muraiitharan ― all of these are great cricketers who became great cricketers by following their own manual. Is it a challenge for you to mould them accordingly because you know that, somehow they are different ― culturally, they are different. Somehow, the way they think ― the way they want to bat or bowl are different.

MA: No, no, it’s not. It’s actually quite refreshing. Because I came out of South Africa and Australia, which was very stereotyped. You know, I’d go so far as to say that players are cloned. Because if Dennis Lillee bowled this way, every fast bowler needs to bowl this way. Whereas, I love the subcontinent. Pakistan was the same. You get people coming in there who are so skilled in so many different ways and they do it differently. So, for me, all I try to do is, I try to enhance their skill. So, if they’re doing it well, in an unorthodox fashion, happy days. 

What I try to teach them is game awareness, summing up match situations. If you’re a bowler, when to defend, when to attack and the same with batting ― just giving them clarity around their individual gameplans because, for me, different is so nice and refreshing. It’s not the same. And cricket would be very bland if everybody batted like, you know, Virat Kohli and bowled like Dale Steyn. 

Everybody’s got to have their own intricacies and that’s why I love the subtleties of the wrist spinners in the subcontinent. I love that because you don’t see that and I say it with the Western world, where I came from. For me, I grew up in South Africa, and then living in Australia now, where it’s all based around pace and seam, because that’s what the conditions determine. I’m loving coming and coaching in Asia. In fact, I often say I’m a coach for Asia because I love those skills. I love watching those skills and just trying to enhance the skills. That, for me, is so refreshing and so nice.

SC:It’s so nice to hear yourself say that you think you’re a coach for Asia but some of the great years for you as a coach came in South Africa. And that was a glorious period for South Africa where they won innumerable number of Test series and clinched No.1 ranking in ODI cricket. How do you feel when you look back at that right now? 

MA: That was fantastic. (Laughs) And look, there’s nothing like coaching your own country. So, I came through the South African cricket system. I played professionally in South Africa for 12 years. I played for South Africa A, never for South Africa. But then, coaching your own country is very, very special. I was very privileged to do that. But we had a phenomenal team, you know. We had some unbelievable players. There was the emergence of AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy. You know, those… and then you build that around the unbelievable skills of Graeme Smith, Jack Kallis, Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini

It was just a wonderful environment to be part of. And I often say I grew so much as a coach there, cause I started coaching South Africa when I was 36. I was 36 and Graeme was 23. We kind of stumbled away together. You know, I wasn’t the best coach I could possibly be at 36. I’m the best coach I could possibly be now. Graeme wasn’t the best captain he could be. But we kind of found a way together and that was so great and so refreshing. I loved every minute of that. Working with those wonderful cricketers was an amazing time. 

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SC:If I see that team ― Dale Steyn achieved his peak under you; AB de Villiers achieved his peak under you; Hashim Amla, Graeme Smith. Name a cricketer who is a modern-day South African great and they all achieved their peak under you. It must be a proud moment as a coach. But what is that one memory that strikes out that you always feel ‘Wow, I made that’?

MA: There were three memories that stand out for me during time with South Africa. And in my study room at home I’ve got pictures of it. The one was obviously winning the ODI series against Australia in South Africa, culminating in that wonderful 438-game. That day was just, you know… everything was just thrown away and it was just cricket splendour. It was an amazing, amazing day. So that’s a memory that sticks out for me. Going to England and winning a Test series in England, for the first time since unity for the South African cricket team, was an amazing thrill. And then taking a South African team to Australia and winning, for the first time ever, a series in Australia was an amazing thrill. Those things really, really stand out for me. 

But I’ll tell you what, as a coach, I get my most satisfaction out of watching the development of players. So seeing a player that you picked get better and better, and then, ultimately succeed and become a great of world cricket… Graeme Smith. Jacques Kallis ― I can’t claim Kallis, he was already there. And believe me, there are so many coaches that have played a role in these guys’ careers. But having played a small, little significant part gives me great satisfaction. Hashim Amla, AB de Villiers, Dale Steyn, JP Duminy… those guys. That’s wonderful. And for a coach, that gives you the most satisfaction ever. 

You know, I sit now and I love watching David Warner, who was my pick, play well for Australia. But more to the point, I love watching young Babar Azam now, because I saw his progress ― I saw him turn from a boy to a man, both in a human way and in a batting way. And I can’t wait to see the young Sri Lankan boys develop. I want to see Kusal Mendis be the best… in the top 10 in world cricket, because I think he’s that good. I want to see Wanindu Hasaranga become the best he can be. Lahiru Kumara… you know, those are things that really drive me. You want to see your teams get better and better, but coupled to that, is seeing a player’s personal development gives me great satisfaction. 

SC:When you see Babar Azam ― he’s one of the modern-day greats. So what is the one thing that strikes out for you that makes him stand out from other Pakistani players ― even other batsmen in the world as well? 

MA: I’ll tell you what it is, Bastab. Your best players… the best players in the world pick length early. The first time I saw Babar Azam bat, I was amazed at how early he picked length. And I think that’s a hallmark of all the great batsmen ― it’s their ability to pick length earlier than any other player. 

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SC:When he is a technically sound player, he bats well, he bats correctly… and at the end of the day, there is a comparison factor that always stands out. And if you are a Pakistani player, then more often than not, your comparison tends to be with Virat Kohli, who is India’s best batsman right now. But that is somehow not fair to Babar Azam, right? So do you think the world let Babar Azam be the best Babar Azam that he can be, instead of making comparisons with a colleague or Kohli, cause that is, somehow, not fair to him, right? 

MA: No, it’s not. And it’s not fair to anybody to be compared to different players, let alone Virat Kohli. Babar just wants to be Babar Azam, you know. When I think of Babar Azam, I think of a glorious cover drive. I’ve already spoken about his ability to pick length. I love the fact that he’s developed into his game the little flick through the legside now. That’s something that he’s developed. He has the ability to open his wrists and hit the ball square of the wicket and create pace on slow wickets that way. He just does things that are elite. And I don’t think he should be compared… in fact, I don’t think any batsmen should be compared. Their records will, invariably, be always compared, you know… Test runs, averages, strike rates, etc. And the media will have a fun day with all those types of stats. But I just want to see Babar Azam be the best Babar Azam he can be. And the best Babar Azam is an elite-level batsman.

SC:You had a great time in Cricket South Africa and then in Western Australia, which led to your time in Australian national team. But somehow do you think that your best moments are not talked about as your bad moments have been? Or maybe, the moments that you thought were right but not, maybe, the right way to approach at that point in time.

MA: Yeah, what I’ll say around that time is that I had a great time at Western Australia. And then, obviously, the Australian job came up at that point. And it was probably the wrong time for me. I didn’t understand the Australian culture well enough. I didn’t understand or know the players well enough within that environment or system. So it was tough for me coming in. I tried to run the Australian team like I ran the South African team. And there was a different mix of players… players who were at different points of their careers. And there were some good times. The first year was outstanding. We played some incredible cricket. So, I just always get scared of that… well, not scared… I get disappointed that I get tarnished by the ‘Homeworkgate’. It was blown so far out of proportion by the media that it created a lot of angst with me and some of the players. And that, for me, is my biggest regret in my coaching career ― the last 4-5 months of my role with Cricket Australia. That’s the only time I haven’t enjoyed my international coaching career. 

That was a disappointing time. The one thing you do is, you learn from it. And you move on. I was lucky enough to get picked up again by Pakistan. I went into the T20 leagues for a bit ― Bangladesh, CPL, and PSL. And then got picked up by Pakistan, and we had some wonderful moments with that Pakistan cricket team. We changed the culture. We changed the environment. We created an environment of consistency. We backed some good young players. If they just kept along on that path, they’re going to see some real good growth with those younger players.

SC:Pakistan had a great T20 run. You literally won every single series that you were playing during that time. Did it hurt you none of that was taken into consideration at the time of renewal?

MA: Our contracts weren’t renewed. It was clear that they wanted to go with a local band of coaches, you know. And that was okay, just as long as they’d stayed honest through the process with me. Because I definitely thought that I had another two years, and that had communicated to me from the top level. So, that was disappointing because I felt like I had slightly unfinished business there. We got to No.1 in Test cricket, but then we lost the Younis Khans, the Misbahs. And we kinda started rebuilding the Test team, so we slipped a little bit.

Our one-day was just starting to get ready to go. We brought in the Shaheen Shahs, the Shadab Khans, the Faheem Ashrafs… Babar Azam was becoming a really good player. Imam-ul-Haq was becoming a really good player. Harris Sohail, Imad Wasim… Mohammed Amir was still going really well. We had a really good team that just needed to be backed. 

My one gripe was with people saying we had a shocking World Cup. We finished joint fourth in the World Cup. We lost on net run rate. We lost out on a semi-final berth to New Zealand, but in the round robin stages, we beat both England and New Zealand. So, we beat both semi-finalists. Yes, we lost horribly to the West Indies. And that was a game that meant our net run rate was always so low, so that was a shocker. And we lost to India and whenever you lose to India, as a Pakistan player or coach, you get under some serious pressure. But I thought we had a decent World Cup. Yeah, we didn’t have a great World Cup, cause a great World Cup would’ve been a win. But we had a decent World Cup ― tied fourth, we won five games out of 9, we had one rain out, and we lost three. We beat South Africa, we beat Bangladesh, we beat New Zealand, we beat England, and we beat Afghanistan. So, we won five. 

With the young team we had, that’s a decent World Cup. And everybody said we had an absolute shocker. We didn’t. We lost three times, to three very good teams, you know. So, going through that whole thing after taking Pakistan cricket forward, in so many ways ― not only on the field, but culturally. In the way they thought, in the system that was fairly consistent, to then, lose out was disappointing. But that’s life. And that’s provided me, now, with a really good opportunity with Sri Lanka, and one that I’m really enjoying.

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SC:Mickey, as you mentioned, losing to India always adds some sort of pressure in Pakistan. How did it impact during contract renewal?

MA: That did have a fairly big impact. But it was the ODIs before the World Cup… we lost 5-nil in the UAE to Australia, but we rested nine players because we’d played so much cricket. So, this was a board decision that I presented to the board, and they endorsed it. We rested nine players from our first-choice World Cup team, and we lost 5-nil to Australia. But, you know, we had five centuries in the series. We developed Asif Ali to a point. We developed Abid Ali. Haris Sohail came to the fore. Mohammed Rizwan came to the fore. We were poor, but we developed players. 

And that was part of my whole presentation to the board. Prior to that series, everybody hailed it as a masterstroke that we were going to rest nine players, and play a second XI, almost, against a full-strength Australian side. But then, losing 5-0, the media just hammered us. And then we went to England and played England in the series before the World Cup. And we got 300 or more in four games, which we hadn’t achieved as a Pakistan team. And then, we ended up losing that series 4-0, but in tight games, apart from one… which meant we’d gone nine ODIs and we hadn’t won a game, which put us under enormous pressure as a management team and as a team, for all the wrong reasons. Because the reason that we lost all nine wasn’t mentioned in the media ― the fact that we picked a second XI against Australia and we developed some players. It was just the stone cold facts that we lost nine ODIs in a row. And that, then, put us under enormous pressure and created a rod for our own backs later on, when contracts came up for renewal.

SC: So right now, forget about everything. I just want to go back to honour the man that is Mickey Arthur. How does he actually approach his life beyond cricket? Like, when no cricket is there, how does Mickey Arthur live his life?

MA: Oh look, I’m a very quiet ― a very private ― person. I’ve got three incredible daughters. I’ve just had a little grandchild ― a little granddaughter. I love my family immensely. And everything I do is for my daughters, and now my granddaughter. I’m very private in what I do. I love playing a little bit of golf. I like meeting people socially. I like meeting new people, but I also like my own time. And I just think I’m very professional. Because cricket’s given me such a life, but I’ve sacrificed a hell of a lot being an international cricket coach for 12 years now. And that is, missing out on my daughters growing up, missing out on some very special family time. So, even though it’s giving me such great pleasure, I’ve had to sacrifice a lot for this job. But I’m not moaning, you know. At the moment, I’m living my job. I want to make Sri Lankan cricket the best they can be. I think I’m a hell of a professional person, and I think I’ve given everything to every job that I’ve ever had. 

SC:Mickey, it’s been lovely talking to you. Thanks for being very generous with your time. Thanks a lot.

MA: Thank you, Bastab. Absolute pleasure. Thank you for having me.

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