In April 2013, Simon Helmot embarked on a six-year journey with Sunrisers Hyderabad as the franchise’s assistant coach, an adventure that saw him, along with his good friend Tom Moody, transform the club into a formidable force. In essence, he played a hand in altering the landscape of the IPL.
If you’d told Helmot post the conclusion of IPL 2015 that he would, in the following four years, become one of the most prominent coaching figures in the entire world in T20 cricket, chances are that he’d have slam-dunked the statement without giving a second thought. An outspoken, shrewd coach mentored and moulded by the highly-successful Greg Shipperd, Helmot had quite a tough start to his coaching career in T20 franchise cricket, despite tasting success in the other formats.
Starting off as the head coach of the Victoria Bushrangers one-day side, Helmot won the one-day-championship in his first year as coach and helped the club reach the final of the Ryobi One-day Cup thrice in his first four years at the helm. However, during the said period, he was not able to replicate the same success in T20 franchise cricket, in which he also endured a torrid time, at least in terms of results, in the BBL with his home franchise Melbourne Renegades.
It would take Helmot four years to win his maiden T20 title, but despite him tasting silverware for the first time in T20s with Trinbago Knight Riders in the 2015 edition of the CPL, and despite him having successful stints with both the Balkh Legends in the APL and the Chittagong Vikings in the BPL later on, it would be a club 14,589 kilometres away from Trinidad with which he would fall in love with.
Appointed as the assistant to head coach Tom Moody for Sunrisers Hyderabad ahead of IPL 2013, Helmot would go on to serve the club for seven full seasons, the highlight of which would be a title-winning 2016 campaign. But things were anything but easy when he, along with Moody, took charge of SRH; the transformation did not happen overnight. After a debut 2013 season in which SRH, as per Helmot’s words, overachieved, the club finished 6th and 6th the following two seasons, after which they remarkably, much to everyone’s surprise, clinched the elusive prize in IPL 2016.
SportsCafe caught up with the Australian coach to understand how SRH went from a mid-table side to champions, and consistency, he stressed, was the primary reason - not on the field, but behind the scenes.
“Consistency is the word. I think it helps when you have less changes, be it from match to match in the selection room or the continuity in messaging from the coaches and the support staff. Tom, myself, Jade (Strength and conditioning coach) and Theo (physio) all loved working together with Murali and Laxman, so there was great continuity there,” Helmot, who ended his 6-year association with SRH after IPL 2019, told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.
“So I think the players really enjoyed the expertise provided, as well as the trust we all had on each other. I think that certainly helped the team when they walked out to the field, knowing that they’ve got a strong backing from the coaches and the administrators. That’s the most important thing - the players should feel comfortable, know what the team strategy is and understand their roles, but more importantly should be in a healthy head-space to be able to perform under pressure.”
But any club, at the end of the day, is defined by what its players do on the field thus after inheriting players of the now-defunct Deccan Chargers in the 2013 season, Helmot and Moody started assembling “their” team in 2014. The restructuring started with the purchase of the three biggest coups in the club’s history, ahead of IPL 2014 - Shikhar Dhawan, David Warner and Bhuvneshwar Kumar.
“I think when we inherited the squad, the main area we needed to continually look at and try to develop was our domestic talent. Obviously Shikhar was a significant member for us and such an important member, but we probably needed some more support there. Bhuvi coming into the squad was significant too - he has now led SunRisers’ attack for the best part of six or seven seasons. And then what we did was get international players to come and support (the incumbents). David Warner has been a colossal factor in the team’s success.”
And that, right there, was when the foundation was laid: in 2014. Indeed, results did not quite go the team’s way for two seasons - they finished 6th in both 2014 and 2015 - but the base had been set. So with the groundwork strong, Helmot and Moody made their move ahead of the 2016 auction. Yuvraj Singh, Mustafizur Rahman, Ashish Nehra, Barinder Sran and Ben Cutting were all snapped up to complete the side and that, eventually, culminated into SRH doing the impossible: becoming IPL champions.
However, according to the former SRH assistant coach, the 2016 triumph wouldn’t have been possible without them succeeding in the mega auction which, he believes, holds the key for franchises looking to turn things around.
“The mega auction is where you need to make your significant moves. In the in-between seasons where there’s less movement between squads, where teams can keep a majority of their playing group, there’s less chance that you can make a dramatic change. I think that’s where SRH did a very good job. After the 2013 season, we got some match-winning talent in our squad. Yes, 2016 was a dominant season for the likes of Warner, Bhuvi and Fizz but it was, overall, a very well-balanced side.
“Shikhar, Davey, Bhuvi and Fizz were four significant members but we had a whole wall of other contributors. Yuvi and Naman Ojha did a job in the middle, Bipul Sharma is often understated as a player but he was significant in the final in getting important wickets and, apart from them, we had quite a number of players who executed their roles and played their games to perfection. We had guys like Moises Henriques and Ben Cutting - who was so influential in the IPL 2016 final - and that just rounded off our squad. Basically a combination of Indian talent, matched with some fairly special overseas internationals, is what made us triumph.
“But those four players (Warner, Fizz, Dhawan, Bhuvi) were significant to our success. IPL cricket, to use an Aussie slang, is ‘Bloody Tough Cricket’ - you need to do lots of preparation, you need to train hard, work hard, have great trust between each other; that’s something myself and Tom embedded in the squad and are very proud of,” Helmot spoke of SRH’s title-winning campaign.
The ‘Second season syndrome’ is a phenomenon dreaded by teams and players across sport but a strong showing in IPL 2017 - they finished third and were knocked out in the eliminator - reasserted that SRH had built a very strong foundation that looked set to hold them in good stead for the seasons to come. The addition of Rashid Khan, in fact, made them one of the strongest sides in the competition, at least on paper.
However, just as Helmot & Co. were charting out plans for the 2018 campaign, the club were slapped with the inauspicious news that they would have to sail through the season without the services of their heartbeat, their best player, David Warner.
Given the Australian had scored a whopping 31% of the team’s entire runs across the previous two campaigns, an Australia-esque fall-out and implosion was expected to be the order of IPL 2018 for SRH. But, instead, the club would, mind-bogglingly, go on to make the final. This was only rendered possible by one man, who, according to Helmot, was and is an equally effective - but vastly different - leader as Warner.
“Losing your IPL-winning captain is never ideal. But we knew we had someone like a Kane Williamson in our wings who hadn’t gotten as many matchday opportunities as he would have liked, especially being the first pick for his country, New Zealand. For Williamson to step up and get guaranteed game-time as well as use his leadership was amazing. His batting at the top of the order was absolutely outstanding and he performed admirably.
“Williamson really showed his class; he is such an intelligent cricketer, such a terrific leader. Both Kane and Davey are vastly different leaders - they are both equally effective, but vastly different. That was a significant change, but we were lucky to have had an able replacement at that time. Both lead and play differently but are top class.
“And the team rallied. Rashid had an outstanding season, Bhuvi continued to be great and we had some great contributors, including Shikhar. It was a challenge but because we had that consistency off the field, it was easier. It was one change, but it was a big change and Kane did it brilliantly,” the former SRH assistant coach spoke of the side coping without their talisman.
Were the players and the management worried at any stage that a Warner-less season could spell disaster? Absolutely, according to the man who, along with his good friend Moody, had to re-think the team’s strategy in under a month. But years of ‘strong foundation’ - both on and off the field - Helmot believes, kept the SRH boat afloat. So much so that they ‘almost’ won the title - they would have, if not for a Watson special in the final, ruining skipper Williamson’s 735-run campaign.
“When you lose a player of David’s quality, you are concerned. Thoughts like ‘Will you be able to perform with the bat as well as you can’ start popping up. But thankfully, we had batting depth. By 2019, our team had come a long way as compared to 2013. Say in 2013, we might have been scrambling.
“You’re not going to replace David Warner, full stop, he brings so much to the squad - he is a dynamic leader, a ferocious fielder and his batting speaks for itself - but once we got into the season, we showed great courage to put the setback behind. We respected and loved Dave, but we had to push the fiasco aside and get on with the business of the competition. Unfortunately for us, a Shane Watson century barred us from winning the championship.”
It is one thing to watch a ‘never before, never again’ innings as a fan, live on TV, it is completely another to be at the receiving end of one; SRH, in the 2018 final versus CSK at the Wankhede, unfortunately, fell into the second category. With CSK 20-1 after 5 overs chasing SRH’s 178, Helmot, Moody and a million others thought that the trophy was heading to Hyderabad, but Shane Watson finishing with 117* off 57 balls having scored just 7 runs off his first 15 balls meant that it was CSK whose redemption arc got the closure it rightfully deserved.
What could SRH possibly have done on that night to stop Watson? “Nothing”, according to their long-term, former assistant coach.
“There was nothing we could do. Obviously at the Wankhede, the dew does play a factor and the ball was coming on very nicely, but Watson just played a sublime innings. When you’re in a strong position, you have to keep taking wickets; when a guy like Watson bats through, you’re going to be up against it.
“So there was disappointment, obviously because we wanted to win, but we just came up against a batsman who had his day and it was what it was; he hit everything clean, put the ball out of the ground and we just weren’t able to match it. It was one of those days and CSK would be very thankful that Watson did what he did,” said the 48-year-old of the unstoppable Watson blitz in the IPL 2018 final.
Although Sunrisers lost one of their four horsemen, Shikhar Dhawan, ahead of the 2019 campaign, the re-arrival of Warner and the indomitable form of Rashid meant that they were deemed as serious title contenders, prior to the season. But lack of firepower in the middle-order with the bat - SRH (7.53) had the worst batting run rate at the death amongst all teams in IPL 2019 - and not enough ruthlessness with the ball meant that they had to settle for an Eliminator finish.
An underwhelming run towards the back end of the season - SRH fluffed a qualifier spot by losing 4 of their last 5 group games - eventually cost the side, according to Helmot, who also acknowledged that his former side were a ‘bit off’ in his final season as an assistant coach.
“It’s easy to look at everything in hindsight. The middle-order and fast bowling were two areas where we didn’t execute stuff as well as we would have liked. We got ourselves in a lot of winning positions last season - particularly thanks to Warner and Bairstow - but unfortunately, we just couldn’t quite either finish off the innings with the bat or defend totals that we usually historically shielded with ease.
“We just weren’t able to do things quite effectively last season. That can happen. It depends on how well the opposition play and how consistent we are with our execution. I thought we were just ‘off’ a little bit, in a couple of games, but that can be costly. Had a couple of results been different - we were so close in the eliminator - we could have been in another final. We didn’t have the strongest back end of the season so that was disappointing, but it can happen in T20 cricket,” Helmot reflected on SRH’s 2019 campaign.
Perhaps it is to Helmot’s credit that a season in which SRH made the qualifier is being considered ‘disappointing’. The levels which SRH are currently being held to, in itself, is a testament to the remarkably successful tenure of Helmot and Moody, which has transformed the club into a force to be reckoned with.
Thus, after a seven-year stint in which the club reached the play-offs on five separate occasions, and won the title once, it is only fair that Helmot feels proud of his achievements. All that and more, however, according to the Australian, would not have been possible without the kindness of the Sunrisers circle, which, Helmot describes, operated like a family.
“To make the play-offs 5/7 seasons is something people like Tom Moody, myself, VVS Laxman and Muralitharan are very proud of. We felt that we were always competing and we gave our fans something to cheer about on many occasions. I think, overall, it (2013-2019) was a very successful period - we took over a new team and managed to transform it into one of the formidable forces in the IPL.
“I would like to say that the SRH management was very collaborative, right up till the owners. The coaching staff were very close-knit and we ensured that there was hard work, there was mutual respect and maximum enjoyment. We pretty much treated each other as family members and respected each other. I think that helped every team member that came into our squad. I’m sure most people would be very fond of their time in SRH - whether it was just for one season or whether they were fortunate enough like myself to be at the club for seven seasons.”
Helmot’s association with SRH came to an end in 2019, but could we expect the Aussie to be associated with a different IPL franchise sometime in the future? Definitely, by his own admission. But right now it’s rest time, after which it’ll be business as usual.
“I had a very good year back here in Melbourne, obviously I’ve been traveling a lot. This was a season for me to be back at home. I’ll be looking forward to working with my old team, Melbourne Renegades, in the BBL and also be looking forward to hopefully resurrecting things with St Kitts. And I’m definitely looking forward to being involved back in the IPL at some stage again, that would be great, but it was good to have a year’s break. I certainly have a great affiliation with India and Indian cricket and I look forward to being involved with an IPL franchise again soon.”