Jamaica Tallawahs enjoy their moment of triumph

Jamaica Tallawahs' general manager Mohammad Khan (extreme right, bottom row) was a key figure in their 2016 CPL title win

© CPL/Sportsfile


Will coaches be replaced by general managers soon?

The coach, as cricket knew the role, might be outdated. How will back rooms be run in the future?

Tim Wigmore  |  

In 2015, Mohammad Khan, an American with his own marketing and consultancy agency, sent an unsolicited email to the Chalak Mitra Group, a private equity and investment firm, about a sponsorship opportunity in Formula One. The email would change his life, and possibly T20 cricket, in ways that Khan could never have imagined.

A few weeks after his initial email, Khan spoke to Manish Patel, the chairman of the company. During their conversation, the two realised they shared a deep love of cricket. Patel, who was also the co-owner of Jamaica Tallawahs in the CPL, invited Khan to attend one of the team's matches, against Barbados at Sabina Park in Kingston.

Tallawahs lost that match, and Khan believed that the game turned on Barbados Tridents captain Kieron Pollard's decision to put himself at silly point when Mahela Jayawardene was batting. Jayawardene's very first ball, from left-arm spinner Robin Peterson, popped up straight to Pollard. After Jamaica's playoff defeat, Khan sent Patel and his co-owner Ron Parikh a detailed dossier of where the team had gone wrong and how they could improve. In October 2015, Khan was offered a new position: as general manager of Jamaica Tallawahs, a role incorporated from US sports.

Khan was only 29, and had never even captained a cricket team. When he offered advice during club games at home in New Jersey, he would be "lectured and berated by players about the game". Now he was running a professional cricket team.

Khan's journey to this point had begun during the 1996 World Cup. His dad, who was from Karachi, was distraught after Pakistan's loss to India in the quarter-finals. But Khan became obsessed with the sport - falling in love with its rhythms and idiosyncrasies while also seeing its inefficiencies through the lens of a US sports fan used to thorough statistical analysis. Khan believed that over the 1990s and 2000s, Pakistan underachieved, considering the brilliance of many of their players. He thought he knew why.

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Are coaches redundant in T20?

"For 20 years I observed selectors, captains, coaches and cricket boards mistreat players. I wanted to right that wrong. Secondly, I had an eye for talent. I could see a baseball, basketball, football, or cricket player and within a few minutes recognise and project talent. I had tested my ability over and over, and I kept a list of my suppositions. I thought about team-building obsessively - not only in cricket but all sports."

Khan's first chance to put his ideas into practice came during the draft for the 2016 CPL. He consulted Paul Nixon and Chris Gayle, Jamaica's coach and captain, but, together with Jamaica's owners, Khan had the final say.

Before and after the draft, Khan "spoke to players about what they perceived as their best positions. Cricket's biggest failure is the inability to identify the best position for each player… There are 11 players on a cricket pitch but there are at least 20 positions when building an 11."

Before the 2016 season, Shakib al Hasan told Khan that No. 4 was his preferred batting position. With Kumar Sangakkara batting at No. 3, Khan "wanted to use that No. 4 position to blood a young West Indian batsman for the future" - either Andre McCarthy or Rovman Powell. "I felt comfortable doing this because Shakib was going to be a bridge. Kumar was going to protect the top order and Shakib was going to protect the middle and lower order. In my conversation with Shakib I told him to expect to bat at five. I also told him that I understand his numbers at five won't be great but we need a bridge, protector and a fail-safe."

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Khan had contractual authority to select the final XI. "Even though I had the power to select the team," he says, "cricket wasn't ready for that kind of revolution, so I never exercised that power. But that's where cricket's headed and where cricket needs to go."

The closest he got to advocating a player's selection was with Oshane Thomas, then a 19-year-old fast bowler, before the semi-finals and final of the 2016 tournament. Khan strongly pushed Thomas' case, and was able to persuade Nixon to pick him. Thomas performed well in both games. In Khan's first season as general manager, Jamaica won the competition.

Khan was also empowered to hire and fire backroom staff and negotiate player contracts. He would have a debrief with Nixon - whom he praises as a "brilliant coach" - after every game. "If the coach screws up, that's on me. If the captain screws up, that's on me," Khan explains.

"He's an unbelievable cricket statto - his knowledge on players is like nobody I've ever seen," Nixon said about Khan last year. "He knows all the players around the world, and he has a lot of ideas. Mo's been very heavy on selection, and we told him about people we talked about who we liked. Didn't always get them. Sometimes frustratingly, sometimes not. But he was accountable, so we have to respect that."

Khan admits he made some mistakes in recruitment, notably in not fighting hard enough to retain Gayle and Chadwick Walton after the triumphant 2016 season. When Jamaica were bought by a new owner just before the 2017 tournament, Khan was marginalised, and he left five games into the season. In the 2018 CPL, he will work as a general manager again, but this time for St Lucia Stars. Ultimately he dreams of working as a general manager not only in cricket but also baseball and basketball.

Khan's story is a window into the new ways in which T20 teams are being run. T20's new frontiers - analytics, and auction and recruitment strategy - demand new approaches, more in line with US sports than the traditional model in cricket, with the captain in charge and the coach offering counsel in support.

T20 coach Paddy Upton expects specialist hitting coaches to soon become the norm in T20

T20 coach Paddy Upton expects specialist hitting coaches to soon become the norm in T20 © Cricket Australia/Getty Images

In the new paradigm, we could see the coach being responsible for training and being with the team during games, but given no remit beyond planning for the day-to-day. And a general manager responsible for longer-term thinking, all player recruitment and hiring and firing the coach.

The latter is a role in which being one of the old boys is no longer necessary. Daryl Morey, the general manager for the Houston Rockets, has transformed basketball with his emphasis on three-point shots (a shot viewed as analytically the most efficient), but has no experience playing the sport professionally. He has a bachelor's degree in computer science. In baseball, Theo Epstein, a Yale graduate in American Studies, became the youngest general manager in history, and ended two of the sport's longest curses: bringing the World Series to the Boston Red Sox in 2004, after an 86-year wait, and then to the Chicago Cubs in 2016 after 108 years.

David Ripley, Northants coach, Northants media day, April 6, 2018 © Getty Images The overlooked T20 coaching guru

Across 2011 and 2012, Northamptonshire were the worst T20 team in England, winning three games and losing 18. David Ripley was promoted from 2nd XI coach to head coach and tasked with fixing the atrocious T20 record.

He first increased the proportion of Northants' white-ball cricket training from 20% to 50%. The team analyst, Richard Barker, became integral to both recruitment strategy and team planning. Barker identified 160 as the "magic number" needed to win two-thirds of their T20 matches, and laid out a roadmap of how to get there: by hitting 15 fours and three sixes, and scoring 82 runs off the other 102 balls. These findings, previously ignored, were embraced by Ripley.

Several players - Steven Crook, Richard Levi, Josh Cobb - were signed for their high boundary percentages, as were undervalued England-qualified players like Azharullah, brought in for his prowess in bowling yorkers at the death, who took 27 wickets in his first year in the T20 Blast.

Ripley's attention to detail was such that, before an away fixture in 2014, he went to local builders to get a measuring wheel for the exact boundary dimensions, to aid batting and bowling strategy. The coaching team emphasised "actionable data". Coaches used the classic board game Test Match to showcase T20 fields, and then analysed ways both for bowlers and batsmen to use them.

Northants also used these insights to hone home advantage, often bringing the boundaries at Wantage Road in, for example, to suit their power-hitting strategy. In 2013, they hit 73 sixes (compared to just 19 in 2012) and won the competition. In 2015 they reached the final again, with a squad of 15 - the smallest in the country; and they won once more in 2016, minus their star, David Willey. Under Ripley, Northants have overcome their financial limitations to record a win percentage of 60 - and have won eight of their nine knockout games.

Khan himself is an MBA from Rutgers University. "Owners generally gravitate towards big names but the future lies with GMs who know how to identify talent, interpret data, and understand how to build teams," he says. "Eventually an owner is going to come in and find someone who really knows what they're doing and he's going to empower them. It's really going to change when people have that continued success."

Trent Woodhill, who some consider the de facto GM at Melbourne Stars and Royal Challengers Bangalore, says: "We've sort of implemented that at the Stars. It's so hard for the coach to be a selector, a head coach and across analytics - that's going to dilute their man-management ability."

As T20 has only recently been embraced as serious professional sport, rather than cricketainment, "there has been little time for real expertise to emerge within coaches," says Paddy Upton, who has worked in the Big Bash, IPL and PSL.

Compared to longer formats of cricket, coaches believe that T20 lends itself especially well to active coaching - both during games and in meticulously planning before them.

With Queensland in the 1990s, John Buchanan pioneered a new model of coaching intervention: during one-day matches he ensured that several players were always padded up, and then changed the batting order himself. Buchanan believes that T20 will bring the coach's role in line with how it is in football and rugby. "The captain will still make the decisions on the field, but won't make the game-plan decisions - they'll be made off-field by the coach. Obviously the two of them need to work pretty closely. The coach is in the best position to read the game plan, have an eye on the data, and not be as emotionally involved in the game."

Such an approach is anathema to cricketers brought up on the traditional model of captain-coach power dynamics. In his recent autobiography, Sourav Ganguly was scathing in his description of Buchanan's multi-captain model with Kolkata Knight Riders in 2009, where three off-field captains, including Buchanan himself, would relay instructions or information to the on-field captain, Brendon McCullum.

"How the game is being thought about is very old-school," Buchanan reflects. "Until you can change those systems you'll continue to perpetuate the systems that have already been in place for hundreds of years."

According to Woodhill, the change that Buchanan wants to see is already afoot. "At the start of T20 it was literally: you'd give players the information about the game and what to expect and then let the players get on with playing and then you'd speak at the end," he says. "It's becoming more like baseball than Test cricket. There's a lot more interaction now than in Test cricket, where you sit back and let the day play out. In T20 now you've got to get the point across pretty quickly, otherwise it's too late."

John Buchanan believes that T20 will bring the coach's role in line with how it is in football and rugby. "The captain will still make the decisions on the field, but won't make the game-plan decisions - they'll be made off-field by the coach"

The batting order is now "collaborative", says Upton, who encourages players to suggest changes. The captain has the final say - except when he is batting, during which time the responsibility passes to Upton. Both Woodhill and Upton predict that specialist hitting coaches - distinct from other batting coaches - will become the norm in T20.

Cricket's embrace of analytics too has barely got underway. The Philadelphia 76ers, an NBA team, has 11 full-time analysts, yet it remains rare for any cricket side to have more than one full-time analyst. As analytics are explored more fully, it will create new demands on the team management about how to translate those numbers into things players can understand and act on.

"Generally coaches are too far from stats and analysts too far from strategy," says Upton. He believes that the coming years will see an entirely new position, with parallels in US sport: "a translator between the analyst and the coach and captain, using stats to inform strategy".

For elite coaches, accustomed to the relentless international circuit, franchise T20 creates entirely new dynamics. "Not so much the T20 game," says Upton, "but understanding the dynamics of these diverse short-term teams." Arriving a week or so before the first game, there is "very little time to pull the team, strategy and culture together". Upton believes that significant technical changes during the course of a T20 campaign are "more likely to be performance-inhibiting than enhancing".

In each T20 league, some players are at the start of their own personal seasons, others might be coming off an exhausting schedule. While coaches in international cricket - and in domestic cricket before the proliferation of T20 leagues - manage a group of players working on similar schedules, the modern T20 coach has a very different challenge.

The upshot is that a different form of coaching is required - what Upton terms player-centred coaching. "This is a two-way communication where players' ideas, learning requirements and reasons for participation are considered, and the coach sets the agenda and training based on players' inputs." During a T20 season, Upton keeps most practice sessions optional.

Players are also increasingly encouraged to go to analysts and specialist coaches for specific advice, and to think critically about their own games. Before the 2015-16 Big Bash, Upton asked the fast bowler Clint McKay to watch video footage of himself and think about what the opposition would say as they analysed the footage and prepared to face him at the death.

Daniel Vettori (right) is a sought-after coach in T20 leagues around the world, although his win-loss record isn't very impressive

Daniel Vettori (right) is a sought-after coach in T20 leagues around the world, although his win-loss record isn't very impressive © BCCI

"He guessed the opposition would be saying, hang back and wait for the slower ball, which he bowls about four out of every six balls. Based on this self-assessment, I asked what his counter-strategy could be, to which he replied, 'Wow, I've never looked at it like this. I'm not going to give them what they're expecting.'" McKay bowled fewer slower balls; batsmen waited for slower deliveries that never materialised, and he was the competition's top wicket-taker.

There is another complication to coaching in contemporary times. Even if players have a strong rapport with a particular coach they may be reluctant to share too much of the inner workings of their games. The itinerant T20 circuit is such that, a few months later, the coach is likely to meet the player again - but they might be on different sides. This means that "it is obvious that players will have, and should have, their own personal coaches", says Upton, envisaging the looming battles between players' private coaches and their coach at a franchise. "I suggest the tension will be equal to the size of the coaches' egos."

This new ecosystem will reorder what is expected of a T20 coach. Specialising in T20 is becoming nearly as common for coaches as for players. Already this year, there have been calls for Trevor Bayliss, with England, Darren Lehmann, with Australia (before the ball-tampering affair) and Mike Hesson, with New Zealand, to step down from their national T20 coaching roles, born of a belief that it is simply impossible to keep pace in all three formats of the sport simultaneously. Super-coach teams, comprising coaches who work together in different teams and leagues - like Simon Katich and Jacques Kallis at the two Knight Riders franchises - are emerging too.

It all adds to the sense of T20 coaching diverging as dramatically from Test cricket as the game itself. "They're as different as an 800-metre sprint and a 100-metre sprint," Woodhill says. "The roles for coaches are that different."

A few years ago, a study of kidney cancer across the 3141 counties of the United States revealed a notable trend. The counties where kidney cancer rates was lowest were concentrated in rural, sparsely populated Republican-voting areas in the midwest, the south and the west. What of the counties where kidney cancer rates were highest? They, too, were rural, sparsely populated Republican-voting areas in the midwest, the south and the west. As psychologist Daniel Kahneman noted in Thinking, Fast and Slow, what explained the divergence between the two groups was simple: they both comprised counties with low populations, their results were statistically volatile, and more prone to fluctuate between extremes. Kahneman terms this the law of small numbers.

At Tallawahs, Mohammad Khan was empowered to hire and fire backroom staff and negotiate player contracts. "If the coach screws up, that's on me. If the captain screws up, that's on me"

Numbers that seem remarkable are often the result of nothing more than a low sample size. When assessing which T20 teams are run best, there is a lot of noise and not much signal. Evaluating whether a team is performing well over a 162-game regular season in Major League Baseball is one thing; analysing how they perform over the nip-and-tuck of a short T20 league quite another. Over a 14-game IPL regular season, luck explains 80% of the variance in results, the cricket analyst Freddie Wilde has calculated, using a methodology developed by the sabermetrician Tom Tango. So it is fiendishly difficult to assess which teams - and those who run them - are genuinely good or bad, and which are T20's equivalent of the American counties with extreme kidney-cancer rates because of plain randomness.

But the more that coaches lead teams - and several coaches now work for three different T20 franchises a year - the less that can be attributed to luck. If coaches are to be increasingly empowered and recognised, Upton says that how they are evaluated must be modernised. "What happens when a coach is appointed? Who is appointed to help them learn, grow and improve? Who gives them feedback and conducts relevant and useful assessments? Nobody! What then is the assumption, that when a coach or captain is appointed, they are already the finished product?"

Khan believes that "too many coaches are given opportunities based on everything apart from their record".

Consider, for instance, Daniel Vettori. Already with three of the best T20 coaching roles - as head coach of Brisbane Heat, Royal Challengers Bangalore and Middlesex - he recently acquired a fourth job, with Rajshahi Kings in the Bangladesh Premier League. With his studious air, youth, and excellent playing pedigree in the format, Vettori certainly fits the image of what a new-age T20 coach should look like.

The results suggest otherwise. At each of Brisbane, Bangalore and Middlesex, Vettori has a win ratio of under 45%, according to Dan Weston of Sports Analytics Advantage - a strikingly poor performance considering the significant financial resources of all the teams, and since he has coached for a total of ten T20 seasons, one that can't easily be blamed on a small sample size.

Weston had to work out Vettori's results manually: remarkably, in a game overflowing with statistics, there is no resource that collates something as simple as a coach's win-loss record. There are no cricket coaches to compare with Sir Alex Ferguson, Vince Lombardi or Gregg Popovich, let alone general managers as revered as Epstein or Morey. Until there are no proper records, there never can be. For cricket coaches and general managers to lead T20's next revolution, first they must properly be held to account for what they actually do.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts