From county bowler exceptional to Essex’s messiah as head coach, Chris Silverwood’s progress from playing to coaching was organic, if unplanned. The paceman who plied his wares largely for home county Yorkshire and Middlesex for 16 seasons in the English county championship is now a respected international coach, his passion taking him to Sri Lanka where he has been head honcho for the last nine months.
Silverwood finished his playing career with 577 first-class and 259 List-A wickets, and while he played 13 internationals for England, it’s as a coach that he has made waves. In 2017, he guided Essex to its first Division One County title in 25 years, following which he was roped in as England’s bowling coach and then the head coach after the 2019 World Cup. After parting ways with England in early 2022, he took over as Sri Lanka’s top boss in April 2022. The Lankans are unbeaten in three-Test series under the 47-year-old, apart from emerging surprise winners of the T20 Asia Cup in the UAE last September.
In this chat, Silverwood reflects on his journey as a coach, on fast bowling and plenty things cricket.
Q: First things first, why and how did you foray into coaching?
A: By chance, if I am honest. I was playing second-team games in the last of my contract with Middlesex (2009) and I was down in Gloucestershire. I sat opposite Anthony Ireland, he is Zimbabwean by birth and was playing for Gloucester. He got a text from the guys back in Zimbabwe that the leagues are starting again, do you know anybody that can play or coach? I had no idea what I was going to do after that year. I was finishing at Middlesex, and I knew I was done, so I just said yes, why not. Then the phone call came through from the guys in Zim, ‘Are you serious?’ I finished at the end of September with Middlesex and on the 7th of October, I flew to Zimbabwe to take over as head coach at Mashonaland. I spent six months over there and came back to England to take over as a bowling coach at Essex, which was my closest county at the time. Bowling coach there then went on to second-team coach, assistant coach, and first-team coach for two years, then went to England as bowling coach and obviously head coach and now Sri Lanka.
Q: What were the adjustments you had to make, going from player to coach in less than a month?
A: One of the biggest things I had to do was to teach, rather than someone telling me and advising me what to do. As a senior player, you start giving out advice, trying to help the youngsters coming through and doing your best to help them on the field. But I think it was learning how to get the message across to different people. Everybody learns in different ways, one way doesn’t suit all. You have to adjust, learn to work with different personality types, and learn how your personality affects other people. How I need to adjust, and how I am to get the message across. It’s a lot of little intricacies I had to learn to become effective at what I was trying to do. That was an interesting journey. I was walking into an environment where English wasn’t everyone’s first language, there was that language barrier. Being a Yorkshireman, my accent is quite strong at times -- actually when I talk quickly or get excited! In a way, I had to learn to adjust and work in a different environment and in different ways. The biggest thing is it’s not all about you now because you are no longer a player. It’s all about them. And flicking that switch, you pour all your energy into that. Probably share experiences and try and make sure people don’t fall into the same sort of potholes that you did along the way. But you can’t make your experience their experience, they still have to do things for themselves and grow and progress at their speed rather than yours. The other thing I learnt was patience, which I wasn’t that great at – my wife would tell you I still am not! But yes, there are lots and lots of little lessons that you learn along the way and there’s no doubt that you have to adjust. I suppose it’s about the realisation that you are no longer a player; it’s not about you anymore, it’s about them and how you can help them. And how you can create an environment where they thrive.
Q: In that early period, was it frustrating, going from doing things first-hand to now sitting back and having to rely on others to do the job?
A: Terrifying, to be honest. It was extremely terrifying. All of a sudden, rather than you being in a sea of faces looking that way, you are standing on the outside and the sea of faces is looking at you. They expect you to know what you are doing and sometimes you go ‘I’ve not done this yet’. That was the harsh experience of no longer being a player and stepping up as a head coach. At that point, I had not gone through the ranks at a county as a coach or anything like that, so it was just ‘get on with it’. You are at the deep end, you have got to make this work. You had to become organised – I was always pretty well organised. You had to become ultra-organised, you had to look after yourself and other people. You learn a lot of life skills along the way but yeah, initially, the first thought was terrifying.
Q: When you got back to England, you joined Essex as its bowling coach. How different an experience was that?
A: Obviously, the basic structure is the same, it’s a game of cricket. You just try to teach the same skills. The difference is, I was very quick to deal with the county system because I knew how it worked. found that side of it easier. Thankfully, I went to a county that I had not played at, which made it easier because there was no history there. You go in and you start afresh.
Q: Does that not work both ways?
A: I think you can go back to a county that you have played at, but if I am honest, there needs to be a gap. That would have been my experience, my feelings. I know there are coaches now that have come straight out of playing and are coaching their counties and they are doing really well but for me, I would have needed that gap to go somewhere else, to get out of that environment, to learn new skills, to come back. And then there’s also that gap between you and the players that you may have just played with. Sometimes, not sometimes actually, there has to be a line between you and the players. You can’t step over to that side and they can’t step over to your side. At some point, it’s inevitable, you are going to upset them, you are going to leave them out, tell them off, whatever it might be. So there has to be that line. And if friendship swings too far around, it may become blurred, that line. Giving that gap allows you to have that line. So frankly Essex, I hadn’t played there. But the bonus was that I did know everyone. Or most people. They knew my playing background. They knew that I had played at the highest level and that I had been a very successful county bowler. I wouldn’t say I was particularly successful as an international bowler, I played, enjoyed it, and had a bit of success, but I would say my major success came in the counties. That helps you straightaway get the ear of the player. You have that respect there already, and the ability to talk to them. I think if you talk rubbish, they will figure it out very quickly! They won’t tolerate it. And equally, the guys that haven’t played first-class cricket, there is no reason they can’t become very respected as well. I think it takes them slightly longer to get that respect. So, knowing the system helps in that initial period. But after that, you have got to be able to produce the goods, otherwise, they will figure you out quickly.
Q: As Essex’s head coach, you took them to the Division Two title in 2016 and the Division One title the following year. What went into those two successes?
A: A lot of hard work, by the players, the club and the coaching staff. Having come through the ranks, I knew how everything worked. I had been the bowling coach, and second-team coach, I worked at the academy. Till the day I left, I made myself available at the academy and I would file as an employee – ‘This is your academy, you run it, tell me where you want me’. I did that and it helped me get to know the youngsters, get to know how the culture at the club worked. Having done all that, I knew where the gaps were, I knew where we were strong and I knew where we had to mix it up. All I did was give an interview for the job, get the job, implement the plan, and strengthen where we needed to. We became a very strong unit because we plugged in the gaps. Simon Harmer (the South African off-spinner) helped. I did all the analysis -- who has won the championship for the last five years, which clubs have done it, who has been successful, how have they been successful, what their bowling attack looks like, what does their top seven look like. We looked at ourselves to find out where the gaps were. All of a sudden, we had got a very, very strong batting line-up and a bowling unit that could take wickets in any set of conditions. Having Harmer helped. Jamie Porter was coming through, there were a couple of other guys, Kolpak guys. Harmer was one of the Kolpak guys who is an off-spinner. So I got Mohammad Amir and Neil Wagner, two left-arm fast bowlers, to create the rough. Tactically, a lot of thought went into what was happening. I was driving that and getting a lot of help in trying to push that over the line from the senior management, the chief executive, the chairman of cricket, all these guys. And then, putting the plan in place to make sure it worked. I worked closely with the groundsmen as well. When you look at it, firstly we have to get out of the second division. How does the second division operate? We noticed a lot of clubs were leaving grass on the wicket and little medium-paced seamers would do a lot of damage. You look at the county averages every year, that’s what happens. I said right, if we look at the points system, how does this break up? How to maximise batting points and how many points per game do we need to make sure that you win at the end? If you lose a game, you are not overly fussed as long as you are up with the points, you are creeping up on it. We didn’t leave any stone unturned. The groundsmen flattened out our decks, so the batsmen scored runs. The bowling attack could bowl people out on flat wickets. When we went to other grounds, our batsmen were full of confidence, so they managed to score runs on those wickets as well and equally, we had a bowling attack that could bowl them out on flat wickets, so when there is help, you are going to run through people. That’s what happened.
We continued that strategy into the first division, I used the first division strategy to win division two, and then to win the championship. So, it’s a lot of work, a lot of planning, a lot of help getting the plans through by the people I have mentioned, a lot of hard work put in by the players as well because ultimately, it’s them that did it. We had people that had a great year. Harmer took wickets, Porter took wickets. We had Sam Cook come through. Tom Westley. It helped to have Alastair Cook playing, Browney (Nick Browne, the opener)… Some of the guys who had been at Essex and moved away came back and that helped the side. The one thing we did do was that at any given point, the minimum we had was eight Essex-born players on the field. It was a bit of a conscious decision because I wanted to drive the academy. I wanted to use our own because when the going gets tough, the fact that it’s your hometown, you tend to push harder rather than having people from the outside who had no particular feeling or emotion for Chelmsford or Essex. That helped.
Having good skills as well. Amir, my word, when he got it right, no one could touch him. I mean we have got Harmer and Wagner, Cook. We had some big names and some youngsters who were having a great season. It’s just the old adage of pulling together as a team, a lot of talent and planning involved.
Q: Having spent time at Essex, and with England as bowling coach and then head coach, what was it like to come to Sri Lanka?
A: The biggest problem was said to be the language barrier. We have people in the team that speak very good English and those that speak very little. You got to foster both relationships where you can get help from people. And you have to do your best to make sure these guys are still getting the attention they deserve and need. I have been lucky that there are guys that speak very good English and convey messages that I have got and I am lucky that quite a few of the players faintly get my accent and do the same for me, especially within the bowling unit because obviously, that’s where I naturally tend to find myself, working with the fast bowlers. We can use that as a way of getting beyond the language barrier. And cricket’s a universal language, so it’s not that difficult. It brings all of us together. I spend a lot of time listening to them. I don’t understand a lot but usually, through gestures, movements, and the odd word, I can pick up the conversation when it is about cricket. When I can’t understand, I ask and I encourage the players that if you don’t understand, don’t be scared of saying ‘Coach, I don’t understand’. I won’t get upset, I am not precious. I’d rather you ask and get the message right and equally, I’d do the same. That door goes both ways and they know they can do that as well.
Q: Are there more fast-bowling injuries now than before, or is it just that fast bowling isn’t a natural activity, so there are bound to be injuries?
A: You hit the nail on the head there, it’s an unnatural movement, isn’t it? If you study the fast bowling action biomechanically, you are putting pressure on very small joints everywhere. Injuries happen. You can do your best to minimise them, fitness certainly helps, without a shadow of a doubt. If a bowler has what I call a good engine, then he can operate at a higher end for longer. Usually, injuries happen during fatigue. Mentally when we are tired, we make poor decisions. It helps all around if the bowler is physically fit, and physically strong enough to do his job; it’s almost what I call functional strength. If you are strong enough to do your job and do it for long periods and make good decisions in the heat of the battle, then you are fit enough. Again, it’s an attitudinal shift that this is what I am going to do to give myself the best chance of success. You hear players talk about it. Some players talk about it and don’t do it, it’s something that when the penny drops, you can see people improve because fundamentally, it’s a thing that helps you train for longer, train harder to make better decisions not just on the field but in life as well. If your decisions are based on being successful on the cricket field, it generally means that you make better decisions in life as well. That’s not a bad thing in itself. It doesn’t stop injuries, it helps prevent them. You got to deal that way. Prevention is better than cure but equally, you recover faster as and when you do get injured.
Q: Isn’t it ironic that we have progressed so much in terms of scientific awareness and yet there are so many injuries now?
A: One explanation could be the volume of cricket we expect these guys to play. This tour, for example (Sri Lanka in India, January 2023), the T20 series backed up by the ODI series, is fairly condensed. The one thing the pandemic has taught us is that you can cram a lot of cricket into a very short space. Unfortunately, the Indian players are going to see that as well. They have finished with us, and then you’ve got another international team rolling in (New Zealand) and another one after that (Australia for four Tests). You have a really chock-a-block schedule and then you have got a huge chunk at the back of that in the IPL, which everyone in the world wants to play in. It’s something that’s not going away. We don’t get those natural breaks in between anymore. Even the big tours nowadays are getting condensed. In the previous days, you’d get a few warm-up games before a Test match. You are looking to get one now, and usually, it’s for three days. There are more and more global tournaments and franchise tournaments. It’s not going away, so might as well embrace it and enjoy it. These things are going to get more and more popular. Maybe, that’s one explanation for it, hence if you want to play all these franchise tournaments and international tournaments, you have to be at the top of your physical fitness to enable you to be successful and be fit and healthy through all of them.
Q: Going forward, is there a danger of fast bowlers becoming disillusioned with Test cricket?
A: You have got to make the longer format cricket better. That’s the long and short of it. We are seeing people now not signing central contracts, they are free agents. I can see that becoming more popular as time goes on. Domestically, we have to keep driving the longer format. We all love Test cricket, we all love the longer format, whether it is the strategic value to it. It’s like a big game of chess, isn’t it? As you get older, you appreciate it a lot more. There is still a want and a niche for that but you are not taking away franchise T20 cricket. It is always attractive for the youngsters coming through to want to play in the method that they can actually go on the world stage, in the IPL, the Big Bash, The Hundred, whatever it may be, and make a lot of money out of it as well. You can earn a very good living bouncing around playing franchise cricket. But not everybody can do that, so there will still be people around wanting to play Test cricket because their skills will lend themselves to the longer format. The need is still there, we just got to keep nurturing them and give them the boost it needs to keep it going.
Q: Having said that, is it fair to expect the youngsters coming through to feel that Test cricket is the premier format?
A: It will be interesting to sit a lot of the players down and ask that question and see what answer we will get because I am not sure what the answer is.
Q: So then, are we snobbish about Test cricket?
A: I suppose it is the pinnacle for us because we have grown up with it. It’s certainly our generation, we have grown up with it. I can remember running up from school to catch the last session of Test cricket on the BBC when it was on, especially when the West Indies were playing and all the fast bowlers were out there. It was a sprint from school to get home so I could watch the last session or so. People are now more interested in turning it on and watching these guys smack it out of the ground. They are more for the glitz and the glamour and the show that goes with it. It’s not just a game of cricket, the IPL. It’s theatre, isn’t it? Let’s be honest, it’s a living, breeding theatre. I can understand why people get hooked to it but like you say, we have got to appreciate it as much as we do the longer format as well because, like it or not, it’s here to stay.
Q: Is it possible to teach someone to bowl fast?
A: You can give them the basic instructions on mechanics. Biomechanically, you can get them into positions. Some people are more prone to bowl fast than others. The fact is, if you want to bowl fast, there’s always got to be the passion and the desire to bowl fast. Those guys will always find a way to do it. Yes, you have got to have attributes. It always helps if you are tall, have long levers and fast-twitch fibres. You can teach the shape of a fast bowler, but they have got to want to do it as well. It’s got to be there inside. For me, I used to watch (Allan) Donald, (Courtney) Walsh, these guys, and I wanted to do that. I always had the passion and the drive -- how fast can I get? The coaches helped me develop a shape to maximise my pace and what I could do. A lot of the coaches do teach the basic shapes and the templates. But you can’t waver in your will. You can teach people positions but I don’t think it guarantees that they will bowl fast. There’s got to be some natural element that will allow that to happen.
Q: Talking of bowling fast, your take on Umran Malik?
A: He’s a fantastic bowler. He has certainly been exciting to watch. As an ex-fast bowler, I always enjoy watching the young fast bowlers work, and how they go about their business. How do they react when there’s not much going their way? How they keep coming. You see how big a heart there is. Briefly, you are looking at how they are using their head as well. I have seen him do both. He has kept going with a smile, the way he has bowled, the wobble seams, the bouncers. You can see there is a smart bowler in there as well. I have enjoyed watching him go about his work.
Q: Let’s say you see something in an opposition fast bowler that you feel you can help with. Do you talk to them after a series, or how does that work?
A: I think so, wait till the end of the series. But equally, you got to respect the fact that they have got fast bowling coaches as well and you don’t want to step on people’s toes. I’d rather have players come and say have you seen anything? If you get an opportunity at the end of the series, great. Sometimes, bringing the two groups together helps to do that. I know it used to happen more often than it does now. Things have changed, and schedules are hectic. But if people want to talk, you should share because we are all here for the same thing, really. We are all here to play cricket, we are here to see good cricket, and we are all here to improve. So why not help each other? To me, it’s about if I can help somebody, I will. I am always very careful about not treading on people’s toes or assuming that I know better than anybody else. But if I can help, I will.
Q: A little bit on Suryakumar Yadav and how much he has impressed you?
A: He seems to have a lot of time. He seems to get into positions to hit the ball even before you let go of it and as a bowler, that’s always a pain in the rear! Before you let it go, he knows what he is going to do! He is very organised, uses the crease, gets into good positions, and equally, he has got timing and power to go with it. He hits 360, which is very difficult for a bowler. I know we fed him at times when he got that hundred (in the final T20 in Rajkot), but you still have to put that ball away. And he did so time after time. The best batsmen, or the ones who are in (good) nick, just seem to have time and they seem to be that one step ahead of you all the time. As soon as you let go of it, they know what you have bowled. I suppose that’s what makes him a special talent. But it also shows the absolute depth and class in India’s talent pool at the moment. It’s great for our bowlers to bowl at people like him and learn. Some of them will come across him in future, some won’t. It’s about the experience. As much as it hurts at the time, you can go back and reflect on it and use it in a learning way the next time you come back and find yourself in that position. Forewarned is forearmed, isn’t it? You can hopefully come back with a plan and try something different. The next time we come against him, let’s see if that works. But it still may not be because he is a very fine player.
Q: Anyone you bowled to that gave you the Suryakumar feel of almost knowing what you were going to bowl?
A: Actually, too many! You let go of the ball and you look up and it says 90 mph on the board but it feels like it has gone down at 70 miles an hour because the batsman is in position already. There are a few of the Aussie boys. (Matthew) Hayden was hard to bowl at. I had a few gos at (Justin) Langer in my time, but he was just so determined. (Jacques) Kallis had a lot of time. There were some good ones there which made your life hard work. But that’s what makes it fun as well, doesn’t it?