Mickey Arthur is enjoying his time in Sri Lanka. But the last few weeks have been challenging. With the country witnessing curfew due to the outbreak of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, the head coach of the Sri Lanka cricket team has confined himself in a hotel in Colombo.
While he is far away from home and the family, Arthur has ensured that he follows a strict routine. “It’s tough to be honest,” he says. “But I try and follow as much routine as possible. I wake up, hit the gym, go for swimming and then come back and do some work -- communicate with the coaches and players.”
He analyses the oppositions that Sri Lanka will face in the next few months, reads up articles that would help him ‘develop as a coach’. “I have done a lot of research on my computer,” he says, revealing that when there is no work, he enjoys watching a few series on Netflix .
In a chat with Sportstar on Tuesday, the 51-year-old opens up on his coaching stint, and also explains why it is important to resume cricket ‘possibly without any spectators’.
With no cricketing activity, how are you keeping the players motivated?
We have got 30 boys and obviously there is a curfew at home. We have guys like Angelo Mathews, Thisara Perera -- who have full-fledged gym at their homes, whereas some of the young boys don’t have so much facilities. So, our staff has put together a training programme, based on what facilities are available to the players. Our boys are doing their physical training and I am spending a lot of time, communicating with the coaches and support staff and drawing up individual player plans.
I have spent three months with the team, so it has given me a good chance to look at who our players are for every format and who would drive us forward. I have put together some player plans and have discussed it with the players remotely. I have tried to keep them as active as we possibly can in these times.
Have you started any online classes for the players?
No. The guys are training and I have a lot of communication with them. They have had to share a lot of stuff with me, which has allowed me to put the player-plan together, along with the other coaches. I have shared my thoughts with them, and they have had their inputs. A lot of it has been done on one-on-one basis with our players. We are in a phase of unknown, the key factor in this time has been our WhatsApp group, where I send some stimulating piece of reading every other day. I have tried to keep the guys updated with where we sit at this point of time. I have forwarded them any information I have got. We have had a lot of communication and the players have been pretty actively involved in almost turning their games with the coaches, so that when we get back to start, these players are ready to go.
We are hoping that the curfew breaks next week and we can bring in our fast bowling group (for training). Those are the guys who are going to need the most (number of time). We will only be allowed to bring in a small number of players, so we will bring the fast bowlers to the ground first, so that whenever we are ready, we know these guys have had enough preparation time.
There is a lot of speculation on whether there will be enough cricket this year. What are your thoughts?
Look, I hope we can get as much cricket as we possibly can. Obviously, there is a bigger thing at stake. You obviously go back to player safety and etcetra, all that has to be perfect. I do think that there has to be a collective will from all cricket boards to play as much cricket as they can, albeit perhaps without spectators. Otherwise, financially, every cricket board is going to take some significant strain, and that influences players, coaches, support staff, grassroots cricket. That impacts so much on everything. So, there is a collective will for all of us to play as much as we possibly can in this environment.
But the fans keep the sport alive. So, how feasible will it be to play in front of empty stands?
It’s certainly not ideal. There is a perception that the fans keep the game going. Yes, the fans play a massive role, but the Boards make big money from the television rights -- paid by television companies to broadcast the games. So, that’s the money you kind of tap in if you are playing in front of no fans. I have got a simple philosophy. I read people saying that the Australia-New Zealand ODI (which was played in closed doors at the Sydney Cricket Ground on March 13 before the coronavirus-induced lockdown came into effect) was like a warm-up game. First of all, no game for your country is a warm-up game. Secondly, you may feel that nobody is watching you, but I can promise you that world has been starved of international sport on television. So, the eyeballs watching you on television will be massive.
What’s your take on the T20 World Cup? Should it go ahead as per schedule?
My thought is that we should certainly try our hardest to play T20 World Cup this year. There are two points: Firstly, it gives a lot of cricket boards their revenue. Secondly, people can’t forget that next year, there is another T20 World Cup in India. So, where does this one fit in the calendar? I think it is so important for the cricket world that we play the T20 World Cup this year.
Once the action resumes, cricket will never be the same again. There are suggestions that artificial substances could replace saliva to shine the ball. Do you think these factors will eventually have an impact on the game?
I certainly feel that in the short term, there is going to be a change. I think people should also be health conscious in terms of using hand sanitisers, wearing masks. That’s the way the world is going to be. But I do think that normality will come back in time.
You have been coaching in the Asian sub-continent for a while now. How has been the experience of coaching teams like Pakistan and Sri Lanka?
The experience has been incredible. It’s now an open secret that I loved my three years with Pakistan. That experience was amazing. But I loved five years with South Africa. My stint with Australia ended in tears after 18 months. Sri Lanka is a total new project for me and I am loving my time in Sri Lanka. It’s a beautiful country and we have some very talented young players. Somebody once said to me, and this is something I always say: As an international cricket coach, you have never coached till you have coached in the sub-continent. I can totally vouch for that. There has been something magical with coaching teams in the sub-continent. I absolutely adore it, I love the challenge of new cultures. It’s been very fulfilling so far.
How is coaching a team from the sub-continent different than coaching a team in South Africa or Australia? What are the things that a foreign coach keeps in mind when he travels to this part of the world?
There are so many cultural differences. The one key aspect to coaching Pakistan was understanding the religious aspect around it, which is very prominent. It’s understanding the respect level that the young Pakistan players have for the senior players. It’s there in India too. There is a real respect.
Yes, it is there in Australia or South Africa as well. I try and allow the players to be themselves, because being themselves gives you better result. I like an environment where there are challenges within the right mood. When you get players challenging each other and talking about games and having differences of opinion, that’s when you start moving the team forward. Those conversations have been tougher in sub-continent than those in the ‘western’ world -- if you may say so. Those conversations are different because they are easier had in South Africa or Australia. But because of the respect level and the different cultures I find in the sub-continent that no younger players will challenge a senior player. So, it’s interesting. Someway, it’s really good and very respectful. But in other way, to move the team forward, you need to be able to have those conversations as a group.
In Pakistan, you played a key role in creating a pool of talent. How challenging was the task, given the fact that you took over at a time when Pakistan had to play its home games in the UAE?
It was tough. When we came in, there was no real structure. So, the first thing was to give whole cricket a bit of structure. It was important to find training sessions, find goals, find values that the team stood for. It was kind of finding the players who you felt fitted the team and then fitting those players within your team, so that you could give the team success now, but also attain sustainable success.
Also, I had to keep an eye on what was happening down the lower level. That wasn’t always possible because as I said, the structure was so haphazard in Pakistan. It was tough but I tried to keep a finger on the pulse in terms of what was happening certainly from the U-19 team all the way through.
I saw Babar Azam grow as a cricketer. That was so important. People had said that Babar Azam cannot play. I ensured that Babar Azam plays every game for Pakistan. He is that good a player. We had to give him the roots to grow and wings to fly. We had to give him the time and we are seeing the results now.
I love developing younger players and giving them opportunity was crucial because over a period of time, that gives you sustainable success. I have always been a coach, who has tried to identify the areas that we needed to improve. I have tried to identify the brand of cricket we play and then structure the team with people who can fit into that brand of cricket. Then, give them an opportunity and allow them to get an extended run. That is important because that gives the players confidence and allows your team culture to grow. Once you have that, you can win a title like the Champions Trophy. We started the tournament ranked eighth and we ended up winning it. It happened because of the confidence we showed in the young players.
Now that you are in Sri Lanka, what are your targets? The team has failed to be consistent in all the three formats. So, what are you doing to ensure that domestic structure keeps a pace with the international standards?
We are trying to implement the national standard. I know Jerome Jayaratne (Chief Cricket Operations Officer, Sri Lanka Cricket) has played a massive role and has put the high-performance structure in place. It’s important that you have a set method, a set way. It is also important that players know where they exactly stand.
If you look at the rankings now, Sri Lanka should be higher than where they are. We should be changing, particularly in white-ball cricket, where we are ranked seventh or eighth. We should be higher than that.
What has gone wrong?
This happened because of lack of confidence shown in the players. Players came in and after one bad innings, they didn’t play again. So, there was continuous chopping and changing in terms of selection. What I have tried to do in the last three months is to create some consistency in selection. So, players know where they stand. They are not chucked out after one poor performance because what happens with that is you get your players playing for themselves and not for the team.
So, we are trying to create a mentality, and I am trying to create a culture of excellence where mediocrity is not accepted. That’s one thing I am tough on. (It is about) the way you prepare -- physically, technically and mentally and the goals that we set. It is about creating a brand that suits our style and players that we have available. We are thinking big. We have got talent, so it’s going to be an exciting journey.
With the lockdown, there is no clarity on the future of World Test Championship. What are your thoughts?
I am part of the ICC Cricket Committee, where I represent the coaches. I think the World Test Championships and the one-day World Championships -- that was to begin around this time -- have to happen for international cricket. It gives international cricket context, it gives every game in a bilateral series, a context. There is no dead game. Even if the series is won, you are actually playing for championship points. That’s so important. Whether that gets moved out a year or the Future Tours Programme gets changed a little bit to factor in all the lost tournaments and to factor that it might be played over a period of two years, I think it’s very feasible. I would not ever like to see the concept of Test Championships or ODI championships lost because that gives Test cricket and One-day cricket real relevance now.
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