Full Interview conducted by Varun Shetty:
Stuart Law, who became West Indies’ coach in February 2017, saw them through the World Cup Qualifiers, but he won’t be sticking around for the big tournament itself next year, having taken on a job with Middlesex. Under him, West Indies won six out of 15 Tests, including a famous chase of 322 at Headingley last year, secured series wins over Zimbabwe and Bangladesh, a draw with Sri Lanka, and did well in T20Is too. He talks about working to change West Indies’ cricket culture, the singular talent of Shai Hope, and why Jason Holder still needs to work on his leadership skills.
It has been over two years since you took over from Phil Simmons. What was the state of the game in the West Indies then and what was your mandate from the board?
The mandate was pretty clear: to get us moving forward, both on and off the field. You create a professional development system that is going to improve the cricketers at a different rate to what they expected. So first of all, I had to see what was going on. I watched a little bit of domestic cricket and had a pretty quick intro into international cricket against England – which wasn’t easy against their one-day side. The first thing I noticed was that we needed to be fitter and stronger. It wasn’t really a cricket skill issue.
We needed to work smarter, not longer. I think sometimes the net session can go on for far too long – you can turn a five-day game into a six-day game by training too long the day before. That was [about] changing the mindset, changing the culture. We had to get the fitness and strength into it but also work ethic that was going to be smarter rather than time-consuming. Slowly but surely over time, it’s developed very well. The boys now know what they’re doing three days out from a game.
Was there a particular aspect that struck you as something that needed to be sorted out immediately?
Fitness counts for a lot of things. It counts for decision-making on the ground. If you’re not physically fit, you can make poor decisions in the middle because you can get tired. And that was it.
I saw a lot of skill. Still do. Every player that comes in here has got something about him. One thing they need to work on is being able to maintain that skill level under pressure the entirety of the game rather than ten or 12 overs here and there.
We’ve got good pace, we’ve got good spin, and we’ve got young kids coming in. I’m excited to see them coming in. There’s skill in the Caribbean. Just need to get them fit and strong. If they’re fit and strong, they’re going to maintain that skill a lot longer.
“Marlon Samuels is a very misunderstood bloke. Tough as teak. But he’s got a bit of compassion too”
How do you ensure such a direction is taken?
It’s a different system now to what Phil Simmons had. Since I’ve come in, there’s been a change of CEO – Jonny Graves, from England, who I know really well. Jimmy Adams was employed as director of cricket. I believe this is the first time that the West Indies has someone from the West Indies in that role.
I worked with those guys to come up with what we’re going to do and then delivered it to the board, which will then filter down into the regional groups. We need to get each region’s headquarters onto one island – all the players there, so they can live there and do gym together, run together, play cricket together. That’s a big move but a brave one. And that’s where we have to get to.
The islands need to just make a commitment and do that, and I think that with the likes of Jimmy and Jonny on board, the directors definitely want to make this improvement. That would be the No. 1 priority.
Next one would be to have an academy. We had an academy for a while. It was disbanded for whatever reason. We’re in the process of developing one in Antigua, where we’ve seen immediate improvement. A lot of these young fast bowlers coming through, they’ll be able to come in for two-three months at a time, get through an extensive gym program, which will give them functional strength to bowl fast. People back in the Caribbean say: “Why do we need ’em [academies]? We didn’t back in the day.” I think we need it now because every other nation does. And every other nation has started to catch up and go past us. So I think we need to do the same.
You were exposed to long-form cricket for a long time as a player, which is not something the young batsmen in West Indies have currently. From a developmental perspective, do you train these guys on skills? Is that even possible to do at the Test level?
I feel sorry for a lot of them because they’re learning on the road. International cricket is a super tough environment to learn in. If you’re not understanding what goes into playing long-form cricket, it can be bloody tough.
I think to play long-form cricket, you need to be able to play on really good surfaces and understand what it takes to bat all day. Also understand what it takes to think a batsman out rather than run in and let go and let the wicket do the job. I think that’s what the Caribbean needs. They need a little bit of love down in the regions to make sure the pitches that they play on are the best they can possibly be. I’ve seen games go two days, one and a half days, which is no good for anyone. You need decent pitches. I’d like to see them more hard, fast and bouncy, so it’ll encourage the fast bowlers. Wherever we go, we play on hard, fast, bouncy wickets. Even in India, the wicket in Hyderabad had good pace and bounce in it.
That will improve our longer-form cricket immediately. It’ll also improve our one-day cricket, because batters are not looking for balls that’ll hit them in the head or roll along the ground. Our boys come [overseas] and they see the surfaces in the nets and they are better than the wickets they play out in the middle back home. Everyone sees what other countries get.
Has the unavailability of senior batsmen because of contract issues affected batting quality in the team?
It has affected things, yes. It does have a detrimental effect. When you pick a side – talking about these ODI – you sit down at a selection table and three or four players pull out for one reason or another, you sort of think, well, okay, what’s going on?
Some players have explained to me what’s going on, and some haven’t really explained it. So it’s hard to get that continuity in the team. What we’re doing right now is building up for a World Cup. And if we keep chopping and changing, [it isn’t ideal].
Look, players have their reasons and I respect they have their reasons. They’ve got to put food on the table, they’ve got to do it the best way they can. The contracts are there in place and [some of] the players want to commit to the board. Others are more in demand in the rest of the world, and they can command a higher wage. All in all, it’s their decision. There’s nothing else you can do. But it would be great to have full accessibility to these players to use not only their skills but also their experience to help the youngsters get better.
Does it affect the team morale when players back out?
These guys are pretty good. They’ve been through a lot at such a young age. And you know that’s our job as the management to make sure they’re given everything we possibly can. And they tell you the reason. They don’t tell you made-up stories.
It’s disappointing yes, but it’ll be interesting to see if the couple of debutants in this series – if a bowler comes in and takes two lots of five wickets, a batter comes in and scores a hundred and 80 not out, what everyone is going to start thinking then.
Are you more technically inclined, or do you prefer a managerial or mentorship role?
If I wanted to change technique, I would be coaching the Under-12s. By the time you’re 15, 16, it’s very hard to change a technique. You’ve got to give snippets on how to use that technique to score runs and study the batter – how you think the bowler is going to try and get you out, and then give them options: a) how to negate them, and b) how you’re going to score your runs.
I’m not a technical coach. I can pick the pieces of technique, but if you’re doing that here on the road, you’re basically giving the player no confidence, by saying everything is wrong with your technique and you need to change. I think if you need that sort of technical work, you’re better off doing that in the pre-season.
Here I talk about basic things. If they’re falling over or not taking a stride, you can change that on the road. But if it’s a complete set-up, a trigger movement, or a particular shot, very hard to learn it.
Jason Holder said you have a close working relationship with Shai Hope. Could you tell us a little about that?
I’ve got a close working relationship with a lot of the boys. Shai, you watch him bat and he scores very pretty runs. And you’ve got another kid, Rovman Powell, who, when I first got here, struggled against the spinning ball, struggled in defense. Now, he’s turned into our most improved white-ball cricketer.
I don’t think Shai realizes yet how good he can be. He probably says he does, but deep down I don’t think he realizes how good he could be. It’s a constant conversation. He always tells me he wants me to be honest. I tell him when he’s had a good day, I tell him when he’s had a bad day. He can trust me. If I need to pass information down the chain to one of the coaches, I won’t mention the specifics that we spoke about or the way it was spoken. He’s a fine young player, a dedicated professional. He’s now got to step up. He’s got to grab the opportunities he’s been given because he’s leaving far too many runs out in the middle.
“We had some success. I wouldn’t rate it a great success. There were plenty of games where we were in control and we lost. Which goes back to fitness”
Like Hope, there are guys like Shane Dowrich, Kraigg Brathwaite and Roston Chase who have done well recently during your time. But Holder has leaped over them all dramatically. Why do you think that is?
Roston Chase has had a good time. Dowrich has worked very hard away from our group, with coaches back in Barbados.
The only thing I’ve done for Jason is given him more responsibility. People say he’s still very young, but he’s played a lot of cricket. We can’t just keep saying these guys are still learning. You’ve got to learn but you’ve also got to develop.
Jason started swinging the ball massively back in the Caribbean during the Sri Lanka and Bangladesh series. He bowled well in England without getting the rewards. Probably bowled slightly the wrong length, but he quickly worked out that if you’ve got to swing the ball big, you’ve got to pitch it up. As soon as he did that, he got wickets against Bangladesh. He has developed, and it’s not through constant badgering and constant chatting.
You give him an idea, he might say one thing, might do another thing. You might not talk to him at all and let him work it out in the field and he’s actually gone and embraced that and started to take more control. His leadership still has some way to go. [He needs to] understand that sometimes you can’t be nice to everybody, and not everyone’s going to like it. As a captain you’ve got to be the big brother, and sometimes a school teacher. And that’s how you’re going to command respect. Whatever you say should happen.
Is there anything in particular about Jason that has set him apart?
As a captain he’s responsible for the results in the field along with me. As responsible for preparation off the field as on. If it doesn’t affect you here [points to heart] and mentally, nothing will. You’ve got to have that passion and desire for the team to do well.
He’s a driven young man who’s also very thoughtful, which I think is standing him in better stead. He’s also highly skilled. He can bat, he can bowl, and for a big man, he’s got great hands in the field and can move pretty well. So he’s got the skill.
Mentally, not a lot affects him. He’s gone through the wringer. He gets abuse daily from the Caribbean saying he’s not good enough, and that just drives him forward. I can relate to that – people telling you you’re not good enough and shouldn’t be playing. To keep making that work for you is a credit to him. Other players take it on board and take it to heart too much. You can’t listen to what we call “the bullshit”. You can only listen to what your team-mates are telling you and what your coaching staff and family are telling you.
You’ve got a very young batting line-up, and the World Cup is not too far away. What was the plan leading into that after qualifying?
Seems to be an ever-changing line-up due to personal issues or other issues beyond our control. At the moment that plan has to change every tour because of new personnel. So now it’s all about opportunity. These young kids have been identified, through the T20 tournament and domestic cricket back home, so they’re really green. But I think sometimes the more green you are, the better. You don’t know the unknown. I notice in the press that everyone’s given us absolutely no chance to win a game. That’s incentive for us. We’re supposed to get our backsides handed to us, but its great motivation for us to show that we’re not just there to make up the numbers.
In terms of uncertainty, is that still a cloud that hangs over the likes of Chris Gayle and Andre Russell?
Chris has given us his program for the next three months. I think he and Russ have been told that it’ll now be down to performance, which is what selection should be based on. You’re talking about two special cricketers there, though. Whether or not they get extra room to move remains to be seen. But for me, you need players with good experience leading into a World Cup, guiding the youngsters how to play.
We’re lucky to have Marlon Samuels here. And his job on this tour is to show these kids how to go about a game. He’s rising to the challenge. He’s a very misunderstood bloke. Tough as teak. But he’s got a bit of compassion too. Without those guys, it’s a bit tougher.
It must have been particularly difficult for you to step down.
Yeah, it was, mate. The one thing that got me was my family. We’ve just upped sticks from Australia and moved back to the UK. We had to sever ties with Australia completely to move, which is always tough. But I did it for the family, to be close to my wife’s family and for my son to have an opportunity at a cricket college in Leeds, which was probably too good to say no to.
I spent the first couple of weeks there when I was settling in with him. Then on the drive down from Leeds to Heathrow, my son called me and said, “Dad, I don’t want you to go.” That was pretty tough to listen to. I was lucky enough that I was good mates with Angus Fraser, who is the director of cricket at Middlesex. He had rung me out of the blue weeks before this, asking if I would consider coaching Middlesex. As they say, the rest is history.
I’ve been to a World Cup with Sri Lanka, I know what it’s about. It’d be nice to have on the CV as well, but at times there’s more important things to life than cricket and at this point in time the family comes first. I’ve got to listen to their wishes. I’ve been looking after other people’s young men. Got to start looking after my own.
What will you remember as your successes in this job?
The mountains we had to climb, trying to change a culture. To have it told from outside the culture that this needs to change, to get that message across – I think that’s a huge mountain climbed.
Our fitness has gone steadily up over the last two years, which is a hard thing to achieve, particularly in a laid-back culture like the Caribbean. But I think the players understand now that if you’re not fit, you’re not going to compete. If you’re not going to compete, the other teams are there to steamroll you. That’s probably a major change that is a success.
Playing-wise, we had some success. I wouldn’t rate it a great success. In all formats, there were plenty of games where we were in control and we lost. Which goes back to fitness.
There were challenges in all facets of the game, but the No. 1 thing was to make sure we change that culture, and we did that. I think that’s the most successful thing we’ve done.
And was there something you wanted to change but couldn’t?
The win-loss ratio! And not through lack of trying or lack of hard work. Look, when you’re used to playing at a certain level, it’s very hard to have that belief that you can go the next step. There are times when we had the foot on the throat and we crushed teams. There were times when we were getting in a good position and we lost games. That’s one thing I wish we would have changed. That’s not a two-year project. That’s a five-six-year project. The boys are well on the way. They understand what they need to do and I think with who’s coming in to help out after I leave, the boys are in very good hands.