Cricket interview

Richard Halsall, Bangladesh assistant coach & Former England fielding coach

This month we are privileged to be speaking with Richard Halsall, assistant coach of Bangladesh and former England fielding coach. We caught up with Richard just days after their series with Australia, where the Tigers secured an excellent 1-1 result in the two Test match series.

“It was an excellent series for us. Our recent Test match wins over Australia and England has meant a huge amount to our playing group,” remarked Richard. “The hope now is that these victories will give our Board more weight to try and develop the game in the country. Our players are crying out for opportunities to play more series. We need other countries to reciprocate offering us A team tours and academy tours.”

Bangladesh are very much one of the improving sides of world cricket, especially on home soil. For many years, teams would head to Dhaka and Chittagong and series wins were a formality. But recent Test match wins over the likes of England and Australia - and their performances in recent World Cup and Champions Trophy campaigns - have changed all of that.

“We definitely feel it’s now 50:50 for us against anyone we play at home, especially against teams who have a perceived weakness against spin – we will back ourselves to win. Our challenge however, is when we have a bad session, we have a really bad session. So, rather than lose 2 or 3 wickets, we’ll lose 5 or 6. But we’re getting more consistent. We have got three or four genuinely world class players now.”

And credit to those players, because as Richard says, they’ve developed the hard way. “Those world-class players all came through the periods of getting heavily beaten day in, day out. But it hardened them and so our focus now is to make sure the young players coming into the side don’t experience what the older lads went through and they’ll step up quicker. We’ve got great spinners but we also have some talented quick bowlers coming through - they have just not had the cricket yet.”

And the added positive for Richard, is the performance of the junior Bangladesh sides. Players are now progressing into the Test side with a winning mentality. “They have all got used to winning. When they lost in the semi-finals of the Under 19s World Cup, they were very upset because they are so used to winning. This squad beat South Africa away 5-0, they beat India 3-0 in India – the lads coming through are expecting to win. It’s an exciting sign for us.”

The hope now is the ICC can offer them the long-term schedules that the leading sides currently enjoy. “When I was with England we knew who we’d be playing home and away, over a four-year schedule. As coaches we could plan. With Bangladesh, we know our next series, but right now we cannot say when we will next be playing West Indies, Sri Lanka etc and that’s difficult for a coaching team and has a knock-on effect on our first-class game when we might want to offer players certain number of games for their club sides to get match ready. We don’t know when we’ll be playing who or when.”

I asked Richard how much he’s enjoying the role, especially given the reluctance of some to even travel to the country because of security concerns. “It’s been fantastic. The passion for cricket in this country is truly humbling. You see people playing the game in every alley with balls made of rubber bands and bats made of any kind of wood, kids can find; it’s genuinely humbling.”

And what attracted him to the role after leaving his post as England assistant coach, following the 2013/14 Ashes defeat down under. “I was sat in a coffee bar in St Johns Wood; I’d just been to Lords as I was on gardening leave, they were trying to find another role for me within the set-up which was very kind of them at the time; Mushtaq Ahmed had asked me to go and work with Pakistan which was a genuinely exciting opportunity to work with him again and Waqar Younis. I’ve never had any kind of agent in my career; I just thought you applied for a job like everyone else normally does. But then I received a call while I was in this coffee bar from an agent who said there was a role with Bangladesh and would I be interested? I gave it a lot of thought spoke to those close to me and did my research. Their coach, Chandika Hathurusingha was an outstanding coach, so I thought if I’m going to go on a 2 or 3 year journey into the unknown it sounded like he might be someone I could learn a lot from. I also looked at their schedule and they didn’t seem to play as much cricket as Pakistan which suited me with a young family. So, for both personal and professional reasons it was the right choice.”

We’ll talk more about Bangladesh later but Richard has built a strong coaching reputation in the game over many years and I wanted to find out his journey that has taken him all the way to heat of Dhaka.

“As a kid, I idolised Viv Richards and there was something about that West Indies side that I loved. I loved Viv because of his fielding and manner and to be honest just everything about how they played the game. When I was playing for Lancashire under 13s I was a ball boy at an England v West Indies ODI match at Old Trafford, when Viv Richards scored 180. After the game, the West Indies invited all of the ball boys into their dressing room, the England players didn’t. They gave us souvenirs like batting gloves etc. I remember sitting next to Joel Garner, it was just incredible and those memories have stayed with me forever.”

During his playing days, Richard played club cricket for Preston and played in all of the age group teams at Lancashire, but sadly wasn’t deemed good enough to get a first-class contract. After playing some cricket in Melbourne and Zimbabwe, Richard moved to Brighton University to undertake a sports science degree. “When I came back to England I played some cricket in the Sussex League and ended up captaining the second team at Sussex as an amateur – I think they just wanted an aggressive old club cricketer to come in and captain a young side! I ended up captaining them for a year. But I then went to Cambridge to do my post graduate degree and ended up playing some first-class cricket for them before stopping playing in 2000 because of my coaching and teaching commitments.”

And it was Richard’s teaching and coaching at Brighton College that saw brought into the coaching set-up at Sussex under their then head coach Peter Moores. “I’d done some coaching of Sussex’s under 17s and under 19’s – an age group that contained the likes of Matt Prior. They were very strong sides. To be honest, my dog could have coached them, they were that strong! But, the boys had gained a reputation as a tough side who fielded very well. Pete had liked the fact that the training I did was very different. He’d watched our under 19s quite a bit and he gave me the opportunity to do some sessions with the 1st XI.” “At Brighton College I was lucky to have two very wise, experienced teaching mentors who had seen it all but maintained a burning passion for their sport and an open mind to new methods. John Pope who was in charge of the rugby treated every person with genuine kindness and empathy whilst his gentle Welsh lilt disguised a fierce competive edge. John Spencer who had played for Sussex loved talking about our great game and found humour and excitement in every ball. His boundless energy and enthusiasm was infectious. Throw after throw after throw at anyone who wanted it accompanied by constant commentary as if it was the last ball of a tied Test match or World Cup Final. I owe them both and my then Headmaster Anthony Seldon a great deal".

There was no looking back. Richard began quickly climbing the coaching ladder. Peter Moores brought him into the 1St XI set up permanently and the team began cementing themselves as one of the strongest county sides in the country.

“We had a real mix of local players and players who hadn’t done so well at other counties and who were determined to make a statement. We had the likes of Kirtley, Lewry, Martin-Jenkins, Montgommery, Chris Adams and young players such as Prior and Yardy. Sprinkled in with that was the magic of Mushtaq Ahmed. This was a group of guys who all had such a strong work ethic. That team worked so hard, they hit more balls than other county players and bowled more balls than others in training. They also knew how to enjoy themselves which Pete encouraged.”

Yet where did Richard’s passion for fielding come from? “I always saw fielding as the thing you could do as eleven blokes and it’s a reflection of a team’s personality. Having done some analysis on fielding it became obvious to me just how important catches or dropped catches were and I thought it was one of the easiest things to improve. When I looked at batting or bowling it can be quite hard to improve, but fielding was something you could improve quite easily and quickly.”

Richard’s success at Sussex saw him take up a role within the ECB as National Lead Fielding Coach. “Peter Moores had become head of the England academy. My role was to develop a fielding curriculum and coach coaches throughout the country. It suited me with my teaching background as I enjoyed things like building syllabuses. That wasn’t daunting to me.”

When Andy Flower took over as England coach, Richard was named as full-time fielding coach of the full England side and his first tour was the 2009 tour of the West Indies. “We got bowled out for 52 in that series and that was like a reset button for the national side. Everyone agreed that something had to change. Andrew Strauss was an excellent captain and he and Andy were a great pairing. What followed was a real collective ‘let’s roll our sleeves up’ attitude and that’s exactly what was needed at that time. It was actually all very simple, players knew their roles were to score runs, take wickets and in between catch balls. It was refreshing.”

I asked Richard what his initial aims for the role were? “I wanted fielding to galvanise the team. That was my aspiration. When you look now at the best fielders: Smith, Kohli, Stokes, they galvanise their teams in the field. We were lucky that we had the likes of Paul Collingwood and Matt Prior who really believed in the importance of fielding. Thanks to them what I wanted to achieve became an easy sell to others. Both Strauss and Collingwood, who was one day captain, wanted their teams to be physical and field properly. Matt Prior was fantastic for me. He really drove everything on the field. He was bothered about every single throw - that was invaluable.”

Richard’s success in the role was down to the fact that he was given free rein to design his own fielding sessions. “I was really lucky. They must have thought I was mad at times with some of the stuff that I do – stuff like bringing the bowling machine out to give catches; they must have thought some things were lunacy, but they supported me. Andy gave coaching responsibility to me, Graham Gooch as the batting coach and David Saker and Ottis Gibson as the bowling coaches. He told us that they were our jobs and thus we were responsible and accountable. We welcomed that.”

One of the challenges of coaching, especially on long tours, is how to keep sessions fresh and engaging for players; how did Richard manage to achieve this? “At the end of the day it’s always the same message you want to get across, watch the ball and get your head in a good position. So, no matter what the drill, the message is the same. How you catch a cricket ball will never change. However, I think my teaching background helped. Having to teach 20/30 kids for 8/9/10 hours a day, five days a week, you learn to set up different environments to achieve the same goal. People think you’re doing different things, but actually what you’re doing is the same thing, it just appears different. It is a skill.”

I asked Richard if he ever looks to other sports for added inspiration. “Again, going back to my teaching days, I used to study the really good swimming coaches – it was interesting to see how they would communicate to swimmers under water. I also learnt a lot from Volleyball, BasketBall, Tennis, Rugby and Badminton coaches. I stole so much stuff from them. I was very lucky to be exposed to so many different coaches. Very lucky.”

Back to England and for 5 years England had a very settled side; did that make things easier as a coach? “Absolutely. The team was set in its field placings. Strauss was at first slip, Swann at second slip, Bell at short leg and Collingwood at cover point. It’s very different with Bangladesh though. With their lack of cricket, it’s amazing the things they haven’t yet experienced; things like fielding at slip to reverse swing bowling; where short leg should be, how deep should slip fielders be in countries like Australia. It’s an element to the role I really enjoy when the captain comes and seeks my opinions on such things.”

Richard enjoyed five highly successful years with England, but what were some of his favourite moments? “To be honest it was just that I genuinely couldn’t believe how fortunate I was to be in the role. I was so lucky to have visited some of the ground and cities that I did. Every day was so special. But if I had to name a couple it would have been the Boxing Day Test win in Melbourne. That was just phenomenal. And during that same series, the win in Adelaide. I remember sitting at the end of the tunnel on that first morning, alongside Graham Gooch, when we took those three early wickets – Trott’s run out of Katich and Swanny’s slip catches. That was a proud moment for me. I was so chuffed for Trotty when he ran Katich out because I knew how hard he worked. People didn’t see that he’d been out there the day before and didn’t leave the session until he hit the stumps three times during the fielding drills. So, when you see people work that hard and then get the reward it makes you realise there must be a cricketing god out there somewhere. A third memory would have to be the T20 World Cup win; how we fielded in that tournament was another personal pleasure for me.”

When stunning catches are taken or great run-outs occur it’s a real high for coaches, but how does it feel on the flip side when catches go down, or opportunities are missed? “It’s hard, of course it is. When a catch goes down it’s tough as a fielder to have stay out on the field as the batsman inevitably scores run after run. But it’s been very different with England and Bangladesh. With England, the squad were very phlegmatic about dropped catches. They knew they’d done the preparation, so there was never an issue among the squad when a catch went down or there was a mis-field because they knew they’d done everything to prepare well. In Bangladesh however, it can be brutal in the media. Genuinely brutal. It can become incredibly emotive and missed chances are magnified to the extent of them becoming the focal point for winning or losing games. I remember at the last World Cup, an experienced member of the team dropped a catch at Adelaide, he honestly thought it was career ending. Thankfully we took two wickets in the next over, so all was ok, but that was how an experienced player felt after dropping a catch. I don’t think an England player would be thinking that’s the end of his career, if he’d dropped a catch.”

It’s a very interesting insight into the mentality of different sides.

Richard moved on from the England role after the 2013/14 Ashes defeat – a decision which wasn’t in Richard’s control. “It was not my decision to move on; I got released from my contract. Peter Moores tried to find a role for me, but the side had lost 5-0 and I think they just wanted a complete clean slate. I was disappointed but I’d had 5 incredible years.”

England’s loss was most definitely Bangladesh’s gain. “I really have learnt so much in the last two years. We’ve had some incredible moments with so many ‘firsts’. Our first win over England, our first win over Australia, the first time we have reached the Champions Trophy semi-finals. I have to pinch myself.”

Richard has worked under a number of head coaches in his coaching career to date. I asked him how they compare. It was noticeable just how high a regard he holds all of them in. “Peter Moores and Andy Flower were both very different but they both had very good work ethics; Andy’s knowledge of the game was very in-depth. He was team director and didn’t do too much coaching, that was down to me, Graham and David and Huw Bevan the strength and conditioning coach. He also wasn’t really into the planning side or the detail but he was very much into the broad tactical stuff with Strauss and Cook. Pete meanwhile has had success everywhere. I felt he was unlucky with England in his two spells. He did the hard yards on both occasions. The first time Peter and Duncan’s approach was so different. The work ethic that he’d instilled at Sussex was a genuine culture shock to some of the players who’d played under Duncan. But that’s how every international team now prepares. What I find interesting though with Andy and Peter was how they were both portrayed in the media. Andy was labelled as this detailed planner but he wasn’t really in to planning and the detail and Peter was labelled as this data driven coach but that couldn’t have been further from the truth for him. With Andy, it helped him being labelled that way as it was seen as a positive, but for Pete, it was sadly a negative label. I think Andy is a lot happier now in his role with the Lions where he can really coach and Pete is back being successful in County cricket. Aside from Andy and Pete there is Chandika Hathurusingha, and he is absolutely phenomenal in terms of reading games, scenarios and players ”

Looking ahead to this winter for us England supporters, Richard was part of the coaching team of England for three Ashes victories, so it’d be remiss not to ask him about our chances down under, especially having just seen the Australian side at close quarters in Bangladesh’s recent series. “Smith and Warner are exceptional players. But the difference for me is that Australia will likely have 4 bowlers and England 5. For me and this might sound ridiculous but I think whoever plays the off-spinner the best will win the series. If England play Lyon well, they will win. In 2013 most of Mitchell Johnson’s wickets were the tail-enders, it was Nathan Lyon who did the damage in the top order. As the Aussies will likely only have 4 bowlers, if England can play Lyon well, they will struggle with three seamers. On the flip side Australia will try and attack Moeen and if Moeen doesn’t cope with it, some of our aging bowlers will have to bowl more overs than they should. So, I honestly think it’ll come down to who plays the off-spinner best will win!”

I asked Richard, what kind of preparation will the captain and coaching team be undertaking now, in the lead up to a big Ashes series. “They will be doing all of the analysis on the opposition. They will be studying the pitches and looking at the right combinations of bowlers for the various pitches. They will be looking at how to exploit the weaknesses of the opposition and they will also be looking at how they schedule training to hit their peak at the right time. I remember in 2013 we thought we were being quite clever in bringing out Tymal Mills and Harry Gurney out with us to prepare for left arm seam bowling, but that obviously didn’t work out as well as we hoped! But it’s a small example of how we tried to get everything in place to prepare the players. The management will also be looking at where in the tour they can offer rest and recovery and genuine time away from cricket, so the players can plan things when their families arrive etc. It’s going to be a great winter!”

It certainly is. The Ashes win of 2010/11 was arguably one of the greatest Ashes wins of all time and when people look back at that great England side the quality of the backroom staff can often go unnoticed, but it’s fair to say the work of Richard (and Graham Gooch and David Saker) was so important to England’s success that we should all be grateful for everything Richard did for English cricket. And to me it’s no surprise that Bangladesh are now reaping the rewards of his experience. Richard – thank you.

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