Cricket interview

Andy Moles, former Afghanistan coach

This month we have the pleasure of speaking to Andy Moles, a former opening batsmen who scored over 13,000 runs for his beloved Warwickshire and who went on to enjoy a coaching career that took him from Hong Kong to Kenya, New Zealand, South Africa and to war-torn Afghanistan.

Andy gives us an excellent insight into county cricket in the 80s and 90s, modern day international coaching, and the strength of the associate nations.

“The game has been very kind to me,” says Andy. “I’ve travelled all around the world, which is remarkable.”

And his story really is remarkable, as this this cricketer, who made the most of his abilities through hard work and determination, could so easily have been lost to the game. “When I was 22/23 I wrote to all of the counties asking if I could get a trial. I didn’t get a single reply, which was massively disappointing; but it’s why I look back at my playing and coaching career now, and say it’s remarkable.”

What a shame it would have been if this young cricketer would have been lost to the game.

Thankfully, one county gave Andy a break and that was Warwickshire and boy did he repay them - 12 years’ service, 13,316 runs, 2 County Championships, and 5 one day trophies. I wonder if all those other counties regretted their decision not to reply to Andy’s letters?

The journey that would eventually take Andy all over the world, had begun.

For those of you who remember the 90s, Warwickshire were the team to play for. The innovators of the game. But looking back at his time at Edgbaston, I asked Andy what was the trigger for the success the county enjoyed, especially as prior to making his debut in 1986, they had tasted little success. It appeared to come down to five main ingredients: mindset, simplicity, teamwork, culture and personnel.

“In the late 80s, Bob Cottam and Andy Lloyd came in and they changed the mindset of the players. Winning became something that was expected. We weren’t there just to compete in games. When I first joined the club, a draw was often good enough. Bob and Andy changed our thinking. Then Bob Woolmer, Dermot Reeve and Tim Munton came in and continued to challenge us. We had the personnel with the likes of Allan Donald and Brian Lara, who played massive roles in us being successful, but there were also the home-grown players who really stepped up to the plate. As a unit we believed we could win things. We worked so hard off the pitch, that every time we took to the field, we thought we could win any game, from any situation.”

And importantly, the players knew their roles. “Bob Woolmer would explain to us what each of our roles were and we just had to concentrate on those. My team mates knew my role and they trusted me to do it and I trusted them to do theirs. My role was to face the quick bowlers, see off the new ball and bat as long as possible and try to accelerate the score the longer I batted.” It was simple advice.

And at the heart of Warwickshire’s success was teamwork and culture.

“One thing we had that was pretty unique at the time was genuine enjoyment when your team mates did well. There was never any jealousy, no ulterior motives; if someone did well, players didn’t think a person might take their place, there was genuine enjoyment and that was the real key to our success. It fostered a winning culture and when I think back, my personal highlights fade away and I remember what we achieved as a team.”

Allan Donald, Brian Lara, Shaun Pollock, Tom Moody and Brian MacMillan were all overseas players but in Andy’s mind it was the English players that really stood up to be counted.

“Gladstone Small and Tim Munton were exceptional. Roger Twose scored a mountain of runs with the bat. Dermot was an outstanding leader. But an unsung hero was Trevor Penney. Trevor used to bat at five or six for us and was an excellent fielder but he would score magnificent 20 or 30s, especially in one-day cricket, that would win us games. He would go in when the pressure was really on, when 9 runs an over was a lot of runs – not like now! He would give us that extra late flurry that would either give us a winning score or finish a game off. He didn’t score many 50s, 60s or 70s, but he was identified as our ‘finisher’. He never took the headlines, but in our dressing room we all knew he was a superstar in our team.”

In truth, that Warwickshire side were full of superstars and winners. And they were ahead of the game in their thinking and approach. Woolmer and Reeve were architects of changing teams’ approach to cricket, their brand of cricket - using modern day words, in an era before the advent of T20 cricket.

Remarkably, there wasn’t room for any of these ‘winners’ in a then struggling England side.

“We had hardly any England call-ups. The team was overlooked for three or four years. I remember Ray Illingworth was asked the question why no Warwickshire player was selected and he just said we were average players, who weren’t good enough. That is fine and his opinion, but I remember Mark Nicholas who was captain of Hampshire saying that if we’re average players, what does that make the rest of county cricketers. I think a lot of people were surprised.”

England’s loss, was most certainly Warwickshire’s gain. “As we didn’t experience call-ups, it meant our players really got to know each other. We had the same group of players over several seasons and that was very beneficial.”

I asked Andy how he thought that great Warwickshire side would fare in today’s game. “It’s very difficult to say because the game has changed so much, with all of these ramp shots and scoops. Batsmen are able to score 360 degrees around the wicket against the quicks. We were the first team to bring in the reverse sweep and we were innovative under Bob Woolmer and I’d like to think we’d be successful now, but we’re talking the unknown as the game is far different today.”

In addition to his time at Warwickshire, Andy also played domestic cricket in South Africa. In three seasons for Griqualand West, Andy scored 1,989 runs at 64.16 and I asked him if he felt there was much of a difference, at the time, in the standard of domestic cricket in England and South Africa. “In England every county had magnificent overseas quick bowlers, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Courtney Walsh, Sylvester Clarke to name just a few. When I went out to South Africa there wasn’t the quality of overseas player. However, as you didn’t play as many games the competition was harder. The ball bounced a lot more and the weather conditions were a lot hotter. I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. You played once every couple of weeks, you could properly prepare for games, relax when you needed to and it helped focus the mind. You knew you had nine or ten opportunities to get the very best out of your performance for the team.”

Andy lists Wasim Akram as the finest bowler he faced during his career. “It wasn’t just because of his pace, but as an opening batsman I didn’t face that many left arm over bowlers at that time. The different angle made it very difficult. Also, we had Allan Donald playing for us and with Lancashire having a strong side Allan always wanted to do well against them and would try and bowl at the speed of light. But this of course would wind Wasim up so he would then try and outdo Allan and bowl even faster, which wasn’t ideal for an opening batsman like me!”

But it wasn’t just the overseas bowlers. “All of the counties had good English seamers to back up the overseas stars. There were no central contracts in those days so you used to play against the best players all of the time. You would be under pressure in every fixture so if you were fortunate to get runs they were always good runs. Not many runs were handed out freely in those days.”

Andy retired from first class cricket in 1997 and headed straight into coaching. Having played for many years under the late Bob Woolmer, he couldn’t have had a better mentor and tutor.

“You always learn from your mentors. I tried to take the best from all of the people that moulded me as a player. Bob was a very good man manager. He challenged every single individual to get better, whether it was someone like me, as a senior batsman, who had played for many years, he challenged me not to stand still. He challenged us to improve our games and become better players. In my coaching career now, I always talk to my players about improving some part of their game.”

Andy’s coaching career began at Free State, in South Africa where he stayed for five years and I asked him how he found the path from player to coach, was it an easy transition? “The first area I had to get used to was the difference of being a player to being a coach. In my first couple of years in South Africa I found it difficult. I was drawn into having good friendships with the players and being part of social nights. I was too close to them, in that regard. At the end of a season you have to talk to these players about their games, some may be coming towards the end of a contract, you might have to have a difficult conversation. I found that hard in the early years because I’d been drawn into the dressing room culture. I learnt very quickly that wasn’t the way to go forward. I quickly understood there had to be a line between the coach and the players, because you do have to have discipline and difficult conversations. At times you have to have words with players when you think they need to give more.”

In 2001, Andy got his first appointment as the head coach of a national team, when he coached Hong Kong at the 2001 ICC World Cup. His spell in charge of Hong Kong was soon followed by spells in charge of Scotland and Kenya. His success in charge of these associate nations led to his appointment as head coach of Northern Districts in New Zealand where he guided the side to the State Championship. This success at Northern Districts led to Andy succeeding John Bracewell as New Zealand national coach in 2008.

“I look back on my time in New Zealand with very fond memories. I thoroughly enjoyed living there, I enjoyed the culture and the cricket was excellent. First class cricket in New Zealand is competitive and the Northern Districts had a great bunch of lads. It was probably one of my favourite appointments. During my time in charge of New Zealand there were issues, but those issues were there when I went on board. And who would turn down an opportunity to coach an international team? I was fortunate to be in charge for two Test series against the West Indies and India and we went to the T20 World Cup. I look back at that time as a magnificent learning curve for me as a coach. We had some very talented players who had some strong cricketing ideas, but as always you look back and review the work you did and it was a great learning curve.”

In 2014, Andy was appointed batting coach for the Afghanistan national cricket team with the goal of preparing them for the 2015 ICC Cricket World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. Just weeks into role however, Andy was promoted to head coach to replace Kabir Khan, who had stood down from the position. Full respect to Andy for taking on the challenge of coaching a country who was in the middle of a well-publicised international conflict. Particularly as the foreign office advice was to avoid all but essential travel to the country.

So how did this appointment come about and what was the experience like? Andy gives an incredible insight...

“I got the job because originally they were looking for a batting coach to go and help them for the World Cup. They got hold of me through an agency. I went over there to work with the players in Kabul which was just a different world. It was an absolute war zone. You would see armoured carriers going up and down the road and you would see literally hundreds of AK47s every day in the hands of very young teenagers, who had been employed as security guards outside houses, hotels and sports clubs. There was just so much uncertainty around with the Taliban. Security was massive as the threat of kidnap was so huge, especially for foreigners. A lot of foreigners had armed guards and cars to transport them around.”

But for Andy, he didn’t have the comfort of such security. “Sadly for me, the Afghanistan cricket board couldn’t afford to put that in place. But, they did look after me as best they could and did all they could to ensure that I was safe as often as possible. For the majority of the time I did feel safe, but there were times when the traffic was like central London and there just wasn’t any movement. You could be stationary in the car for 10/15 minutes with 30 or 40 people milling around the cars begging and looking through the windows and obviously if they recognise you as a foreigner that could be an issue. I wore my hoody for a while, and wouldn’t shave just to try and blend in as best as I could. I would travel around in a battered old car. You basically had two options: 1) drive around with armed guards around you, but then that would draw attention, or 2) you go the other way and drive around in a real battered old car and just blend in and that is what I always did.”

And to think all of this to coach cricket. Under Andy’s guidance, Afghanistan were one of the rising success stories of the associate nations and I asked him how big was the country’s passion for cricket? “It’s massive. Kids are playing cricket in the streets all of the time. They play a thing like tennis ball cricket. They wrap tennis balls in tape so it becomes harder and the ball swings all of over the place. Everywhere you go around Afghanistan kids are playing the game. You see open plains of massive land and there will 10 to 15 games of cricket being played. They have a first class structure there now, played by six different provinces and they have a good under 19s set up so they are in a position where they will have players come through over the next few years but they need to be given the opportunity to do more touring. They will get better the more exposure they have.”

One can only imagine the experience Andy had in Kabul and as I write this, my respect for the guy just goes up and up. He has played a big part in helping people appreciate there is more to Afghanistan than conflict.

Andy’s passion for associate nations’ cricket extends to all nations though and he feels that if the likes of Afghanistan, Ireland and Scotland are to progress, they need to be given more opportunities to face the leading nations. “Statistically speaking all of the associate nations at the last three of four World Cups have all improved from where they were. They are far more competitive and getting better with every competition. But they need to keep testing themselves against better teams. The only way to get better is to play against better quality more often and be exposed to different conditions around the world. “We played Australia in the World Cup at Perth. It was the perfect storm. Here we were on the quickest wicket in the world, facing Mitchell Starc and co. They absolutely blew us away. We didn’t have an answer. We tried to get players ready by throwing golf balls at them on concrete nets to get them used to the bounce which was going to come, but it was all so alien to them as they don’t come across anything like that back in Afghanistan. These countries need to play in different conditions around the world to get that database in their own mind about what they are going to come up against.”

I think a number of us agree that the ICC should look to reverse the decision to reduce the opportunities for associate nations at future 50 over World Cups.

With talk of a two tier Test system I asked Andy if this would give an opportunity for associate nations and would they be set up and ready for second division Test cricket?

“When I played county cricket in the 80s and 90s Sri Lanka came across to England as an associate nation and look where they are today. They have won the World Cup. Afghanistan and Ireland are the leading associate nations at the moment. Afghanistan have played a lot against Zimbabwe recently and beaten them regularly so the argument can be made they do, along with Ireland, deserve the opportunity.”

Yet Andy reiterates again, they need to be given the fixtures to ensure they are ready. “Ireland and Afghanistan have done enough over the last three or four years to be given the opportunity to play against countries like Bangladesh. But they need to be playing those teams more often and given the opportunity to go on tour and play the A sides, or Lions equivalent, of the leading countries. They need to go around the world. Not just to England, but to Australia, to India, to South Africa, to the West Indies and experience not only the higher skills levels but the conditions and just how the game is played in different parts of the world.”

The associate nations have given cricket fans a lot of joy and if Test cricket is to go to two divisions I for one, hope Andy’s wish for the likes of Afghanistan and Ireland to be given the opportunities, comes to fruition.

And where is Andy right now? With his time in charge of Afghanistan at an end, he is just starting a new role back where his coaching career began, in South Africa. With all of the experience he has gained around the world, hopefully one day soon he’ll be given an opportunity back in England so our young players can learn from him as he did from his mentor, the late Bob Woolmer.

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