Along with that of many Sri Lankan players, the three-match Twenty20 International series against India is a fresh start for Graham Ford.
This series is the first assignment for the South African, who returned as Sri Lanka coach for a second spell after being involved for two years between 2012 and 2014.
In an interview ahead of the second T20I in Ranchi, Ford spoke about the transition in Sri Lanka cricket, handling unorthodox players, dealing with Kevin Pietersen in Surrey and more. Excerpts:
This is your second stint with Sri Lanka. What made you take up the job?
It was a tough decision in the first place to leave Sri Lankan cricket. I really enjoyed and loved working with the players. They were a fantastic group and their attitude to the game was brilliant. To leave was tough, but I’ve followed their progress and was very honoured to be asked to return. I had to consider it, as it was a big decision, it affects family, etc. But working with these guys is something special and once I was approached by the Sri Lankan board and the more they spoke to me, the more I felt it was something I had to get back to.
A lot of coaches these days are not taking up international assignments. They prefer the T20 leagues where they get paid better for a shorter period of work.
Less time away from home and doing T20 tournaments is attractive to a lot of people. I certainly don’t just want to be involved in T20 cricket. I love Test match cricket. One of the reasons I went and did county cricket after Sri Lanka rather than T20 assignments was that I wanted to be involved in all formats. Yes, it takes up a lot more time. But I have been very lucky to have been involved in the game for a long time and don’t just want to be a T20 coach.
But isn’t that lucrative and more practical logistically, or is this an idealistic stand?
Definitely, it’s a huge privilege to be involved in international cricket. To be involved in all the formats is the ultimate for me. The T20 tournaments will never ever be anywhere near as attractive as international cricket. Yes, it’s an option if you want to make money and you want to spend a lot of time at home. But I enjoy every minute that I spend at the international level.
Sri Lanka produces a lot of unorthodox players, quite different from, say, England. How do you deal with them?
The players who I’ve worked with over the years will tell you that I’m not a hugely technical guy. There are one or two basic things like getting your eyes in the right place when batting and such things. But I’m not very caught up in technique. I’m very much about trying to work with each individual and find what’s their own best way. Some of that is experimentation but I don’t make huge changes to what people have got. If it’s effective, you try and build on it.
Maybe there are coaches, particularly in the English system, who are more caught up in technique than I am. But it’s something I’ve never been caught up in. To work with players that have taught themselves and developed their own way, to just help them maybe add a few adjustments to their own way of doing things is something I find enjoyable.
Can you give us some examples of this?
All I’m looking for when it comes to bowling is if they’re giving enough momentum in the right direction. The head direction mainly, if it’s driving towards your target, I’m not worrying too much if you’re round-arm or starting from above your head. If your head direction is right, there’s every likelihood that the ball is traveling towards the target and it’s going to have maximum momentum and power behind it as the body is working towards that direction.
So I don’t look at the actual load up, it’s about simplifying things. To identify the one or two important things that can help performance and not worry too much about how they prefer to go about things.
“It’s a huge privilege to be involved in international cricket. To be involved in all the formats is the ultimate for me. The T20 tournaments will never ever be anywhere near as attractive as international cricket. Yes, it’s an option if you want to make money and you want to spend a lot of time at home.”
For batsmen, it’s all about getting your eyes in a good position. Your head behind the ball when driving. I encourage batsmen to become inventive and practice new shots. Sanga (Kumar Sangakkara), when I was with Sri Lanka last time, developed some new shots and he was outstanding in the World Cup. We saw some amazing shots from him. But it’s something you have to practice. These Sri Lankan players know that they have a lot of natural talent. A guy like (Tillakaratne) Dilshan helps the younger players about inventiveness. It’s good that the older players are really good at passing on their knowledge.
How different is the challenge this time from the earlier stint?
This is the start of a rebuilding phase. It’s about bringing in youngsters and giving them the confidence and belief that they can play at this level. The wonderful thing about youth is that there’s so much energy and they’re all very keen to improve, their work ethic is fantastic.
The last time, there were some really finished articles. There were some brilliant players who had a lot of information to pass on to the youngsters, and also for me to learn from. So it’s always nice to have a few of those guys around. When Angelo (Mathews) and (Lasith) Malinga come back, there will be more experience within the group. For now, it is a different feel. We’ve played some exciting cricket with this young group but there will be days where the inexperience might cost us.
The win in the first T20 must have been a big boost?
It’s really exciting to see the guys play as well as they did. But it’s a long process ahead for us. Nobody can say how long it will take. But every step in the right direction will be a boost to what we want to achieve.
When we left Sri Lanka, we told ourselves that this little tour would be an indicator as to how far back we are, or how far we have to go. Pleasingly, looking at the other night, we seem to be heading in the right direction quickly. But the plan is more of a long-term one. We have to identify who the real talented players are and work with them. That might take a little bit of time. It’s not just T20. We have to identify talent for the longer formats as well.
You’ve been coaching since the 1990s. How much have you had to adjust to the changing times?
There’s no doubt the game has moved forward. The shots that are accepted today, you would have been dropped for playing them in 1999. You have to accept that and move on with the times. I’ve been fortunate enough to stay in cricket and move with the times. It’s not as if I’m suddenly thinking like a player from way back and not impressed with the way the young guys are going. You have to encourage and allow them to express themselves and play the modern way. I think England have got that right now. They were struggling a bit and they have a got a younger group. They’ve been allowed to play with more freedom and they’re playing some really good cricket.
You said you don’t interfere with natural instincts – have you always been like that, say in the 1990s when batting was very different?
I’ve always said that the role of a coach is to work with the player. If there are any changes to be made, the player has to be involved in the decision. So you have to work with him, make suggestions and get feedback. If he doesn’t feel a slight change is working for him, don’t use it. And the other thing is, you shouldn’t try to fix something that isn’t broken. We see in modern cricket, players are holding the bats differently. If you analyse it with an old coaching manual, you can find a lot of things wrong. If it’s working, you have to allow him to do the natural thing.
“I think a guy like KP, I’ve had him in teams and he can be so, so positive for the team and he has so much knowledge, he can be so good with young players. Really that’s all he wants to do – to contribute. If you shut him out then you might find that he may be a little, maybe put his nose out of the joint a little bit.”
Is that what helped you with someone like Kevin Pietersen? He had a lot of issues with the English system but is full of praise for you, calls you his mentor …
It’s very nice of him to say those things but, I can promise you, the man is so talented that it’s not a coach that made him. He is a special talent and he was going to be great anyway. He didn’t need me to help him in any way.
A lot of his batting was seen initially as different and unorthodox but he was a leader. He used his reach to neutralise the length, got his head into good positions and was able to play on both sides of the wicket because of the contact point being well over the front leg. I didn’t try and change all that, I just let him be Kevin Pietersen. It’s nice to hear him say some decent things but I didn’t have to do anything.
Can an individual disrupt a team environment? If so, how do you handle that?
Players can disrupt a team environment, I’m sure. Well, I think in most cases you find that if they are disrupting a team, then it’s because they have been handled badly somewhere along the way. So the thing is to try and ensure that the value that they have to offer, you appreciate that value and give them the respect that they deserve.
I think a guy like KP, I’ve had him in teams and he can be so, so positive for the team and he has so much knowledge, he can be so good with young players. Really that’s all he wants to do – to contribute. If you shut him out then you might find that he may be a little, maybe put his nose out of the joint a little bit. Because he has all this information that he can pass on to the younger guys. I think if a senior player gets to that level, he has to be involved in the planning, strategising and assisting of the younger players. You give KP that opportunity and he’s absolutely brilliant.
Should Pietersen be in England’s World T20 squad?
Well, if you look at how KP hit the ball in the Big Bash (league), he’s one of the best in the world. I’ll be glad that he’s not walking out play against Sri Lanka, that’s for sure.
You don’t have international experience as a player but men like Sangakkara and Rahul Dravid recommend you highly as a coach. Is international experience necessary then for a coach?
I have no doubt that it is an advantage to have played international cricket. For me, the only thing I could do and maybe it’s a plus that has come out of it is that I haven’t experienced it first hand, so I’ve had to try and find out as much as I can from the great players I have been grouped with.
My first coaching assignment was with Natal. I was very lucky to sign Malcolm Marshall. I had Marshall and Clive Rice playing for me, as a young coach. I learned a huge amount from them. I have been lucky enough to learn from so many wonderful players. Maybe that makes up a little bit for not having played international cricket and I’ve tried to learn as much as possible along the way. But it is a disadvantage not having actually been out there.
Is the disadvantage in not having experienced it, or do you find it difficult to point out a technical error to someone like a Sangakkara?
I think, over the years, I’ve worked with enough good players to feel sure about myself and what I have to offer. I’m not saying I have the answers. I’m very happy to ask for other opinions and get other people involved. If there’s a problem then try to get the bottom of it. I don’t think any one opinion is exactly right. I’m pretty sure I can do all that I can help to the players. So the technical part, I’m fine with that.
It’s just that actually not having experienced that pressure of international cricket … obviously certain situations are more testing than others. For a great player, it is probably easier to understand what is going through and a lot about coaching is trying to understand what a player is going through.
Do coaching certificates and coaching programmes help, or do they make people rigid?
It will probably help a little bit. It is like getting a driver’s license. It has helped you get that far but you actually learn how to drive after getting your license. It’s the same with coaching, the more you coach, the better you get. Same with captaincy, I suppose. So, yes, it helps a little bit. It gets you going and probably reassures you in certain areas that you are doing the right thing.
But I certainly do think there can be a little bit of over-analysing and we’ve just been chatting about players with flair and different ways of doing things. The danger of those coaching programmes is saying that there is only one right way. But in cricket there so many right ways. I think it’s the danger of those courses. It is almost stipulating that there’s only one right way and making every player play the same way. You lose that variation in your team. You want to have that variation and people that can offer different skills.
How difficult is to make quick assessments and changes from the outside in T20 cricket?
You can pass on the message but what you’re really trying to do is to get those players to make those decisions because they are experiencing those conditions. So to assess and share information among the group is really important. Sometimes it is dangerous for the coach to sit on the sidelines and make those decisions without experiencing the conditions. So I think the decision-making often has to come from the players.
It is so tough in T20 cricket because you have to be positive. It is high-risk cricket anyway. So things can go wrong. You can’t fear making mistakes because then you are not going to play positively as you should. You need to allow that freedom but at the same time try and encourage some assessing and sharing and adapting a smarter approach if the conditions are a little different from the normal conditions that we see T20 cricket being played on.
Should coaches be allowed to talk to the players on the field, or at least the captain, in T20s?
I might drive some of the players absolutely mad! There is enough buzzing around their head anyway without the coach having to tell them how to play the next ball or to how to play the next shot. Messages do go out. From my side, those are options. If you think it might help you can use. But I don’t think it is something that the game needs. I think the game is great enough without that sort of technology. It hasn’t been used before so why send it out now?
On a completely different note, you were a Rugby Union referee. What happened to that?
Many, many years ago. I was probably making too many bad decisions! It was before I got into cricket coaching. So I had time to do it. Once I got to coaching, I had no time to do it.
Sometimes, when I look back, I wonder why I actually did it because you can only get abused, you know. Many years ago, in those days I was very keen on it. I probably lost a bit of interest on the way because I had to travel a lot and in Sri Lanka you don’t get to see many of those games. I was a big fan in my young days but now I watch a bit, but not too caught up in it.