By Shehan Daniel
For Simon Willis the road to success is long and paved with mistakes – or at least the willingness to learn from them.
Brought in last year as High Performance Manager at Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC), having played a similar role at Kent County Cricket Club, Willis has been working behind the scenes to improve the standard of grassroots cricket and the development of players, particularly to ease the transition from the domestic to international game, long seen as a problem for Sri Lanka.
After failing to make the grade as a regular first-class cricketer, Willis turned his attention to coaching at the age of 25, where he saw success, becoming High Performance Director in 2009, before ending a 23 year association with Kent to join the Sri Lankan coaching set-up.
Willis, speaking exclusively to the , elaborated on some of the challenges that he has faced since taking over, the progress made by the junior national team, and how when it comes to analysing statistics context is king.
Q: How different has this role been to what you did at Kent?
Obviously you’re dealing with a higher quality of players on a daily basis. I’m dealing with a wide range of coaching staff and players and a larger number of programmes. It’s a much bigger commitment and a challenge.
Q: What are the challenges?
Being from England, there are a number of cultural differences that I have had to understand and learn. I think having to trust people to do their jobs, whereas I would be more hands on (at Kent) on a regular basis. I did have staff underneath me, but not as many. That’s been an interesting challenge. Particularly (dealing with players) over the whole of the country, not just in one county, and having to put in place structures and reporting processes to make sure that things are delivered as agreed, that’s been one of the tasks we’ve had to put in place early on.
Q: How receptive have local coaches been towards the added layer of accountability and direction that comes with having a High Performance Manager?
In any organisation when someone new comes in, there is a bit of anxiety or apprehension and (that) ultimately things are going to change. So there’s a little bit of fear there as well, because people are comfortable with the way things have worked. But once they see things work for a period of time, see that they are there to improve the system or improve the players, then they start to buy into it and feel more comfortable with it. I’m into my 12th month and most people now understand where I’m trying to take things, understand me as a person as well and what I believe in and we’ve made some good progress.
Q: What is the biggest shortcoming you’ve observed among our local coaches?
One of the biggest things is they have to accept that we all make mistakes, whether that’s as coaches, or as players. The important thing about making mistakes is that you can learn from them, and you can improve from them and that you can get better. Whereas I think sometimes there is a bit of a fear to get things wrong because they might lose their jobs over them. They play the safe route and go with what they know, but continuing to grow as coaches is an important thing, wanting to learn and get better continuously. We’re putting some programmes in place to help educate the coaches, show them what the modern game is dictating and they’re starting to understand and buy in, and take some of the things back and use it in their own environment.
Q: What makes a good coach?
I don’t think there is one type of coach. I think it’s really important that the coach is as flexible as possible and meets the needs of the players. So if you’ve got a very introverted group of players, then as a coach you need to be a bit more upfront and drive things and lead, whereas if you’ve got a very confident group you might have to take a bit more of a back route and supportive role. For me the higher you go up the levels the more it becomes the supportive type of role,trying to get the players to take ownership of where they want to go. They are all good players and all adults, so it’s just asking good questions and trying to get the players to come up with the answers that they believe can improve them and get better.
Q: You were brought in to implement the ‘Brain Centre’. How far have you progressed with that?
We’re getting towards the latter part of that now, it’s taken a little longer than we would have liked. But we’re establishing it here at (SLC) headquarters. I’m hoping by the end of this month that we’ll be in a good position to start to utilise that facility and then the next stage will be to try and implement our player management system which we’ll look into getting in the next few weeks. That really will start to monitor and manage our players, coaches on a daily basis and that’s going to help everybody to make better informed decisions.
Q: Do you think coaches lack the understanding of the value that data analysis brings?
They are into statistics but for me you’ve got to understand the story behind the numbers. Someone can get a hundred but it might be against a very weak team on a very flat pitch. Someone could get 30, but be against one of the best attacks in Sri Lanka on a very tough pitch. Numbers are okay but you’ve got to understand the story behind them and see if there are any trends over a period of time and then make a judgment.
Q: One thing that we’ve seen among coaches here is the over reliance on spinners, at the expense of developing fast bowlers. Is this something that you have looked at addressing?
Absolutely. I think our record in Sri Lanka speaks for itself. We know how to win on home soil, but the challenge for any international team is to win overseas. And if we are to win overseas then we’ve got to have a pool of fast bowlers who meet the conditions that we face. One of the first things when I came to Sri Lanka was that we had nine of our bowlers injured, out. We’ve now only got one long term injury in Dhammika Prasad and hopefully he’s going to be back sooner rather than later. We’ve made progress in that area and once they (injured bowlers) are fit, and able to play, then it’s about putting the performance in matches and competing for positions in that final XI. We need at least ten fast bowlers competing for spots in that national team. We’ve started up the emerging fast bowling programme and two graduates from that, Lahiru Kumar and Vikum Sanjaya, have shown what’s possible with some hard work, good structured programmes and good coaches.
Q: Do you believe there is a lack of quality in the domestic system, even if there is quantity? And how important is having a strong provincial cricket system towards rectifying that?
We’ve just come off a fantastic provincial tournament and I have to say players, coaches and observers can only speak highly of that initiative. The top 60 players played against one another in a tournament really showed the talent and ability that’s available in this country. That’s an area that we’re hoping to develop and grow and I hope that players who are playing at club level will aspire to get into that competition because they know it’s a stepping stone into the international level.
For me, it (provincial structure) definitely is (important). We talked about, when I first arrived, trying to find solutions towards bridging the gap between the domestic game and international cricket, and for me the provincial tournament has provided that platform among the other initiatives we’re trying to put into place at the High Performance Centre. For me, how we develop that into the future for me will be high priority.
Q: To that point, when you came in last year you said there was a small disconnect between the national team and what goes on underneath it. What measures have you taken to correct that?
I think the big thing, when there is disconnect, is communication. And the real important thing for me is there’s communication going both ways – so communication coming down, saying this what we need, these are the players we need to work with, and communication going up saying these guys are going well.
Between myself, the head coach and now, cricket manager, we’re in daily communication so that everyone knows what is going on. If there are players who are, at my level, trying to cut corners they are made aware of it, as are the selectors in Sanath (Jayasuriya), and the other three guys. Communication is crucial, hence this player management system (will be key) so that everybody can have access to the information within minutes.
Q: Do you think it’s neglect of the provincial tournaments that has brought Sri Lanka to this point, where they struggle to find quality long-term players?
I don’t know if it’s neglect. Unfortunately over time things change, different people have different views. We are where we are at the moment, and as a collective group we’re working hard towards identifying the needs of Sri Lanka Cricket. And this provincial tournament was very much a no-brainer, as far as the people involved and it’s exciting to hear the feedback from the players and coaches and everyone involved, that this is a must have going forward.
Q: Fielding has been an area where the national team has fallen behind their international opponents. How have you looked to improve that at grassroots levels?
Rightly so, you’re judged by the performances of your national team. But sometimes the work that goes on underneath is not really seen. When we took over we felt that if we just threw everything at the national team that, yes we might have some short term success, but ultimately we want Sri Lanka to be successful over a number of years. The general feeling was that we should start from a bottom to top strategy. (We need to get) As many of our best technical coaches to work from Under 19 upwards and then hopefully by the time they get into the international side in the future, we haven’t got to worry too much about fielding, it’s just maintaining those skills. Nic Pothas has spent a lot of time with the Under 19s, the ‘A’ team, the provincial teams trying to educate and upskill those players. The feedback we had from our Under 19 series against England and South Africa, was that the opposition were very envious of the way our players fielded. So that’s a massive positive, because Nic and the fielding coaches put a lot of work underneath. Nic has now gone up to the national team because it’s a major tournament and therefore we feel that’s best where his skills are required at this time. But that doesn’t mean that he’s going to be with the national team all the time, we still have got the long term in mind and we need Nic to be moving around the various teams, to keep educating our coaches and players.
Q: The number of T20 leagues around the world has increased. Have tournaments such as that become as important to developing players for international cricket?
When you look at the start of the IPL we probably had around 10 players involved in that first IPL tournament. We’ve only got three now. So that would suggest that around the world the view of where our T20 players are is not as good as it was 10 years ago. We’ve got to find different ways of improving that, I know the board is definitely looking at trying to get a Premier League or whatever you want to call it, a domestic T20 tournament, going and the more exposure we can give our players to playing with and against overseas players in a T20 format can only benefit our long term ambitions.
Q: There were allegations against you that you profited from tours involving foreign development teams, which were refuted by the SLC. For the purpose of record, what was your involvement in organising these tours and how were they conducted?
First off all allegations were totally false, and it came up through a cricket committee meeting where we discussed various programmes that after the provincial tournaments we wanted to pick squads of 20 players to come and have high intensity practice for two weeks. On the back of that, we got an approach from the ECB to say they would like to come to Sri Lanka because they run a Bunbury festival where they pick their best 20 players and want to give them some overseas experience. I then put that to the cricket committee, the cricket committee approved it, we drew up budgets and then we had to put a submission to the Management Committee for final approval. So there is a process in place that rubber stamps everything and the same thing happened with Surrey. We felt getting better opposition for our young players to experience in this country would be good for their development going forward. For our provincial teams that played against the Surrey Academy, and for our national Under 16s that played against England. So that was our concept behind it. With regards to any money, the only money (transaction) that happened, (was) that both those teams paid SLC for the hire of venues etc. There was money that came into the board to cover costs for those programmes so that we were able to stage (the tours). I know both organisations well and the people who run it, but there was a company that sponsored the ECB side of things called ‘Like a Fly’ and they dealt with all that, and likewise with Surrey. We did it directly through the board and all transactions were done from the board to the relevant organisation.
Q: You have spoken at length about the necessity of adapting and being able to play in foreign conditions. Sri Lanka’s last full tour, in South Africa, left much to be described in that aspect. What do you think was the cause of that performance and how have you looked to fix that?
I don’t think it’s a short term fix, it’s a long term fix. Players are only products of their environment. If I am playing on low, slow wickets, generally my technique will be a product of that environment. Hence why I have been big on taking our Under 19s, and younger players overseas, to get those experiences and raise their awareness as early as possible. Some of our guys haven’t had that exposure and therefore, they’re having to learn it while playing international cricket, which is the toughest place to do it. Some of our younger players who have gone to South Africa recently will be better players for that experience.
Yes it’s tough at the time, when you get beaten, but there are short-term needs, and there are long-term needs. And we’re focusing on the 2019 World Cup but we’re also focusing on sustainability of Sri Lanka Cricket and Test cricket going forward. We’ve had discussions as a group about what we need to do with players individually and collectively, and it’s important we challenge our players and we get them out of their comfort zones well in advance. Even though they may not play in England for two years we’ve got to make sure we develop him, their techniques against the moving ball; Australia, against the bouncing ball. We have to make sure, when we’re working with players, that we have a range of environments we expose them to not just the standard Sri Lanka want.
Q: You gave up playing at a relatively young age and became a coach. Any regrets about what you could not achieve as a player?
No, I made a simple decision when I was playing that if I hadn’t made it, in as a regular first class cricketer or international cricketer by the age of 25, I had to find a new career. Purely and simply because you couldn’t make enough money playing the game. Luckily while I was playing I did some coaching to earn a living during the winter, and found that I wasn’t bad at it – so people told me. And then it was actually a gentleman by the name of John Wright, former New Zealand cricketer and coach, who encouraged me to go down the coaching route, and got me onto the ECB Level Four programme, and luckily I became the youngest Level Four coach in the world, at the age of 29. I have to thank John Wright for that as well as Paul Farbrace, the former Sri Lanka coach who supported me as well along the way, and (since) then coaching has become my life.
Q: In terms of long-term planning, how do you work with a player like Lasith Malinga, who plays around the world, and has limited time with the national team?
We try to get a 12-month programme in place, in terms of a tours point of view, so we’re well ahead and we know what’s coming in the future. And then we kind of work back from each tour, so for someone like Malinga we knew that Champions Trophy was an opportunity. We worked back from that and saw what was the latest that he needed to prove his fitness. Before going to IPL, he had to show everybody that he was fit. So you sit down with a player and discuss it, and say ‘these are the targets that you want to achieve’, ‘how do we achieve it’, ‘what’s realistic’, and you draw up the programme with the coaches, the physios, the trainers and you agree, and then it’s about just monitoring it as you go along. Unfortunately, Malinga got dengue and that put him back by a month. We had to review the programme and change some things along the way and thankfully touch wood, he made it through. It has to be a very individualised programme and that’s why we’re got the 30 player national performance squad, so that if they are not in the team, they’re constantly training at the High Performance Centre.
Q: How do you keep players, especially in that national performance squad, motivated when they know they have been playing so well for so long but still can’t make the team?
It’s not easy at all. But all that you do is give players hope and say if you keep doing the right thing and you keep knocking on the door and keep putting the performances in – basically put selection beyond the selectors. You might have one or two good knocks, but you might have to get five or six. For me, it’s always about how much do you want it, because if you really want it you’ll do anything to reach your goal. So for me really the benchmark is to put selection beyond the selectors and everything else takes its place.