By Saj Sadiq
In April 2013, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) appointed Trent Woodhill as a temporary batting coach for Pakistan, in what turned out to be a disastrous Champion’s Trophy campaign for the country. The Woodhill appointment surprised many as he was preferred over some of Pakistan’s top names such as Inzamam-ul-Haq, Salim Malik and Zaheer Abbas, all of whom had expressed an interest in the role.
Prior to this high-profile assignment, 42-year-old Woodhill, who is based in Australia, was credited with moulding David Warner when he was assistant coach with the New South Wales squad. He also served as an assistant coach with the New Zealand team after head coach John Wright requested his help after the ICC World Cup 2011, and has also had a successful involvement with Melbourne Stars in the Big Bash League (BBL) in Australia. In addition he has worked with Delhi Daredevils (DD) in the Indian Premier League (IPL) for several years.
In an exclusive interview with PakPassion.net, Woodhill spoke about the frailties of the Pakistani batting order as well his experience with the team during the Champions Trophy campaign, talked specifically about Nasir Jamshed, Mohammad Hafeez, Umar Akmal and Umar Amin, as well as providing his thoughts on the art of cricket coaching and how former players can help the current generation of cricketers in Pakistan.
PakPassion.net (PP): How did the opportunity to work for the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) during the Champions Trophy come about?
Trent Woodhill (TW): I was working for Delhi as a batting and fielding coach alongside Mushtaq Ahmed and he said that the PCB had been looking for a batting coach for a while, and asked me if I was interested. At that time my partner was due to give birth six-seven weeks after the Champions Trophy, so I said no originally. Then they [PCB] pushed and asked if I would like to come and work just for the Champions Trophy. I said no again and they came back and said, “Why don’t you just do the first three weeks of the tournament and see how you enjoy it, how you like it and what impact you can have on the team”. I said I’ll check with my partner and she said go for it, so I accepted the offer.
PP: If Pakistan had done well in the Champions Trophy, people would have said Trent has only been there for a short while so he did not have much influence on the success. As it transpired, Pakistan didn’t do too well and a lot of people pointed the finger at you. Did you not think you were in a no-win situation in accepting the job?
TW: That is not why I coach. I coach to build relationships and to pass on knowledge that I have learnt over my career, which in my case is by speaking with as many top-class cricketers as possible. There was obviously criticism levelled at me by former players on my lack of First-Class playing background, which was actually a benefit to me. That’s because I’m not hanging on to the past like a former player trying to talk about what I have done. My skill is talking to as many “greats” as possible and passing on what they have done, so that I can pass on the experience of those greats onto the current players.
I knew that in three weeks I wasn’t going to change a lot but maybe pass on some knowledge and some practice techniques, so the players can utilise these tips in their game and take it forward. The idea being, that in the next 8-12 months they could continue to work on the things I have asked them to work on and that would have an impact on their game moving forward.
PP: What do you think went wrong with Pakistan’s batting at the Champions Trophy?
TW: There’s a systematic issue with Pakistan batting in that they are playing away from home all of the time. The way this affects the bowlers is limited, in that they don’t have the control of the ball once they have released it so it’s not a major issue. However in the case of the batsmen, they don’t get an opportunity to bat on their own decks because they are always playing away from home. They are having to quickly get used to conditions without having that “home” international form. For example, if Mohammad Hafeez had scored a couple of hundreds batting in Lahore and Karachi and then goes into a tournament like the Champions Trophy, he’s going to be confident with his game.
However, if he’s coming from another “away place” and then to play on a different surface again, I think it will wear the player down. Also, it’s really difficult for them to play on away strips all of the time, rather than playing at home and this in turn affects their confidence.
PP: Some say that the issues with Pakistani batsmen are more mental than technical. Would you agree with that?
TW: I think, at the moment, there’s a lot of coaches breaking down the issues into mental and technical aspects which are two different things. Some coaches say “Right, I can change a player’s technique and I’ll do it in a practice environment and make the necessary changes”. The player might be alright in a practice environment but when they go out into a match environment, they would go back to what they know, especially under pressure they will revert to their old techniques.
So, I think it’s more mental-related in the sense that they need to find some confidence and find some self-belief so that they could express their own natural talents rather than having to change their techniques to survive. From what I saw of their techniques, I was quite impressed by them. They were all quite flashy and have their own technique, but they just need some self belief and they need to understand that it’s not just about facing as many cricket balls as possible to feel good. It’s really about visualisation and convincing yourself of feeling confident when you walk out to bat. It’s not just about thinking of your technique, it’s more about your attitude and thinking it through, especially at the international level.
PP: You mentioned Mohammad Hafeez who is having a horror run at the moment. If you had an opportunity to sit down with him now and speak to him about his batting, what would you say to him?
TW: I think that’s where having only three weeks to work with players is tough. I had a really good relationship with Hafeez during my time with the Pakistan team. In fact I was very lucky that the players responded well to me. I really enjoyed the time in the bus and practice sessions with them. Obviously, the game is stressful and we didn’t do as well as the nation had hoped and what Dav Whatmore and Mohammad Akram had hoped for.
With someone like Hafeez, I would have talked through what’s going through his head, are there things that he’s putting in front of him that are not allowing him to get the results he wants. It’s really a time thing. It’s not a switch that you can switch on and all of a sudden he will go out in the next innings and do well. Sometimes, for batsmen, it’s about a breakthrough. Then what you need to do is to assess — was it a breakthrough or was it just a one off?
I would love to spend more time working with him because he is so talented and a major cricketer. I would want to make sure that his processes are right so that he is able to sustain a run of good form. Obviously, he did well in the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) which is Twenty20 cricket, but I am sure that he will turn a corner as he’s too good a player not to end up with very good statistics at the end of his career.
PP: Based on your time working with him and having watched him bat, what are the areas of improvement that Nasir Jamshed needs to make?
TW: I think it’s just the “next ball” focus. He has had a history of getting out when he looks set at the crease. As with all players, it’s making sure that the next ball should have just as much importance all the way through their innings. When they feel settled a bit at the crease, that’s when some players might get out thinking, “I have done enough now and I can relax a bit and express myself.” The really good players get in and stay in and they want to keep focussing on that next ball. For Nasir, he has to continue to feel hungry in terms of wanting to bat as much as possible. He’s a talented player and can definitely be the type of player who can play some match winning innings for Pakistan.
PP: There seems to be a lack of patience, especially when it comes to Test cricket amongst the Pakistan batsman. Although, the veterans Misbah-ul-Haq and Younis Khan seem to be leading the way, others don’t seem to be following their example?
TW: I think it’s all about identifying what types of batsmen there are in the batting line-up. As for Misbah, he is unbelievable. I dare say that if he was playing for India, Australia or South Africa, he would have been the best batsman in the world. He just continues to deliver under pressure on away strips against all types of opposition and he bats according to his nature. If you’ve got a flashy player then you need to ensure that when they bat, they are scoring as many as runs possible while they are there. The issue arises when you want a flashy player to be a defensive player.
In Australia at the moment, I feel that they are trying to turn attacking players into defensive players which is not right. It’s the old adage of get your defence right and the attacking parts of your game will take care of itself. I really disagree with that as I feel if the player just gets his natural game in order, then his game will be okay. In the case of David Warner, former coach Mickey Arthur and the Australian cricket team have spent a lot of time working on David’s defence. Well, it’s actually taken him away from his attacking game.
It’s simply this, if a player can get a hundred runs in a session, that will win you the game! I don’t think Virender Sehwag has ever tried to reign in his natural ball-striking ability because someone says, “We want you to be more defensive,” because then you’re actually taking away the opportunity to win games away from you.
If they bat till lunch and set up the game, then that’s fine — keep someone who’s capable of doing that rather than trying to turn an attacking player into a defensive one. It obviously doesn’t mean that you don’t get disappointed when such a player plays a shot that’s not on, all it means is that if he is still out there and playing good shots and good strokes, then he is less likely to play the bad ones and doesn’t feel like they are trying to stop themselves from attacking.
PP: What advice would you offer Umar Akmal, especially when he wants to represent Pakistan in all three formats of the game?
TW: All three brothers are very, very talented; their work ethic is amazing. Working with Kamran at the Champions Trophy at the end of my stint, my shoulder would be worn out. What I would do with him or any batsman, would be to work out what shots they play well and what ball are they going to receive in international cricket the most. Every bowling coach talks about the top of off stump, bowling 95 per cent of your balls at the top of off stump and moving away. The question for a batsman is, what shot do you play to that ball? So if you’re going to play in all three forms, it’s about making sure that for the ball you’re going to receive the most, you’ve got an offensive, attacking, run-scoring game to that ball — then your technique will spread because of that.
I think it’s important that those players don’t just start working on their short ball game or their full ball game just because they feel that’s going to give them an edge. For Umar, if he continues to work on that part of his game and that ball (most likely delivery) in particular, then there’s no reason why he can’t dominate in all three forms of the game.
PP: You spoke earlier about Pakistani batsmen struggling to a certain extent because they’re not playing in Pakistan. What else can the PCB do to help their batsmen in becoming solid enough to play all around the world?
TW: I throw it back to the former greats who criticised me, which is fine, that’s not an issue. It’s not a story; it’s just the way of the world. It’s important that we make sure that those guys are talking about how they worked at the beginning of their careers rather than just talking about how they were when they were 33 and walking out to bat at Lahore with a Test average of 50. Maybe the question to ask is how did they cope when they were young players making their debut, or as young players playing in their 10th or 15th Test — what information can they pass on?
I think it’s important for cricket boards around the world that they don’t get too excited about their former greats being world-class coaches. If you look at other sports around the world, it’s very rare that a Hall of Famer in baseball will be a great manager or a great coach in baseball. Again, the question to ask is if these guys were successful, why were they successful and more importantly what did they do at the start of their career to be successful?
The PCB can tap into the likes of Zaheer Abbas, Javed Miandad and Imran Khan, as all those guys were world-class. They should ask them what they did at the start of their careers or when they were struggling to deal with the pressure and the hype, so that they carried on and became those great players, rather than wanting to tell a story about how good they were!
The game has moved on from just speaking about what you’ve done as a cricketer, to being able to pass that knowledge on and to make sure that you understand the person you’re coaching. You, as a coach, also need to understand what makes the player tick and how do they want to play and also, what makes them enjoy their cricket and then tap into that.
For someone, for example, like Imran Farhat, if he wants to be an attacking player then that’s fine and we should make sure that he’s the best attacking player he can be, rather than saying no, you can’t do that and we’ll turn you into a defensive opener. Because then they’re always fighting themselves and their natural instincts and the player and the team is going to lose out.
PP: There’s a school of thought that says bad habits picked up in Under-19 cricket or even younger can’t be ironed out at a later stage. Do you agree with that?
TW: The older you get, the harder it is. Once something is ingrained in you and once you’ve basically hit so many cricket balls that your technique is there, then it’s much easier to work on someone’s attitude rather than change their technique. But it’s to do with coaches trying to understand who they’re coaching so that they know what makes the player tick.
In three weeks, obviously I couldn’t develop a big rapport but I worked closely with Umar Amin and I understood what he wanted to do and what he wanted to achieve. So I could then iron out little things in his game. It was more to do with his preparation and to make sure that he’s going to continue to build up a bank of balls being struck in the right style and in the right way that’s perfect for him.
However, the older they get, it’s harder to do that. The older they get, the more you have to work on their strengths rather than making their weaknesses known. Because then, you’ve got an older player trying to change his weaknesses and all of a sudden he’s not working on his strengths either, so obviously form is then going to be very temporary.
PP: What does a coach say to Shahid Afridi about his batting?
TW: I saw Shahid Afridi playing for Derbyshire when I was working in Scotland. He played a Pro40 game against Scotland and, geez, he belted these poor Scottish players and it was so great to see!
To answer your question, I’d always just push him to take advantage of his hunger to score runs. I’d say “Look, I love watching you bat, how can I see more of that?”, rather than trying to change what he does. In a way, he’s very similar to Viru [Virender Sehwag] in that he’s a match-winner. If while playing in the IPL Viru can win you four games out of sixteen then that’s phenomenal! So do you really want to change him so that he wins you only one and contributes to another three or four? Because then you’re relying on others to be the star.
I love watching Shahid Afridi play, he’s phenomenal, he can field, bowl and bat. I would make sure that the hunger is there so that if he does well on a Wednesday, he also backs it up on Saturday or Sunday and gets the job done for Pakistan again. I would also make sure that he enjoys it so much that he wants to do it again really soon!
PP: There’s talk of Sehwag moving into the middle-order for India after spending most of his career as an opener. How difficult is that for a batsman so late in his career to suddenly start batting in the middle order?
TW: I think every spinner around the world will be hoping that’s not the case! Can you imagine Virender Sehwag walking out to bat for India at 200 for three with two spinners bowling? They will not cope as he just plays spin bowling so well. I think Viru’s another player who’s comfortable wherever he plays. I would never ever not back Viru. I’ve worked closely with him for five years and he’s the most amazing player to work with. He works really hard at his game, he knows his game really, really well; he’s someone that I think can bat wherever he wants. He’s done that for Delhi at times where he’s batted at three because he’s felt that it would be the best thing for the team for him to be able to target the bowlers in the middle overs. I think he’ll fight his way back into the Indian team and will end up scoring 10,000 runs and will be one of the greats.
PP: What makes a good coach? What are the main assets that a good coach should have?
TW: I think it’s listening and visual skills. You need to be able to see and hear what a player is saying and thinking, simply by observing them. I think it’s really important that you develop that relationship with the players. That’s been my strength, both in the sub-continent and in this country [Australia] in that I end up developing a really good relationship with the players that I work with and that continues on. I have a great relationship with the players I worked with also in New Zealand and there’s a trust there.
Whatever you’ve done in your playing career, whether you’re one of the greats or a good solid international player, an average First-Class cricketer or even if you haven’t played at First-Class level, it’s important that you don’t make it about you. If players start to hear you talking about your own game as in how you played or about other players in terms of how good they were [or are] then the players stop listening. When they stop listening to you, it doesn’t matter how good your knowledge is; it’s worthless information.
First and foremost, the good coaches that I’ve been around understand the game and understand the players more than anything else.
PP: If the opportunity arose again to work for the PCB, would you be interested in doing that?
TW: I would take that opportunity in a heartbeat! I was totally blown away by the experience and it rejuvenated my love for cricket coaching. I really enjoyed the company of the support staff, of the actual team and the fans. Even when the fans were giving me grief, that was great because that’s how passionate they were about the sport. They were knowledgeable and they knew who I was and they felt I’d let the team down.
Obviously in three weeks, and I come back to your earlier question, I wasn’t going to make a big difference. You can make a really poor impression in that time but your good impression is going to take time. I loved it, so it would be great if I had that opportunity again.
Dav Whatmore is such a passionate person and such a good coach; he loves the Pakistan team and really wants them to do well. Mohammad Akram has to be the premier fast-bowling coach in world cricket, as the job he’s done with that bowling unit is sensational and he’s a lovely guy.
The team’s great and in Misbah they’ve got someone who is always fighting for the team. So I’d love to see them continue to work hard and come through this slump. I’d love to see some home games in Pakistan when things change. I’d always back them to win a tournament. The World T20 is in Bangladesh next year and I would back them to win this — they are one of the favourites, even after their form in the Champions Trophy.
Pakistan is a great cricketing nation and maybe everyone should just get behind them a little bit more and lower their expectations a bit, not in terms of winning, but in terms of development of the players. If someone like Umar Amin takes a few years to become world-class then let’s just give him an opportunity to find his feet in international cricket so that he can develop without that pressure of having to do it straight away.