Former South Africa batsman and batting coach Neil McKenzie, who joined Bangladesh as white-ball batting coach in mid-2018 talks about his love of technique, the importance of being in the players' corner, and tailoring his approach to every batsman's individual mentality.
Recently, after you spoke at one of your press conferences, Tamim Iqbal batted quite differently in the ODI series against Zimbabwe. I am sure you were not looking to instruct him publicly, but how much does proper messaging matter?
I think Tamim is an experienced campaigner who will break a lot of records for Bangladesh. Generally when it comes to players in his talent and experience bracket, you just want to get into their game and let them open up a little bit to you, but you have to earn that right. He puts a lot of pressure on himself to perform. He is a driven cricketer, a good team man. He always wants the best results.
Sometimes that can make you a little too cautious. We know how good he is. All the coaches want to give guys clear messages about their role in the team, which ensures everybody knows where they stand. There's responsibility and accountability if you know your roles. That sort of communication needs to be a two-way street between player and the coach, with respect on both sides.
"One of the cons of the modern game is that there is a relationship between your batting coach and batsmen, bowling coach and bowlers, but not enough emphasis on player-to-player contact"
Liton Das has been more focused on batting along the ground, and being patient, of late. He said that he wants to play fewer shots. What kept him from doing it for nearly five years?
It was pleasing to hear someone say all that. International cricket is a tough place for a young player. Five years may seem a lot, but it is not a lot of game time if you are in and out of the team. Russell [Domingo, head coach] has said that nobody is getting a chance [just] to tick a box, but to prove or be given the best chance to succeed. Liton has repaid the faith of the selectors. With consistency comes maturity. I don't know which one comes first, really.
He looks like he knows what he wants to do. He knows his role in the team. He is a talented player with flair, who likes to play his shots. But you can't play all the shots all the time. You have to be selective and clever. International cricket is about adapting to situations, changing your game on certain surfaces and against different players. He looks like he has found something in his game.
Has he shown other Bangladesh batsmen of his age that accepting certain things can improve their consistency?
Bangladesh, with its massive talent and resources, have a lot of good players without being great players. I think it is our job, as coaching staff, to develop these guys, or push them in an area where they can become world class. The younger lot is averaging in the 30s, where you know to be world class, you have to average 40 to 50. That's the goal.
It is a team game but if you have your top six averaging high numbers, it means you are getting more runs, competing more and giving the bowlers something to bowl at. I think Liton has pushed the bar up a little bit. When the standard is X, he has made it X-plus. It could have a knock-on effect on the others. They may start questioning what is good and what is great. It is hoped that the questions get answered in the next couple of months, where guys stop trying to play for positions but try to be the best Bangladesh player.
How much does it please you that some of Bangladesh's batsmen have become more successful by taking up different approaches?
I haven't been with the Bangladesh side in a Test environment. But for ODIs and T20s, you can't ask for a better environment. All the players are very receptive. Definitely not "my way or the highway". If something is not working, we look at another method to get it done. They are willing to learn and listen to other options. It is definitely a positive thing in the Bangladesh camp. I think we are making some good strides. We have got a few key elements that we want to work on in the foreseeable future, in all formats.
It is a pleasure to have these conversations with Bangladeshi players because it is an honest one, and you feel you are making a difference. It is not my game, it is their career.
You have done well for South Africa and Bangladesh. What are the parameters to be a successful batting coach?
I have been very fortunate to retire and go work straight for the South African side. I did two and a bit years there and [I've been] with Bangladesh for just under two years. It is definitely a privilege to be in international cricket with quality teams. Whether I am successful or not, I try to be as honest as I can. I invest in everybody's game without overstepping. As much as you want to add value to a player, he has to open up on his game.
Firstly, I try to learn everyone's technical movements. I look at their footage. The technical side is the easier aspect to fix, so then hopefully they open up their mental side, what makes them tick - it takes a bit of time. It is easier to get into the heads of some players with whom I have played. But some guys are a little bit more guarded and introverted.
Basically I have to find what works for the individual - get into their thoughts and impart something that can make them better. It may be 1% or a little bit more. It is definitely about that respect, them opening up and you being transparent and honest.
I think it is also important to relate to the individual as a person [first], and then with cricket talk. Some guys are hand guys, some are feet, some are head guys. Some are shoulder guys. So basically trying to learn their language. If he is a hand and shoulder guy, there's no issue in talking about his head position.
"Bangladesh, with its massive talent and resources, have a lot of good players without being great players. There's a lot of talent but no one is jumping out of the box"
Younger guys are more influenced by the technical side of things. I am a student of cricket. I love technique. It is not the textbook technical side, it is the individual player's technical side. If that's consistent, it can open up the mental side of the game, where he actually feels like he is in a good position to defend or jump on anything that's loose.
I don't try to coach before the ball gets bowled, I try to gauge my coaching on the point of delivery. I concentrate on the guy being in a really good position so that he can execute his and the team's game plan.
How do you typically spend a training day in Dhaka, say a week or so ahead of an ODI series? Do you spend more time with the younger players than the senior players?
A typical week leading into a series is very much up to the individual. The coaches along with Shrinivas [Chandrasekaran], the video analyst, will have a conversation, and go through the opposition players. Generally players know their opposition pretty well, so we look at the opportunity. If we are playing on a quick South African wicket, where's the opportunity to rotate the strike? Could be a drop and run, could be a tuck to leg side. Playing in Bangladesh or India against different spinners, where is the opportunity to score?
If they are about to face reverse swing or a quality legspinner, we try to make sure those are on offer at practice. There's footage always available. Shrini is an unbelievable asset to any side. We make sure that during the game they are not caught unawares or by surprise.
What do the senior players come you to for? How different is it from South Africa?
Senior players are hardened international cricketers. It could be a cup of coffee or a little heads-up or a video when they are doing really well. Get a relationship going and touch their human side with an honest dialogue. The fundamentals are the same for most cricketers. The fears and inner drive are the same.
You try to become one of the guys in their corner, whether they succeed or fail. I try to lean on my experiences as a cricketer. I have been the young up-and-coming talent, the easy-drop guy, the main player in the side, the guy getting on in years. So there's a few things I can relate to. Obviously I have captained and been around various coaches. Based on all this, you tend to make a judgement call on what the player needs at that specific time. You know, just be there [for the player]. It's the biggest thing.
I think it's important to have that honest conversation with the senior player to tell him he can be better, or improve this. It is easy to tell the youngsters, but not always easy with the senior players. I challenge myself to give the senior players more options and that honest critique. If I feel they can do something better for the team, I have got the right to say it. The team comes first in my book.
What do the young players in Bangladesh come you to for?
I can't get over the receptiveness, respect and trust in their games that they have shown me. I have tried to reciprocate that. It is not an easy situation to come into the international game for a lot of the young players, so there's a bit of the care factor. Team always comes first, and to be a quality team we need every part of our squad doing really well.
There's some unbelievably talented youngsters coming through. They come to me, to other coaches, their school coaches and people that have influenced their lives, looking for a helping hand. I try to be authentic to their game and not try to impose myself on them. I listen and give them options.
Compared to your playing days, do you think specialist coaches make a huge difference?
If I look back at my days as a player in terms of coaching format, a lot of these teams are travelling with a lot of support staff. I think it is how you use them, having trust in your support structure. I would have really enjoyed a specialist batting coach. We were fortunate enough to chat with a lot of the other players in our side. It is one of the cons of the modern game. There's a relationship between your batting coach and batsmen, bowling coach and bowlers, but I think there could be more emphasis put on player-to-player contact.
Now everybody has these dog sticks. You just queue up and throw for a practice. You hit your balls and rest in the change rooms. I think when I first started, you had to throw to someone to get thrown back [to]. You start investing in your team-mate's game. You learn what they do and take their positives into your own game.
As a batting coach, I'd like to think that the guys get the best value out of it. But I still try to push the team emphasis, whether it's a tailender or a front-line batter. Throw a ball to another guy, stand behind the nets, offer a little word of advice. I think that's what a good team is all about.
With the ODI league likely to start next year, and doing well in the 2023 World Cup being Bangladesh's long-term target, what steps should someone like Soumya Sarkar take to become consistent?
Hopefully the coronavirus blows over. Thoughts and prayers go out to everybody in the world.
I think there's a lot of exciting cricket with the different World Cups and one-day leagues. There's a lot to play for. If I was an international cricketer sitting at home for the last couple of months, I'd be hungry to get out there. Guys like Soumya, Mithun and Shanto, or even the senior players like Mushy, Riyad and Tamim, would definitely want to get out there.
For a guy like Soumya, we know how good he is, but I want him to know how good he is. I think that's the biggest drawcard. Do you know how good you are? Go out and show it in the way you train, the way you think. Everything has to be world-class. You can't leave anything to chance. I don't mind if you don't practise, but when you do, you practise smart and strategically. Get to know yourself better so that when the big pressure situations come about, you know your game plan and technique. Then it's all execution. If the belief and preparation is there, you are in a good position to perform.