'there's On The Relations Of The' - Anthony McGrath'is The Coaching Mantra > Cricket News, cricinfo, mobilecric, cricbuzz, livescore and more
Cricket news - 'It's about relationships' - Anthony McGrath's coaching mantra
It is funny how things work out. The last game of Anthony McGrath's 17-year professional career with Yorkshire and England was against Essex at Chelmsford in the final weeks of the 2012 season. He made runs in the second innings to help his side to a victory that would see them promoted to the top flight of the Championship. Little did McGrath know then that the next stage of his career, that of a coach, would lead him to the county ground at which he last wore the famous white rose.
McGrath was brought to Essex as an assistant coach four and a half years ago by his former Yorkshire teammate Chris Silverwood. Responsible for the batsmen, he played an important role in the club's 2016 four-day promotion and 2017 Championship victory, their first title in 25 years. When Silverwood moved on to England, McGrath was the obvious candidate to take over the top job and last season, his second as head coach, he led Essex to an unprecedented Championship and T20 Blast double in the space of the final five days of the campaign. It's already a very decent coaching resume.
Let's start with that crazy final week of the 2019 season. Three matches, two trophies on the line, the stakes as high as they can be in domestic cricket. It may have only been a few days but, McGrath admits, it felt like a year. "There were a few tired bodies but when you are playing for two trophies, the adrenaline kicks in," he tells Cricbuzz. "We could have gone through the last week of the season and won nothing. It was very fine lines and there was a lot of tension about."
First, the Blast, a competition Essex had never won previously. Because of that, it was almost a free-hit. Few expected them to win and certainly not after a horror start to the group campaign which yielded just two wins from their first ten matches, including four washouts. "We were poor again," says McGrath. "It took us a while to convince certain guys that they were playing in a certain position.
"Once we got that and we got a little bit of confidence, you could see that we turned from a team that didn't look like we knew what we were doing to a team that were pretty strong." It certainly wasn't the perfect campaign and Essex's success relied on a healthy slice of luck. But they timed their run to perfection, winning six of their last seven games to seal the trophy. Worcestershire, last year's winners, were beaten in dramatic fashion off the final ball of Finals Day.
After too many years of white-ball underachievement, McGrath had identified changes that needed to be made. After all, Essex had not won a limited overs trophy since 2008 and their T20 form the previous year was woeful. The appointment of South African spinner Simon Harmer as T20 captain was the opening gambit, agreed with club captain Ryan ten Doeschate as a form of succession planning.
"We had been bloody poor in T20. But we thought we had the players who could do a lot better," McGrath admits. "The main thing was getting the right players in the right positions. Fundamentally though, we needed players to play better. That was the big thing. It was not to do with Ryan's captaincy. We just hadn't performed."
Experienced heads were asked to play different roles than they had before, not that it always sat well with them. Varun Chopra, a classy and proven T20 strokemaker, was dropped. So too was Ravi Bopara who resented being asked to bat at number six. It was a bold decision by McGrath and Harmer to leave out a player like Bopara to make a point and the all-rounder has said it played a part in his decision to move to Sussex at the end of the season. But McGrath stands by the choice he was part of making.
"The argument was never about Ravi's T20 ability," he says. "Because he was the most experienced T20 player we had, our best all-round T20 player with bat and ball. We just felt that in that position, if we lost wickets he could re-build and if we didn't, he was one of the best people in our team who could hit sixes from ball one. We had looked at stats at effectiveness in that position, strike rate. That's why we wanted him in that position."
Once returned to the side, Bopara played a number of vital innings at the back end of the competition to finish games off, including in the quarter-final against Lancashire. He was there at the end of the final too, finishing 36 not out to see his side home. "We knew he would be good in that position," smiles McGrath.
By contrast, the Championship team needed far less attention. Finishing third in 2018, something that the club would have seen as a fine achievement just a few years earlier, was an immense frustration for a group of players who sensed they should have done better. "There's an expectation in the group now about red-ball cricket," McGrath says. "The lads were really disappointed at finishing third and there was a real drive to get that trophy back."
Essex won all seven home matches and only lost one of 14 games overall. Harmer took 83 wickets at 18. It was not as dominant a title as their 2017 effort when they went unbeaten but it was another fine achievement for a relatively small squad and a club not blessed with the financial resources or the lure of the Test match counties. Having proven they could win the Championship before, McGrath says it was that belief that got them over the line even when they didn't play well.
He singles out the game at Kent in August as a prime example. Bundled out for 114 in their first innings, Essex then proceeded to rout the home side for just 40 giving them a relatively simple chase which they knocked off, albeit with a few scares of their own. It was a game they had no right to win but a game they won anyway. "All the way through the season, we managed to wrestle things back and win," McGrath says.
The head coach needed to summon all the belief he could on the final day of the Championship season at Taunton. Just two days after the Blast success, Essex played Somerset in a first against second clash. If Essex could avoid defeat, they would claim the title. If they lost, Somerset would take it. After the first three days were severely hampered by rain, a draw looked inevitable.
Until, that was, Somerset took nine for 39 in Essex's first innings between lunch and tea on day four. The home side forfeited their own second dig to set up a nerve-wracking final session where Essex had to bat out for the draw. Ten wickets in a session was always going to be a stretch but with the pitch a minefield and the pressure immense, only a fool would have written it off completely. "Given the season cricket had had with the Ashes and the World Cup, you were thinking there could be one more twist," McGrath jokes.
"It was a weird week because the one people didn't expect us to win was the T20. And then the Championship, probably people expected us to get over the line. You are thinking, we don't want to blow this one now and dampen the T20 celebrations. So you could feel that a little within the group.
"That last day, for me personally once the game was off, I was so drained. We looked like we were cruising but on that wicket, you just needed one wicket and something could happen. Fortunately, we batted long enough - just - so the remarkable couldn't happen. When we got to tea and we had lost eight wickets, you are thinking "Oh no". The dressing room was a tense place."
The double was a vindication both of the quality of the players Essex have in their squad but also of the coaching that McGrath and his staff provided. Does he have a coaching philosophy or a culture he believes in? "People talk about environments and cultures but you are only as good as the players as you have got. You look at the players, look at what assets or skills they have got and try and build that into a team.
"It's about relationships. That's the most important thing in coaching. You are not going to get on well with everyone. Only 11 can play so the other ten are not going to be happy with you. But as long as you are honest, you have some understanding of how they can get back into the team, how you are looking to improve them, I think that's fundamental. If the players understand that you care about them and you have that empathy, they will try and do their best."
Improving players is what Essex have been good at. McGrath's influence can be seen in the rise of Tom Westley, for instance, who made a Test debut in 2017 after a season and a half working with him as batting coach. Dan Lawrence, the 22 year-old batsman, has kicked on too and is highly thought of by England. Last season, a new lot of home-grown players including Rishi Patel and Will Buttleman were introduced to first team cricket.
And it is that development of Essex's own which gets McGrath's juices flowing. "When I came here, we wanted a team of mainly homegrown players that could compete. Put as much work as we can into the academy and give the lads a pathway through. If you look at our squad, we have 15 or 16 guys who have come through our academy. If we are successful with that, that's where I get excited.
"Yes the trophies are great but my underpinning thing is to keep producing the guys to come through. We have lost Ravi, we have lost Matt Coles so there are going to be opportunities. That's how you get the consistency, that's how you get the loyalty. They know they are going to get a chance to come in and play. And if they take it, they're a chance to create a career here at Essex."
The work of the academy has been one of many reasons for the county's success over the past four seasons. Ten Doeschate has been a major influence on the squad as a captain demanding of high standards. Recruitment has been excellent and the signing of Harmer, in particular, has been huge. Silverwood was the fresh voice the club needed after Paul Grayson's long tenure. And of course the players are the ones who have to come up with the goods day in and day out.
But McGrath has been there for all of it too. Understated but influential. Not that he wants any of the limelight or the plaudits. He references the importance of the players time and time again in conversation. He says it is the captain's team, not his. But there should be no doubting the impact McGrath has had on Essex over the past four years. He is a young coach at the top of his game. Whether he wants the plaudits or not, he deserves them.
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