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Cricket news - 'People say there is no 'i' in team, which I don't agree with at all'
Paddy Upton's book - The Barefoot Coach - was one of cricket's bestsellers in India
If he wasn't such an intentional sort of a fellow, it would be tempting to describe Paddy Upton as an accidental cricket coach. It is now more than a decade since Upton began making his mark on the landscape of cricket coaching, working in invisible and yet tangible ways among India's backroom team. Yet while it is true that one does not simply find oneself in India's coaching staff by accident, exactly how this came to pass for Upton genuinely remains a mystery.
Gary Kirsten was not actively involved in coaching, nor was he looking for a job when Sunil Gavaskar contacted him in 2007, saying that the BCCI wanted Kirsten to apply for the vacant position of head coach. At first Kirsten dismissed it as a hoax. When Gavaskar followed up, Kirsten's sense of intrigue led him into an interview and the highest-profile coaching job in cricket. "To this day we're still not sure how that came about," Upton tells Cricbuzz. "(The BCCI) would call it a stroke of genius, I would say it was completely random."
The story of how Upton came to be Kirsten's right-hand man through hugely successful tenures with both India and South Africa runs deeper. It is tastefully laid out, along with the intricacies of their methods, in Upton's book The Barefoot Coach, which was released earlier this year and became one of cricket's best-sellers in India.
In a break with convention, that success was not rooted in a tell-all autobiography about India's run to the No. 1 Test ranking and a first World Cup title in 28 years. While there are fresh insights on that narrative, they essentially serve as a trojan horse for Upton's real interests, which are reflected in the book's subtitle: 'Life-changing insights from coaching the world's best cricketers'. "The main purpose for me was to hopefully add genuine value to people's lives," Upton says of why he wrote it.
This is not as flowery as it might sound. Throughout the book, the 51-year-old uses stories from his time in cricket to outline practical tools and approaches that could be applied by anyone in any walk of life. It would be equally at home in the self-help section of a bookshop as the sports section.
While Upton's formal training came in the form of a master's degree in executive coaching, he has not limited himself to that realm, and draws on resources from Eckhart Tolle, Osho, and Sri Sri Ravi Shankar. "In India a lot of the ancient wisdom or even religious scriptures that I could understand could be translated into sport," says Upton. "When I get feedback about the book, people say that I was talking about cricket but I wasn't talking about cricket. It's relevant to teaching, parenting, business, which is reassuring because the foundation from which I'm drawing that knowledge and translating through cricket stories actually comes from knowledge that applies to all of life."
This deeper background offers a new layer to our understanding of Upton's work, which he has laid out numerous times before as an engaging interviewee and occasional writer in the media. Despite attaining one of the highest marks on Cricket South Africa's Level Four coaching course, he has eschewed the instructive model of coaching that sport has tended to hold onto, looking instead to a more holistic approach that sees players as human beings first and cricketers second, where the coach is responsible for setting up a healthy environment in which the collective knowledge in the group can be harnessed and empowered.
Upton adopts a holistic approach to coaching that sees players as human beings first, cricketers second
It makes sense that it required a hiatus from sport, with its reductionist focus on winning at all costs, to come around to this viewpoint. Although Upton began his working life in cricket as the Proteas' first fitness trainer in the 1990s, the discovery that his dream job felt "empty" sparked a "journey of questioning". "I'd reached a high level of success and fame and ego in my mid-twenties working with the South African team as the first fitness trainer in international cricket. I was living the life, and realising this was not it," he says. "And then looking at the cricketers who had proper fame, proper money and proper success - mine was only by association - and realising I was not seeing deeply content individuals."
Kirsten was one of those individuals. By the time Upton's journey had led him through the academic, spiritual and business worlds to formulate something that could apply equally to sport, Kirsten was at the tail end of his career. Upton coached Kirsten around his mental game for his final year in international cricket, sparking the left-hander's most consistent run of form as he scored five of his 21 Test hundreds. Needless to say it was also his happiest time in South Africa colours - an aspect that Upton has continued to place emphasis on during his stints as head coach of various Twenty20 teams across three different leagues.
"One of my personal goals is for players to look back at the end of their career and say that it was the best period of their entire career. If it's in a T20 tournament, that could be seven weeks out of 15 or 20 years," he says. "It's a goal I might never succeed in, but what it means is that they have to learn more in those seven weeks than any other time, they need to grow, something special needs to happen in terms of their development. If that happens then they will probably end up playing their best cricket, which will give us the best possible chance of winning.
"Personal mastery is a big piece of that. People say there is no 'i' in team, which I don't agree with at all. Actually there really is an 'I' in team and each I needs to be the best person that they can be in order for the sum of all parts to be as great as they are."
While his approach played a key role in Kirsten's success with India and South Africa, critics might question Upton's (and, for that matter, Kirsten's) lack of trophies in T20 cricket - there have been none from Upton's seven seasons of coaching in the IPL, with a 2016 triumph in the Big Bash League his sole piece of silverware from four years coaching Sydney Thunder. His two seasons in charge of the Lahore Qalandars brought two fifth-placed finishes.
There is context though. Rajasthan Royals had finished near the bottom of the IPL standings for four straight seasons before Rahul Dravid invited Upton in, having struck a keen admiration for his methods during his final years in the Indian Test team. In Upton's first season, the Royals made the play-offs and then went all the way to the Champions League T20 final. Likewise Sydney Thunder had lost 21 out of 22 matches in the first three seasons of the BBL before hiring Upton. Within two years he had guided them to the title. "I would only get the down-and-out jobs when they had tried all the traditional approaches and there was nothing to lose any more. I was the 'nothing to lose any more' guy," he reflects.
In any case, with a focus on process rather than outcome, it is clear that Upton does not define his worth in trophies. Platitudes from cricket's biggest names adorn his book and yet the game has remained just a part of Upton's life - an experimental ground in which he has explored a range of "human-enhancing tools". Because his work addresses the individual as much as the collective, it is easily transferrable - he has coached athletes in 11 different sports at the highest level, and in every major business industry. "I haven't come across a place yet where this kind of thing is not applicable, because it's not prescriptive and it's not a doctrine. It allows people to interpret the lessons that they see to be relevant back into their context," he says. "I look to dig deep into the well of common sense. There's a wonderful knowledge and wisdom to be gained if you drink from there, and it's not very crowded around that well."
While the business world offers the most stimulating environment due to its complexity - sports teams, by contrast, have a narrowly-defined goal of winning - more recently Upton's work has been taking him around South Africa to address the toxicity of the school sport landscape. In a country that regularly looks to sporting achievement for a sense of identity, the win-at-all-costs mentality from international sport has bled into a school system that was already ultracompetitive. The end result has been a pernicious pressure that draws schools, coaches, parents and impressionable young athletes into a noxious spiral.
"The deeper philosophical thing is I look around the world at politics and business and the environment, and it's in the state that it's in because of this relentless pursuit for material gain at the cost of people, society and environment," says Upton. "I see the same thing being mirrored to a degree in sport with how important winning is, and how it's celebrated and paid and put on the billboards. So we have Alberto Salazar doing what he's doing, and we have 'Sandpapergate' and the prevalence of sledging and all of this gamesmanship in order to gain advantage, and that is just teaching kids and athletes that that is the way you get ahead - to bend the rules, cut corners and if you can, walk over other people who are just pawns in your game.
"I'm quite interested in creating a healthy leadership that can lead to sustainable and long-term success. So win your trophy and get your bonus, but do it in a way that parents want their children to identify with. That marriage between morals and performance needs some counselling."
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