In the era of coaches using advanced analytics and cold data to get the best out of their players, Mark Robinson might be called an anachronism. Rather than playing around with the numbers, Robinson prefers to use his eyes and heart and a good chat to figure out the best fit for his athletes. But if he is a misfit, he’s a fairly proactive and effective one. Six months into his new assignment, the former Sussex and England Lions coach ousted two of the most decorated players of the England women's team so that he could rebuild the team. It was a bold move, but one that was vindicated when a new-look England won the 2017 World Cup two years later.
Coming to India with some new faces thanks to injuries and health issues to senior players, Robinson was fairly happy with his team’s performance, despite losing the final of the T20I tri-series and losing the ODIs to India 1-2. He spoke exclusively to Firstpost about his coaching philosophy, perspective on women’s cricket, and reading of the Indian team. Excerpts:
Firstpost: This has been your first women’s cricket assignment, after 10 years of coaching men. What is your reading on the women’s game?
Mark Robinson: It took me a while to get a proper handle of where we were as a team, and of the female game. My perspective has been that the batswomen had been handicapped. They have not been able to really express themselves, because they have played on boundaries that were not too big for them, but were quite intimidating, especially on slow wickets. So what we tried to do was experiment with smaller boundaries, and to also try and give the players the confidence to clear the boundaries. I think what has happened in the last two years, worldwide as well as with us, is batting standards have gone through the roof, partly because there’s generally better wickets to play on. The bowling standards haven’t caught up yet, that’s probably the next evolution.
I would imagine most coaches who come from the outside to work with women’s teams find it unbelievably rewarding. The girls are very humble, probably too critical of themselves. Our challenge as coach is to get them to express themselves, get rid of the fear.
FP: You copped some flak for pulling in the boundaries for England’s home international and domestic season in 2016. Some people said it was demeaning to the women’s game. What was the thinking behind that?
MR: In my perfect world, you wouldn’t have uniform boundaries. In the men’s game, you might have one side at 55 (yards) and the other is 75. It's brilliant, it brings tactic into the game.
What we want as an England team is to clear any boundary given. But initially it was getting the batswomen the confidence to clear.
What they learned was they don’t have to over-hit. Then by doing that they learn they can actually hit sixes.
Now we have the maximum (65 yards) boundaries here, and Danni Wyatt is whacking it into the sightscreen. It’s about being willing to experiment. As the game evolves, we can evolve with it.
FP: Your captain Heather Knight mentioned that you had spent the winter ‘upskilling’. What does that mean?
MR: Well, I inherited a fixture list that didn’t play much T20 cricket. We were lucky enough to win the (ODI) World Cup. My challenge to the girls was we have to get better in T20 cricket. Some of it is the attitude: the bravery to hit the ball. You have got to accept getting out sometimes, but got to be brave enough to take bowlers on. And you have got to have the skills. So we did two things: trying to change attitudes, and trying to change skills.
Also, it was about me being really clear what they’re being judged on. If it’s overpitched, I want it whacked. If they pat it back, I’m not going to be happy. If they get out doing it, I’ll love them still. I will judge them on their bravery to take something on and try and do it, not whether they get out. That generally has had more success with the girls, knowing they have the backing of the coach to do this.
FP: You have gained a reputation of being a coach who picks players who don’t always have the numbers backing them. What do you look for? Is your coaching style more reliant on data or more on intangibles?
MR: It is more about ‘how did you approach the game?’. Did you do the same things every day, did you commit to the game. Did you back off, did you get a bit introverted, shy, or did you keep talking? Were you able to think clearly? More that side, which you don’t get from a video. My experience with the girls is they always blame themselves quickly; so it’s to try and give themselves a break, to understand that to be happy you have to first be sad. All these human emotions are really normal, and to get used to them.
Also we have some 30-year olds. I always say to my 30-year olds, I love experienced players but you got to have young hearts. Got to have the heart that wants to learn, wants to be open, wants to be vulnerable again. I love 30-year olds because of the experience, and if they have the eyes of 18-year olds, it’s really exciting.
FP: India and England both needed to handle huge expectations after the 2017 World Cup. How have your players found that experience?
MR: I haven’t got Eoin Morgan in my team with years and years of experience. My team are young girls who are learning. They went to a Lord’s final with 28,000 people. They’re still learning the game. Same with the Indian girls. Having to come to terms with the expectations for the first time, that’s a new pressure, that’s part of the journey of all professional sportspeople. So what it needs is people with our roles to have some empathy.
I heard there is going to be an inquiry (by the BCCI into the performance of the Indian team). I hope that’s a positive one: how can we support it, to keep development going; not a negative enquiry: oh we lost, crisis. You’re allowed to lose, you need to sometimes lose to reassess where you are.
If I was the coach of the Indian team, I would be excited. I’d be frustrated because there are certain bits you want to do better and quicker. But look at some of the talent they have got, some of the players. It’s going to need some patience as well. You can’t just right the wrongs of lack of investment, lack of opportunity for so many years just like that. Suddenly you’re getting paid, but it doesn’t allow you to hit the ball better, it doesn’t allow you to cope with pressure better. Over time it will, with the right people around them. The game does need to be patient, and the players need to realise there will be accountability now.
Playing in front of TV, being judged by people like yourself. It’s new to them, that scrutiny. And it’s an education. When I talk to my girls, we talk about (previous captain) Charlotte (Edwards)’s generation being pioneers. But these girls are pioneers too. These are the first professionals. The first ones going through this level of scrutiny. The first time they are being paid properly, being written about, judged, dropped, losing contracts, losing something that you’ve fought so hard for. The ones who come after them in 10 years' time will find it easier.