Mike Hesson standing down as New Zealand coach came as a surprise, and disappointment, to many. Probably the most successful person to ever fill the role, his decision to leave to spend time with his family was a particular bolt from the blue coming as it did less than a year before the World Cup.
As with so much about Hesson, though, he made his choice after weighing up the professional and emotional, the need to balance the head against the heart, the data against the instinct. If Hesson believes the time is right it almost certainly is and New Zealand’s loss, as he takes up a position on the influential ICC Cricket Committee, is the sport’s gain. It also isn’t the first time he has taken the courageous step to curtail his own ambitions for the good of his family.
All political careers end in failure it is said, and so it is with cricket coaches. Few are afforded the opportunity to walk away when at the peak of their powers, instead normally being frog-marched to the door by the weight of poor results. So in that respect Hesson is unusual. What is more remarkable still is that near the start of his tenure few could have imagined he would leave with such a legacy of success and a reputation as one of the best man managers in cricket. A few months after his appointment in July 2012, it seemed as if his reign might end in farce and acrimony.
Even Hesson himself would acknowledge the removal of Ross Taylor as captain was handled with the deftness of a particularly clumsy zombie. The batsman was stripped of the armband during the 2012 tour of Sri Lanka, leading to him taking time off from the game completely.
Hesson claimed the whole affair was the result of a miscommunication, that he just failed to adequately explain he only wanted to replace Taylor with Brendon McCullum in white ball cricket not in Tests. Taylor disputed this, citing a complete lack of support from Hesson and the matter was further inflamed when a letter from bowling coach, Shane Bond, to the board became public in which he stated the idea of a split captaincy had never been discussed. The period was being talked of as the “lowest point” for New Zealand cricket, with Hesson’s credentials as a coach being severely questioned, a situation compounded when his team were rolled for 45 in South Africa a couple of months later.
Some of these criticisms related to the fact that Hesson had previously also coached Kenya and Argentina and so, it was claimed, he lacked experience to handle big name players. In hindsight those of us who suggested limitations on his part on that basis were being both snide and snobby, as if going to improve cricket in associate nations was something which diminished Hesson’s standing rather than enhanced it.
In actual fact his time in Kenya, from where he eventually left after fearing for his family’s safety, may well have proved invaluable. Back then, he spoke to ESPNcricinfo not only about the two hour traffic jam that was his daily commute to training, but the pay dispute he found himself thrown into the middle of from the day he took up his job. After trying to resolve a deep rift between his players and the Kenyan board in pigeon Swahili against a backdrop of violence and civic disorder, the Taylor furore must have seemed a storm in a teacup.
Taylor has gone on to produce two of the most stand out knocks (and plenty of others) in recent memory. His Test double hundred in Perth was the first by a Kiwi in Australia. His recent ODI 180 hundred to defeat England in Dunedin, made on one leg like an android flamingo sent to destroy, was an absurd conflation of skill and a wilful ignorance of pain.
After their captaincy falling out, Taylor remarked that his relationship with Hesson was a “work in progress” but the pair of them ultimately found a way to operate together. Bond also continued in his role for another two-and-a-half years after the bungled captaincy switch. Installing McCullum and his relentless cricketing blitzkrieg of both bat and brain was ultimately proved the correct decision.
It wasn’t merely what Hesson brought to New Zealand, but what he — in conjunction with McCullum — brought to the game as a whole. Many teams play with vibrancy but the vibrancy of Hesson’s New Zealand’s was contagious even to the opposition. In June 2015, England notched 408 against the Black Caps in an ODI, with Joss Buttler scoring a breathtaking century in the sort of style that is now customary for England’s white ball batsmen. Back then such exhilaration was not so common. England had just conducted a 2015 World Cup campaign that was so dull it made watching paint dry seem like watching Picasso’s paint dry. The sacking of Kevin Pietersen still lingered around the side like radiation.
Yet for the whole summer, even in Tests, England were essentially bullied into stopping seeing cricket as a domestic argument and instead made to view it as a sport you were actually allowed to enjoy. Hesson and McCullum took up the role of two mates who take you out after a break-up, buy you loads of tequilas then put the best records on the jukebox all night. They slapped England round the face with their cricket, told them to stop moping about their divorce from Pietersen and the World Cup debacle and just have a bit of fun. The Test series was shared and the home side won the one-off T20 and ODIs 3-2. It’s odd to laud a coach for losing a ODI series but the result seemed a little trivial alongside the shot in the arm the matches gave English cricket, not that Hesson himself would countenance such whimsy.
In any case there are plenty of other triumphs for Hesson to revel in: A first ever World Cup final; an away ODI series win in South Africa; losing only three home Tests in 25; nudging the top of the ranks in all formats; defeating England in a home Test series for the first time in 35 years. It’s certainly very rare a departing coach has websites run polls to decide which was their greatest achievement, but this was the case last week so numerous were Hesson’s. In McCullum, Williamson, Boult, Taylor and Southee, he was of course blessed in having a quintet of world class performers. Yet it is the players on the strata below that he has coaxed moments, years in cases, of brilliance from that stand out.
Neil Wagner, who Hesson first brought to New Zealand from South Africa when he was a hugely successful coach of Otago, has been one of the revelations of Test cricket in recent times. His short-pitched methodology isn't perhaps the most complicated but more than any other fast bowler he is able to prise wickets, especially of set batsmen, through a combination of nailing his skills and imposing his personality. You were never “in” against Hesson’s New Zealand with Wagner in the side.
Leg spinner Ish Sodhi has developed into a pivotal, confident player in all formats, exemplified by his Test-saving and series-clinching knock — alongside Wagner — against England in Christchurch. Mitch Mcclenaghan, who starred in his debut match in that ODI series win in South Africa, evolved into the white ball bowler England at one stage probably hoped Jade Dernbach might become. Tattooed, aggressive, thinking.
Another player empowered by the departing coach was Grant Elliott, like Wagner, South African-born, and with fine, but by no means exceptional, talents which may have been lost within a more stifling set-up. Williamson smashed the six that saw his side home in the low scoring thriller against Australia in the 2015 group stages, but it was Elliot who played the innings of the tournament in the semi-final, knocking out his homeland with a nerveless 84, leaving Dale Steyn bereft on his haunches after the Kiwi’s match-winning six. Elliott had returned to the side ahead of the World Cup after an absence of over a year. For all the all-rounder’s proven pedigree, Hesson and his fellow selectors still pulled a trump card from near to nowhere.
Playing for Lahore Qalanders against Islamabad in the Pakistan Super League last year, Elliot hit another game-stealing maximum then mimicked a “mic drop” with his bat to celebrate. Hesson, in unexpectedly walking away from a side he has coached to far beyond reasonable expectations, has done exactly the same. He came, he achieved, he went. What a blast it was.