Trent Woodhill is an oddity in international cricket. A high-profile coach who hasn’t played the game, even at first-class level, but one who has worked extensively with superstars like AB de Villiers, Virat Kohli, Virender Sehwag, Kevin Pietersen, Steven Smith and David Warner. Woodhill, currently with Royal Challengers Bangalore, is in charge of ‘Batting Talent Development’ in addition to being the fielding coach. Having worked around the world with various teams and franchises, he brings a fresh set of eyes and a mind keen on looking at cricket through different prisms everywhere he goes. He’s unapologetic about stating that Twenty20 is his favourite format, has little time for coaching methods that are revered only because they have been around for ages, and is unafraid to ask questions or voice an opinion. In an extensive chat with Wisden India, Woodhill dwelled on the game, his relationships with his star wards, where he sees the evolution of T20 going and much else. Excerpts:
You’ve been described as a coach who is sceptical of coaches. Can you elaborate what it is in traditional cricket coaching that you’re sceptical of, and how you approach coaching?
I’m sceptical of technique. I’ve mentioned it a few times, I think the beauty of India is that you come across so many different batting styles, whereas in UK and especially Australia, there seems to be a one-size-fits-all approach. I feel a lot of the coaching that’s been done in both those countries has harmed more players than it’s improved. So the scepticism lies in the fact that we need to understand players, not just as people but also what style, movement patterns, and biomechanical structures they have in place that allows them to achieve their best outcome.
If I had a view in my head that one piece of advice could work with everybody, then I could probably throw out 75% of the players I’ve worked with.
With the variety of styles and techniques, what do the great batsmen do right?
Definitely, great batsmen do similar things. To use an analogy from swimming, in the 1980s, everybody in a 100-metre freestyle race looked the same on top of the water as they did underneath the water. Then technique started to change, whether it was from Eastern Europe or the Chinese. Above the water everyone looked very different, but underneath the water everybody still looked the same.
There’s certain things that you have to do: have balance, watch the ball, have the ability to play late and transfer your weight late through the ball, and the ability to read what the bowler is trying to do. Some of these are inherently in the great players, and others are learnt. If you look at the best batsmen in the world at the moment, none of them look similar. From a Williamson to a Root to a Smith to a Warner to a Kohli to a de Villiers – they all have different attributes and different strengths. When we pick a strength of one and try to put that into another is when we can come unstuck.
You’ve worked at RCB with Virat Kohli for a few years. Give us an insight into his preparation and evolution.
He’s the most impressive sportsman I’ve had the pleasure to work with – in any sport. He’s in the same stratosphere as Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Messi. His approach to his own cricketing career and everything involved around it is extremely professional. It’s really a pleasure to work with.
“He’s (Kohli) the most impressive sportsman I’ve had the pleasure to work with – in any sport. He’s in the same stratosphere as Roger Federer, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Messi.”
He offers a lot to everybody, not just in cricket. Everyone who gets to deal with him and work with him is empowered and feels like they are lifted by just being in his presence.
He’s definitely fitter than he’s ever been. What that allows you to do is under pressure, you’re able to replicate technique and replicate movement patterns. So he’s less likely than others to play a lazy shot or not execute the way he’d like because his fitness and his mind is so sharp. And that’s where that brilliance lies. No doubt he’s extremely talented, so it’s not just hard work.
The day before a game, Kohli doesn’t like to spend too long in the nets but prefers short, intense sessions. Why do you think that is?
I’m a fan of that as well. To me, time is irrelevant. It’s actually the quality of your session through trying to replicate as high a tempo as you would in a match. Twenty20 games are frenetic. If you don’t train at that pace, it’s hard to step into that space the next day. Short, sharp, make sure you’re making lots of good contact – is far better for you than having a three-hour net where you’re hitting lots of balls and getting tired. Really, the most balls you’re going to face in T20 matches is between 65 and 70, and that’s maybe once every two years. On average it is somewhere between 30 and 40 balls for the top three or four, and then it gets less for the other players. So you don’t need lots of volume, but you need high impact, high tempo. Small amounts but high quality.
The last time India toured England, Kohli struggled. Do you see that changing this time?
Yeah, I do. I see Kohli dominating. I think him and a few of the others will be primed for a big series. I think they understand their games. Where a lot of Australian teams have struggled overseas is that they’ve felt they’ve had to make a technical change to deal with spin. You can’t make a technical change three weeks out from a tour to deal with a moving ball or a spinning ball. Because under pressure, you revert to type. And not only that, under pressure, you’re thinking technique rather than competition. And as soon as you start thinking technique, you slow down, you become defensive and you struggle. So if India go in with an attacking mindset and look to be competitive through their natural strengths, I think they’ll be fine.
Regarding AB de Villiers and his ball-striking, is it all natural talent or is he doing something behind the scenes that we don’t see?
I first met AB in 2009 when I was at Delhi, and he trains smarter than anybody I’ve worked with. He’s mastered the art of replicating what he needs to do in a period of time in training to be able to move on. In Kohli and AB, you’ve got the Nadal and Federer of the cricket world. It’s tough to pick who is the best of them. AB and Federer share a similar DNA I think, and the same with Nadal and Kohli. The point’s never dead for Nadal, and the point’s never dead for Virat. And AB, he finds a way as Federer does, in conditions where others struggle.
Strangely, they are fans of the other one – Kohli is a Federer fan and AB likes Nadal more…
It’s interesting, isn’t it? Once again, it’s how you interpret people and how they interpret themselves. It’s been an absolute pleasure and joy. I’ve been lucky enough to work with a lot of good players, but those two – with Virender Sehwag – stand out for me as three people who have extreme knowledge of their own games. And because they have extreme knowledge of their own games, they are able to prepare in a way that allows them to replicate success. And that’s what separates great players from very good players, the ability to replicate success and not have down periods. And those two players have done that over a long period of time, across formats as well.
You mentioned Sehwag, and you worked with him at Delhi Daredevils. Many were initially surprised how he was scoring hundreds when he didn’t seem to move his feet…
He’s taught me more about batting than anyone else. I’ll chuck Kevin Pietersen into that as well because we’ve known each other for a long time. Viru did a lot more at his batting than credit was given. The problem with the eye test is that we’re led to believe that Viru didn’t move his feet. But Viru transferred weight through the ball better than anyone else in his generation. He was able to cut, hit off his hip, drive beautifully. He had the ability to play late through minimum movement. Footwork is only good footwork if it leads to access to the ball. If you can’t access the ball because you move your feet, then it doesn’t matter how much you move your feet because you’re in trouble. What Viru was really good at is accessing the ball. That might have been a tiny little movement to the offside to cut, a tiny little movement to drive, a tiny little hip movement to get the ball – that classic shot of his off a quick bowler between mid-on and midwicket. You wonder how a man of his size could do that: it was the ability to transfer weight to the ball through minimal footwork.
“He’s (Sehwag) taught me more about batting than anyone else. I’ll chuck Kevin Pietersen into that as well because we’ve known each other for a long time. Viru did a lot more at his batting than credit was given.”
What is your role with RCB?
We feel like we’ve got all options covered. Gary’s (Kirsten) around batting strategy, game management and decision-making. My job’s more about…I’m like a swing coach. I’m making sure that their techniques are best utilised at practice so that they’re ready to play and ready to make good decisions. And also across that, it’s being able to identify talent, not just Indian but overseas talent as well. It’s something Mumbai have done very well in the past, and probably Kolkata and Chennai – so they’ve been the three most successful teams. That’s been down for the most part to their talent management.
You were part of the auction strategy team for RCB. Can you shed light on why the team didn’t go for KL Rahul or why you retained Sarfaraz Khan?
Probably can’t with that, there’s other factors at play with that. But look, KL is one of the stars of this IPL and will continue to be that way.
The beauty of the competition is the salary cap. Some teams have gone for depth, some have gone for high-impact players. They’ve got a great first XI but a few injuries and they could be in trouble. Our strategy was very much around being able to have depth but also a left-arm quick or a right-arm offspinner or a left-arm spinner and allrounder. Corey Anderson came in to replace Nathan Coulter-Nile, he’s a left-handed bat. We’ve got a right-handed bat in Colin de Grandhomme. We’ve got impact at the top in Brendon McCullum, but also we’ve got Quinton de Kock and there’s Indian back-up in Parthiv Patel. Similar records and also similar styles. I suppose the best strategy is the winning strategy, which you can’t judge at least for three years. But I like the depth we’ve got, the options we have and the structure.
I think the auction is an event in itself. I like it, it’s a fantastic two days.
You’ve been close to both Steven Smith and David Warner. What were your thoughts about the events that went down in South Africa last month?
Obviously I’m extremely close with both players. I’ve been their batting coach off and on for a decade. I’ve just hated the way the Australian team has played cricket for the last three-four years. I just feel like their attitude towards the game has been disrespectful. I hate bullying, I hate cheating… anything that makes somebody else uncomfortable just to gain an advantage. Working with the players I’ve worked with, I’ve seen people like AB and Virat can play within the rules with a smile on their face, and still be successful. I think Australian cricket teams – if they don’t change now they never will. Top to bottom they need to address the way they treat people and the way they approach their cricket.
There’s a feeling among a lot of people that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime.
No it doesn’t. The punishment doesn’t fit the crime. My anger lies at the people above the players. It’s the coach who’s pushed a culture that leads you to that point. And part of being a coach is to keep players being the best version of themselves, not encouraging them to be the worst version of themselves. The players have suffered for the sins of others rather than just that one-off performance in Cape Town.
You were instrumental in not letting others tamper with Smith’s technique.
Australians don’t like things they’re not used to seeing. Whereas that’s almost celebrated in India…a Mohammad Azharuddin coming on the scene with that strong bottom hand grip and hitting everything through the onside and collapsing his head through the offside. Someone like him would have struggled to make it in Australian cricket. Or (VVS) Laxman even. Australians love the eye test. They want people to look good and look good the way they want them to. Someone like Steven, his record is phenomenal because he was able to stave off intervention from others. Same with David as well.
What will happen to Smith’s batting if he doesn’t bat for a year?
I think both will be okay. The way they’ve set themselves up, what’s important for a batting coach is making sure people are not reliant on somebody other than themselves. Steve and Dave will be fine. They’ll come back. It might take a little bit of time, but they’ll still reach the same heights as they have previously.
“I’ve just hated the way the Australian team has played cricket for the last three-four years. I just feel like their attitude towards the game has been disrespectful. I hate bullying, I hate cheating.”
You’ve been a coach without playing higher than grade cricket. Was it difficult in the beginning to make players accept you?
It was difficult for your average professional cricketer because they had a sense of, ‘This is my VIP room and what are you doing here?’ But someone like Kevin Pietersen especially and Sehwag — those two guys made it perfectly clear to me that they had no interest in what I’d done as a cricketer. They were only interested in how I can help them now. And that’s a similar nature to what I have in my life. It’s not what I’ve done but how I can help them now. The guys at Delhi and RCB have been brilliant in that regard. They literally have no interest in my background. They’re only interested in how I can make sure they’re ready for that next game. But in Australia that’s different. It’s all about profile and ‘We’re going to turn a great player into a great coach.’ And you can name on one hand the number of great players who turned into great coaches in any sport, let alone cricket. It’s a profession I’m proud of. It’s one I’ve studied in. It’s one I’ve been lucky enough to do for a long time now. And to think that my background should have anything to do with my ability to learn and impart knowledge is shallow.
The next step of evolution in the T20 game – could it be things like retiring a batsman out to send in a big-hitter in the end overs, or intentionally dropping catches if a batsman is scoring slowly?
I think everything is on the table. My view is, I just like asking a lot of questions and I’m not emotionally attached to the rules of the game. If I had my way, then you’d only bowl from one end. The whole match will be played from one end. That way you won’t have guys running from mid-off to mid-off at the other end. They can stay in their set positions so they have more energy to expend on the skill of the game rather than running between overs. And I probably would have it so that a bowler could bowl as long as he liked. If a bowler wanted to bowl 20 overs, then so be it. But once he gets taken off, that’s it, he’s done. He’s removed from the game.
We’ve got to remember, we need to get the best out of players’ skills. The players run the game, and that’s what people want to see. I don’t want to see superstar fielders running from long-off to long-off. I want to see them make great plays at their position.
There’s going to be changes and television and business will drive those changes. I think there’s still traditional beliefs in the way cricket should be presented and viewed, and the T20 format has challenged that. For example, if you wake up tomorrow and you weren’t sure who won, and it will say RCB beat Chennai by three wickets – it’s pretty irrelevant, three wickets. You want to know how many balls were left.
So would you ever tell your team not to go for a catch if a batsman was batting slowly?
Nah (laughs). No, I’d rather they take that catch. We’ve seen what a wicket does in T20, a wicket is more valuable than who’s coming in next.
You’re also the fielding coach. There are no real ways right now to measure fielding in cricket…
Until there is a GPS system on each player. And that’s the next thing. I want to know patterns of play. If there is a catch not taken, was it because it wasn’t a catch or the players wasn’t able to cover that ground compared to the standard play? I’d want everyone in the competition to wear GPS.
In the absence of that, we measure forced errors and unforced errors. We measure our movement patterns in terms of what we expect from them backing up. There’s lots each franchise does and there’s lots more everyone can do as well.
“If it’s a T20 game and Rohit Sharma is batting, then I’m just stopping everything to watch that because it’s just a thing of beauty.”
Do you think cricket has had its Moneyball moment?
That all depends on the game. The game’s changed. So what happens is the Moneyball moment has its period of success over a three to five-year period, but then people change within that. You look at the original Moneyball moment (in baseball), it was getting on base. That changed then when someone realised you can get on base but you have to have power around that as well.
It could be anything. Something like a Sunil Narine pinch-hitting at the top of the order and having immense success. It might be that teams choose different parts of the game to go harder. The death overs might be reversed, they might be the first six overs. Then rather than looking to take wickets teams might just be looking to bowl death style as much as possible. So I think that Moneyball moment will evolve. It’s come and will re-enter somewhere.
How significant is strike-rate in the modern game?
The England ODI team is a really good ODI team because they put value on strike-rate rather than an individual milestone. They were all over the Australians because the Australians were slowing down to score their hundreds. They might have been 250 for 3 when they should have been 290 for 6. It’s that individual element in cricket that is taken out in T20. Those individual milestones become less relevant because someone getting 50 in 40 is nowhere near as valuable as someone getting 30 in 10.
You’re not a fence-sitter with your opinions. For instance, not many in cricket would say they like T20s more than Tests.
I’m not attached to anything. I’m not trying to protect what I’ve done. So the word legacy to me is an irrelevant word because this conversation we’re having now is more important than the one I had this morning because this is the one I’m in now. People get offended by questions or facts. Sport changes, sport grows… just in cricket we tend to hold on to it. We want the idea of a five-day Test match still being the be-all and end-all when it no longer is. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a place. It just means that if we don’t want to watch a five-day Test match and we want to go to the Chinnaswamy tonight and watch a game, that doesn’t make us wrong or shallow. Watching Chris Gayle score a hundred or watching Rohit Sharma bat. If it’s a T20 game and Rohit Sharma is batting, then I’m just stopping everything to watch that because it’s just a thing of beauty. Australia playing England on the world’s flattest wicket at the MCG? I’m off to the beach.