While the senior Windies team is yet to seal its spot in the World Cup 2019, their younger counterparts are about to enter the youth World Cup as the defending champions, having stunned many by winning the Under-19 world event in 2016.
Apart from two players, Windies have one crucial member in the dressing-room from the batch of 2016 — Graeme West, their coach. West was earlier Middlesex’s academy director and also served as the Middlesex Cricket Board’s development officer before switching to the Caribbean in 2012.
Since then, West has gone on to coach Windies to a successful run in the 2016 Under-19 World Cup in Bangladesh, and is also their development coach. Ahead of their title defence in New Zealand, West talks to Wisden India on the challenges of coaching young Windies boys, the differences from the English way of playing, and more. Excerpts:
Are things different this year, with Windies being the defending champions?
I think the main difference this time is that we’ve played a series against South Africa, a series against Zimbabwe. So we know a little bit more about the team. Last time, we really got to our cricket only when we arrived in Bangladesh. We were still getting familiar with the conditions, and when we got into the tournament, we didn’t quite know what to expect. This time around, the team knows a little bit more about the patterns of play, is a little bit more established and familiar with combinations.
But again, it’s a World Cup, it’s the pressures which are always a little bit unknown and how certain players will cope with different situations. Conditions in New Zealand are very different to what we’re used to in the Caribbean. We’ve seen the senior team find it difficult to come to terms with the change in conditions, particularly the bounce in the wickets here. We’ve got to really embrace that as quickly as possible because we know we’re in a really hard group. Our first two games – against New Zealand and South Africa – will define how we move forward in the tournament.
The Windies junior teams seem to have a bit more consistency, having beaten South Africa…
It’s always difficult to predict how young players are going to perform under pressure. I think we were fortunate in South Africa in that the conditions weren’t too different or dissimilar to what we’re used to in the Caribbean, and therefore the transition was a little bit quicker. The last World Cup – given that both Alzarri Joseph and Shimron Hetmyer have moved into the senior team very quickly — it goes to show that the calibre of the players that we had in that team. We had two-three very good fast bowlers in that tournament, and it doesn’t matter who you’re playing against, at that level it does make a difference. They’re able to make life uncomfortable for batsmen, they’re able to put pressure, and take wickets early on which almost always helped us in the way we set the game up.
I don’t think the younger team and the senior team are too dissimilar. I think there is a huge amount of potential and ability, but as I said, we only try to familiarise ourselves with different environments and opponents, which is the biggest challenge when you travel.
Getting into the senior team – like Joseph or Hetmyer – is a big motivation. But is there a danger that the individual goal is the only motivation for a tournament like this, given this is the first time these boys – all from different countries – are representing Windies?
I think the last tournament showed these players that great performance can be recognised even at this age on a global scale. Clearly, that’s a great motivation when you’re trying to announce yourself and make a name for yourself. I think the big ambition for all these players it to try to become professional cricketers in the Caribbean within two-three years of playing at this level. Most of these guys are 16-17 rather than 18-19, so they’ve got a little bit more time, but the way the game is structured now in the Caribbean, the transition from youth cricket to senior cricket, you need to be involved with one of the franchises. We saw after the last World Cup, several players accelerated their progression on the back of good performances in Bangladesh. That’s certainly something most of these guys will have a focus on if they can perform here.
So, as Rahul Dravid says, under-19 cricket is more about development than results…
Yeah, clearly we’re all here to be successful, and having experienced success in the last tournament, it’s added incentive. But he’s absolutely right, this isn’t the end of the journey, this is the beginning in the journey for a lot of these players. Some of the experiences and learnings here, we hope will help develop these guys. When we first started with them about 18 months ago, we made it very clear that our objective is to develop you as an individual, as a cricketer. And those players who make it all the way to the World Cup here – some have fallen away and some have come in – it’s always about trying to improve each individual that joins the group. We know that coming here and testing themselves against world-class players will help that.
How different is it to coach at this level compared to the senior teams?
It’s different. Ultimately you’re trying to reinforce the same key messages; we play 50-over cricket similar to the way the ‘A’ team, and ultimately the senior team, go about it. But the reinforcement has to be ongoing, it has to be on a daily basis for things to stick with younger players. A) They need to physically do it in the middle. And B) They need to keep hearing it. When they do something well, they need to understand what they did so that they can repeat it. I love that challenge because you can see some of these young guys really progress quickly once they understand and embrace certain things.
So in terms of our planning and drills, we’re not doing anything particularly different from what we’d do with older or more experienced players. But in terms of getting the guys to understand how the game works – they’re very small, subtle things that you can pick up and it’s about creating that awareness. If they haven’t seen it, it’s about making them aware of it and constantly challenging them to pick up on those teams because we know they have the skills, it’s just a case of putting them into practise at the right times.
Is under-19 coaching more about training the boys about the self, rather than the oppositions, because there is little knowledge of the opponents?
Yes, you’ve really got to focus more on your skills and how you’re going to play the conditions. If you get that right, you know you’re going to give yourself a good chance. As the tournament develops, you tend to be able to spot a little bit with some of the oppositions if the games get televised. By the time you get to the latter stages, if you’re fortunate enough to do that, then you can start to do a little bit analysis on the opposition. But we’ll spend a lot of time looking at our performance constantly through the tournament, really trying to identify those key areas where we can be better, because if we can be 10 runs better every game, it’s going to make a difference.
How different is coaching young boys in Windies, compared to your experiences in England, which is perhaps more organised and structured?
I didn’t have the fortune of playing in a World Cup, so this is kind of the next best. The tournament in Bangladesh was my first ICC tournament. I had been abroad on tours before but the way these tournaments are run and organised is at another level. It’s great to be a part of, even as a coach. This is my first time in New Zealand, I’ve heard great things about the country and everything I’ve seen so far reinforces that. But I see it as another great challenge for me as a coach, getting players to adapt to different conditions. It’s a great opportunity and a great challenge.
In England, there is a lot of similarities. If you look at a 16-year-old in England, he’s going to come through a similar pathway, whether he’s in the north of the country at Durham or south at somewhere like Middlesex where I was. So you know if you walked into a game at that level, where the players would be at, the kind of exposure they’d have had – not just in terms of coaching but also life skills, strength and conditioning. The challenge in the Caribbean is that it’s not similar across all the islands. Some islands run good programmes for the youngsters while others unfortunately don’t have the same resources, coaches or facilities. So you have to use every opportunity when we have at under-19 camps and development camps to try to give players that information, to allow them to catch up with players not just in the Caribbean but globally as well. When they do come to a tournament like this, they’re closer in terms of their progress and development.
That’s one of the challenges we’re trying to embrace. We’ve got professional cricketers in each of the six regions. The next stage is to have academies operating in those six regions, where the best 18 to 21-year-olds continue to develop so that they’re better prepared to move into first-class cricket.
Do you consciously not tinker with these players’ natural flair?
I try to ensure that we always retain the West Indian or Caribbean or Calypso type cricket. I would be doing a disservice to these players if I took away from them their natural flair and natural skills – what they would have seen as they’ve grown up in the players they look to copy or emulate.
What I’ve tried to do is to structure things a little bit more than maybe they’ve been familiar with. The ability to talk and discuss and create relationships with each player that allows us to discuss areas where there are areas that need to be assessed, improved and developed. We can do that without it feeling uncomfortable for the player. So I try to bring in my strengths I’ve developed as a coach over the years and just reinforce or add a little bit to what the players already possess.
Do these under-19 stints help you in the larger role as Windies development head?
Yes, you want to get to know your players as early as possible because they all have areas to improve on. The earlier and the younger that you can start to do that and get them into good habits, clearly the quicker they can progress. So things like work ethic, things like physical conditioning would be two areas in particular where we’re trying to encourage it being improved at an earlier age.
The great thing is that when they come back in when I’m running an ‘A’ team and some of these players come through, there is a familiarity they feel, a little bit more comfortable. We know how each other operates, we know how to get the best of each other. So it’s a huge bonus to be able to see a player so young. It starts when the players are at the age of 14-15 in the regional tournaments. More recently, we’ve had guys like Odean Smith and Oshane Thomas from the last batch of under-19s playing ‘A’ team cricket against Sri Lanka. It’s great to follow them through, it’s great to be able to build on the relationships we’ve had at the under-19 level, and therefore one of the key things for me is to see them through to the senior team. Not just get into the senior team, but to be able to have an impact at that level. That would be my ultimate objective.
The 2016 victory was widely called a turning point. Two years on, how do you look at Windies cricket?
It was an incredible achievement for a region as small as the West Indies to win three world tournaments (Under-19 World Cup, Women’s World Twenty20 and World T20). When you consider the enormity in terms of population and financial resources of India, England or Australia… even a Bangladesh with more than a 100 million people in their country. Those sort of achievements, when you sit back and really assess, were really outstanding.
In terms of turning point, we recognise that we still have a long way to go, particularly when the West Indies sides are playing outside the Caribbean. The women’s performances in the World Cup kind of gave them an idea as to the progress all the other teams have made. They need to embrace that moving forward and it’ll be great to see good performances from them in the World T20 this year which is in the Caribbean.
The men showed in England that they are making progress. They are competing with the world’s best but it does take time. If you have a bad session at that level, it can cost you a game. For them, it’s about stringing together good hours and good days of play. I do believe that things are moving in the right direction. We have 90 professional cricketers now who are working full time, we’re seeing the first-class matches are of better quality with more runs, more 100s…the games are lasting longer. So there are positive signs. As I said, when you look at the enormity of an India in terms of its resource or number of first-class players, it’s a huge challenge. But it’s certainly something that everybody involved welcomes, and therefore when we are successful, we probably do acknowledge it a little bit more because we understand how big a challenge it is.
This tournament will be another step in that direction then…
It is. These are the next batch of players. If we can get some of these guys moving forward in the next couple of years, it’ll reinforce the great work that’s gone into it. The support staff here bar one member is the same we had two years ago. They go over and above in terms of their efforts when the players return to the Caribbean. They even support these guys remotely; credit to them because I’m the only full-time employee. It’ll be a great couple of weeks for all of us, we’re all looking forward to it. Saturday here against the host nation, in front of the big crowd wanting the home team to do well, will certainly test us.