Building the County Champions: The Mick Newell interview

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Sports coaches have possibly the most fragile jobs in the world.

In all sports, but particularly football and cricket, coaches are the first to have their head on the chopping block after a defeat.

Even in the quiet fields of County Cricket, the job of a coach is tenuous at best. Most survive one cycle, as a core group of players reach maturity and brilliance at the same time, lasting a couple of seasons.

Sadly, as soon as the good times start, they stop. Players get national selection, or get picked off to other clubs, or end up being over the hill as suddenly as they reached the peak.

So it’s remarkable to think then that the longest-serving County coach ever isn’t a throwback to the formative days of coaching – but instead has been Nottinghamshire’s man-in-charge for more than a decade now.

Mick Newell, who spent nine seasons as a first-XI player for Nottinghamshire, has now spent nearly three and a half decades involved with his club.

“I took all my coaching badges whilst I was still playing as a full time player. By about the age of 23 I got all my coaching badges done,” Newell says of his earliest days as a coach.

“I was aware of the fact that my career was fairly short lived, so by the time it became obvious I didn’t have a major future in the first team, I was already fully qualified to go into coaching. Although I didn’t expect it to come quite so early.”

That’s a reference to 1992, when he became dual captain-manager of the Nottinghamshire second team. He was still in his late twenties then, and certainly not of the typical coaching age. Despite that, he still had a “reasonably” smooth transition from player to coach.

“What you have to do is to accept that your playing career as a competitive player – in terms of trying to get into your first team and whatever – is over. If you can accept that, you can get on with your coaching career.”

That wasn’t an entirely easy process for Newell, however.

“That probably took me about a year and a half to realise that I wasn’t likely to play much more first eleven cricket so therefore I should concentrate more on my coaching. And therefore my own batting practise and my own fitness work would have to take a back seat, to being the coach and the manager of a team of young players.”

In those days, the game was very different to now. Coaches were still something of a new invention, and while becoming commonplace, their role certainly wasn’t as understood as it is today.

As such, the job of a coach in 1992 was very different to what it is today.

“There were less [coaches], like you say. I was running the second eleven virtually on my own, with a scorer to help me. You didn’t have a physiotherapist, you didn’t have a fitness coach, you didn’t really have specialist coaches. So definitely, you were more of a one-man-band, and more of a do it yourself, really. It’s changed in that sense. Most County Clubs now have got a far greater back-up staff than they had in the past.”

After working with the second team, Newell ended up as Clive Rice’s assistant coach with the firsts. Rice had been Nottinghamshire captain during the side’s previous two County Championship success, in 1981 and 1987. Indeed, when Newell made his Championship debut in 1984, Clive Rice was his skipper.

So Newell was no stranger to Rice, and enjoyed the opportunity to work alongside him.

“I think it was a great honour. We were all very excited when Clive said he was going to come back and coach because as a captain he’d been so inspirational. And he’d been a leader by example in terms of the way he wanted the game played, and he had the respect of all the players in the team.”

It certainly led to opportunities beyond what a typical coach would bring.

“So it was an exciting period of time for us when he came back, and he was quite an inspirational figure in many ways. And he brought Kevin Pietersen to the club and one or two other players from South Africa. He just wanted to win, desperately wanted to win, so was prepared to go round the world looking for players as much as developing our own local ones.”

It wasn’t far into the 2002 season that Rice and Nottinghamshire went separate ways, however. In Rice’s own words, “I was upsetting the existence of friends trying to remain in the team despite their sell by date having expired”.

The new coach named was Newell, a full decade after his first foray into coaching. As he came into the role, one of his major tasks was to work on some of the man-management aspects of the situation, to sort some of the conflict which had arisen.

“There were issues around little cliques of players. Some were very, very happy with Clive and wanted to work with Clive. And some that weren’t so happy and were a little bit disgruntled and would trunch away in the background. Certainly, one-to-one conversations and getting the whole team a bit more united was very high up on my list of priorities. And getting players to understand they were playing for Nottinghamshire, and how important the whole history and the culture of the club was for me, and I wanted to be for them as well.”

Given that Nottinghamshire had been in the bottom half of the Championship every year since 1995, it was always going to be difficult to turn the team’s form around immediately. Aside from the man-management aspect – “lot of one-to one conversations,” and making sure players would “take more pride in the club they were playing for – one other factor was very important for Newell in that first season.

“I was fortunate that Clive had previous arranged for the signing of Stuart MacGill to come in, before he left the club. So Stuart MacGill came in quite soon after Clive left, and I was very fortunate to pick up a world-class leg spinner in that sense. And that coincided with a great run of form from Kevin Pietersen in 2002, which again propelled the team quite rapidly up Division Two until we got promoted. Certain things just fell together, and mainly it comes down to the quality of the players that you have in your squad.”

The highs of 2002, with promotion to Division One, was contrasted the following year when they were relegated back down.

In 2004, they again made a run to the top-flight, but this time was different, because not only did the team not slide back in 2005, they took out the Championship.

Several team signings made the difference for Nottinghamshire in getting up and staying up, Newell believes. Graeme Swann, Mark Ealham and Ryan Sidebottom joined the club, and “…probably the most important move was bringing Stephen Fleming in, as captain. Because I felt this was a leader who could inspire the other players to raise their games to another level. So a bit like when Clive Rice was captain, you had a world class captain. Hopefully that has an impact on the players within the club who want the respect of that captain. And I think we had that.”

“We had a much better, in terms of experience and quality, team to go into Division One, 2005, with and Stephen Fleming just put the icing on the cake of that team.”

On the subject of captaincy, Newell believes that the relationship between coach and captain is integral to the team’s success.

“It’s absolutely crucial that the captain and the coach are very close, and certainly present a united front to the players. Because when there’s a divided captain and coach I think they can use that to their advantage. With Stephen [Fleming], he’s obviously an iconic figure in world cricket, and certainly in New Zealand cricket. One of the things we wanted him to do when he came here, was do as little as possible in terms of having an input into the running of the club, and a massive impact into the running of the team. So he didn’t have to attend any meetings of the club’s committee as previous captains had done, we kept his media commitments to a minimum, but we did want him to run the team on the field. And of course, with his reputation and his skill as well as a player, it wasn’t difficult for him to gain the respect of the players very quickly.”

Chris Read, widely regarded as the best gloveman of England’s modern era, followed Fleming as the captain.

“Chris stood next to Stephen for three years, with Stephen at first slip and Chris behind the wicket. That’s a relationship that’s gone very, very well. For myself and Chris, we got on very well, we work well as colleagues together, we have a mutual respect for each other’s abilities to do the jobs that we’re employed to do. And again, he has a huge respect from all the players as to what is expected. He sets a very good example to the players.”

The balance between captain and coach is a difficult one to master. We often see coaches who stifle their captain’s ability to lead through overly regimented policies and plans. From Newell’s point of view, he sees his role as coach to be that of balancing both helping the captain off field, and also helping to guide on field tactics.

“I think it’s a combination of the two. You want to help to guide the on field tactics, you want to make sure everything is taken care of off the field, in terms of practise facilities, and players, and kits and coaches. These are my areas of responsibility. And then to work with him on the tactics of the day to day running of the match. But you don’t employ the captain to then tell him what to do if he wins the toss, or who to bowl and when to bat and things like that. You have to give him that responsibility, that’s what comes with the job.”

Just before he had the opportunity to play under Stephen Fleming, Kevin Pietersen left Nottinghamshire for Hampshire. The story has been rehashed, reheated and revised over the years, and certainly the drama of the situation has been exaggerated. If the generally publicised account of the situation is to be believed, surely Newell would think it was a good thing to have him gone?

“No, not a good move. We offered him a new contract at the time, so we didn’t want him to leave. We were quite excited about the prospect of him playing with Stephen Fleming and David Hussey in our middle order, and we thought that might be an exciting thing. But the downside to that was that we knew also that he was about to qualify for England, having served his four years residency. Therefore, we knew how good a player he was, and we knew how little County Cricket he was likely to play. To some extent, losing him at that point, we’d had the best of him in County Cricket that anybody was ever going to get, because he’s now played so much international cricket in the following ten years.”

So the personality issues didn’t come into it at all for Newell?

“Nah, we offered him a contract to stay at the club in 2004. But Shane Warne came knocking on his door from Hampshire, and lots of people would find that very difficult to turn down, I understand that.”

Newell and Nottinghamshire managed to develop a very strong squad, even with the loss of Pietersen, and that strength has carried through to today. A look at the batting names alone shows the class of the Nottinghamshire outfit: Brendan and James Taylor, Alex Hales, Michael Lumb, Steven Mullaney, Samit Patel, Riki Wessels, Greg Smith.

How have they gone about developing that depth within the squad? It’s not easy; with 17 other Counties bidding for the best players, and with a minimal salary cap allowed, it’s hard to bring together a team which covers all bases.

“Yeah it’s tough. You want to develop more of your own players if you can, but it’s a tough team to get into if you’re trying to compete in the top half of Division One, which is where we want to be and where we have been for the majority of the last seven or eight years – as well as competing in one day trophies. So sure, for a young player Notts is a difficult team to get into, but there’s no doubt that there’s a desire to get more of our own players through into our team. And we are trying to work much harder on that now than we have, perhaps, done in the recent past. Whilst at the same time being a club that, because we’ve got a great ground and we’ve got a reputation for playing good cricket, we don’t find it that difficult to attract players in.”

The other major issue for a team, aside from developing strength and depth, is balancing the difficulties of switching from one format to another. The way the English domestic structure is organised means that a team can, quite literally, finish a four-day match one day, and be playing Twenty20 the next. But Newell believes the players have adapted to the situation in front of them.

“That is now the nature of English cricket. I think players don’t find it as difficult as you perhaps imagine, because that’s just what they’re used to doing. Whilst I would prefer, as a coach, that everything was played in a block of one type of cricket, I think the players now just get on with it. Because that’s what they’re used to. So I don’t think playing a four day match Sunday to Wednesday followed by a T20 on a Friday fazes the players all that much.”

But First Class cricket remains the pinnacle in Newell’s eyes.

“Number one competition for me has always been four-day cricket, and that remains the same. The fact that several of these players who have joined Notts or come through our ranks are now very, very good at Twenty20 is very much an added bonus. But it’s still four day cricket first, because that’s how you’re judged as a County club.”

Another significant decision for any County club to make is to choose their overseas player, or players. For 2015, Nottinghamshire have signed two players for the Championship. Vernon Philander of South Africa will play for the first portion of the season, and will then be replaced by Ben Hilfenhaus of Australia.

I asked Newell whether he believed overseas players were chosen on the basis of the best player to fill a gap in the team, or whether it was on the basis of the best player available.

“I think you look at your team, and you say ‘where do we need help here from an international cricketer?’ In the past we’ve generally gone down the batting route; Stephen Fleming, Hashim Amla, Adam Voges, these sort of players. In the past few years we’ve lost a lot of experienced quick bowlers, a lot of our 30 plus year-old quick bowlers have left the club, or retired, or whatever it might be. So that’s now the area that’s much younger and that needs more help, and that’s why we’ve gone down the Philander-Hilfenhaus road.”

The Kolpak issue is one that has hit County Cricket hard. Although the numbers are decreasing, and the quality increasing, they are still a common occurrence on English fields. And although some, like Kyle Jarvis, are young and have their sights set on England honours, others like Jacques Rudolph and Ashwell Prince are simply closing out their careers on British shores.

“I don’t think they have to be an England prospect, you have to look at ‘what can they bring, what can they bring to their club and the game?’ The names you’ve mentioned bring an awful lot of experience and talent to the club. And I think that by tightening up some of the work restrictions and work permit rules over here, we have managed to reduce the number of what you might call a ‘lower standard’ of Kolpak player. Hopefully the guys who do get in on their passports and their work permits and visas, are adding something to the game even if they have no desire, or aspiration or realistic prospect of playing for England.”

So Newell doesn’t believe Kolpaks will impact on young England players coming through?

“Not young England players, no, because the cream will always come to the top. It might be impacting upon young English players coming through, that’s a different argument.”

So how did they decide upon signing Brendan Taylor as a Kolpak for the 2015 season?

“…we had to consider a number of issues, because obviously signing Kolpak players can be a little bit contentious, but with Alex Hales trying to get into the IPL, with Halesy and Taylor playing a lot of England cricket hopefully, Michael Lumb one of our senior players is out for two and a half months. It was obvious to us that we had a big gap in our batting, and this was the world class player being presented to us.”

In order to develop those young England, and young English, players, one of the major tools are the County academies. But Newell has in the past suggested that individual County academies should be replaced by ‘Regional Super Academies’, combining finances and resources between clubs.

“The theory behind that is that there’s 18 County clubs, which is an awful lot of money going into 18 academies with 18 academy directors, and I do wonder whether – for the benefit of the England team – that we would be better off spending that money on slightly less players. So therefore combining some academies into regionalised academies was my idea behind that. There are some Counties, Yorkshire being a prime example, who wouldn’t need to, or probably want to get involved with something like that. But I just wonder whether we’re spending a lot of money on too many players, if you like.”

The rebuttal to Newell’s ideas have been that Nottinghamshire simply wants to keeping ‘nicking’ players from Leicestershire. And although a number of players have made the journey to Nottinghamshire, Newell doesn’t believe that’s a fair assessment – as he said earlier, it’s a club with a great ground and a lot of success. Players simply want to be involved with the side.

“We don’t ‘nick’ players from Leicester, players who come out of contract are perfectly entitled to move. If we’re a Division One club playing high quality cricket, then we should be an attractive proposition to players. Generally in this country players don’t move for huge amounts of money, because there’s never really any difference, they move because they want to better themselves as players and find out if they’re good enough to play in Division One. So that wasn’t what I was thinking at all, I was just thinking about the amount of money that’s being spent on probably too many players.”

So if he believes there might be too many County academies, does he believe there might be too many County clubs?

“I think if you had a blank piece of paper and weren’t in England, you wouldn’t necessarily have 18 Counties. But we are where we are with 18 Counties, and I don’t see that changing dramatically in the next few years. Because of the way the game is structured over here, the Counties basically control the number of clubs there are. So I don’t see that will change necessarily. And to be fair to some of the Counties who are struggling now, they haven’t always struggled, and you could say in same cases that it’s quite cyclical. I think you don’t want to get too carried away when you’re being successful, because you may have struggles of your own in years to come.”

So what is the role of the Counties? Newell referred to the ‘Regional Super Academies’ potentially being for the benefit of the England team – so is that a County club’s job, to develop and prepare players for international cricket?

“I think we’ve got two jobs. That’s up alongside winning trophies and playing positive and attacking cricket for your own supporters to watch. I think if you can combine the two then you’re doing a very good job.”

Twenty20 franchisement is an idea which has been floated quite a lot in recent times. Many suggest that Britain should follow the Australian model, while others say it simply wouldn’t work.

“I think that it would be a very interesting model to try and replicate in this country, from Australia or wherever else. I think that you either need to have someone – an individual investor, or a TV company – that’s going to have to come up with an awful lot of money to convince people over here that it’s going to work. Because some of the most successful venues for T20 in this country would probably not feature in a franchise-based, city-based competition.”

Newell’s success with Nottinghamshire was rewarded a few years back, when he was chosen to coach the ECB Lions team that toured the West Indies in 2011. How different was it, going from the continuity of a County squad, to coaching a representative side?

“You’re working with very highly motivated and very high-ability players, and highly able and motivated staff. It’s a different thing, County Cricket you’ve got players at all different stages of their career – from young lads trying to get through, to old blokes who might be looking at the end of their career. So it’s a different type of team that you’re running, but to work with very highly motivated and good quality players was an absolute pleasure. Something that I’d like to do more of.”

Newell’s involvement with the international side of English cricket has been expanded even further recently, with his inclusion last year as one of the selectors for the national side. Newell laughed when I suggested it might be difficult to hear the other selectors denigrating the Nottinghamshire players he works so hard with.

“That doesn’t bother me at all, the only difficult aspect of the England job for me is making sure I maintain a good relationship with my players who are trying to get into the England team. I’ve got a number of players – Lumb, Patel, Gurney, Hales, Taylor – who are on the fringe of England, or trying to establish themselves. So the only issue I’ve had is maintaining a good relationship with them. I’ve worked very hard on doing that, being as honest as I can be. Telling them why they’re not playing if they’re not playing, telling them what we expect of them if they are playing, but trying to be as honest as I can be.”

Given that he’s been coaching for over 20 years now, and as Nottinghamshire ‘Director of Cricket’ for over a decade now, few others are as qualified to answer how the coach’s job has changed. He cited man-management as an area he focused on back in 2002, but is that still the case, or is his job more about the technicals now?

“I think it’s more man-management. I’ve got an assistant coach, I’ve got a bowling coach, I’ve got a fitness coach, and everyone else. My job is to manage the staff to make sure everything runs as smoothly as it can, and to manage the expectations of the players, and to run the club in that way. I think it’s about dealing with people as individuals as much as you can. Picking up the phone or text or whatever it is, so you’re keeping in contact with them. They’re all a bit different. And trying to make sure they’re all in a good position to deliver their best performances for us.”


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