The Sri Lankan head coach has predominantly spent time by himself in his hotel room the last six months owing to the lockdown ©SLC
It’s nearing a year now since Mickey Arthur has seen home. Home is Perth in Australia for the current Sri Lankan head coach, who has predominantly spent time by himself in his hotel room the last six months owing to the lockdown that the COVID-19 pandemic has enforced. With Australia having shut its borders early on, and the airports in Sri Lanka still sealed, it didn’t leave him with much of a choice.
Arthur was in Mumbai during the Pakistan-Australia series for Sony last year, after which he was due to fly to Napier to join the Central Stags for their domestic T20 competition. However, he landed up in Colombo after signing with Sri Lanka Cricket for two years, and hasn’t left since.
“Unbelievable how it all worked out,” Arthur tells Fame Dubai in a chat encompassing his time as Pakistan’s head coach, the brand of cricket he wants for Sri Lanka, his routine during lockdown and much more.
How challenging was it being by yourself during the two months in lockdown?
It was extremely challenging. I tried to keep myself busy and in routines. Luckily, there were only nine of us in the hotel. We all stayed on the sixth floor. I’ve got a really nice room, overlooking the Indian Ocean. During lockdown I couldn’t go down there though. Luckily at the hotel I had the gym and the pool available so I used to wake up, go to the gym, have a swim, come back, have breakfast, and then I used to try and do four hours of work, whatever four hours of work was. It could be four hours of watching video footage of our players. It might have been four hours of phoning every one of them during the day just to check in how they were going. A lot of it was studying of the opposition we were likely to come across. I tried to make sure that I kept busy. Then in the afternoon, around 3:30-4, it was a cup of tea and then I allowed myself to put Netflix on.
How did you work with the team through the lockdown and prepare for the Bangladesh series?
When Sri Lanka went into lockdown for two months, I was in constant communication with all our players, who were on their own gym programmes. We had constant dialogue on our Whatsapp groups about how we wanted to play our cricket. We used our time wisely and then we had two residential camps where we went into a sort of bubble. We had one in Colombo and one in Kandy. We worked for 20 days as a whole squad and honed our skills and trained. So we loaded the players up and organised a domestic competition that they went and played in. And once that finished, we loaded the players up again for the Bangladesh series. So to tell them that we weren’t having that series was… the players were heart-broken, as was I, because I feel we’re ready and we’ve done everything that we’ve needed to. We had set ourselves a goal of being the most prepared international team post lockdown and I really think we were.
How did you personally use the downtime?
I’ve been here a year now and we’ve only had three series’. It allowed me to study my players a lot more. I’ve looked at a hell of a lot of video footage. I watched our players play because I didn’t know some of them. I didn’t know the structure, who the upcoming players were… I just immersed myself in those two months finding out about the Sri Lankan players and about those we had selected and who the new players were.
Once we came out of lockdown, the kind of guys we thought we had missed, we invited into camps. For me it was great; for the players, I guess they were stimulated because it was kind of building towards something. It’s just so frustrating (not to have the Bangladesh series) because I can’t talk highly enough about this playing group. The professionalism… I said to them just the other day that the attitude that they brought to every training session without knowing when or how we were going to play again has been nothing short of amazing. They’re motivated, they’re driven, they’ve got such a high amount of self-drive; they’ve been really amazing. Everything we’ve wanted as a coaching group from the players, they’ve given, so I just feel so desperately sorry for them.
Dimuth Karunaratne said you’re the no-nonsense kind of coach. Would you describe yourself as that?
What I will say is that I’m just honest. I just call it and say it as it is. I don’t think I beat around the bush in terms of my conversations, but I pride myself on our one-on-one relationship. I’ve got an unbelievable relationship with Dimuth. And I think all players want is to be told exactly what the situation is, whether that be selection, roles in the team or where they fit in the queue or order of selection. And the end goal and how we’re going to get there.
You’ve got to give them the belief and the confidence to actually go out there and attain it. That’s kind of how I see myself. But I will say this, that if something needs to be said, I will say it. I will not hide behind any discussion. If there’s a hard chat to be had, we’ll have it and I think that’s just how you live your life. That’s how you build trust in the system and when you build trust in the system, the system becomes extremely powerful.
Do you think that approach has caused trouble in the past?
Australia didn’t work out, but… South Africa was great, I was a young, learning coach. Australia probably happened too soon for me and then if I hadn’t had ‘homeworkgate’, it wouldn’t have been as extreme as it was. I felt a lot of pressure around that. With Pakistan, I thought we’ve left a legacy around that. And I’ve always wanted to be a coach who, when I leave an organisation, people say: ‘That’s what Mickey and his staff did. They’ve left us with something tangible.’ We’ve left the organisation in a far better place than when we got there and we certainly did that with Pakistan. We’ve delivered a lot of young players who are ready to go and spread their wings.
I don’t think it’s caused me trouble, it’s earned me respect. Yes, there have been clashes with players, but I want the players to be the best that they can possibly be all the time. If a player is lazy or not attaining the goals he should because he’s in a comfort zone, I will keep prodding and pushing those players. I make no bones about that. I wouldn’t be doing my job as a coach if I wasn’t pushing those players to the best they can be.
Kamran Akmal said recently that he held you responsible for the mess that Pakistan cricket is in…
Just look at what happened to Kamran Akmal. Kamran Akmal is a comfort zone player. He couldn’t field. Sarfraz Ahmed was captain. He wasn’t going to be the wicketkeeper. We took him on a West Indies tour and he was average at best. Kamran Akmal failed two fitness tests. So to be honest, anything that the Akmals say, I don’t listen to at all. Anything they say, I just take with a pinch of salt.
“Pakistan was an emotional place to coach. You are either a king or the villain; there’s nothing in between depending on the result” ©Getty
How was your time in Pakistan then?
I loved my time in Pakistan. Sometimes, I sit back and look at my career and think…South Africa was great. I’ve always said, you’ve never coached until you’ve coached in the subcontinent and the subcontinent really appeals to me for a number of reasons. I find the players to be extremely respectful. I find the players want structure because a lot of times they haven’t grown up with it. I find the values of players in terms of family so refreshing and good. It’s a wonderful and emotional place.
Pakistan was an emotional place to coach. You are either a king or the villain; there’s nothing in between depending on the result. But the thing I always kept saying to the players was that you’re only one win away from being a hero again. I loved it and I loved Pakistan; I made some very good friends there. For a foreign coach to last three years in Pakistan… you’ve done a decent job. I just look back at the young players that have come through the system. They’re wonderful players that are going to serve Pakistan for a long time and I look back at that with a lot of pride. It was volatile, exciting, loud, colourful – it touched all my senses and it was a wonderful three years. I learnt a lot from it.
Was it a deliberate plan to leave out certain older players to create a young team? Sohail Tanvir pointed out that he was left out because of your vision of having a young team…
100% – that’s the art of coaching. The art of coaching is to have a vision. To try and create a brand of cricket that you want to play and then you build the team around that. I tried to create a structure always where players are challenged. They are challenged every day because we only want them to be the best. I make no bones in saying that I don’t accept mediocrity. Mediocrity is a swear word in my vocabulary. Because I give and work 12 hours a day, I expect the players, every time they come to the training ground, to bring their best, to bring the intensity of a match-day. That’s my expectation and players know that because only then do they grow and get better. Once players buy into that and they see development and see them getting better, then your system just grows and it’s a good place to be.
Was that a tough call to make?
You can’t be scared as a head coach coming into an organisation of making tough calls. If you’re scared of making tough calls… you know, one thing I’ve found especially in the subcontinent, and as a head coach anywhere, is that it’s going to end. And it very rarely doesn’t end in tears. So when it ends, make sure you have no regrets. Make sure you’ve done it your way and the way that you think is best for that organisation. My one mantra in any decision I make: is it the best decision for Sri Lankan cricket or Pakistan cricket or wherever I am? And if it is, you’ve got to make it irrespective of how hard it is.
What then is the brand you want to create or your long-term vision for Sri Lanka?
My long-term vision is to get Sri Lankan cricket back to where it should be. At the moment, we’re languishing at the bottom of most rankings. We’re okay with our Test team, it’s pretty stable. We’re pretty sorted out. That’s probably the format we’re best at at the moment. Our one-day cricket is okay. Our T20 team needs an overhaul. So I’ve got three formats and I’ve got a different brand and plan for all of it around the personnel.
What I can say is that we have a very skilled and very hungry playing group that want to get Sri Lankan cricket back to where it should be and have bought into the plan. Once we’ve got them to buy in, they have been nothing short of amazing; they’re very professional and very ambitious. I’d love to take Sri Lanka to a World Cup in 2023 – that would be my goal. To be able to do that, I’m realistic enough to know that we’ve got to improve in every format. But I do believe we’ve got the playing group to do that. Again, I can’t laud them enough.
Have you had any ‘tough conversations’ with the Sri Lankan players yet?
Yeah, we have. I don’t see the tough conversations as being that hard. It’s the best for them, it’s the best for the team. And if it’s the best for them and takes them further in their career, it’s got to be done. I’ve had a tough couple of conversations on a one-on-one basis. I prefer it that way where you look a player in the eye and we can talk and work out a plan to make him the best he can be. So, yes, I have had them. There’s been no shouting or ranting or raving, I don’t believe in that. I just believe in having hard, cold, factual conversations. All players really want to know is where they stand in the organisation. And there’s not one player here in Sri Lankan cricket who doesn’t know where he stands and what his goals and our ambition is for him.
How would you describe your working relationship with Dimuth Karunaratne? How important is it for the captain and coach to be hand in glove?
It’s very important. My relationship with Dimuth is outstanding, as it was with Sarfraz Ahmed and Graeme Smith and down the line with Michael Clarke. I’ve always tried to get very close to the captain – the captain and myself have got to be on the same page. We’ve got to take decisions together for he best of the team. When the team goes on the field, he runs the team. I’m there to back him up and support him. Off the field I’m there to take all the pressure away from him so he can concentrate on the game. I will provide the organisation and structure and preparation phase. It’s so important the captain and coach know exactly what their roles are but when the captain goes onto the field he needs to lead. Dimuth is a wonderful leader. The players play for him because he’s just a good, good guy who leads them very well.
Do you think with the bubbles and quarantine time and so many other protocols that are in place now due to COVID, do you see the role of a captain or coach changing much once cricket resumes?
I think it’s going to be same, but maybe it’ll be amplified a bit more. I think head coaches will need to plan a lot better because there are going to be times when you have two squads running at the same time, so you’re going to have to be all over your selection, all over your planning and creating depth in your squad so that you can almost field a T20 team when there’s a Test match on because with the quarantine times at the moment, there’s going to be too much cricket for the actual time available.
Invariably, you’re going to see teams overlapping. So for the captain, he needs to keep concentrating and working on his own game and to make sure he’s the best he can be. As a coach you’ve got to have your ducks in a row in terms of time management, player management and also managing the pathway to make sure you’ve got players ready to step up at any given time because at times you’re going to need 30 players potentially playing in different parts of the world.
© Fame Dubai