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The Law of the Land

Middlesex’s new Head Coach Stuart Law speaks to John Stern about his return to the county game, the challenges he faced during his time in charge of the West Indies and why the teachings of a Chinese warlord won’t dictate his approach to leadership.

“I hope I last longer than he did.” Stuart Law laughs a raucous, rascally laugh before adding: “I won’t be coming in with snippets from Sun Tzu.”

Law is affectionately mocking the famously cerebral John Buchanan, his former title-winning boss at Queensland and one of his predecessors as Head Coach of Middlesex. Buchanan, who used the teachings of the Chinese warlord to motivate his own troops when in charge of Australia, lasted a single season at Lord’s in 1998.

Law, 50, resigned as Head Coach of West Indies late last year to sign a four-year contract at Middlesex – county champions in 2016 but relegated a season later – and is aiming to restore something approaching former glories while also improving their consistently sub-par white-ball displays.

As captain and coach of Queensland respectively, Law and Buchanan brought a first Sheffield Shield title to the Sunshine State in 1994/95. And while Law speaks respectfully and warmly about his former coach, he delivers something of a curveball when asked to name the most influential coach he played under. “This throws a lot of people – Jeffrey Thomson,” Law says.

Thomson, one of the game’s great larrikins and maybe its fastest-ever bowler, preceded Buchanan as coach of Queensland, which must have been some contrast in styles. Law’s fondness for Thomson sheds light on his own unapologetically upfront, straight-talking style. “Thommo did a lot of the ground work at Queensland [before Buchanan]. He gave us the belief and passion for the maroon cap.

“His brutal honesty and passion for the game was unbelievable. As a bowler, he taught me how to bat. It wasn’t anything technical, it was all mental. He calls you every name under the sun – he called me names I’d never even heard before – but then we’d meet in the bar and talk cricket. There’s a misconception that being in the bar means you’re pissing it up and not dedicated to your sport. But you can learn as much if not more from those experiences as actually playing.”

Brutal honesty and passion for the game are qualities Law seems to share. In October, while still coach of West Indies, Law was banned for two ODIs for making “inappropriate comments” to officials during a Test against India in Hyderabad. His hugely successful playing career with Essex came to an acrimonious end in 2001 at the end of a season which Wisden suggested might have been “the most turbulent and disastrous” in the county’s history. The Almanack added: “Off the field the dressing room was split asunder as Stuart Law accused teammates and management of stabbing him in the back. It was no secret that he and some of his colleagues could hardly utter a civil word to each other.”

That the Essex captain at the time, Ronnie Irani, is now chairman of cricket at the 2017 County Championship winners might make for an interesting encounter when they meet Middlesex in the white-ball formats this summer. But Law says: “It’s all water under the bridge and I don’t hold any grudges. If people want to hold them with me then it’s their prerogative. I have great friends in Essex – more than anywhere else – contrary to what people might think. Paul Prichard is still one of my best mates.”

Law left Essex for Lancashire where he continued to churn out a significant amount of runs, met his wife Debbie-Lee, and, in 2007, came within 25 runs of helping the county to their first outright Championship title for 73 years. Chasing 489 to beat Surrey, Law contributed 79 and VVS Laxman a run-a-ball hundred to a remarkable, yet ultimately futile, pursuit.

Law’s playing record, as a stylish, powerful middle-order batsman, is exceptional. Only five Australians have scored more than his 79 first-class hundreds. He won five Sheffield Shield titles with Queensland and two one-day trophies with Essex. He had a first-class average of 58 for Essex, 55 for Lancashire, and 50 overall.

It was his misfortune to play in one of Australia’s most fertile eras of batsmanship and yet his lack of Test recognition – he played one match in which he made an unbeaten fifty and so has an infinite average – offended his fans and lit a fire within.

“When you get told week in week out by the hierarchy back home that you’re not good enough, that spurs you on,” he says. “My way of dealing with that was ‘F**k you, I’ll show you how good I can be’. I probably didn’t do myself any favours at certain times but I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved in the game.”

There’s a parallel with the Glenn Maxwell controversy currently making headlines in Australia, with the all-rounder continually being overlooked for the Test format. Law jokes: “If he wants to sit down and talk disappointment then I can give him a long list of stories and scenarios that will keep him entertained for the best part of three-and-a-half years!”

What has the 50-year-old coach learned from the twenty-something player? “I have tempered it a lot – I was a teenager for too long,” Law says. “I have a 17-year-old son who has taught me a lot about life and dealing with different situations, highs and lows and disappointments. My life’s taught me a lot. There are probably a few things I’d change along the way but cricket was always my passion. When someone says you’re not good enough to do it that just gave me the extra spurt. I might have ruffled a few feathers doing it my way but that was born out of my environment.

“I think I’ve put that into good practice in my coaching, dealing with people from different parts of the world. As coach of the West Indies, you weren’t just the coach/mentor, you were the mother, father, big brother, schoolmaster, best mate, all rolled into one, just to deal with all the personalities you

had to.”

Buchanan’s take on his old Queensland skipper chimes with Law’s own self-assessment. “He was a gifted player for which playing the game came naturally. Coaching did not come so naturally,” Buchanan says now. “He launched himself into international coaching.”

Law says he “fell into it” after Muttiah Muralitharan, a teammate at Lancashire, facilitated his appointment as assistant to Trevor Bayliss with Sri Lanka in 2009. He became interim head coach in 2011 before taking charge of Bangladesh briefly, Queensland for a short time and most recently West Indies.

Buchanan reckons the West Indies job was the toughest assignment of Law’s career so far. “I believe there will have been a real maturing of Stuart as a person and a coach,” he says. “He is relatively laid-back and phlegmatic but at the same time extremely competitive. I expect his coaching style to be not overly complicated – keep the game simple, train hard and go out and play.”

Law’s coaching career has breadth, if not exactly depth – his two-year stint in charge of West Indies is the longest he has spent in any role. Consequently, it’s hard to assess his contributions, though Middlesex considered him “the outstanding candidate in what was an extremely strong field of applicants”, which included Paul Farbrace, Mark Ramprakash and, initially, Andy Flower. Angus Fraser, Managing Director of Cricket at Middlesex, said Law was “the right kind of person”.

Law and Fraser, regular opponents on the county circuit, bonded a decade ago at a veterans’ beach cricket tournament in Australia which the former describes as “basically a boys’ piss up”. He adds: “We had a couple of beers and we clicked. When I played against him he was the dour, miserable person that he can be. But he’s an amicable bloke with a good sense of humour and also a good sense of reality, which is pretty important in his role.”

That reality, for Law, is a clean slate. As well as the departure of his predecessor, Richard Scott, Middlesex also parted company with Richard Johnson, the bowling coach who took charge of the side in the second half of 2018 and has since moved to Surrey, batting coach David Houghton and T20 specialist Daniel Vettori.

It’s fair to say there is plenty of room for improvement at Middlesex and with long-term absentees Toby Roland-Jones and Steven Finn hoping to return to action soon, Law has reason to be optimistic.

“I just want the boys to find the love again,” he says. “It [county cricket] can be a grind and if it is then you’re not going to play good cricket. I told them I want us to become a family. We need to be very tight if we’re going to have success. We should all be treated the same and everyone should have a voice.”

Have the players told him they ‘lost the love’? “I’m reading between the lines. You can’t go from winning Division One to having a two-year hangover. I reckon the focus had changed and maybe standards had dropped – I’m only guessing. With teams that have big success then big failure, there are only one or two things it can be – loss of focus and direction, or complacency and thinking too far ahead.”

Whatever the immediate future holds for Middlesex, with Law in charge you sense it won’t be dull. The Australian brought a huge amount to the county game as a player and it looks like his work-hard-play-hard coaching attitude will adorn it once again.

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