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over 5 years ago | Interviews

Managing the transition

It would be inaccurate to say Middlesex ended last season on a bum note; perhaps a minor chord would be more appropriate. Though they won five of their last seven Championship games, they missed out on all pre-season targets – promotion and reaching the knockout stages of both white-ball competitions – with the head and batting coaches’ departures also serving to create a ponderous atmosphere among Middlesex fans.

But in all change there is opportunity, and during that last game of the campaign, the mood in the Seaxes camp was significantly boosted by the announcement that Stuart Law, then head coach of West Indies, would be taking up the equivalent position at Middlesex.

“I think the feeling was one of real excitement,” second XI coach Alan Coleman recalls now. “It definitely shows the ambition the club have got to be able to recruit somebody who’s head coach of an international team to come and look after the squad. To have someone that high profile come in, somebody who’s seen a lot as a player and a coach and can hopefully inspire us to move our cricket to a new level, it’s a real exciting period and I think that excitement has just built during the winter.”

Winters are strange times in county cricket clubs, with a bevy of opportunities to play in numerous countries around the globe meaning players are rarely not either coming or going; the 2018/19 season has seen Middlesex players compete in Australia, South Africa, Bangladesh, the UAE, India, Nepal, and even Germany.

But even considering the itinerant nature of a county cricketer in the winter, the indoor nets have been emptier than usual at Middlesex. With former coaches Richard Scott, Dave Houghton and Richard Johnson all leaving their positions, and Law staying with the West Indies until the conclusion of their tour of India, Coleman was left as the only member of the coaching staff remaining, effectively in charge of the whole operation.

It’s been an important period too, especially for a key group of quicks needing careful management as they try and regain fitness. Toby Roland-Jones’ back stress fracture has seen him out of action for the best part of 18 months, and as he gears up to return, he is keen to credit the work Coleman has done with him.

“Alan Coleman’s been the prominent figure really,” says Roland-Jones. “It’s been a really positive winter training for us. There’s been a fair amount of transition and change; for a lot of us who have been here a long time, it’s something a bit fresh and a bit different. He fronted up the coaching side of things across all formats until Stuart arrived in early January and then him and Stuart have worked alongside each other and it’s been a pretty seamless transition into that as well.

“I’ve known Alan for a long long time. It’s always exciting to work with different coaches and someone who brings something different, but at the same time he’s got that right balance of really trying to help you keep your own identity but at the same time bringing something fresh to the table.”

Coleman has just returned from nine days at the European Cricket Performance Centre in La Manga in Spain where Roland-Jones – along with Steven Finn and Tom Helm, both whom have also been working their way back from injury – have finally been given a chance to crank it up and let loose.

“It was a major step-up for them in terms of their recovery, getting them out on grass for the first time,” says Coleman. “They’ve all been bowling throughout the winter since December time, but with the sun on their back and grass under their feet, it gives you a chance to get them off their longer run and continue the technical work that they’ve done, and they’ve all come through it very well.

“They all have little bits and pieces that they want to tinker with and address as they often do. It just gives us an opportunity to look at those things in more of a live environment than an indoor centre, as well as the other objective being getting them time on their feet and overs in their legs which they all managed to do across the trip.

“It’s always a gradual process and it’s very well programmed by the medical team to make sure we’re getting the right number of overs into them, but by the end of the tour they we’re all tearing in and letting the batters have it, and it was great to watch!”

Being effectively in charge has been a new challenge, but a welcome one for a young, keen-to-learn coach. “I oversaw the first couple of months of it all with the fitness team. I’m very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to work with these guys and lead little parts of the programme. It’s been a great experience for me full stop, not only over this winter but previously as well. I’ve been lucky enough to work with some fantastic coaches over the last few years, and now Stuey coming in as a coach of international teams, it’s all adding to my own experience bank.”

Even after Law’s arrival, Coleman has had a key role to play. Middlesex remain without specialist batting or bowling coaches, and even a coach as experienced as Law will need a period of observing and bedding in before trying to stamp their authority. Happily for Middlesex, the incoming head coach’s methods and that of the man temporarily holding the fort jive together well.

“We’ve spent quite a lot of time together now and had a number of chats about how he likes things to operate,” says Coleman. “It’s been great to get to grips with his philosophy and how he sees it running. He likes the players to take responsibility for their own games and their practice, and we’re here to make it happen and help them improve. When we practice we practice hard and with intensity, but with a smile on our faces as well. So far he’s struck a really nice balance of hard work and intensity and enjoyment and getting to know the guys.

"It’s a long season, they’re with us a long time, and if it’s constantly on the coaches to drive the sessions forward then it makes it quite a tiresome experience for everyone. We’re very lucky with the group of players we’ve got, they’re very determined. They’re all very driven on what they want to achieve. As a coaching team we’re here to help facilitate that and to hopefully bring some success to the club.”

Those new specialist coaches look set to be named in the next month or so, with Coleman hinting that the new faces may come from outside the county cricket circle. “The great thing about Stuey is that his background is worldwide, so I think whoever he chooses to bring in is going to be incredibly well thought through. He’s going to know that they’re going to have a huge impact over the way that we practice and the way that we play our cricket. Whatever skills they do and whoever they are, it’s going to be an exciting appointment.”

Even more exciting news breaks as we’re talking, with AB de Villiers named as Middlesex’s second overseas signing for the T20 Blast. “And let’s not forget Mujeeb,” says Coleman. “Two specialist, high-performing T20 players. AB de Villiers has obviously got a fantastic record and name in the game, Mujeeb is a growing name but his record is outstanding.”

It all adds to a growing sense that this season could be something special, and not before time too after a fallow couple of years. “Aligned to an international head coach joining, all of a sudden now two high-quality Twenty20 players as well really do show the club’s perspective where we trying to get to in that format of the game. I think it could be a hugely exciting summer, and it’s going to be hugely exciting for me to sit here and watch them go about their business.

“In the time that I’ve been at the club in my role with the academy and so on we’ve achieved some wonderful things, but we’ve had a couple of quieter years, and hopefully those signings and Stuey coming in can re-invigorate us to move forward and to progress on again. I think it is an exciting time for all of us, and it is great to see what the group of players can achieve this summer.”

So where does that leave Coleman? For now, back where he ended last season as Second XI head coach. “Until I’m told otherwise! It’s a great level to work at. You get to see young players come in with that youthful exuberance and enthusiasm, trying to make their way in the game. It really is a fulfilling part of the job.”

Really though, he and Middlesex are a mile away from last September, Coleman with a winter’s experience taking on new responsibilities, and the Seaxes with a new coach, new energy, and new and refreshed players ready to launch an assault on reclaiming their status as a Division One county, and righting the wrongs of white-ball seasons past. Should they do so, they will owe more than a small debt of gratitude to the man whose hands lay gently on the tiller as they traversed potentially choppy winter waters.

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