An interview with Jon Batham of the ECB Reporters Network
Psychological wounds born of five years in the doldrums have healed quicker than Richard Johnson expected, the Middlesex head coach revealed this week.
Johnson led the Seaxes back to the LV= Insurance County Championship’s promised land in his first year in charge, after returning to the club over the winter following the dismissal of Stuart Law.
The former England paceman inherited a ship which had been listing ever since winning the County Championship title in 2016, with a batting fragility top of its list of ailments.
Johnson claims the speed of the turnaround, culminating in promotion in Worcester last week, has come ahead of schedule.
“We are actually a little bit ahead of where I thought we’d be at the start of the year,” he said candidly.
“Going from five years of not really achieving in championship cricket I felt there might be some scarring from those past experiences.
“There was a belief that grew through the season more than before the season started. I knew we could compete, but we had that scarring we had to get over. Learning how to win again is a difficult thing to do.
“But getting off on the right foot with a good draw and four wins in the first six really dispelled that sense of scarring I thought we might have. So, then we were ahead of the curve.”
Johnson was bowling coach of the championship winning side but was overlooked for the top job in favour of Law, despite performing creditably as interim coach when Richard Scott left post in 2018.
However, his previous relationship with of many of the current side enabled him to forge an atmosphere of mutual trust amid which players flourished.
A new solidity in the top three liberated younger players like former England Lion Max Holden to be rehabilitated in the middle-order alongside an ebullient John Simpson, who became the first wicketkeeper-batter since the legendary JT Murray in 1970 to make 1000 championship runs in a season for the county.
And with the ball, a resurgent, injury-free Toby Roland-Jones evoked memories of 2016 claiming 67 scalps at a shade under 19 apiece, his biggest-ever haul, to emerge as the championship’s leading wicket taker.
“All I’ve tried to do on a personal level is bring what I believe in back to the club and bring my personality into things,” Johnson continued.
“I believe in a good, trusting environment, one I trust the players in and they trust me. It’s a very personal environment where we all know each other well.
“We create that trust within the group and give them a freedom to go and play. It’s easy to say that, but quite hard to act it out.
“In tough situations you don’t get too down or fret about it in front of everybody. When you win you don’t get too up; you stay as level as you can.”
A key strategic thread was to change the hearts and minds of his batters towards the Lord’s pitch on which they’d toiled in recent years.
This meant forcing them to confront their demons, perceived or otherwise, by spending pre-season batting on seamer-friendly green-tops at Merchant Taylor’s School, to combat what they might find inside the Grace Gates, rather than talking themselves out before they got there.
The transformation was stark. Five centuries were crafted over six games, more than in the three previous Championship seasons put together. There were 12 other scores of 50 or more as 21 batting points were accrued, the most since the championship winning year when there were seven matches at the home of cricket. Consequently, Middlesex were unbeaten at Lord’s, again for the first time since 2016.
“I wanted to make sure we got back to basics in terms of our batting, having an acceptance of what Lord’s can be like, where it has nipped around all over the place,” added Johnson.
“It was about understanding that and saying, ‘we know what it’s going to do, we’ve got to practice facing that. It’s our home ground and we’ve got to use it to our advantage and not moan about the wickets’.
“We had to embrace them and learn to play well on them because the opposition were going to find it tougher than we did if we practiced in the right way.”