In Conversation: Mickey Arthur

Saturday 12th March 2022
& News
Photography by: David Griffin

Derbyshire approach the 2022 season with a renewed sense of optimism and an improved vision for the future having appointed Mickey Arthur as Head of Cricket.

With a successful background in both international and domestic cricket, Arthur is working in the county game for the first time.

He sat down in late February with Heritage Officer, David Griffin, to discuss his long cricketing career and the prospects and possibilities for Derbyshire. With, at times, some frank admissions, this is the first in-depth interview conducted with Mickey Arthur since his appointment.

Mickey, everybody’s going to want to know how Derbyshire are going to perform this season, and what your plans are, but before we do that it would be great to know more about you. So, can we start by looking at your cricketing beginnings; how did you first come into the game?

Cricket was always part of my life. My dad played at a fairly good standard, running a cricket club on a Sunday – he was coach, captain, player, groundsman, everything – so I used to go down and help him.

Where was that?

In Durban, I was born in Johannesburg but only lived there for six months and Durban was where I did all my schooling and my dad’s still in Durban. So basically I came into cricket because of my dad. I played in all the Natal age group sides while I was at school, and then when I finished school I did my compulsory two years Army training.

I went to Kimberley knowing there was likely to be a great opportunity to play cricket. There was a small first-class province side there and Fred Swarbrook (ex-Derbyshire all-rounder) was coach there. I did my two years in the army and found myself staying there for a further three years so altogether I played for five years for Griqualand West and from there I was signed by Orange Free State where I played for a further five years.

Hanse Cronje was captain, Allan Donald and Corrie van Zyl were there – we had a really good team. Franklyn Stephenson was our overseas player and we won loads of trophies. In my third year, Eddie (Barlow) came to become our coach and he transformed us as a team and we had such success under Eddie. Then when I left Free State I went and had another five years at Griqualand.

My wife was from Kimberley so it made sense to go back to Griqua to play.

You mentioned Eddie Barlow’s transformation of Orange Free State. Of course, he transformed Derbyshire back in the 1970s. What was it that he did that was so transformative?

I thought he was ahead of his time as a coach. Eddie was very straight and honest and a fine coach. He was great as a coach because he made everything simple. What I enjoyed about him was that he didn’t harp on about technical stuff although he would check the basics with us, but in terms of game plans and strategies he always wanted us to be positive and aggressive.

In 1993, just around the time of unification, he started talking to us about the three-run philosophy which was new to us and cricket generally. He argued that when you bat, you score at three runs per over and when you bowl you keep your opposition under three runs per over. It sounds so simple, but if you do that, it means you start to control the game and Eddie was the instigator of that method.

He also made us consider that if we were batting at four an over – and these are generalisations, I know – then you may be batting too recklessly and so wickets will fall. Three runs an over is where you want to be; you play with an intent and if you keep the opposition below three, you control the game.

Presumably, the method worked.

Oh yes. In South Africa this became the big thing – a major tactic and I recall a game against Northern Transvaal – the Titans – coached by the late Denis Lindsay and we rocked up and I was talking to Eddie on the outfield when Lindsay walked past.

Lindsay said; “Hey, Eddie, You’re going three? We’re going five!”

Eddie just smiled, said a few words of acknowledgement before we bowled them out for 125 in 25 overs.

So is it fair to say that Barlow was more of a manager of people, than a coach?

Oh yes. He’d regularly phone one of the batters in our side at six o’clock in the morning from the ground asking where we were. He’d shout down the phone that he was in the nets and invite us down to join him. So one of our top six was always getting up at six o’clock! A typical Barlow method and it led to success.

But he also had the ability to build you up. If we were playing on a Friday, on a Monday beforehand he’d make you feel like you were absolutely useless; you didn’t know which end of the bat to hold. But come Thursday, he had you feeling like Donald Bradman. He had that ability to do that by doing little things.

Can you give an example?

He’d play with the length of the bowling machine. It would be a difficult, tight length on Monday but come Thursday he’d set the length a bit fuller and you’d be banging the ball out of the middle and you’d leave the net thinking that you were in great nick.

You played for South Africa A and scored fourteen first-class hundreds. How strong was South African domestic cricket at the time?

Very strong. It was like playing Test matches. I opened the batting for Free State and if you went to Northern Transvaal you had Tertius Bosch, Fanie de Villiers, Steve Elworthy and Ezra Mosely  bowling at you. You went to Transvaal and it was Steven Jack, Steven Snell, Hugh Page and Sylvester Clarke. We went down to Durban and it was Pollock, Klusener and Malcolm Marshall. Every side had really high-class fast bowlers. Because several West Indies bowlers had gone on the rebel tour there was a kind of affinity built up and we had a lot of West Indians playing alongside us.

We had Franklyn Stephenson at Free State, and then Vasbert Drakes and Ottis Gibson.

Did Franklyn Stephenson bowl his slower ball much? He was famous for it in England; he once bowled Derbyshire’s Allan Warner off his back with it!

He did (laughs). And he used to do us in the nets all the time.

When your playing career ended you were in your early thirties, which is young to be going into full time coaching. Was that a deliberate move?

I’d been playing for 15 or 16 years and the only reason I retired was because I wanted to get into coaching. For me, I was never quite good enough to play international cricket. I managed South Africa A and actually played for them against Mal Loye.

Who was playing in the South Africa A team at that time?

Meyrick Pringle, Adrian Kuiper, Rudi Steyn, Andrew Hudson, Rudolph Steyn, Dale Benkenstein, Clive Ecksteen, Mark Rushmere, Nicky Boje, Craig Matthews – very good cricketers and a good standard.

So what was your first coaching role?

I was playing back at Griqualand West and Fred Swarbrook stood down from the coaching role and I applied for and got the job. From there we built a team, had a little bit of success and I was then asked to go and coach at the National Cricket Academy in the winter, which I did, and then I coached South Africa A for a couple of tours.

And then when the franchises came, that cut the number of teams from eleven to six, and I went and coached the East Cape franchise – The Warriors.

Who were your standout players at The Warriors?

We had Makhaya Ntini, Mark Boucher, Robin Peterson, Nantie Hayward – a decent side.

Peterson and Hayward both played for Derbyshire of course, and around the time they were playing, Andre Nel also appeared in the county game. Did you ever coach him?

Gunter? Yes, he had this alter ego – he was either Andre and Gunter, you didn’t know which one you were going to get, but he was great entertainment and a fine bowler.

I remember playing a Test match at Edgbaston in 2008 and the Raybank was full. In the dressing room we all agreed that under no circumstances should anyone engage with the Raybank because it will set the crowd off and England will feed from it, it’s where England get their energy from. Within one over, Andre was down there giving it the crowd. We were wild!

At the age of 36 you replaced Ray Jennings as the South Africa national coach. Clearly you were ambitious but was this appointment unexpected?

I didn’t expect it. Timing is never as you want it and I would have liked that job maybe two years later because South Africa A and my franchise were both making a lot of progress but then the job came up and I applied. I felt I had a good level of understanding about South African cricket and the transformation process and I presented that to the panel and the next day they rang and told me I’d got the job. My reaction was “What do I do now?”

And you inherited a very good side with some really high-profile cricketers.

Oh yes, we had a wonderful captain. Graeme Smith was twenty-two, I was thirty-six, and we weren’t yet the best versions of ourselves but we kind of learned on the run. We went to Australia, walked into the press conference, and announced that we’d beat the Australians, only to lose three-nil.

On the plane back, Graeme and I plotted precisely what we would need to do in 2008 when we would have a very different approach.

What did you need to change?

I needed to become a better coach. We all needed more maturity, and far better tactics. After that tour, some legends of the game – Shaun Pollock was one of them – were replaced by players like Dale Steyn, Morne Morkel, AB de Villiers, Hashim Amla, JP Duminy, a young core of cricketers who were unbelievably talented. We put that group around Graeme Smith, Mark Boucher, Makhaya Ntini and Jacques Kallis to create what we thought was a really impressive side.

Had you identified those younger players or was a scouting system in place?

Most of those players had played in the South Africa A side so I knew them and I also knew that we needed to get them in to the system at that higher level.

And it obviously worked as you came to England and won and then went to  Australia and won. What were the challenges you had to overcome to win in England?

Yes, we were the first South African side to win in both countries. It was tough but in Australia the conditions were pretty similar to those in South Africa so we knew that if we could hold Australia under pressure for long enough we could win. Here, the anomalies we had to deal with were the Dukes ball and totally different conditions. But the key was a really good warm-up period. Sometimes it just feels right and we went to Somerset, Kent, and Sussex and had good weather, good cricket and our guys found form.

And then we went into the Lord’s Test match and we followed on but saved the game; Amla got a hundred (104), and I think so did Ashwell Prince (101). Having saved the game following on we went to Headingley and won convincingly having had a re-think about our game plans and after winning at Headingley we also won in Birmingham. That was on the back of Smith’s 158 in the fourth innings on a wicket was that was turning a lot. He batted brilliantly, hitting Panesar against the spin.

Wins against both Australia and England must have been real highlights, but not long afterwards you found yourself in charge of Australia. What was the process which took you into that role?

I felt that after 2008, having got to number one in the world in all formats, we still hadn’t – and haven’t – won an ICC world title. We went to three ICC events in my time there as number one in the world and didn’t win any of them. I felt that after we had won in Australia we were still going well but then they came straight back to South Africa and beat us. I sensed that we’d just plateaued as a team and then having drawn 1-1 with England at the end of 2009 that was the point when I felt my time was up. We came to a mutual agreement and I left.

So why Australia, or rather Western Australia?

Because I finished on one day with South Africa, leaving at the right time with friendships intact, and the next day Western Australia called me. Tom Moody was leaving and they invited me to go and a month later I was in Perth.

And seemingly in no time, you became the national head coach in Australia?

Yes, and again timing is everything, and in that case it was all wrong. We’d made some great strides with Western Australia – we had Shaun Marsh, Marcus North, Adam Voges, Michael Hogan, Steve Magoffin with us – it was a good side but they should have been doing better

I like building teams so I got rid of a couple of guys and brought in Mitchell Marsh, Ashton Agar and a couple of others and began to build a young team. But England go and smash Australia in Australia and the coaching job comes up. I got a call inviting me for an interview. It was a long process and they offered me the job.

I’d only been in Australia for 16 months, had one and a half seasons with Western Australia and I didn’t fully understand Australian cricket.

What did you need to understand about Australian cricket?

Well, culturally, I thought the South Africa and Australia game would be very similar. Not. I loved Australia, I’m an Australian citizen and it’s my home but I found it the toughest coaching gig that I’ve had for the simple reason that  I think the game is very player-driven. It’s always been that way – the Australian captain runs it and although Michael Clarke and I formed a really good bond and had a really good first year, eventually standards started to slip.

I’m a big believer in the one-per-centers, the little extra things, and of course, what was known as ‘Homework-gate’ blew up and if I had my time again I certainly wouldn’t do it that way! There was friction around the place which I didn’t understand because it was historical.

(Midway through Australia’s tour to India in 2013, Arthur, along with captain Michael Clarke and team manager Gavin Dovey, chose to stand down four players from the Australia team after they failed to complete a simple off-field task – to give three points on how the team could progress and three points on how players could progress as individuals – after their defeat in the second Test at Hyderabad left them 2-0 down in the series with two to play.

The four players in question – Shane WatsonJames PattinsonUsman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson – were controversially made ineligible for selection for the third Test of the series in a move that hung over Arthur for the remainder of his reign).

Despite such a long time in the game, were you equipped to deal with your abrupt departure from the Australian job?

I didn’t exactly fall out of love with the game but the experience with Australia was very bittersweet for me. I was sacked on the day my mum passed away and it wasn’t a good time. There was a court case over my final settlement and there was a lot of media attention. But a private school came and asked me to come and coach and be their Head of Cricket.

Was this is Australia?

Yes, Christchurch Grammar School.

That must have been quite different from the job you’d just left.

Yes, and I fell in love with cricket again. I went and worked with the school, opened three cricket academies at the same time and we set up several future programmes. And from there I went to the PSL (Pakistan Super League), Bangladesh Premier League and the Caribbean Premier League and from that Pakistan approached me.

And the thing you hadn’t done in three tournaments with South Africa, you did with Pakistan, namely won an ICC trophy, beating India in the final of the Champions Trophy.

That was a classic example of a team building, so we made some big calls going into that tournament. Pakistan had appointed me and I adored coaching them – the passion and emotion of the players was amazing.

Was it a pressured situation for you?

It was very pressured because it’s high profile out there, but it was invigorating and we unearthed some wonderful players. We put a fitness culture in and made them into an outstanding fielding side, all of which validated the building process we’d entered into. We were ranked eighth in the world going into that Champions Trophy and ended up winning it and playing unbelievable cricket after getting smashed by India in the first match of the tournament at Edgbaston, But we evolved and played with the freedom we hoped for. It was so stimulating.

How did that role come to an end?

Our contracts ran out and I got the feeling that they wanted to take the job back for a local coach which was understandable. Wasim Khan was the CEO at the time and I think we both understood where Pakistan cricket wanted to go.

I returned to Australia where my academies were still going strong and I went to Mumbai for some TV work on the Australia-Pakistan series. I’d only been there a week when I got a call asking if I could go and coach Sri Lanka. I said that I could, finished the commentary stint and went straight from Mumbai to Sri Lanka.

I was supposed to be going to New Zealand to coach Central Districts in the Super Smash but ended up going from Mumbai to Colombo and haven’t been back to Australia since.

At this point you were probably the most experienced international coach in the world, Did you enjoy the Sri Lanka job?

It was interesting – lots of good and stimulating challenges – and I felt that Sri Lankan cricket was in the doldrums and we needed to build again. And then the Derbyshire opportunity arose.

So you applied for the job, Derbyshire did not approach you?

I sat in my hotel room, saw the job was being advertised and decided to apply. I went through the process, there was an interview and it worked out.

Last week at your introductory press conference you were asked “Why Derbyshire?” and you replied with “Why not?” From our conversation today that reasoning is becoming clear – you like challenges and you like building a team. Is that a reasonable assessment?

I love challenges! That’s exactly the reason I’m here.

Michael Atherton said last week that he felt the best technical coaches should work with younger players, whereas senior cricketers need managing more than they need technical support. Is that a view you agree with?

100%. I totally agree.

So how do you manage players to improve them?

I work with players and am doing so now, although we have very good technical coaches. I like to keep an eye on what’s happening and I know exactly what my expectations are for every player and I talk about that with the other coaches. But I have a philosophy – roots to grow, wings to fly – and I apply that to coaches as well as players. With players you’ve got to work on their skills but then let them apply their skills as people, as characters; with coaches you have to guide them but also allow them to express themselves.

Justifiably, there is much talk about your arrival and expectations are high. How do you translate your leadership skills, your motivational skills, your experience, to a side which has struggled, especially in 2021? Is there a magic ingredient, a Mickey ingredient?

Well, magic or Mickey, I think players want security, they want stimulation, they want structure, they want to know they can have good honest conversations with coaches, they want to know where they fit in. And I give them all that. I messaged the squad last night and told them that I am already immensely proud of what we’ve achieved in a short period of time.

The transformation in a short time is unbelievable. Fitness is amazing. The players are fit, their bodies have changed. Their skills have gone up and up – their skills are brilliant. I add Suranga Lakmal and Shan Masood to what we’ve got and we’re a good team. Of course, I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself, but the players are physically in the best shape of their lives and technically I think they’re in a better place than ever before because we’re working on technique five days a week. The only question mark now for me is how we handle pressure and that will be the defining issue when the season begins. Everything has gone well, but ultimately everything will come down to how we handle those pressure moments on match day.

And that, I guess, is an unknown at this stage?

Yes, and I suspect we’ll have to grow that – it might not come immediately – but I have to make them understand that if they make mistakes, that’s OK if they’re made for the right reason with the right thought processes in mind because we can work with that.

If a player holes out in a white ball game trying to hit one over the top and his thought processes were right but the execution wasn’t, then we’ll keep backing him.

All in all though, I’m very excited. Attitude is excellent and the work ethic has been as good as with any team I’ve ever worked with. And I mean any team I’ve ever worked with. The players don’t want to be the whipping boys, they genuinely want better for Derbyshire.

So the players want better for Derbyshire but they need someone to focus their approach and guide them to be better?

One hundred per cent. It’s not just a case of saying that we want to go out and play better, there’s a learning process to knowing how to go out and play better.

Indeed, like it or not, historically Derbyshire have always had to win against the odds. I suspect that suits you.

That’s definitely not a bad thing and crucially we’ve got to know how to win. When we need ten an over for the last three overs of a game we need to know what our method is. Defending thirty-two off three at the death, who is bowling our final overs, who can execute their skills best, where are the fielding hot spots where we need our best fielders. Those details are what we’ll keep working through.

And I take it you’ll do all that without any further additions to the squad?

Actually we’ve got Mark Watt coming in for the Vitality Blast. He bowls at the death and in the Powerplay and he’s matured a hell of a lot and I rate him.

Yes, when he was with us in 2019 he performed very well.

I like him and he’s just what we need to complement our squad in Twenty20 cricket.

Asking what success looks like for Derbyshire elicits a different answer from everyone you ask. What’s your take on what success would be here for Derbyshire?

As I see the players more under pressure we’ll set targets. What I can promise, however, is that the players will be the best prepared they’ve ever been. I promise that their attitude will be right through the roof and every game of cricket we play you’ll see that we have left 100% out on the ground, win or lose. That’s all I can ask for and that in itself is a little bit of success because if we do that, it should lead to actual playing success. I hate losing, so success for me is winning every game, which is unrealistic, but we will try.

Real success is trophies and promotion; realistically I want massive improvement in each and every player in their skills and disciplines. If that improvement comes, then success follows. I hate hearing coaches say that they’re engaged in a three-year process – that’s a cop out – we’re ready. I want to see improvement and I’m confident that things will click and a couple of good results early on will reinforce all that we’ve been doing and are doing right now.

What can we expect from Shan Masood and Suranga Lakmal who you’ve already worked with at close quarters?

They’re world class players. Lakmal bowling here in the early season should be interesting. In Sri Lanka I called Lakmal the Sri Lankan Anderson to which they replied that Anderson is the English Lakmal!

He’s a very similar bowler to Anderson, has a bit more pace, a quick bouncer and he’s accurate. He’s a tough character too.

Masood is a consummate professional, will open the batting and his attention to detail, planning and preparation are excellent. I can’t wait for the boys to see how he trains, plans and plays.

You said at a previous press conference that you’ve identified talent within the squad, going even further as to suggest a couple could play for England. Has the pool of talent surprised you at Derbyshire?

I see a lot of talent within the squad and I see no reason why several of them couldn’t play at a higher level. The reality is that we are prepared, have some real talent, are looking forward to welcoming two high class overseas players, and there is a real hunger for success.

I think that’s a perfect note to finish on. Thank you and here’s to a successful 2022.

Thank you.

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