Sport loves an underdog. England’s triumph over the all-powerful Australian side in the 2005 Ashes series or Leicester City’s triumph against the odds in the 2015-16 Premier League season, show how hearts and minds can be won through the powers of succeeding in the face of adversity.
Nonetheless, how a side transforms continued poor form into a winning performance that stuns the opposition is sometimes hard to place.
For Derbyshire, however, one man is credited with turning the side from repeated underperformers to a team causing frequent upsets. John Wright, the former New Zealand opening batsmen, was drafted in as the first specialist T20 coach in English domestic cricket.
Wright – who coached Mumbai Indian’s to IPL glory in 2013 – plays down his influence. “If I am being honest, I think coaching is overrated,” he says. “I try and tweak things and make a change here or there and work out where the strengths are in a team and ensure your best players have the best opportunity for maximum impact.”
And maximum impact is certainly what Wright has caused. Returning to the county where he made 15,000 runs between 1977 and 1988, Wright’s presence returned eight wins in the group stages as Derbyshire progressed to the T20 Blast quarter finals..
Unflattering though it is to say, the midlands county has long been viewed as an easy target. Two years without a County Championship win – from July 2015 to April 2017 – also saw poor form in white ball cricket. One victory in 2014, followed by four in 2015 and five in 2016, appeared to all but cement the unfortunate reputation.
Wright, however, brings a rare style of coaching perfect for turning fortunes around. “I view my role as helping players be courageous enough to trust themselves in tight situations. In the end it is the players who win the games, not the coaching staff,” he says.
“Role identification is very important, particularly in 20-over cricket. Everyone must understand their role and how it must change as the game evolves. It is all about starting well – either with bat or ball – and creating an immediate impact,” Wright explains.
“From a coach’s perspective,” he continues, “you want the captain making the decisions. So, I really encourage strong leadership on and off the field and it is key that the players do most of that.”
Even when not captaining, the now 63-year old was a key figure in the dressing room. The first Test batsman to make 4,000 runs for his country and a century against all Test playing nations of his era, Wright developed a strong mix of perseverance, individuality and ruthlessness that has defined his coaching career.
“One of the lessons I learned from playing was the need to make strong decisions, not be afraid to change things and be very positive,” he tells The Cricket Paper.
“All coaches have different ways of operating, and I enjoy digging a little deeper into the game. A number of factors created the decision to promote VVS Laxman to number three when Australia’s bowlers – including Jason Gilespie, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath – bowled us [India] out 274 runs short of their first innings target in Kolkata in 2001.”
“I knew we needed to put these bowlers under some pressure, which meant someone who could take the attack to them a little more than Rahul Dravid [the number three batsman]. VVS Laxman was playing brilliantly, so I discussed with Sourav Ganguly, my captain, VVS and Dravid who were very pleased to move around the order.”
A famous victory, VVS Laxman’s 281 and Dravid’s 180 turned the series on its head, India triumphing over the visitors 2-1. Wright’s tenure as India’s first foreign-born head coach brought much success, only six losses in the 22 Tests player under the partnership of Wright and Ganguly.
“I am in the twilight of my career now,” Wright declares. “I have been very lucky and enjoyed each experience. India was certainly the most challenging and I recall being asked, ‘do I have good ears?’ I asked why, and the reply was, ‘so you can hear the knives going into your back.’” He laughs. “I wanted to prove to myself, and perhaps to others, that coaching is just coaching. I firmly believe that.”
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