Bangladesh's batsmen will have to hit the reset button after their batting coach, Neil McKenzie, left the position last month. Coaching changes are par for the course now at the elite level, but this is a crucial departure for those who worked closely with McKenzie since his arrival in 2018.
McKenzie came on board just days before the 2018 ODI series against West Indies and was with Bangladesh's white-ball sides for two years. His impact has been clear: an overall improvement in the team's ODI batting strike rate, run rate and batting average from the time Shane Jurgensen (2012-14) and Chandika Hathurusingha (2014-17) were in charge. The average balls faced by each batsman per innings was 33.74 under Hathurusingha, but has improved by about a ball under McKenzie. The dot-ball percentage came down. (It is important to note that while Thilan Samaraweera was a batting consultant in all formats for ten months, Hathurusingha was much more influential in the team.)
Mahmudullah, one of the batsmen who grew significantly under Hathurusingha in ODIs and T20Is, believes that McKenzie too had a major influence on his batting. "I think McKenzie was one of the best batting coaches Bangladesh has had so far," Mahmudullah said. "He was wonderful with both young and experienced players, and unique in how he knew the players, particularly the areas in which they needed work.
"He was very communicative, which made it comfortable to work with him. He gave you options - it was up to us to choose our preferred batting stance, trigger movement or style, but once we made our choice, we had to practise, and get confident in it."
Liton Das has shown the biggest improvement since his unbeaten 94 against West Indies in the World Cup last year. Das, who debuted in 2015 as the next big thing in Bangladesh cricket, realised, through McKenzie, the importance of choice and matching risk with reward when it came to his strokeplay. Soumya Sarkar, who was sidelined for inconsistency before McKenzie's arrival, has of late had a lower dot-ball percentage (52.60%, down from 56.37%) and a higher strike rate (101.19 from 96.7), although his average has gone down slightly since the Hathurusingha days (36.4 from 37.66).
Mahmudullah, interestingly, is one of the few batsmen whose numbers did not improve under McKenzie. He had three hundreds and eight fifties with a 38.65 batting average in 49 ODIs under Hathurusingha, but he made just three fifties in 35 ODIs under McKenzie. Still, there were other, less quantifiable gains. "I think I am much more eager to talk about the difficulties that I am facing," Mahmudullah said. "When I am having problems with some kind of delivery, for example. Before that, I was probably shy to talk to coaches. But now I want to know more about my game. With more experience, I know my batting style and what works for me."
Soon after he came to Bangladesh, McKenzie became known among the coaching staff as someone who was keen on strike rotation, and once he established the importance of that aspect, he found most of the batsmen responding to his plan.
McKenzie also had an impact on veteran players like Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh's new ODI captain, who enjoyed a slightly higher strike rate and an improved dot-ball percentage in ODIs under the new coach. "I always feel that the relationship between a batsman and batting coach has to be very close," Iqbal said, "so that when I have a technical or mental problem, I can openly share everything with him. Then I can implement his ideas to improve on my weaknesses.
"It takes time to build a relationship. The player has to trust the batting coach, and vice versa. It is not easy to adjust to a new coach after working with one for two years. But it is also true that a coach won't be around forever, so we have to move on," he said.
Iqbal's early development came at a time when Bangladesh didn't appoint specialist coaches. Jamie Siddons, their head coach between 2007 and 2011, also doubled as batting guru, and was a formative influence on the careers of batsmen like Iqbal, Shakib, Junaid Siddique and Raqibul Hasan.
"Boards and sometimes players can become a little impatient in the search for immediate success. A big problem here for Bangladesh is impatience and trying to nail down overseas coaches long-term" Steve Rhodes, former Bangladesh coach
"Before Siddons, many of us thought hard work only meant running and fitness," Iqbal said. "He taught me that it also means batting in the nets, working on my weakness, batting against deliveries that you don't like playing - how you make that your strength. He placed immense trust in us, and played a very big role in my career."
It was only in 2013 that the BCB appointed Corey Richards as batting and fielding coach under then head coach Jurgensen, who was seen as more of a bowling specialist. After Richards left in 2014, Samaraweera was batting coach from September 2016 to June 2017, before McKenzie came in in July 2018.
McKenzie's departure fits in with the conveyor-belt culture of the international coaching scene in recent years. The advent of franchise T20 leagues has broadened the scope of opportunities for coaches. For national jobs, a four-year stint is the norm, and since many coaches don't last that long, a tendency to expect quicker results from specialists has grown.
While finding the right long-term appointment is a challenge, the BCB's dependence on judging specialist coaches solely on team results often only makes these coaches' stays shorter. Specialist coaches are technical appointments, and come into focus only when a particular set of players show marked improvement or, conversely, when they are consistently failing.
"I thought we had McKenzie as a long-term coach but he changed his plan due to Covid-19," said Akram Khan, the BCB's cricket operations head.
"The BCB president never looks at money when appointing a coach. We look at quality coaches all the time, but most prefer the one or two months with T20 teams [over long-term coaching]."
There has been a regular turnover of bowling coaches, too. Champaka Ramanayake, Ian Pont, Jurgensen, Heath Streak, Courtney Walsh and Charl Langeveldt have all worked with the Bangladesh team since 2008, before Ottis Gibson, arguably one of the best bowling coaches in the business, joined in January this year.
Among them, Ramanayake is credited with the discovery of Rubel Hossain and Shafiul Islam, while Jurgensen helped Mashrafe Mortaza in his second coming as a bowler with less pace but greater smarts.
Of the lot, Streak enjoyed the best of times. The emergence of Taskin Ahmed and Mustafizur Rahman between 2014 and 2015, and Mortaza's insistence on a pace-heavy ODI attack brought Bangladesh unprecedented success in 2015. "It was during Streak's time as bowling coach that four of us bowled really well," Ahmed, who has worked with every coach since Jurgensen, said. "He definitely made a contribution during that time, though much of it also depends on whether a bowler is able to execute the plan. I think we were a lot fitter and more consistent between 2014 and 2016, before myself, Rubel bhai, Mustafiz and Mashrafe bhai suffered injury setbacks."
The BCB's appointment of Walsh as a fast-bowling coach in mid-2016, seen at the time as a major coup, coincided with the team management's decision to use raging turners at home. But the fast bowlers were still expected to take 20 wickets abroad. Every pace combination struggled in South Africa, New Zealand and England, as they were bowling lower volumes at home.
The BCB has also appointed three spin bowling coaches in the last eight years. Saqlain Mushtaq's multiple stints between 2012 and 2014 greatly helped offspinner Sohag Gazi. During his debut series against West Indies, Gazi shadowed Mushtaq, and imbibed much from the Pakistan great. Since then the BCB has appointed Sunil Joshi, who was around for two years, and Daniel Vettori, the current spin coach, on a 100-day contract since November last year.
Not many of these specialists have had as much of an impact as McKenzie. Steve Rhodes, who coached Bangladesh between July 2018 and July 2019, said that there are benefits from longer-term specialist coaching. "Coaching is teaching," he said. "Teaching, or perfecting skills, takes a long time and swapping and changing specialists can slow down the learning.
"It takes time to build a relationship. It is not easy to adjust to a new coach after working with one for two years. But it is also true that a coach won't be around forever, so we have to move on" Tamim Iqbal, Bangladesh ODI captain
"Learning takes time; after two years the relationship is just beginning. Again, boards and sometimes players can become a little impatient in the search for immediate success. Huge oak trees once started life as an acorn. Qualifications come from years of study. Cricketers take time to mature. A big problem here for Bangladesh is impatience and trying to nail down overseas coaches long-term."
Most cricket boards have a mix of foreign and home-grown coaches on their staff, but there's very little faith within the BCB in local coaches, which means that they look overseas for every position. This despite many of the top players, like Shakib, Iqbal and Mominul Haque often going back to their mentors Mohammad Salahuddin and Nazmul Abedeen whenever they need a technical tweak.
Following Siddons' departure in 2011, Bangladesh haven't had a foreign coach stay in the job for more than three years. It is certainly not enough time for a player to forge a relationship with a coach, who, according to Iqbal, presents the players with his set of ideas, the acceptance of which takes time and trust.
"A new batting coach comes with a lot of ideas, but it depends on the individual what works and what doesn't work. Every idea won't work for everyone. I have to be responsible to take the call. If I don't like anything, I have to be honest to the batting coach, and tell him this is not working. We have to try something else."
Craig McMillan, who last month agreed to be the batting coach for Bangladesh's tour of Sri Lanka in October, will also come with his set of ideas.
"I believe it is important to have one batting coach across three formats, especially in our team," Iqbal said. "We have a lot of youngsters. If we have separate batting coaches for red- and white-ball formats, it can sometimes be confusing. Different coaches have different ideas."
Akram and Co at the BCB will look to keep McMillan for the longer term, but what length really constitutes long-term for a Bangladesh coach these days? The players know that there is benefit to be gained from short-term specialist coaching in many instances. An example was when Mortaza gathered a lot of intel about reverse-swing from a one-week camp with Aaqib Javed in Dhaka in 2016. If they sign someone as communicative and skilled as McKenzie and if the BCB show a bit of patience, even a two-year period can be fruitful for batsmen and bowlers alike.