Mark Robinson left Sussex to be England’s coach soon after its 2015/16 Ashes loss at home. After England lost the semi-final of the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 2016 against Australia, he spoke some hard truths to empower them for the challenges ahead. A year later he is on the cusp of something special. As England prepares to take on India in the ICC Women’s World Cup 2017 Final at Lord’s, Robinson spoke about his coaching philosophy, the dressing room culture and his vision.
England has played an exciting brand of cricket in the World Cup. It was your blueprint. How do you summarise this journey?
After the game in Delhi when we lost to Australia, in my mind I was quite clear that we had to do something different to give us the best chance to go forward. Whether what we did was in time for this competition, that I didn’t know, but I did know we had to something. As a coach you always plan for the future – this World Cup and then we go to the Ashes next in Australia. You are always planning ahead to give your players the best chance.
You have worked with the Sussex men’s team in the past. When did you think you could be a good coach?
It’s a funny job. Sometimes you think you could be found out, and at other times you think it’s going okay. When I came into the women’s game and saw this group of girls, I just felt all the time there was so much more to them. It was trying to understand what was holding them back, why can’t they let themselves go, why they couldn’t express themselves. A lot of this is understanding what was holding them back and giving them the confidence and foundations to be able to play with freedom and with sense, at times.
We had a game in South Africa, Lauren Winfield just threw her bat outside offstump and nicked off. That was not being aggressive, that was reckless. There’s a difference. You might come down to hit over the top and hold out, that’s being aggressive. There’s been a lot of education. It probably is the most humbling job I have done because the girls have been so lovely. Having done it in the men’s world for 30 years, there are no egos, I don’t have to deal with agents, and money is not an issue. Everything is about what the game should be. I found it very humbling to find how honest and open they are.
All the players have said that your biggest quality is that you are honest and you understand them. When did you realise that you could translate your sense of empathy into something bigger?
I am hoping that is one of my best qualities. As a coach, I have always tried to understand people. I have always liked mavericks, I have always liked causes. We took Monty Panesar and Chris Jordan on (at Sussex). I believe everyone needs to be treated individually. Everybody is the same, but they need to be handled differently. When I came in there was a big thing about fairness. ‘She can’t take a day off because we are all in here.’ She actually can because she needs it. It is about understanding what the individual needs. I think that is me at my best. Sometimes I have to be sure that at the end of the day there is a line, and it is all about performing. I can’t go too far on forgiveness and understanding.
Do you sometimes see these players as your personal project, and is their success a reflection of yours?
There is never a reflection. The players should always take credit. When a player goes out to the middle, Tammy Beaumont will have Tammy Beaumont on the back of her shirt. It won’t have Mark Robinson or Alistair Maiden [England's assistant coach]. If they make a nought or a hundred, it will be against their name. All we do is create an environment where they can do well, and give clear direction of what is expected. Sometimes that direction gives confidence. We’ll say if you get out trying to get mid-on back, we don’t mind. Girls know that if they fail doing it, it’s okay. And if you don’t get mid-on back, we’re going to give you a bollocking. It’s that type of clear direction that allows them hopefully to play with the necessary freedom.
I like to treat them how I would like to be treated. A lot of my coaching philosophies are forged on my own experiences, good and bad. Nick Cook and Jeff Cook and Rob Bailey, when I was at Northamptonshire, as senior players were so lovely to me. They told me off, they loved me, they were like my uncles, keeping me on the straight and narrow. The girls don’t have that. There are no senior players like we had in the men’s world, so we’ve got to guide them and help them a little more, to the point when they’ll take over. The generation to come underneath this lot will be in a better place for having this era.
You have someone like Alex Hartley, who has come out of the wilderness and is now in a World Cup final. What is the procedure to spot talent?
Sarah Taylor is obvious. Isn’t she? They stick in your mind. I think someone like Alex, you need to watch a bit closer. A danger with Alex, everyone tells you [what] she cannot do.
Like Tammy [Beaumont], [people told her what] she couldn’t do. And then you watch them play. And she kept getting people out. Batters didn’t like to face her. That’s what you have to watch: what is actually happening. Sometimes we can get wrapped up in the wrong thing. That’s the thing you have to try. And I am an experienced coach; you try to make sure of what is happening [rather] than what people are telling you is happening.
When I came to the job, I got all the girl’s stats. There were only two players who played more than three games and one in the same batting spot. So how can you grow? Unless you bat in the top four, you’re always be going be averaging low. So you have to sometimes look deeper than what’s happening.
At the other side of the spectrum is someone like Jenny Gunn. How did you convey the message of her being dropped for a few games?
The worst part of the job is telling somebody that they are not getting a contract or leaving them out of the team. But you always got to remember it is harder for them than you because they are the ones being left out. You can just try to be honest. That’s all it was. So we had a chat with Jen about why. And obviously, when the opportunity comes back, we can bring another bowler back in. And she took it.
When Lydia [Greenway] and Charlotte [Edwards] were released, there were lots of talk about Laura Marsh and Jenny Gunn…what was going to happen to them. And all I was saying to them [was] you’ve got to decide which era of cricket you are in. If you’re in the old era, that’s fine. But if you’re in the modern era of wanting to be the best you can, I am not ageist, you can play as long as you want. Because I love old players. Experienced players with young hearts are brilliant. Old players who want to learn new tricks and to be adventurous and excited, that’s great.
You try and write off nobody. Whether are you are 18 or in the 30s, if your heart is young and doing the job, that’s needed.
Everyone has said that you stress on celebrating wins…
Celebrating everything, celebrating milestones, celebrating moments.
Was it the culture before you came to the side?
I don’t know, I don’t know. I just know what I believe in. I always thought of the girls that they’re somebody’s daughter, somebody’s partner, somebody’s sister. Your identity can’t just be about the win or the loss. You’re not the worst person just because you bowled a bad over or lost a game, or the greatest thing since sliced bread because you got a hundred.
We’re human beings and you can’t lose your identity so celebrate the special moments, wins, milestones. So when we played New Zealand, it was Katherine’s [Brunt] 100th cap. Win or lose, we were going to celebrate her achievement of playing for her country a hundred times. Her dad came and presented the cap, we did a little video celebrating all the moments and the girls who weren’t in the squad came and shared that as well. So that’s my philosophy. I believe in life and human beings and the goodness of people and all those things. I’m quite spiritual so that’s what I try and preach to the girls. If we lose on Sunday, you would be upset and devastated, it costs a lot, but you move on quite quickly. There are other things that keep you grounded, your family keeps you grounded.
Personally in your career, where does the Sunday final at Lord’s rank?
It has to be a highlight, it has to be, the World Cup. Off the top of my head, can’t think of anything better. You know, I came in the job to try and be part of big global events like this so I was looking to go to India for the T20 and looking to be part of this great competition which it has been, to be a part of this group of support staff and players, to be on the balcony singing the national anthem at Lord’s in front of a full house.
Do you think of your legacy at all or is it too early?
I think it’s almost a selfish thing to think that. I was head coach at Sussex and sometimes they used to talk [about that] and I look back at that and all you can do is the best job all the time, every day. And legacy’s not always about me, it’s about the game of cricket. The decisions we made is for the best of women’s cricket, for the best of the team, that’s all you do. It’s not about my legacy, it’s about the game, isn’t it? It’s about more people playing the game, it’s about my daughter actually being able to see herself being a professional which she never would have dreamt of. That’s what it’s about and I’m just one part of that.