Steffan Jones is convinced Stuart Broad can return to England’s white-ball side © Getty Images
It’s hard to imagine a situation where a Premier League football club might call upon a teacher to provide some specialist coaching for a few weeks in their school holidays, but that’s pretty much what happened to Steffan Jones.
Jones, the head of Sports Performance and Wellbeing at Wellington School in Somerset (and a part-time scout for Surrey), was invited to the Big Bash League for a short-term stint over Christmas by his former Northants team-mate Damien Wright, who until the last few days was head coach of Hobart Hurricanes.
Jones reckons it took him “about half an hour” to make an intervention that helped Stuart Broad recover not just some of the pace he has been struggling to regain of late but the away movement that was the key ingredient in many of his best spells.
“That’s true,” Jones says now. “I’d love to tell you it was some clever technical change, but it wasn’t. It was mental more than technical.
“Stuart, I think, had become a bit worn down. He was caught up in thinking, ‘This could be a long season’ or ‘This could be a tough test’ and concentrating more upon aiming for the top of off stump than charging in and extracting that life from the surface which makes him such a special bowler.
“He was running in a bit slower than in the past, and as a consequence, spent a bit long on his back leg in delivery stride. As a consequence, the way he falls to the off side – which he will always have to guard against – was exaggerated and he was left angling the ball into the right-hander. He had lost not just some pace but that natural away movement.
“We soon had him running in harder, and as a consequence, he was taller at the crease and that away movement started to come back. There’s no reason he can’t bowl as fast now as he could 10 years ago.”
He speaks highly of Broad’s hunger to improve. “Some big-name players like that don’t feel they need any coaching,” he says. “But Broad was keen to listen and keen to work hard. He threw himself into all aspects of the team; no one is a better team man. He really was a credit to English cricket in the way he played and the way he went about things. And he’s bowling quick. I can’t believe it will be long until he’s back in England’s white-ball team.”
All of which does raise the question: if it was so simple to improve Broad’s performance, why had nobody corrected the problems earlier?
Nor was it just Broad who was impressed. Under Jones’ tutelage, Dan Christian, who had developed a quirk in his action, where he was throwing his front arm towards fine leg just before bowling and losing both momentum and control, improved from a position where he wasn’t bowling at all to one where he claimed 5 for 14 against Strikers and was trusted to bowl in the Powerplay and at the death.
Both Broad and Christian tweeted their thanks to Jones at the end of his stint. Broad suggested he was “right up there” with the best bowling coaches he had worked with, while team-mate Shaun Tait expressed the hope that Jones could be lured to Australia full-time in a coaching role.
I’ve been lucky to work with some great bowling coaches and big @SteffanJones105 is right up there. Amazing knowledge and top man. Thanks
— Stuart Broad (@StuartBroad8) January 14, 2017
It is, of course, simplistic to refer to Jones as a teacher plucked from obscurity and offered a coaching role. He was a well-respected county seamer and has gained a reputation as a thoughtful coach who has combined the physical method of his playing career with science, experience and communication skills that sweeten the message.
He remains close to many within the game – he was best man at Marcus Trescothick’s wedding – and is adamant that he won’t criticise other coaches.
He is, he says, a “specialist fast bowling” coach. That is not to suggest he isn’t happy to work with medium-paced swing bowlers, but his methods (largely built upon the four-tent-peg model devised by the pioneering Ian Pont) are underpinned by a couple of basic principles. The first is that anything a bowler can do at 70mph will be more effective at 75mph (“And pretty much everyone can find another 5mph”) and the other is that there is no conflict between trying to bowl quickly and bowl accurately. Quite the opposite.
So why the lack of opportunities in English (or Welsh) cricket?
To some extent Jones is quite happy with that. Offered a part-time coaching and playing role by Derbyshire during the 2011 season, he declined on the basis that he thought he required more experience before influencing another generation of players. He took the role at Wellington instead.
Flashback: Steffan Jones dismisses Kent batsman Rob Key © Getty Images
“Too many people go into coaching the moment their playing careers finish,” Jones says. “Retiring players who go straight on to the coaching staff. It’s meant to be loyalty but it can often mean they end up just repeating the same messages they were given. It can create a vicious circle which offers no fresh ideas or improvement. There’s no voice from outside the bubble.
“I wanted to go out into the big bad world, learn from other sports – specifically javelin and baseball pitching – and put that knowledge together with my experience as a player and from my previous studies [he gained a BSC at Loughborough and a PGCE in PE from Cambridge University].
“Now, having had the chance to work with these top players, I’m confident I have something to offer that could be of real benefit to English cricket. I’ve proved to myself that my methods work.”
The problem – and it is a problem that is far from unfamiliar – is that Jones’ emergence might be perceived as a threat to those who already have coaching positions in the professional game. And while he insists there is no conflict between his ethos and the current ECB methodology, there are clearly a couple of areas where he offers alternatives that could upset the current order.
“I think there is too much emphasis on strength and conditioning,” he says. “And I think workload management in young bowlers is the wrong solution. They should probably be bowling more but with better actions. They don’t learn to understand the difference between unfit and stiff.”
The viewpoint about strength and conditioning is something of a surprise coming from Jones. County cricket watchers of a certain age will remember Jones – who played equally high-level rugby alongside his cricket career – as a muscular fast-medium seamer whose search for a yard of extra pace was the catalyst for a lifelong affair with the gym. Imagine Rambo taking the new ball: that’s pretty much it.
“In terms of gym work, I set records that won’t be beaten by many cricketers,” Jones says. “I could squat 200kg, bench-press 140kg and do chin-ups with 50kg weights on my back.
“But did it make me any faster? No.
“It may have helped me in terms of longevity – I played for nearly 20 years, after all – and it may have helped me bowl as quickly at 6.15pm as I could at 11am, but it didn’t improve my top speed.
“I’m man enough to admit I got it wrong, and it bothers me to see another generation of fast bowlers doing the same thing. Some of them, I’m convinced, only do it to look better on the beach, but some of them are getting the wrong advice. They turn up in March, strong as oxen, and then they bowl outside and find it’s no help at all. That strength doesn’t transfer to bowling.
“I see some talented young quicks out there, but I worry they’re not progressing as quickly as they should.
“Look, I love my current job. And if a job opportunity comes up in Australia, I’ll think about it long and hard: it’s a great country and the family would be up for it, for sure.
“But in an ideal world, I’d like to help English cricket. I’m not trying to show anyone up or prove them wrong. I think I can help improve our fast bowlers and I’d really like to help.”
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo