For a man who has achieved so much since he was appointed England’s first specialist fielding coach in 2007, Richard Halsall is remarkably modest.
The softly spoken 44-year-old, born in Zimbabwe but raised in Lancashire, is now head coach Andy Flower’s official right-hand man, having been promoted to assistant coach in 2011 in recognition of his success in transforming England’s fortunes in the field. An aspect of the game that was traditionally always a weakness is now a major reason why Alastair Cook’s side have been consistently ranked among the world’s best.
Yet Halsall, a former batsman with a sports-science background, refuses to take all the credit. “It’s more to do with the attitude of the captain and the head coach and how seriously they take it,” he said. “Our strength and conditioning coaches work so well with the players individually, it means they can do things physically that weren’t possible before. They can do them for longer, which means they can practise for longer so they get better quickly. The rewards are reaped in the field.
“I’m really lucky to work with this group because of how seriously they take their fielding. It’s how we put across to everyone how much we care about English cricket. It’s our shop window, so there is a lot of pride involved. They are desperate to do something for their mate and not let them down because that is one of our core values of this team.”
For an example of how successful Halsall’s methods have been, you need look no further than Cook. On the final morning of the first Test at Trent Bridge, the captain clung on to three slip catches – including the full-length dive to dismiss Peter Siddle an over after he had shelled a catch off the bowling of Jimmy Anderson.
When Cook began his career he was not the most reliable fielder and Halsall believes his improvement is a testament to the captain’s overall work ethic. “If Alastair perceives he has an element of his game that he’s weak on then he’ll do the work. And he’ll do the work until he’s as good as anyone in the world. He has caught hundreds and hundreds of balls, which is often the way with Alastair. He’s done some work with Bruce French on his posture and picked up one or two things off other players that I’m sure he’ll keep to himself.”
Halsall added: “The great thing is we’ve got a lot of cricket badgers in the group and they just love the game. They watch all the other international players to see how they can improve on certain aspects and they talk about them to each other.”
While French, the former England wicketkeeper who played 16 Tests, works mainly with Matt Prior, it is Halsall’s responsibility to oversee the practice sessions for the rest of the team. But whereas in the past even international sides could be relied upon to have a weak link in the field, the rise of Twenty20 cricket and increasingly professional approach has ensured that standards have never been higher.
“It’s across the board now – in the past perhaps there were two or three individuals who were phenomenal, someone like Paul Collingwood. Now everyone is expected to work hard so there are no weaknesses,” said Halsall.
“Wherever the ball goes in the field, we want someone there who is going to be able to affect the game. We don’t know where the great catches are going to be or where the run-outs are going to come so everyone has to be ready to take them.”
It’s a clue to how highly Flower rates Halsall that he took charge of England while the head coach was unavailable for a few days during the 2010 Ashes tour in Australia.
But having never been in charge of a county side after being brought into the national team set-up by his old Sussex coach Peter Moores, any talk of eventually succeeding Flower is on hold.” I’ve got one or two other things to think about at the moment,” he said.
The Sky Sports ECB Coach Education scheme equips coaches with the necessary skills to deliver high quality coaching programmes at all levels of the game. For more information, visit skysports.com/coaching
Power drills: The areas England work on
We normally make the players stand slightly closer than they would normally in a match. That helps when they go into a game, because they feel as if they have slightly more time to make the catch. At Trent Bridge that drill paid off because they ended up being scarily close because there wasn’t enough pace on the pitch with the ball reversing back into the stumps. But the ones that Cook took were flying, and that’s something you always have to be prepared for.
We do a lot of work now with tennis balls and rackets. You basically hit the ball as hard as you can at the fielder and he has to catch it. It’s like going back to childhood because it’s amazing what you can do when you relax a bit. Then we step it using the machines and [softer] “Incrediballs” when you can target a specific area, and, of course, using real balls too. It’s all about trying to vary the catching and pose different problems.
In the deep
We try and build patterns into our general warm-up so that replicates what they might have to do in the field. For instance, sprinting in a straight line and taking catches over their shoulders. It’s crucial that you’ve got three or four players who can go anywhere. Someone like Ian Bell is just a God-send – he can field at gully, short leg, he can go into the deep and catch or throw down the stumps from cover point. He’s definitely the most versatile.