David Saker does not do caution. Despite the growing pressure on the England cricket team to ice a British sporting cake baked by a combination of the Lions, yellow jersey-wearing Chris Froome and history-making Andy Murray, the England bowling coach thinks the Ashes will be won “comfortably”. And he should know; after all, he is an Australian.
“I think psychologically we’re in a much better place, the only danger is that we’ll be too laid-back,” says Saker with disarming confidence. He is Victorian Bushranger through and through and so admits, with typical disdain for propriety, that “the Aussies will fight their rings off, there’s no doubt about that”, but “if we score the runs we’re capable of then we’ll win comfortably.
“The players are really up for it. You just have to be around them and you pick up on that excitement, and I’ve got a little added incentive because it’s the Australian group and I know quite a lot about them.”
The 47-year-old, now into his fourth year in the job, also knows quite a lot about cricket in general. Of that his old Victorian mucker Shane Warne can vouchsafe. “He understands bowling very well. He can be a little in-your-face at times and pretty aggressive, but he’s absolutely spot on,” Warne said.
So it proved during Saker’s first involvement against the nation of his birth. During the 2010-11 series England’s bowlers dominated on the way to a 3-1 victory, their first on Australian soil for 24 years. “I was first involved for the 2010-11 Ashes and I know what a good time it was for all of us, so you just want to taste that again,” Saker said. “We’re obviously in a good position but we’re not going to underestimate the opposition.”
That said, the straight-talking Australian who had a knack for bowling swing cannot resist another positive pronouncement: “If we can get 10 Tests out of Jimmy [Anderson] and Stuart [Broad], we’ll be going a long way to winning the series.”
Surprisingly, Saker underestimates his own influence on the England bowling attack: “Most of the time they would be running ideas off each other and I’m there just to push them in the right direction.” That attitude can be traced back to his playing days in the unforgiving surroundings of Australian state cricket in the 1990s where “there was no such thing as a bowling coach and we just worked it out for ourselves or, occasionally, learnt off each other”.
This England attack have proved adept students of Saker, and of each other. “Jimmy and Stuart” are the only England fast bowlers whose Test careers significantly pre-date the Saker era. To the extent that statistics are instructive, it is worth examining their figures to provide what could be termed a yardstick by which to gauge Saker’s influence.
When Saker was appointed in April 2010, Anderson had played 46 Tests and had 156 wickets to his name at an average of 35. Since then, the Lancastrian has claimed 151 victims in only 36 Tests and has dragged his average down to 30.14. In Broad’s case, Saker came along at the halfway point of his career. By April 2010, the all-rounder had taken 83 wickets in 28 Tests at an average of 36.15. Under Saker he has played a further 29 Tests and added 112 more wickets to his name at an average of just 27.07.
But, back in the late spring of 2010, Saker’s appointment came as a surprise. At the time he was assistant coach at Victoria and had had a stint coaching in the Indian Premier League with the Delhi Daredevils. His credentials were impressive but his name was merely whispered as the candidacies of Test stars Allan Donald, Jason Gillespie and Craig McDermott were shouted from the rooftops.
“Not having playing experience at international level I always thought I might be a little bit behind,” Saker confesses. Andy Flower, the England coach, thought otherwise. So did three-times Ashes winner Paul Collingwood, who played under Saker in Delhi. “Paul rang me up and made sure I applied. I was going to apply anyway but he leant on me pretty strongly.”
He then decided to go the extra mile, which no doubt impressed the fastidious Flower. “I was going to do a Skype interview but I paid my way to have an interview in front of [England managing director] Hugh Morris and Andy. That went better than I thought because I got the job.”
On his way to 247 first-class wickets in state cricket, Saker earned a reputation as a bowler who could create swing both ways, with balls old and new. In just 20 minutes at The Oval’s indoor school, he turned this leggie into a new-ball bowler with a “decent sway swinger” (Saker’s words, not mine). After such a transformation, it is easy to see why England’s ability to swing the ball at pace has provoked envy, not to mention accusations of unnatural assistance. Saker insists his role of turning England into masters of swing is all down to the “talent” at his disposal.
“They’re great to work with because they’ve got a lot of talent,” he says. “We’ve got swing, bounce, pace and a great spinner so we’ve got enough variation to call on different things. A left-arm quick would tip it off but that’s being greedy!”
Greedy indeed. As Saker talks of the England attack, he sounds like a gourmand at a Tudor banquet. “The way Jimmy leads our attack is exciting; Stuart on his day is as good a bowler as anyone, [Steven] Finn’s so exciting because he’s got that pace and bounce.”
If that sounds like a clue to the identities of England’s pace attack for tomorrow’s first Ashes Test at Trent Bridge, Saker will say no more. However, he cannot disguise his own excitement – or the glint in his eye –whenever he talks of Finn, who is under pressure from Graeme Onions and Tim Bresnan for the third seamer’s slot. Saker is less effusive about Australia’s attack: “As a bowling group they’ve got some good pace, they’ve got variation, but they’re not that experienced in English conditions.”
That is not to say Saker is one-eyed, as his thoughts on Shane Watson make clear. “I’d rather Watson not be in the team but we have to bowl to him wherever he bats. Look, he’s a very good player but we know that if we bowl well at the top we can get any batter out.” See, Saker just does not do caution and if England’s bowlers’ walk can match their coach’s talk, we’re in for one hell of summer.
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