Simpson seeks the final fulfilment

New Lancashire coach believes going back to basics can bring success to Old Trafford after experiencing difficult spell at Leicestershire
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The Independent Online

Last February, Bob Simpson turned 64, an age at which a man of his accomplishments might be expected to be thinking of retirement. Indeed, four years on from the end of his pivotal reign as Australia's coach, there was an assumption that, give or take the odd consultancy, he had already drawn stumps. It is one theory, among many, the new coach of Lancashire plans to debunk.

"I've been in cricket for 47 years," he said, as proud of this statistic as he is of his Test batting average, which happens to be more or less the same. "It has been my life and I still love it; I still have a passion for the game. Come and watch a coaching session. At the end, I'll be going at it harder than anyone in the team."

This summer, Simpson's coaching sessions will take place at Old Trafford, where he has taken up a two-year contract. They were not the only county to have asked whether he was still available to work, but no other county had the same emotional pull. "Lancashire played a huge role in my own career," he said. "Apart from the 311 [the masterful innings he compiled in the Old Trafford Test of 1964], my involvement with Accrington in the Lancashire League came at an important time." He spent only a season there, in fact, but used it to make the transition from middle order to opening bat.

But there is more to his return than sentimentality, or even lucrative remuneration. Simpson ventured into English county cricket once before, with Leicestershire, a decade ago. It was not a conspicuous success, ending in an unhappy falling-out with the county's then chief executive, Mike Turner. Conclusions were drawn that he is clearly keen to correct. "I had some problems with management and I was frustrated with a lot of things, although not with the players," Simpson said. "I was disappointed with some of the things said when I left.

"The club needed to be shaken up a little bit and I think it was. I gave them a blueprint I thought they should follow and it is nice that their committee have acknowledged that the county's improvement started with my time there. But when I left I felt a little bit unfulfilled, which is why I wanted to come back to coach here again."

Lancashire unquestionably offer the chance to put that right. It may be 66 years since the county had sole rights to the Championship pennant, but the side Simpson takes on have been runners-up for the last two seasons.

"This is a different situation," he said. "It is a settled, great cricket club. And a very professional outfit. I also knew a lot of the players from the international scene. I knew Mike Atherton particularly well and I had great respect for the captain, John Crawley, and that has been increased having worked with him."

Lancashire believe Simpson can make the title theirs. For his part, he will make every effort to see their wish realised. But the benefits of Simpson's presence in English cricket ought to extend beyond county boundaries. He brings with him a wisdom and worldliness that a nation in contemplative transition must surely tap.

It is not difficult to prise out an opinion. As what he describes as "an internationalist" he has lately toured the world dispensing advice as a roving consultant but offers much of it freely through natural conversation. Ask his opinion on that word "theory" for example, and you'll struggle to shut him up.

"The longer I'm in coaching, the more simply I feel you should coach," he says. "I'm tired of fashions, fads and theories dominating the game. Techniques come in and suddenly they are accepted as the way for everyone to do it, like Gooch holding his bat in the air, wicketkeepers pointing their body at mid-off, the heavy bats and big grips and these sort of things."

Once he is away, it is hard to keep up. "I tend to think we've got away from the simple basics," he says, moving quickly into his thoughts on batting, on how the initial movement at the crease has become "an initial commitment, the back and across movement, anchoring you so you can't go anywhere else" and on how the half-forward movement has turned into "a disease". "I'm trying to coach them that the initial movement is what comes naturally," he adds, already claiming a success. "Take John [Crawley], for instance. He has cut out the big backward movement that left him with his feet so far apart and he's got his square cut back again."

And then there is Chris Schofield, another player within his own immediate influence. Schofield, the leg-spinner (like Simpson) handed an England contract without even one full county season to his name. Now there is a talking point, one on which Simpson's views will become increasingly familiar to the England hierarchy, who will discover he has considerable reservations. "I'm not saying he is not good enough," he says, "but another year of county cricket would make a huge difference to him. He can be a very good cricketer provided he is encouraged at the right time but the contract is not going to help because the Press and the public are going to expect so much more. For people to expect him to be a Shane Warne would be looking for a miracle.

"The English selectors have got to be sure what they want to do with him. There is certainly a dearth of good spin bowlers in England, but you don't put a person in just because he is the type you want. He has to be good enough."

And then there is new technology, which he favours, up to a point, but considers the point to be passed by such things as headsets linking captain and coach. "I make a point of refusing ever to send a message on to the field," he says. "If you have not done all the things you wanted to do off the field, including picking the captain, you have done a bad job."

An old dog with no new tricks then, Lancashire's players might conclude. Complacency, however, would be misplaced. They may find their new coach uncomplicated. But undemanding? At Leicester, he feels, they missed the point. "When I left Leicester, James Whitaker said something along the lines of 'Bob Simpson expected us to play and train like Test cricketers'. To which I say, 'Well, good Lord! Surely that's what they should be trying to do?'."