Troy Cooley: England's bowling guru takes Ashes secrets back home

Brian Viner Interviews: The coach who turned Harmison, Hoggard and Co into world-beaters will be plotting their downfall when hostilities are resumed in Australia next winter
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Troy Cooley will forgive me, I'm sure, for pointing out the contrast between his name, which rather suggests a porn-movie star, and his demeanour, which is that of a kindly, diligent schoolteacher. Still, England's highly regarded fast-bowling coach is shortly to take up the same position with Cricket Australia and from the first-name point of view alone, a man called Troy will be more at home rubbing shoulders with Brett, Glenn, Jason and Shane than with Stephen, Andrew, Simon and Matthew.

He will also be more at home in a literal sense. Cooley is as Tasmanian as Boag's Beer and some think it more appropriate that the 40-year-old will be plotting England's downfall in next winter's Ashes series, rather than Australia's. But it is troubling to think that at the heart of the Aussie camp will be a man who knows England's fast bowlers almost better than they know themselves, and it begs the inevitable question: to what extent are the Australians likely to benefit from his detailed inside knowledge of the England players, batsmen as well as bowlers?

I wouldn't want to get too fanciful, but isn't it a bit like the Coca-Cola executive with the secret recipe defecting to Pepsi? He smiles. I fancy he was expecting this line of questioning. "Look, my job is to prepare fast bowlers, and my main focus is the development of the player. I'm like any other coach, I try to exploit the opposition's strengths and weaknesses to my team's advantage, and yes, there are things I know about the England players. But with the level of scrutiny in cricket today, I'm sure there's nothing I know that [the Australian head coach] John Buchanan and Ricky Ponting don't know."

It's a neat answer, but perhaps a disingenuous one. Surely, come November, he will be whispering into Matty Hayden's ear something to the effect that when Freddie Flintoff drops his right shoulder fractionally at the start of his run-up, he's shaping up to bowl an outswinger?

A laugh this time. "With Freddie it's whether he's up for the day or down on energy for the day, that's what I might see. I have a big rule; I never over-estimate my role as coach but I don't under-estimate it either. I make sure the players prepare properly, but you can give them all the advice you want and how they take it on board, how they interpret it and how they deliver, that's up to them."

Whatever, Cooley's loss is a grievous one and Duncan Fletcher, England's head coach, is said to be furious that the England and Wales Cricket Board did not shackle him to a contract at least to the end of the 2007 World Cup.

In his book Ashes Regained, Fletcher unequivocally credited Cooley with the development of Harmison, Flintoff, Hoggard and Simon Jones into such a formidable seam attack. "I cannot hand Cooley enough praise," he wrote.

"They all have enormous respect for him as a mentor and a coach; psychologically he fits into their group superbly."

Not long after that book was published came the news that the England and Wales Cricket Board had let Cooley slip through their fingers. "We have worked hard to build what I thought was the ideal management team so to lose a pivotal figure in that is a great shame," is what Fletcher said in public, and one can only guess at what he added in private. However, Cooley himself declines to criticise the ECB for offering him only a rolling year-on-year renewal of his contract when he sought security for two years. The Australians offered him three.

"It was all above board, and I'd had a couple of good pay rises, but it did open the door if someone came in with an offer," he says. "And someone did."

So what is he looking forward to most about setting up home in Australia again? The weather? "No, I love seasonal changes and we're going to Brisbane, which doesn't have them. We've been living in Nottingham and loved it. For my daughter Grace, who's five, to see snow just after Christmas, was fantastic. But I couldn't knock back the opportunity to take my young family home."

His young family got a shade younger a fortnight ago with the birth of a little boy, Ed, and Cooley is needed for parenting duties on the afternoon we meet at the National Cricket Academy, on the campus of Loughborough University. If he changes nappies as meticulously as he operates in the nets then young Ed - like the élite group of 45 fast bowlers from Steve Harmison down to a couple of promising 15-year-olds whom his dad has chosen for special nurturing - will be in excellent hands. While I wait to interview him, I watch Cooley putting James Kirtley, the Sussex bowler currently suspended for throwing, through his paces. "Rehabilitating throwers is pretty damn hard," he tells me afterwards. "We've been working hard with James to find some good drills, but we have to overload his old technique with a new one, and that's tough, especially at 31 years of age."

Cooley finds no less reward in rehabilitating Kirtley, and in developing the country's ablest teenagers, than he did from helping Harmison perfect his slower ball, which in the second Ashes Test at Edgbaston so memorably did for Michael Clarke. But it is at Test and one-day international level that his contribution to England's cause is most visible, and in just over a month's time in Nagpur we will see if England's bowlers, after the tribulations of Pakistan, are ready to outwit the likes of Sehwag, Dravid, Laxman and Tendulkar. Cooley thinks they are, and that Jones might even have benefited by being injured for the tour of Pakistan.

"He's been given the all-clear by the physio and I'm pretty happy with him. Simon's one of those blokes who wants to develop all the time, and we've been developing a few little things that hopefully we will see from him in India." Such as? "Ah, if I tell you, I'll have to kill you."

Of course, bowling on the sub-continent is a different proposition to bowling under English skies or on bouncy Australian wickets, which is why the fast-bowling programme that Cooley has devised will start up again next week in India. He is travelling with Jones, to give him some vital outdoor practice before the rest of the England team arrive, but also with Sajid Mahmood and Mark Footit, the Lancashire and Nottinghamshire quicks officially considered "next-in-line".

"We put them in that environment to help them find different deliveries for different wickets. That's why there are not a lot of great fast bowlers around; it takes a lot of hard work. Most good bowlers have a set of basic skills they start out with; the best ones develop those skills to allow them to take wickets in different countries. In the England team at the moment they each have a particular asset - Harmison's height, Freddie's strength, Jones's whippiness, Hoggard's repeatability - but it's important not to be one-dimensional. My biggest job with those guys is to get them to develop other skills, and that's tough nowadays, because they don't get a lot of time. To do well on the sub-continent you need good leg-cutters, good off-cutters, and the ball to dismiss different batsmen."

Cooley was not himself such a complete fast bowler; in 33 first-class matches for Tasmania he took 54 wickets at 61 runs each. This was duly noted by Geoffrey Boycott when, at the suggestion of Rod Marsh, the somewhat improbable but highly effective inaugural director of the National Academy, Cooley arrived in 2003 as fast-bowling coach.

"England's bowling has been rubbish," remarked Boycott soon afterwards. "They're using Troy Cooley, an Australian. How many Test wickets did he take? I've looked in Wisden and I can't find his name anywhere."

"We've since kissed and made up," says Cooley, grinning, when I mention this calumny. Boycott should have known that the best coaches are rarely great former players. Indeed, it can be a downright disadvantage for a coach to have been a great player, and conversely an advantage to have been merely average; it makes it easier to recognise and understand your charges' shortcomings. One glaring exception to this rule, however, is Dennis Lillee, with whom Cooley worked in Tasmania and whom he cites as his chief mentor.

"He's the number one fast-bowling coach in the world," says Cooley, although Lillee himself says that it is the apprentice who has become the master.

"I would love to have taken 350 Test wickets," Cooley adds. "One would have been nice. But while I wasn't taking 350 Test wickets I was developing coaching skills, and tapping in to Dennis's experience, and asking him questions, although not silly questions because he would quickly tell you if they were.

"He's the biggest resource you can ever have as a fast bowler. He loves cricket, loves life, hates batters, so to hang off his coat-tails was magnificent. I used to watch him with groups of young bowlers. He'd say to them, 'Do you want to learn the secret of fast bowling?' All their ears would prick up. He'd say, 'Come a bit closer'. They'd go in closer. 'No, come in even closer.' They'd get closer. 'Now, I'm only going to say this once, so listen carefully. There are three things you need to do... hard work, more hard work,' and then he'd use the expletive that most Australians use, 'and more ******* hard work! If you're not prepared to do that, go and do something else.'"

Cooley has not only scrutinised tapes of Lillee in action, but also tapes of Jeff Thomson, Kapil Dev, Imran Khan and Richard Hadlee, while lamenting the fact that there is no clear colour footage of Ray Lindwall, Keith Miller and Frank Tyson in existence. Is there, I ask him, such a thing as the Holy Grail for a fast-bowling coach. The perfect action? In golf, it was the swing of Sam Snead that came closest to perfection; whose is the finest bowling technique he has seen?

"These days I think there are a range of them,' he says, evasively. "I was always told, 'you need to be more side-on to bowl, son'. Even if your hips and shoulders didn't really work in a side-on position, they'd put you in it.

"The game's evolved a little bit in terms of allowing players to do what comes naturally. If you look at Allan Donald you'll see a semi-open bowler; look at Darren Gough and you'll see a traditional side-on bowler. Great bowlers have always had individuality, but coaches had a cloning mentality.

"We don't any more. We work more with what a player has, and that's exciting for the game."

Of course, what has been more exciting than anything else in cricket these last few years is the rebirth of wrist spin, with Shane Warne as chief midwife. Spin does not really fall into Cooley's remit. Nonetheless, he is as keen as anyone - at least until his contract expires in May - for England to find a spin bowler who, with due respect to the splendid Ashley Giles, can baffle and bamboozle.

"The thing is that good bowlers are brought up in the right environment," he says, "and if they're not coming through then you need to look at that environment. We've done that now. There's a spin-bowling programme about to evolve which will mirror what we've done with the fast-bowling programme.

"There have been bowlers who've come on the scene with a big off-break and then eventually find it's not working because it's not repeatable, so they start darting them in and lose the ability to bowl a big turner. I want them to come in and not be worried about where it's going to land, just give it a rip. But you need sound coaches in place to allow that, because if you focus on results you'll be in trouble early doors. To start with these guys will go for six or more an over; it needs time and patience."

Cooley plainly has oodles of patience; it is regrettable England do not have more of his time.