Whatmore has the know-how

Guy Hodgson talks to Lancashire's new coach who has taken on possibly the hardest job in county cricket
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The Independent Online
In a metropolis which also contains Manchester City, the dangers inherent in high profile sporting positions are always relative, but if you had to pick the hardest job in county cricket, then coach to Lancashire would be high among your options.

Consider John Stanworth. Under his guidance, Lancashire won the NatWest Trophy and Benson and Hedges Cup last season which would satisfy most cricket committees. Not at Old Trafford though. His reward was to be demoted to community officer, the price paid for a dismal season in the Championship.

Stanworth is not alone in suffering for Lancashire's obsessive desire for a prize that they last shared in 1950 and won outright in 1934. Jack Bond, Alan Ormrod and David Hughes have all been impaled on the thorns of the red rose while, in becoming England's coach, David Lloyd has, more than any of them, been unspeakably punished.

The latest man to be tested on the rack of the members' anticipation is Dav Whatmore, a 43-year-old Australian whose enduring claim to fame will be his coaching of Sri Lanka to the World Cup just over a year ago. After mission improbable, some would say comes the impossible.

"I'd only been here a few days and I'd lost count of the number of members telling me they expected Lancashire to win the Championship," Whatmore, who took over at Old Trafford in February, said. "It's a very proud club with a great tradition. The expectation is enormous."

Whatmore is part of a growing Australian influence in this country. Already five counties have men from Down Under in some executive capacity, while other clubs are awaiting the announcement of the Ashes tour party tomorrow before revealing the name of their overseas professional.

He is more interesting than most, however, if only for his openness to new ideas and methods. "Just because something has been done for 100 years doesn't necessarily mean it's the best," he said. "I've been challenged to think laterally. I've learned to look at other sports because sometimes the answer is outside cricket."

A compact batsmen who played seven Tests at an average of 22.53, Whatmore's post-playing career took off when he was appointed head cricket coach to the Institute of Sport which, conveniently, was set up in his home state of Victoria. "I thought it would be the easiest money I'd ever earned," he said, "but I found it extremely difficult and after one year I was close to quitting.

"I was coaching 20 boys the way I'd been coached and it doesn't work with every individual. I had to learn to approach each one differently. I made mistakes, I had my immediate boss on my back but the second year was better and the next better still. By the end it was pretty good."

So much so that offers began to come his way. Australia were the rising force in world cricket and it became desirous to ape their methods. Mark Nicholas wanted him to coach Hampshire second XI but Sri Lanka were also interested. Whatmore, who had been born in Colombo before emigrating to Australia as an eight year old, chose to go home.

His job was to guide Sri Lanka as far as he could in the World Cup, something he did beyond expectation when the the trophy duly arrived. His gamble was to employ Sanath Jayasuriya and Romesh Kaluwitharana as explosive pinch hitters who, when they came off, could launch an innings at more than 10 runs an over. England's attack was obliterated by the tactic in the quarter-finals.

"It was horses for courses basically," Whatmore said. "Let's not forget one of them was a wicketkeeper and the other was a spin bowler who fielded brilliantly. We had the luxury of flexibility within the team and the strength elsewhere to recover if it went horribly wrong.

"We always discussed the situation where we could be 0-2, which happened a couple of times. Fortunately we had another five top-class batsmen to follow them, so if they came off it really broke the game up and put the opposition under enormous pressure. If they didn't, we still had the confidence to know these other guys could bat."

There is the novel and there is the ridiculous, and when Whatmore first arrived at Old Trafford reports filtered out that his players were expected to train at 6am. "That got out of hand," he laughed. "I thought most of the guys had day jobs so I was hoping to get a session of training in before they went to work. Fortunately it only applied to the captain, Mike Watkinson, who devotes particular attention to his personal fitness anyway.

"The players have been very receptive. There's a very high skill level within the club, I don't think there's any passengers at all. Now I want to ally that to better preparation and back-up. There will be greater attention on the support areas: sports medicine, nutrition and psychological factors that make up the whole person."

Can all this help Lancashire win the Championship? "I hope so," he replied. "We'll have two players leaving the team to join England and I'd like to think there will be others who progress to higher duties. That means we have to have strength in depth to cover their absences. So far I've been impressed. It's a talented group.

"What will be satisfactory to me will be if each player improves this season. My job is to make everyone the best they could possibly be. If they make progress towards that I shall be happy."

The question, as the season begins, is: will that make Lancashire happy, too?

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