Growing up in Albany Creek in the northern suburbs of Brisbane, Matt Renshaw played cricket all the time with his dad in their backyard and in the nets at their local park. He always thought of it as playing cricket with dad — something he loved doing (and still does). He never felt as if he was being coached by a coach. But, in fact, his dad Ian admits with a hearty chuckle, “I was coaching him from the word go.” Ian, a university sports scientist and level two accredited cricket coach, has always had an interest in teaching and has been coaching junior cricketers since he was 18. It was perhaps inevitable that, as Usman Khawaja, Matt’s Queensland captain and Australian Test teammate, likes to joke, his son would become his “experiment”!
Like most Australian cricketers who make their Test debut before their 21st birthday, Matt was a highly talented junior and first represented his home state of Queensland when still in primary school. Thus, from a young age, he was exposed to a plethora of other cricket coaches in his school, club, regional, state and national under-age teams, but he’s never had a medium- or long-term personal cricket coach other than his dad. As an open-minded youngster, he did, in addition to his sessions with his dad, try attending one-on-one sessions with a couple of other well-credentialed coaches, but, he says matter-of-factly, “it just didn’t seem to work … they were all trying to talk too much about technique and that wasn’t important for me”. Like his dad and all the great Australian Test batsmen before him, Matt understood that, for a batsman, technique is nothing more than a means to an end — the scoring of as many runs as possible for one’s team — not an end in itself.
Matt and Ian’s relationship of coach and pupil flourished because, in addition to a love of (association) football, a cheeky sense of humour and facial features so eerily similar that they could pass for differently aged clones of the same human being, father and son share a fundamentally similar philosophy towards the game of cricket and the art of batting: there is no such thing as a universally “correct” batting technique; every batsman is a peculiar individual who must find the technique that works best for him; a coach has the important job of helping the individual batsman with that quest, but, ultimately, it is the batsman himself who must take responsibility for choosing his own technique; a technique that works best for an individual batsman is, by definition, one which allows him to best fulfil his purpose of scoring as many runs as possible for his team; a cricketer should be given the opportunity to learn how to do something, rather than being ordered to do something in a particular way; and training should, as far as possible, simulate actual matches.
A natural corollary of that liberal philosophy is that the pupil has the right to respectfully disagree with his coach’s opinion when he believes that it’s not right for him. Matt, as Ian is quick to point out with a laugh, has been politely exercising that right ever since he was nine years of age! “I was bowling my dreadful seamers [at him on an artificial pitch in New Zealand]”, recalls Ian, “and he kept just running it down to third man. And I’m going, ‘mate, you can’t do that — you’re going to get out playing that shot. It’s high risk you know!’ Anyway, he did it six times on the trot and I went ‘ok, fair enough!’”
Ian quickly realised that his initial, instinctive advice to Matt was wrong because he’d failed to take into account the particular conditions in which they were playing. Ian — a proud Nottinghamian who never tires of reminding friends that he was born-and-raised in the market town of Sutton-in-Ashfield, less than four miles from Nuncargate, the coal mining village where the legendary fast bowler Harold Larwood was born-and-raised — was brought up on soft, green English turf pitches where Matt’s shot would indeed have been high risk and illogical. The softness of the pitch would’ve meant that there was insufficient bounce and carry to allow a batsman to simply open the face of his bat and use the pace of the ball to run it down to third man. And if a batsman did try that shot, he would, in all likelihood, nick off, thanks to the lateral seam movement created by the grass left on the pitch. But, on the hard, fast and true artificial pitches commonly found on junior grounds in New Zealand — and Australia for that matter — Matt’s shot selection was both logical and effective.
Ian had always been a big believer that a player ought be given the freedom to take responsibility for his own game and the space to work things out for himself. In Matt’s case, Ian soon discovered that his son’s natural cricket brain and precocity was such that he was applying those two fundamental principles more than he had with any other student.
“I got better”, explains Ian, “in terms of letting him take responsibility more for his game over time and that was probably my learning as much as anything, not just the fact that he got older.”
That mutual respect for one another is one reason why their coach-pupil — and father-son — relationship functions so smoothly. It “has been good”, observes Matt, that on the “few occasions” over the years when “I’ve disagreed with Dad” about something, he’s “respectfully agreed [with my right to disagree with him]”. That in no way means that Matt does not respect his dad’s opinion. On the contrary, it’s the opinion he trusts the most and has always placed the greatest weight on. And he credits his easy access to it from the day that he was born with much of his success as a cricketer.
One of the primary challenges faced by young elite cricketers, especially batsmen, is the sheer number of different coaches that they are exposed to from a young age — in general, a young elite cricketer will play for his school, club, regional, state and national under-age teams and will have different coaches in each of those teams — each of whom will have and express a different opinion on their batting technique. That number only increases (exponentially) once a batsman reaches Shield and Test level. More than a few batsmen — Matt’s Test teammate, Pete Handscomb, is a good example — have suffered a form slump early in their Shield careers as they’ve diligently tried to incorporate all the well-intentioned technical advice that they receive from a multiplicity of professional coaches into their game, before rediscovering their form once they get a bit older and develop the ability to sift through the reams of technical advice that they receive and only adopt what works for them.
Matt developed that crucial ability to sift through different bits of advice and politely say “no” when it wasn’t right for him much quicker than other young batsmen, because he’s always had his dad there as a trusted sounding board to bounce other coaches’ advice off.
“I generally talked to my club and school coaches”, says Matt, “and then listened to what they had to say, but then talked to Dad [to] get his opinion on that, because I think Dad probably knows me best and that’s why he’s been so good for my cricket career — he knows what would work for me and what wouldn’t work for me, because he’s been the one throwing most of the balls at me.”
Nothing’s changed now that Matt is an Australian Test opener. His dad is still his personal coach and even when he’s playing a Test match overseas, he’ll still ring his parents after most days’ play to debrief the day’s play and run any batting issues or questions he might have past his dad. About the only thing that has changed since Matt’s 18th birthday is that, now, if they happen to be in the same country as one another, father and son can conduct their evening debrief over “a proper pint” of beer — Ian, like any Englishman with a deep and genuine love of real ale, abhors the serving of beer in pots, schooners or any other funny Australian sub-pint-sized glasses — rather than a coke.
Written by SB Tang.
SB Tang is an Australian freelance writer who has written about cricket for ESPNCricinfo, The Cricket Monthly, The Guardian, Wisden India, SA Cricket and cricket.com.au. His first book — about Australian cricket in the ’90s — will be published by Hardie Grant in the second half of 2018. Twitter: @sb_tang