'I want to evolve what you're doing here and take Ireland to the next level'

We sat down with new Ireland head coach John Bracewell this week to talk about his ambition to bring Test cricket to these shores.

Bracewell was appointed last week and is now tasked with guiding Ireland to greater recognition.
Bracewell was appointed last week and is now tasked with guiding Ireland to greater recognition.

AS MALAHIDE WAS deluged by Friday’s Atlantic rainstorm, John Bracewell – Ireland’s new head coach – may just have been wondering what he’d signed himself up for.

In the space of one sodden afternoon, the realities of the job, and obstacles facing Ireland, were laid bare. As the dark clouds converged over the temporary stadium, half of the summer’s ODI fixture list was washed away and with it went a rare opportunity to flex the muscles against a Full Member.

But Bracewell, who emerged as the ‘outstanding candidate’ following an exhaustive recruitment process, relishes such circumstances. ”I get my best kicks from a bit of toil and sweat,” he states, shortly after we sit down to discuss his path to the helm of Irish cricket.

In fact, the 57-year-old is under no illusions of the magnitude of the task which lies ahead.

It’s just a day since Bracewell arrived in the country but already he’s feeling at home. The former New Zealand and Gloucestershire coach doesn’t officially start his role until June, owing to work permit delays, but the hard work has already begun.

John Bracewell The Kiwi is hoping to follow Joe Schmidt's lead and guide Ireland to success Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“I come from a working class background and while it’s nice to have a leather chair and desk, you don’t want to be sitting in it,” he tells The42 in an exclusive interview. “There are certain styles of coaching and I’m a coal faced guy.

“I love to have a cause to work and fight for and there’s no better cause than fighting to play Test cricket. I’m a fan of the underdog and battling out from a corner because that just suits my personality and the way I go about my business.”

Cricket Ireland Performance Director Richard Holdsworth, who was charged with appointing Phil Simmons’ successor, told The42 that it was the most important decision he’s ever had to make.

In the end, it came down to two candidates and Bracewell’s experience at international level was one of the deciding factors. “It was a good fit for me at this point of my coaching career,” he says.

But this isn’t a job to top up the pension. Bracewell’s enthusiasm and hunger for success is infectious. He was a visible and active presence during Ireland’s final training session before Friday’s game against England and had just finished an early-morning gym session before sitting down with the media.

He reels off interview after interview on the eve of the game but he’s never always seen eye-to-eye with the press. After leaving his post with New Zealand, Bracewell admitted he ‘had failed’ after a fraught relationship with some senior players, and members of the media, led to his exit.

John Bracewell Bracewell's first game in charge is in June Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

“You move on from it,” he insists. “In thirty years of coaching you make a lot of mistakes. There’s small wins and big ones and small losses and big losses but it’s about avoiding repetition of those mistakes and learning from the wins.”

His impact at Gloucestershire – one of the smaller English county clubs – was undoubted. Bracewell delivered six trophies to Bristol during two spells at the helm there and it was an ability to make the most out of limited resources which saw him thrive.

At the time, he made comparisons between New Zealand and Gloucestershire as two set-ups with a low-budget, small selection-group structure. Ireland could be shoehorned into that category too.

“Ireland’s journey has followed very similar parallels to New Zealand’s path into Test cricket,” he explains. ” Both are slightly dominated by the bigger brother next door, getting only little pieces of the pie from time to time and also once you get on that world stage, people keep on saying you’re overachieving, you’re overachieving.

“New Zealand were perennial semi-finalists and Ireland have followed a pretty similar journey without Test cricket. They compete at world tournaments, always knock over somebody and no longer are regarded as banana skin but a genuine threat.”

It’s perhaps fitting that Bracewell’s first official game in charge is June’s Intercontinental Cup clash against UAE. That tournament now offers the winner a chance to play Test cricket, something Ireland have been building and striving towards for the last decade.

John Bracewell The new coach has described the role as an 'unique' one Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Bracewell’s task is to not only get Ireland to that level but ensure all the pieces are in place in order to compete with the game’s top brass. It’s a balancing act but one which will be made easier by living, eating and drinking Irish cricket.

“I’m going to be attending a lot of club games. I need to step back and look at how cricket is played in this country. That’s for the future and the succession plan but continuing the success is just as important.

“The team are in the rhythm of success and as we go through this journey we need to make sure the guys are playing as much cricket as possible – that’s key. I don’t think big changes are needed but my idea is to evolve what they’re doing and make it a better product.”

Referring to the role as an ‘unique’ one, Bracewell evidently relishes a backs-to-the-wall, underdog scenario during which resourcefulness, doggedness and application are key facets for success.

Not one to be too tied down by numbers or data but his results speak volumes of his propensity to ingrain a winning mentality and insatiable appetite for betterment. “An us against the rest mentality,” he refers to it as.

It was during last month’s coaching conference in DCU which he heard John Mooney speak about his own personal journey to life as a professional cricketer. It was at that point Bracewell knew he wanted to be a ‘trailblazer’ for Irish cricket.

“John was brutally honest about where he came from and the core was hard work and I sort of love that. That got me buzzing a bit. I said to myself these are guys I can work with if their culture is about work and then you can mould them in a direction.

“That was the thing that flipped it for me because you need people who want to go in that direction and John sold it that night.”

John Bracewell He will work with long-serving assistant Pete Johnston Source: Ryan Byrne/INPHO

Mooney was among the bowlers who struggled during a World Cup which saw the balance of power lean further towards bat than ball. Ireland’s soft underbelly was exposed as they agonisingly missed out on a quarter-final berth despite winning three group games.

Reinforcing the bowling stocks is an area Bracewell wants to address immediately.

“It’s about getting the extra edge,” he continues. “You need players with the ability to turn a match on its head. We need to go out and find players like that. We need all the players in the academy just to play. You can’t learn the game without playing.

“I’m a great believer of playing what’s on front of you and nowadays it’s about drilling information into players. If you go out with a cardboard cut out plan and mentality, you’re going to play in the same way and get a cardboard cut out result.

“I want Ireland to play attacking cricket. To bowl hard every ball and with purpose. To go out there and play with confidence and have trust in the leaders and the plans we formulate. If you want to be successful you have to be committed.”

William Porterfield before the game Captain William Porterfield worked under Bracewell at Bristol Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Bracewell has signed a two and a half year contract which runs until the end of 2017. It is at that juncture the outcome of the Intercontinental Cup campaign will be known, the decision on the 2019 World Cup will have been made and Ireland will have qualified or not for the World Twenty20 in India.

“I haven’t set any goals or targets. I’m going to take it as it comes but we need to do a lot of things. Facilities need to be put in place, tours need to be organised and fixtures need to be looked at.

“To predict where I or the team want to be in 2017 would be dangerous but what I do know is that we need to have made progress from this point. It’s a big challenge but a good suit for my personality and style.”

After years of sustained success, including seven trophies, under Phil Simmons, you get the feeling this could just be the start of something very special for Irish cricket. If John Bracewell has anything to do with it, you can bet everything will be done in order to break down the walls and reach the next level.

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Ryan Bailey

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