Simon Helmot has been the assistant coach of IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad for four seasons now. The 44-year Australian is a rare exception in the cricket coaching landscape, donning the coach’s hat without having played first-class cricket. But that hasn’t stopped him from building a CV that many top-class former players would be envious of.
In his 19 years of coaching experience, he has been part of sides across continents – starting with Australian domestic teams like Victoria to T20 franchises Melbourne Renegades and Hobart Hurricanes, working under the likes of Greg Shipperd.
In modern-day cricket, with countries increasingly turning to the shortest format, Helmot’s USP is in the fact that he has been a part of the coaching unit of teams in three of the world’s most popular T20 leagues – allowing him to lap up the myriad experiences and exposure that the BBL, IPL and CPL provide.
While his eating habits disallow him from tasting Hyderabad’s famous biriyani, he is hoping to sample success with one of Hyderabad’s other specialities – the Sunrisers. Helmot feels they have what it takes to go deep into the tournament this season.
In an exclusive interview with Sport360.com, Helmot talks about the IPL, coaching, his journey so far and cricket’s future.
Your coaching CV seems very impressive considering that you haven’t played any first-class cricket, following in the footsteps of John Buchanan?
(Laughs) He played a couple of games for Queensland before entering into coaching, so I am even less qualified as a player than him.
But I have been very fortunate to have some great mentors who I have worked with. One of them being Greg Shipperd – working with Tom, Laxman and Murali has also been a great experience.
I very quickly learnt that as a first-class player, you aren’t overly concerned about an individual’s ex-playing history but more so the knowledge the support they can give in their careers. And working with Hodge, Hussey and Cameron White back at home and now, more recently with Warner, Steyn, Williamson, Boult, Henriques – these guys aren’t looking at what you did as a player but how you can assist them and help develop their game.
So is it fair to say that top cricketers are more concerned about the perspective that you provide?
Indeed, ‘respect’ and ‘relationships’ are two important things that you need when you want to enter into coaching. I think for a player, there needs to be a healthy relationship with the coach – they don’t need to be friends, but they need to have trust and understanding.
A coach needs to understand that all players are different and need to be treated differently, just like their techniques are also different. I suppose I have used these two Rs as my pillars while doing my job.
Adapting becomes the key then, doesn’t it? As a T20 specialist coach, you’ll have to adapt to the environment also, coaching a Renegades will be very different from coaching Sunrisers?
Yeah you are right, even within the Big Bash, shifting from the Renegades to the Hobart Hurricanes has also been a whole different environment. You are spot on, but I hope I am not just a T20 coach; it just happens that currently the three opportunities that I am exhausting are with T20 teams.
But there’s nothing wrong in being a T20 specialist coach…
Of course not, it teaches you a lot, like playing under different environments, with different personnel, with different intensity for varied durations.
It’s a great opportunity to work with wonderful cricketers from all countries. Who would have thought when I started coaching in 1997, that there would be a format called T20 and that I would be coaching in three of the main T20 competitions around the world!
You’ve been associated with the Sunrisers for some time, while they are a good outfit, what do you think is lacking?
I think we overachieved in the first year (in 2013), with some great individual performances, we exceeded expectations. In year two and year three, we lacked the consistency you need to win a competition, let alone make it to the finals.
We believe this season though, we’ve been able to form a squad that is good enough to go deep into the tournament. The IPL is a very tough tournament, you only have to play slightly less than your best and you can get beaten easily. In this tournament, you cannot rest on your laurels, you need to make sure that you are prepared to the best you can be.
Mustafizur Rahman has surprised many people in his first IPL season, just how well has he settled in?
He has been a strong influence on the team this season. The language barrier has dissipated I suppose and we have made sure that it is a real family environment – right from the top management to the players & staff, we all look out for each other.
David Warner has done a good job despite there being a language barrier because both the captain and the bowler are clear about what they want to do on the field and as a result its not affected them as much.
Spending some time with him has been excellent; he’s still young and has some fantastic skills which have allowed him to have success in this format that made us identify him well before the tournament.
A lot of teams didn’t go after Mustafizur in the auctions, while some unknown names hogged the limelight. Do you think other teams missed out there?
It’s hard to tell what others thought, we certainly identified him even before the World T20 as a person of interest. He bowled very well in the World Cup and we were very keen to have him on board alongside our other left-armers: Barinder Sran, Trent Boult and Ashish Nehra.
Left-arm seamers make scoring tough don’t they, with that awkward angle going away from the right hander?
It gives another dimension to your bowling attack [having a battery of left-arm bowlers] because only right arm bowlers make your attack seem predictable. Having bowlers who bowl with different variations is an advantage but you still need to execute and that’s what Mustafizur has been able to do.
Your bowling attack looks settled, the top-order is solid but your middle-order seems a little weak – missing that dependable Indian name. Do you think Yuvraj’s return will solve that worry?
We always strive to put the best players in the best positions, irrespective of whether they are Indian or overseas. We’ll certainly welcome Yuvi when it is his time to come back and I think it’ll bolster our middle-order no doubt, considering his great experience and his understanding of the game in these conditions. When he returns, it’ll be exciting for the team.
When does that seem likely?
I am uncertain at this stage, depends on how the medical staff is monitoring his progress currently, but hopefully sooner rather than later.
“I’ll never forget one of my very first sessions with David Hussey in the indoor nets in Melbourne. Half way through the bowling machine net session he asked me what I thought, instead of shying away I gave him my feedback, just constructive feedback, he nodded his head and said ‘Thanks mate!’ and kept hitting balls.”
The IPL is such a taxing tournament with all the travel, back-to-back matches and sponsor commitments – what is the work you have to put in as a coach so that the players don’t mentally wear out?
As a coach one needs to make sure that the players are comfortable in that environment – you’ve got players from four or five different countries all playing together. From a training point of view there’s need to help players not just technically but also strategically and mentally to make sure they are ready. Another thing that needs to be taken care of is ensuring that players are fresh for the contest. Outside the travel, train and play – it’s our job to make sure that our players are mentally and physically fresh.
Sometimes just having conversations over coffee at breakfast can relax a player a great deal, you know, talking about things like how they are doing and about outside cricket activities, I am a strong believer that your job as a coach isn’t just to develop players but also people.
One of the uncapped Indian players who has done well for your team this season has been Ashish Reddy, how do you see him growing?
Ashish is a very versatile player, he is able to bat in the middle-lower order and finish off the innings or bowl an over or two, and he is lively on the field. It’s unfortunate that he’s had some injury concerns in the previous two episodes, he’s fit and raring to go at the moment and he takes on his opportunities whenever he gets them.
Do you think the fame and attention can distract youngsters like Reddy and Mustafizur?
Players get a lot of perspective from their teammates and we are happy to have an experienced core group at Sunrisers – Warner, Henriques, Dhawan, Williamson and Morgan, all have played cricket at the highest level and have captained their sides at some level or the other. It’s fortunate to have such leaders who help their teammates find that balance and I think each country is obliged to nurture and develop their talent and make sure that they do not get too ahead of themselves.
“If you can have different captains for different formats, it’s quite plausible to have different coaches for different formats.”
What is the one thing that you think the Sunrisers need to improve upon to become title contenders?
I think we need to develop the momentum we have gathered in the last four of five games. IPL is about consistency. We know as a group there are areas we need to improve upon in all aspects, if we continue to play positive and aggressive cricket – we can go deep into the tournament.
Which teams can make it to the play-offs on current form?
Gujarat Lions, Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians can be the three teams and I really hope that the Sunrisers can be the fourth by playing some really good cricket.
What is your take on Day-Night Tests as means to make Test cricket as popular as T20s?
As a spectacle, what happened in Adelaide was excellent. Cricket in whites after hours was really exciting to watch. I do feel for the players though, and some have voiced their concerns about sighting the ball properly when the artificial lights just begin to kick in. I do understand a player wanting the ball to be right or the environment to be perfect before they play D/N Tests.
Some environments, conditions or countries are more conducive to D/N Tests than others. People are going to love it, but we need to ensure that players are safe and comfortable playing. I think it’s going to be a fantastic contest.
So what would ideal conditions for such Tests be?
Places that don’t get too much dew at night, outfields that will allow the ball to stay in the right condition. We need to make sure that the ball is easily seen not just for the batsmen, but also for the slips and the gully fielders, and even those fielding square of the wicket.
What kind of a coach are you?
I am not sure whether I’d like to classify myself as a particular coach, I’d like to think of myself as a versatile coach – one where depending on the environment and players you are dealing with, I can adapt easily. Definitely a coach who wants to have a strong relationship with his captain and leaders of the group and a coach who looks to empowers the players and walk their journeys with them not necessarily a dictator.
Cricket is played on the field and the coach can’t really do much during a game apart from a few messages and chats during the break. Clear communication is must though, so that everyone knows where they stand.
Do you think it is time that cricket diversifies itself and starts having different coaches for different formats?
It’s an excellent idea to have different coaches for different formats. I was fortunate that when I started off working with Victoria, Greg Shipperd decided to hand over the reigns of the limited overs formats, while he handled the Sheffield Shield (first-class) games.We basically swapped roles between assistant and head coach, depending on the format.
I think this tactic can be employed depending on the kind of people you are working with. If you can have different captains for different formats, it’s quite plausible to have different coaches for different formats.
Did you ever feel in your initial days that you weren’t good enough to go and speak to some proven international stars in your sides?
I was quite anxious when I first worked with Victoria in 2007, and I think if players were to just judge you on your playing expertise then I may have had some issues. What I realised through my background in coaching age-group teams that I had many different experiences from youth to senior cricket that could help in assisting players. My job wasn’t to shove information down their throat, it’s about walking the journey, asking questions before offering advice.
I’ll never forget one of my very first sessions with David Hussey in the indoor nets in Melbourne. Half way through the bowling machine net session he asked me what I thought, instead of shying away I gave him my feedback, just constructive feedback, he nodded his head and said “Thanks mate!” and kept hitting balls.
Players have their own technique and one must be very careful not to invade in their development. When you do you take the biggest risk of disturbing their growth, you can always offer the broad advice but empower the players to decide what is best for them.
Final question, India’s coaching job is open. If an offer comes your way, will you take it up?
I think you are always open minded to all opportunities in coaching and it is very difficult to map out a pathway. Sometimes opportunities arrive, sometimes they don’t, sometimes decisions are made for you, sometimes they aren’t.
If someone likes what you are doing and the opportunity turns up, and it is right for you and your family – yes of course, I have great aspirations to coach cricket at the highest level and I believe I have a wealth of experience accumulated over 19 years in cricket to handle different cultures and environments.
The best part is that I am still learning.