Neil McKenzie, the former South Africa batsman and currently a batting coach, has been working with Bangladesh for the last few years to improve their batting in limited-overs cricket.
During his tenure, Bangladesh batsmen improved their average scores, the team has been scoring 300 and above in ODIs with regularity, and players like Liton Das have really come of age.
The Business Standard (TBS) caught up with McKenzie, who is currently back home in South Africa during the pandemic, to talk about his experience so far and future plans with the Tigers in an exclusive interview.
TBS: How are you spending your time in quarantine?
McKenzie: The quarantined life's been tough. It's a positive thing in the sense that I've been at home, spending time with the family and helping with the house maintenance. And I've been doing some video analysis and asking for video footages from Shri (Shrinivas Chandrasekharan), the video analyst. I'm looking forward to the resumption of cricket.
TBS: How has your time been so far with Bangladesh?
McKenzie: I've been with Bangladesh team for two years now. I started as a white ball consultant. Steven Rhodes was the coach at that time. I really enjoyed my time working with him. Now I've many South African guys around like Russell Domingo and Ryan Cook. I'm really fortunate to be a part of a team that's been managed well. I've really been enjoying the company of people here, very open and receptive and willing to get better. We're way off from where we want to be, especially away from home. But the guys are hungry and with the talents and resources that we have, it's just a matter of time for us to win a few series overseas.
TBS: You were also the batting coach of the Proteas. What are the differences between coaching the two teams?
McKenzie: I was fortunate enough to be a part of the South African coaching staff. International cricket is an awesome set-up to be part of. I've really enjoyed working with the South African team. It's different, the culture is different in Bangladesh from that of South Africa. Obviously I knew all of the guys there, played with or against all of them at some point. So they used to trust me a lot with their games naturally. Bangladesh was an unfamiliar country in terms of language and culture. But the language of cricket never changes. The main difference is obviously the belief. South Africa have a great track record both at home and away from home whereas Bangladesh are a team who are not doing too well overseas. It's all about having the belief. The players still have to prove themselves to the world that they can do it where South Africa are already an established side across formats. So they have a constant sense of belief in them which Bangladeshi players lack slightly. But with the resources and the hunger to learn, they are bound to do well especially in the white-ball formats. So the biggest difference is the belief which Bangladesh lacks a little bit.
TBS: Tell us about that 400-run partnership with Graeme Smith against Bangladesh.
McKenzie: It was obviously a great day in my career, being part of a world record. The best part was that I was out of sorts in international cricket. Opening the innings wasn't my preferred position, I liked to bat at four. But that was the only place where I could bat because Jacques Kallis was batting at four. That was my first tour after making a comeback into the team. Those were important runs because I had to repay the faith that Mickey (Arthur) and Graeme (Smith) showed in me. It was even more special to be part of a record stand with the captain, a guy who went to the same school as me. It was great because all the hard work I put in to make a comeback into the team paid off.
TBS: You are known as a guy who has a great sense of humour. Who's the funniest in the Bangladesh team?
McKenzie: I think it's good to have a sense of humour as a sportsperson. Things do not always go your way as a cricketer. So it's important to be a team-man even if you are having a hard time. That's why it's important to have a good humour. I always tried to lighten up the environment and take the pressure off from the guys. I've really had a good time with the Bangladesh players and management staff. There's been a lot of pranks and jokes off the fields especially when things aren't going well. Most of the guys are quite humorous. I think Russell Domingo has brought a different level of humour to the team. It's great to enjoy a laugh especially when we are away from home and family.
TBS: You spend a lot of time coaching Liton Das. Is he your favourite?
McKenzie: It's about making a relationship with players so that they can trust you and open up about their strengths and weaknesses. There is not a single guy in the Bangladesh team who is not willing to put in hard work. Even the senior guys like Mushi (Mushfiqur Rahim), Riyad (Mahmudullah), Tamim (Iqbal) are very receptive. Also, the likes of Shanto (Nazmul Hossain), Soumya (Sarkar) who are coming through the ranks are also extremely talented and hardworking. The way players complement each other is excellent. I think what the senior guys, as well as Liton (Das), has done is incredible and they only got hungrier for success. With guys like Tamim, Mushfiqur, Shakib (Al Hasan) around and some of the younger guys performing consistently, it's going to be great for Bangladesh cricket.
I always tell the guys to try to get a big hundred for the team and for themselves, instead of being complacent with a nice 40 or 60. Liton has shown the way how to be a world-class player and he's inspiring the younger guys to follow suit. I am not assigned to change someone's game. I'm here to facilitate and add value to the ideas of the players. If a player does not like my advice, I don't take it personally and find a way to come into a decision between ourselves.
TBS: Who do you think is the best batsman in Bangladesh currently?
McKenzie: It's difficult for me to signal out for the best player in the Bangladesh side. There have been different formats and the roles the players have to play in different formats are different. Bangladesh have been a seriously gifted ODI side and there's a lot of talent in terms of batting. There's healthy competition as well. If you look at the team, we've got phenomenal cricketers. What Mushfiqur has done over the last couple of years is incredible. Shakib has done wonders in the World Cup. Tamim has been a big cog up front throughout. Liton has been doing really well lately. Guys like Riyad come in lower down the order at the back end and do a selfless job.
I'd like to see the seniors putting their hands up and the youngsters supporting them. What we lack in ODIs is strong finishes. We need players like Shanto, Soumya, Liton, (Mohammad) Mithun to support the seniors well. We also need to have all-rounders like (Mohammad) Saifuddin who can hit a long ball at the back end and perform with the ball. Then we can think of scoring totals in excess of even 380. Guys like Taijul who play Test cricket need to upgrade their batting skills so that our tail is longer especially in Tests. We need to value our wickets more especially away from home.
TBS: You've worked on the power-hitting of Bangladesh batsman and you want them to target gaps instead of going for big hits. Why are there not enough power hitters in Bangladesh?
McKenzie: To be honest, Bangladeshi players are not as physically strong as the West Indians. But our players are definitely more skilled than them. It's all about maximizing your qualities. We play in slightly different wickets where it's tough to get going because of the slowness and lowness. Our focus has never been on hitting huge sixes. Rather, we are focusing on skilful hitting and finding the gaps. Also, we are working on big-hitting as well. BPL is a big catalyst for it as guys are able to spend time with big hitters like Andre Russell and learn things from them. There are few guys in our team who can clear the boundaries at will and we've been working on it technically as well. We saw Mushfiqur in the Nidahas Trophy and in the Asia Cup, hitting so many big sixes. But we have to focus on our strength, hit the spaces, manipulate the fields and take calculative risks to accelerate.
TBS: You were previously the white ball coach of Bangladesh but now you've been offered the role to be the batting coach in all formats. How big is the challenge of training our batsmen to do well in Tests away from home?
McKenzie: I've been helping the team out preparing for Tests though nothing is official. I was specially assigned for the World Cup in England which was a great experience. But there are talks about me taking over all formats. I have a young family, that's the reason why I was not willing to contribute to all three formats.
For me, it's all about some technical adjustments. The guys need to put more value to the wickets and players batting at one to seven need to get hundreds not only at home but also away from home. There's a slight technical flaw that the players have developed playing in Bangladeshi wickets. They always tend to push forward with the front foot and that's why opponents attack them with short-pitched bowling. Then comes the mental flaw. Because of the technical flaw, they cannot handle the bouncers accordingly and that makes them think that they are not good enough.
TBS: How do you see Bangladesh doing in the next few years in international cricket?
McKenzie: I've mentioned it quite a few times what Bangladesh are capable of achieving in future. Bangladesh have been doing well in white-ball cricket. What I like to see in future is the guys stepping up in Test cricket at home and away. I think we're on the right path. We've got some street-smart guys coming through who are supporting the seniors very well. We need bowlers to win Tests but in domestic cricket, we don't see fast bowlers bowling much. They have to bowl a lot in domestic cricket to gain experience. Same goes for the batting as well. Batsmen need to step up and push each other to lift the standard. They have to believe that averaging in the thirties is not good enough. They have to take their game to the next level. Guys like Tamim, Soumya and Riyad got hundreds in New Zealand. Mominul (Haque) has been appointed captain of the Test side recently. He is averaging in the forties which is a great sign. Guys like Mithun fought really hard in adverse conditions like New Zealand. These guys are young and getting experience. If they are managed and selected well, they are going to pay dividends going forward. If you check the stats and facts, you'll find a marked improvement in the selection policy. Guys have been given chances and given a good run. I believe if players are given enough opportunities in a particular position, they will deliver the goods. We saw how it worked with Liton. So if we have the belief in a player and we give him enough time to settle down, he will definitely flourish.