Stuart Law is something of a traditionalist, so when the offer came to swap the sunny Caribbean, where he was coaching the West Indies, for the historic setting of Lord’s in north west London, it was too tempting to turn down. Jeremy Blackmore catches up with him…
The highly regarded former Australian batsman, 50, started his new challenge as head coach at Middlesex in January and is relishing the opportunity to turn around the fortunes of a club which won the coveted County Championship in 2016, only to be relegated a year later.
“It is a great privilege to be asked to coach Middlesex and to accept one of the plum jobs in world cricket,” says Law. “I very much enjoyed my time with the West Indies and wish them every success. There is never a good time to leave but the opportunity to work with Middlesex for four years at the home of cricket was too good to decline.”
Law played one Test and 54 one-day internationals for Australia, and became the most successful captain in modern domestic Australian cricket by leading Queensland to five Sheffield Shield titles and two one-day trophies. But, despite his Antipodean roots, however, he is no stranger to the English county scene, having played 14 consecutive seasons for Essex, Lancashire and Derbyshire, scoring almost 25,000 runs.
He has fond memories of competing against Middlesex: “I’m a massive traditionalist, and to play at the best ground in the world at Lord’s was a real buzz,” he says. “It’s a massive club, Middlesex, huge fan base and a real traditional club. To come here to play was great for the [experience of the] surroundings but also to play against a club of great quality and the names that have been through here was an honour and a privilege.”
With the West Indies making significant advances during his tenure, the decision to leave was not easy, but he notes: “I learned very quickly that very rarely do you get a term as a coach of more than two years. So, to be offered four years was one thing that really pricked my ears up.”
Family was also a consideration. This Christmas he spent ten uninterrupted days with his wife and son for the first time in ten years. “I’ve been very selfish recently,” he adds, “heading off all around the world and leaving them to their own devices, only seeing them once every three months…”
The appeal of living and working in the same country as the family really took over. “Family for me comes first, so this was a great opportunity.”
The location had something to do with it too, though, he admits. “Also, playing here was great but to actually work in your office here at Lord’s… that’s pretty special.”
Many expected Middlesex to win instant promotion back to Division One of the County Championship last year, but instead they struggled in the second tier, producing some lacklustre cricket by their own high standards, compounded by a string of injuries. Things were no better in limited overs competitions where they failed to make any headway.
Law hopes to bring fresh ideas. He was viewed as a hard but fair captain and on his retirement from playing moved seamlessly into a career as a coach, initially with Sri Lanka and Bangladesh before taking the West Indies job in 2017.
“I’m slightly different to what I was as a player. I’ve softened quite considerably. Being a father helps you do that as well, but also working with the different cultures that I have done. You learn how to treat people.”
What he’s trying to achieve as coach is to make sure the lines of communication are well and truly open, so everyone knows exactly where they stand.
“You can keep a team very happy. There’s going to be some disappointments… players not playing, that’s the biggest… But, as long as they’re communicated correctly and the reasons why, there shouldn’t be too many too many issues.”
He aims to bring a touch of his own steel to the dressing room: “I was a tough player mentally and verbally,” he tells me. He’s hoping some of that toughness will rub off.
“The skill levels of our players are great; the work ethic is fantastic. If you can add just a bit of steel to the mental side, with the skill level that you’ve got, you’ve got a pretty good package. For me it’s about being open and honest but also having that hard edge, but delivered with a softer touch.”
At least he has plenty of experience to draw on. “As a player, I went through highs and lows and there’s a few guys in the dressing room now who are going through similar things. You get picked for your country, then you get dropped and sometimes there’s no explanation or the explanation you receive is not what you want to hear,” he explains, adding, “when I was playing, Jeff Thomson sat me down and just said, ‘look, those things happen. All you can do is worry about what you’re doing here, right now. That’ll take care of itself’. That’s probably the best piece of advice I ever got.
Thomson told Law to ‘prove people wrong’ – and he did. “I enjoyed doing that. I got told constantly I wasn’t good enough to play international cricket. And to go back and score runs as I did in first class cricket, coming over here playing county cricket and scoring a lot of runs, just started proving those people weren’t quite correct.”
Law is already settling in to the role at Lord’s. Formality is not his style. He eschews meetings in favour of donning a track suit and chatting with players during training. “It’s better doing it in their environment rather than pulling them into an office. So, just having general conversations, asking challenging questions and finding out where they sit with it mentally and physically. From what I’ve seen it’s very encouraging, a great group of young men.”
In January, Middlesex was boosted by skipper Dawid Malan signing on for an extended three-year spell. The club also awarded multi-year deals to seven promising youngsters.
This bodes well for the future, says Law: “We’ve got a good core nucleus that are going to be together for that period of time. We’ve just got to get them up to speed with their training and start playing good cricket come the start of the season.”
At full strength, Middlesex boast an international class bowling attack, with former England seamers Toby Roland-Jones and Steven Finn and Ireland opening bowler Tim Murtagh. Tom Helm also came close to an England call-up during the last Ashes series. Last summer though, Middlesex struggled to put all four on the park at the same time with Finn, Roland-Jones and Helm beset with injuries. Prospects have been greatly enhanced by all three reporting back fit for the new season.
Law is impressed at the talent at his disposal: “If you look at the experience and then some good, raw youngsters, it doesn’t mean that it’s guaranteed to win us trophies, but we’re in a healthy position. We got to keep them fit and once we do that, their skill level will take over out on the field.”
Pressed about his aspirations for 2019, Law reiterates that he wants to see a change in attitude rather than focusing on specific pieces of silverware – although Middlesex’s prospects in the T20 Blast have been greatly increased with the exciting signings of former South Africa batsman AB de Villiers and teenage spinner Mujeeb Ur Rahman, from Afghanistan.
“I don’t like losing,” says Law. “For me, it’s not a skill level thing. Obviously, the skill needs to remain and improve. But it’s about a mental change and to get that into this group to think about playing different cricket. I’ve been given specifics on areas to improve and one-day cricket is one. That to me is not really a physical thing, it’s a mental thing. The majority of this squad won the Championship two years ago. So, the skill levels are there. Just to transfer that into the white ball arena is a is a mental change more than a physical change.
Law says he learned very early, playing for Queensland, that worrying about winning trophies is the thing most likely to prevent you from doing so. “You’ve got to worry about what’s right. To get your game right. To understand roles within the team. Once you understand all those, things will fall into place. If you start winning games, you’ve got a chance of winning Championships.”