On a soggy day in Edinburgh, the challenges that lie before Grant Bradburn are all too evident.
Scotland, who he coaches, don’t have a national training centre, and are renting a pitch at the George Heriot’s School in the Goldenacre area of the city. After a persistent morning drizzle, the skies clear enough for an intra-squad match, but an hour into play one of the Heriot’s ground staff walks over. “Hey Grant, I’ve got Karen up at the school who wants to speak to you,” he says, handing Bradburn a mobile phone.
Scotland, just a few months removed from beating Zimbabwe for their first ever ODI win over a Full Member, are told to vacate the field, because the Heriot’s girls field hockey team needs to practice. Bradburn puts up a stern yet polite protest, saying Cricket Scotland had reserved the ground months in advance, but Karen repeats her get-out clause: no matter what, Heriot’s students have first priority.
“I knew that, coming here, I would have to find different ways to be successful and face different challenges, like today,” Bradburn says with a wry grin after calling his players off the field.
At 52, he is the embodiment of Kiwi mellow. On an off day two years ago, he took to the streets on the Royal Mile with his acoustic guitar to busk during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. A resident of Stirling, an hour west of Edinburgh, he talks up a great surfing spot he has found off the coast, at Pease Bay.
The son of Test cricketer Wynne Bradburn, he grew up on “BYC” – backyard cricket, to those not hip to the lingo. He played seven Tests and 11 ODIs in two phases, from 1990-92 and then again in 2001-02, sandwiching a distinguished domestic career at Northern Districts that included three Plunket Shield wins and two Ford Trophies.
Toward the tail end of his playing career, he went into business with Billy Bowden, who went on to become famous as an umpire, first managing the Hamilton branch of Bowden’s flagship sporting-goods shop in Auckland, Howzat Sportslink, and then launching his own store, GB Sports, which was housed in Seddon Park, Hamilton’s Test ground. A decade later he launched a mobile coffee truck, GB Coffee.
He stayed involved in cricket as well, doing development coaching on the side until he was roped back in full-time as Northern Districts head coach in 2008. He led them to the domestic one-day title in his first year in charge. They did the one-day-and-Plunket Shield double the following year, and won another Plunket Shield title in 2011-12, with sides featuring Daniel Vettori, Kane Williamson, Corey Anderson and Trent Boult.
But after 21 years with Northern Districts as player and coach, Bradburn felt he needed to escape his cozy surroundings if he was ever going to truly grow as a cricket coach. So he left Northerns and took on a one-year appointment with the New Zealand A and Under-19 squads in 2013-14.
When that contract expired, he applied for the head job with Fiji, then in WCL Division Five. It was a job he thought he was well-suited for, considering he had experience coaching Cook Islands from 2009 through 2011 part-time, around his Northern Districts commitments. But then he saw an opening for the Scotland job and applied, being interviewed on Skype in the middle of the night, “dressed in my boxer shorts, a shirt and tie”.
“They made a decision pretty quickly, rang me back and offered me the job,” Bradburn says. “I went to visit [wife] Marie, who was working in the coffee van, and said to her, ‘How do you fancy moving to Scotland?’
Since Bradburn’s arrival, Scotland notched up their first major win in an ICC tournament, over Hong Kong at the 2016 World T20. A pair of other historic wins came last summer, against Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe.
Most recently, they beat Afghanistan and tied with hosts Zimbabwe in the World Cup Qualifier, and were arguably a pair of dubious lbw calls away from making the World Cup.
Whether it’s a historic win, gut-wrenching loss, or getting kicked off a training ground by a teenage girls’ hockey team, it all seems the same to Bradburn, because he always seems to have a smile on his face. “One of coach’s big sayings is ‘playing with teeth,'” says vice-captain Richie Berrington.
“It’s something I picked up from coaching with the Cook Islands, where they always used to play with a smile on their face, win or lose,” Bradburn says. “You could always see their teeth. That gave everyone a sense of joy, put cricket in perspective.”
Part of the growing pains Bradburn endured with Cook Islands include the day they were bowled out for 42 by Papua New Guinea, who knocked off the runs in 4.5 overs. But Bradburn and his players never got too down.
“If they’re smiling, it’s okay,” Bradburn says. “It’s only a game of cricket at the end of the day.
But they also want to play with grit. “We want to confront the opposition. We want to be able to look them in the eye and take them on, and not be afraid to take them on.”
Beneath Bradburn’s laid-back exterior is a man with burning ambition and high expectations, who refuses to sell himself or his players short. It’s a mentality that helped transform Scotland from a nondescript outfit into a regular threat to Full Members.
The day of the first unofficial 2017 Champions Trophy warm-up match against Sri Lanka in Kent was among those when others first started to notice Scotland “playing with teeth”. “We wanted to make sure they knew this is a proper team they’re coming up against,” Kyle Coetzer, the captain, says. “Not to be disrespected. I guess that’s the other side of showing teeth.”
“We spoke about bringing hostility to that encounter,” Bradburn says. “We talked about using the helmet, short leg, which would be really confronting for a top Full Member nation – to have little old Scotland bumping them. We actually had pace in our attack that day, with Chris Sole, Ali Evans and Stu Whittingham.”
Just over a year earlier, Scotland had yet to win any kind of World Cup match in 20 tries, before they bested Hong Kong in Nagpur. But a month after the Sri Lanka win came the one against Zimbabwe, in an official ODI, their first win against a Full Member after failing in 25 previous attempts. The fruits of one of Bradburn’s core philosophies were starting to be borne.
“Kaizen,” Bradburn says. “K-a-i-z-e-n. It’s a Japanese term that was made famous through Toyota.
“I don’t like to use it too much in the team environment because it can be a little bit exactly like you’ve reacted: ‘What the hell is that?’ But all it means is continual improvement, and that’s what we try and work on.”
Part of the reason for Scotland’s World Cup streak of futility was their tendency to be contented with saving face, as opposed to going down guns blazing. In their first two World Cups, in 1999 and 2007, they didn’t go past 190 in an innings. But with the exception of being bowled out for 68 by West Indies in Leicester, they were never embarrassed either. Coming on board in July of 2014, a few months after the side had qualified for the 2015 World Cup under the stewardship of Craig Wright and Paul Collingwood, Bradburn began to encourage players to play more fearlessly.
That approach showed best in the 2015 World Cup match against Bangladesh. Kyle Coetzer’s boldness at the top of the order produced 156 off 134 balls, propelling Scotland past 300. Though they wound up losing with 11 balls to spare, it was a stark contrast to past efforts.
Yet, in a move that shocked outsiders, Coetzer was initially left out of Scotland’s squad for the World T20 Qualifier a few months later. In his most recent nine T20Is, dating back to the 2012 World T20 Qualifier, he had scored just 100 runs off 124 balls at an average of 11.11 and a strike rate of 80.64 while occupying a spot in the middle order. According to Bradburn, those numbers didn’t justify a spot in Scotland’s squad for the 2015 World T20 Qualifier.
“I was really comfortable with that decision because it was based on his previous performance,” Bradburn said. “As it turned out, Freddie Coleman made himself unavailable and Kyle got re-injected into the team, but I was very clear with Kyle about what I expected of him. I wanted him to open the innings and express himself, to bring a new dimension to his T20 play. I didn’t want him to feel he had to anchor the innings, because we had [Matt] Machan, Berrington, [Preston] Mommsen, [George] Munsey, [Matthew] Cross, all capable of taking the game away.”
Having received his wake-up call, Coetzer came out blasting in the team’s opening win, against UAE, clubbing 39 off 16 balls, with nine fours. In the nine-game T20I stretch prior to squad selection, he had scored nine fours and a six combined.
“That tournament was a great example of how a very good coach can have such an influence and make such a change in a short period of time,” former captain Mommsen said. “The way we transformed from scoring at 7 or 7.5 an over to scoring at 10 an over is testament to it. That was a real breakthrough for me as well as Kyle. My boundary count was higher than any previous tournament. But that Kyle example is a great example.”
Coetzer led the team with 206 runs at a strike rate of 149, and Scotland were crowned co-champions at the end of the tournament.
“I would definitely say that has been a turning point in my career,” Coetzer says. “Sometimes you have to be challenged. You don’t always appreciate it at the time or understand it. When I wasn’t picked, that was a bit of a challenge. You’d say it has had the right results.”
But not everyone responds to being challenged in the same way.
Despite their best efforts against Bangladesh, and a heartbreaking one-wicket loss to Afghanistan, Scotland ended the New Zealand leg of their 2015 World Cup campaign eliminated from semi-final contention. Majid Haq, their most capped player, and their all-time leading wicket-taker, had finished with three wickets at an average of 55.33, though with a respectable economy rate of 4.88.
Waiting in the wings for the remaining two games, against Australia and Sri Lanka, was Michael Leask, then a 24-year-old up-and-coming offspinning allrounder who had begun to attract interest from English counties after he made 42 off 16 balls against England in Aberdeen the previous home summer. Bradburn wanted to give Leask a chance to play and called Majid for a meeting to deliver the news.
“I gave him that respect and opportunity to speak one on one for about 40 minutes,” Bradburn said. “I had a wonderful relationship, and being a fellow offspinner, had huge respect for his skill. We interacted probably more so than I would with other players. We’d have dinner together, games of badminton and squash.”
So Bradburn was blindsided when, just minutes after their meeting, Haq vented his frustration on Twitter.
“For the whole of the time that I had coached the team, Michael’s and Majid’s records were similar, so [Leask] warranted equal opportunity,” Bradburn said. “Michael was bringing dynamic skills with the bat, in the field, and adding to the team environment, and was proving worthy in terms of equal wickets and runs per over. So it was a no-brainer to give Michael that chance.
“So when he went upstairs and sent that tweet, I really felt for the team. It did feel [like] he had let his personal ambitions dictate over the team. I felt for Michael, because here’s a fellow spinner who clearly had no respect for the fact that Michael was worthy of taking that spot as well. But I didn’t, and still don’t, believe it was a personal attack on me.”
Haq deleted the initial tweet that appeared to insinuate racism was behind his axing, but the damage had been done. Before the team took the field for their next match against Sri Lanka, he had been sent home.
A few months later, he was officially cleared by Cricket Scotland to be considered again for selection. However, unlike Coetzer and others who have responded to the challenge to strive for greatness, Haq’s record belongs to Scotland’s previous era. In the 12 one-day matches he bowled in either side of his lone five-wicket ODI haul for Scotland, against Ireland in September 2014, he took seven wickets, and never more than one in a match.
Haq is still only 35, and given the modest size of Scotland’s talent pool, they can’t, as Bradburn says, “afford to throw anyone aside forever”, so the door to an unlikely return is still open. But Bradburn says that has to be something Haq wants, given the guidelines laid out.
“Unfortunately, he hasn’t ever got himself into a position where he’s willing to come to that place and acknowledge that there are some deficiencies and ‘I need to improve because I want to be in this team,'” Bradburn says. “He wasn’t displaying enough of the qualities that are in our selection philosophy.
“And he definitely wasn’t ticking the box of Kaizen.”
“Grant basically had a diagram on the wall,” Coetzer says, recalling a squad meeting in April 2016 in Dundee that was a catalyst for the change in results over the last two years for Scotland.
“The options were: we could keep plodding along being a safe team that plays okay cricket and [being] reasonably successful at Associate level and get by. But if we actually want to beat top teams and some of the best out there, what we have to do is not be scared to fail – not just keep playing a safe brand of cricket but play a brand of cricket that will give us a chance to win big games.”
Scotland had had an increasing number of near-misses over the previous year: the one-wicket gut punch by Afghanistan in Dunedin, a three-run loss to West Indies in Sydney in a 2015 World Cup warm-up; a 14-run loss to Afghanistan again, and an 11-run loss to Zimbabwe at the 2016 World T20. Bradburn was frustrated not so much by the results but rather how they occurred. Scotland weren’t fighting back from losing positions to nearly pull off thrilling comebacks; the oppositions were.
“If we wanted to be more consistent and win those critical moments, then we had to make a change,” Bradburn said. “So no longer were we comfortable accepting that it’s about doing enough, getting enough runs or wickets, or having a nice average, to stay in the team. A winning performance is about how many times I actually put in a performance that dictates the outcome of the fixture.”
Of the seven 300-plus ODI scores in Scotland’s 104-match history in the format, starting in 1999, four have come since the team talk in Dundee.
“We put out a monthly roll of honour,” Bradburn says. “Our list of significant performances is strong and it keeps growing stronger, and that’s a cool thing to be able to share with the whole group, to highlight a winning performance, even if it’s a 30 not-out to bring the game home.”
In the realm of Bradburn’s Scotland squad, averages hold little weight compared to winning performances. It helps explain why a player like Calum MacLeod, who has the most ducks in ODIs for Scotland (eight) and a modest List A average of 27.21, gets the backing he does to also hold the record for the most ODI hundreds for Scotland (six). In three of those innings, MacLeod has gone past 150, including his dismantling of Rashid Khan in March in Bulawayo.
Bradburn is described by his players as a family man. When asked to name his idols, he mentions his Test cricketer dad first, followed by New Zealand cricket icons Lance Cairns, Geoff Howarth, Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe, but he then also picks his three brothers-in-law for being “strong fathers and strong husbands”, and for how they set an example for him and Marie to follow when raising their own family: Jack, 17; Tom, 15, who plays for Scotland U-17; and Ella, 13. Bradburn gave Coetzer a day off from training last fall so the captain could take his four-year-old daughter to her first day of school. “You don’t get those days back,” says Bradburn.
In terms of the Associate cricket family, Bradburn has been inspired by what Ireland and Afghanistan have accomplished on and off the field to become Test nations and believes there’s no reason why Scotland can’t be that next Full Member nation. But as much as he loves his current job – he regularly joins the players to sing “Flower of Scotland” before and after games – he still has a dream to one day coach New Zealand.
“Home is always home,” he says.
The recent resignation of Mike Hesson as New Zealand coach might put Cricket Scotland administrators on edge, since Bradburn is expected to be a strong candidate for the vacancy, particularly considering the four domestic titles he won with current New Zealand captain Kane Williamson in their time together at Northern Districts. Bradburn’s Scotland contract is due to expire at the end of 2018, and this month’s fixtures against England, Pakistan, Ireland and Netherlands might well be his Scotland swansong.
“We can have as many excuses under the sun as we like: we don’t have a training venue, we don’t have the weather, but when we line up against England at The Grange, no one cares about that,” Bradburn says. “It’s just Scotland playing your opponent and you’re supposed to win and you’re expected to win.
“And that’s not a bad thing.”