Tackling the Champions League

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Strang is looking to guide the Aces through the qualifiers and into the lucrative main draw of the Champions League

Domestic cricket in New Zealand got a whole lot more interesting when the Champions League T20 competition was launched four years ago. This tournament brings together the domestic T20 champions from the eight leading cricketing nations to decide which province is the world champion at this shortest form of the game.

In the first two years Otago and then Central Districts represented New Zealand but failed to win a game. Last year the organisers reduced the number of teams in the main draw but added a pre-tournament qualifier to determine which teams earned the final place in the main event. The Auckland Aces won the HRV Cup and with it the right to take part in the qualifier in India, but fell agonisingly short of advancing to the big time when they lost both their games off the last ball.

This October the competition takes place again, though this time in South Africa. The Aces, after repeating their HRV Cup winning feats, will again represent New Zealand. The  prize pool is $US 6 million, $US 2.5 million of which goes to the top side, so there is plenty of motivation for the players to succeed.

The Aces must win at least one of their first two qualifiers to break into the competition proper. That’s initially around six hours of cricket and for that they’ll have trained throughout the cold New Zealand winter (domestic cricketers in New Zealand are only contracted as professionals from October to April). Auckland Aces head coach, former Zimbabwean international, Paul Strang can see a few problems to overcome. He’s the coach after all and so he calls them ‘challenges’.

“It is a challenge  preparing a team out of winter,  having several overseas based players like Andre Adams and Azhar Mahmood, having our  Black Cap players just coming off a tour, and getting them all together with adequate time to prepare,” he says. Another challenge is that the Aces regularly jump amongst four-day, one-day and T20 matches. All the focus in the next six weeks will be the shortest version of the game, the three hour mad dash that is T20.

The Aces’ participation fee will bring the players onto the payroll for 6-weeks, starting around mid-August, and for the last two weeks of that they’ll train in South Africa for a build-up in local conditions. Despite the fee, Paul says the Aces do have to work with limited funds. “The challenge is to give our guys the best preparation,” he says. Paul is not daunted by his challenges. He says he mixes with coaches from a lot of other codes and he thinks many face and overcome similar problems trying to assemble a team. As for training for six months to win in the initial six hours, he points out that an Olympics athlete trains for four years for a lot less game time than that in the sudden-death heats.

Paul has worked his way up to the top cricket coaching job in Auckland, having progressed through the lower grades during the seven years he and his family have lived here. He’s used to pressure cricket, having played Test and One Day international cricket with distinction for Zimbabwe, most notably emerging as a star in the 1995-1996 World Cup in India when he was one of the tournament’s top wicket-takers. A few years later in a 2000-2001 test against New Zealand he took 8 for 109.

His aim, like that of all good coaches, is to foster a strong team culture and get the focus and confidence of players pointed in the right direction. Another of his challenges, he says, was to “get the grunt work done” over winter and then finesse skills when fitness and concentration levels have been raised.

The payoff for players climbing the rankings in the Champions League is big. Paul says, “It offers the players a road to wealth and fame and success.” It’s his job, he says, to prepare them as well as he and his staff can. “I get a real buzz seeing my players achieving things.”

“It’s all about planning; it’s all about sending the players off with confidence in their ability, which comes down to preparation.” The difference between fame and an early trip home can be fine. The Aces lost their qualifying matches last year, each on the final ball.

Paul’s immediate focus is on leading the Aces to success on the playing fields of South Africa. Longer term, he says he and his family feel that they fit well in New Zealand but with a small player base a professional cricket coach might ultimately tilt at the Black Caps role or receive an offer from another country. A good showing in the Champions League may well mean that both coach and players enhance their future in the game. There’s just the not-so-small matter of those two qualifiers standing in the way.


Thanks to New Zealand Coach magazine for reproduction of this article

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