Paul Nixon interview: Coded signals, coaching ambitions and using data to plot T20 success at Leicestershire

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Paul Nixon interview: Coded signals, coaching ambitions and using data to plot T20 success at Leicestershire - GETTY IMAGES
Paul Nixon interview: Coded signals, coaching ambitions and using data to plot T20 success at Leicestershire - GETTY IMAGES

In Twenty20 cricket, only one English head coach has triumphed in one of the four major overseas leagues - the Indian Premier League, the Pakistan Super League, the Caribbean Premier League and the Big Bash. That man is Paul Nixon, who twice lifted the CPL as Jamaica Tallawahs head coach.

Now, Nixon aims to bring similar success to Leicestershire. Or, more accurately, bring it back: when Nixon was a player, Leicestershire won the Vitality Blast in 2004, 2006 and 2011 and, as he points out, remain the only county to have won the competition three times.

“We're very proud of our heritage in T20 cricket,” Nixon says ahead of the start of this season’s Blast campaign. “It was nice to have an experienced team then and win. Now we’ve got new challenges of a younger team growing in confidence, growing in belief.”

One of the many ways in which T20 is challenging cricket’s traditional thinking lies in the role of the coach. In Test cricket, it was generally thought that, once play began, the coach could do relatively little - and, certainly, could not intervene during a session. But T20 is creating a new breed of interventionist coaches, embodied by Ricky Ponting, who won the IPL with Mumbai Indians and led Delhi Capitals to be runners-up last year.

“I get involved from the sidelines,” Ponting told Telegraph Sport. “If you can see a bowling change is about to happen, it’s not something that we've talked about or if we feel it’s the wrong match-up we'll try and influence where we can.”

Nixon fits happily within the Ponting school of T20 coaching. “We know roughly now what's happening on Thursday night, absolutely,” he says. “I work very closely with Colin Ackermann [Leicestershire’s captain] and Tom Smith, our bowling coach. You basically can plan before the game - A, B or C is going to happen.”

And while Ackermann is empowered to use his gut feel in the middle, like any captain, Nixon’s role does not finish when the game starts. He discusses the batting order with Ackermann during the game, and relays messages to batsmen at the crease. He even uses signals when Leicestershire are fielding, in a similar way to England.

“We've been doing it for years,” Nixon says, recalling that some signaling system was used as far back as Leicestershire’s Vitality Blast victory in 2011. Nixon uses “coloured cones” and “hand signals” to communicate with Ackermann during games.

Plotting how to improve upon last season’s campaign, when Leicestershire lost an agonising quarter-final to eventual champions Nottinghamshire on a tiebreaker after the scores finished level, Nixon has used the analyst Dan Weston to identify talent overlooked by clubs with bigger budgets.

For their overseas players, Leicestershire settled on Afghanistan’s Naveen-ul-Haq, a quick bowler whose style resembles Lasith Malinga, and Australia’s Josh Inglis - “one of the finest strikers of a cricket ball in world cricket,” Nixon enthuses. Last season, Ireland’s Gareth Delany performed well as an overseas player.

Leicestershire have spent recent weeks trying to get a greater understanding of their opponents, including analysing second XI games. They use this to try to understand players’ traits: for instance, the release shot for batsmen after a couple of dot balls, or how batsmen try to hit slower deliveries, which can influence the field set to them.

“Are they walking up the wicket? Are they giving themselves room? Are they going across, are they going back, are they going forward?” To Nixon, these answers matter because, under pressure, players tend to return to their favoured options.

“As a coach, you're trying to tell the story, you're trying to give the big picture of where we're going to be and how we're going to do it. And then it's up to the players then to to go on their journey and dominate games.”

But, as much as focusing on their rivals, Leicestershire have used data inwardly, to analyse how opponents target the team. Last season, opponents bowled a higher percentage of spin that turned away from right-handers to Leicestershire than any other country.

“So we had a heavy winter working on spin. We had special turning mats down. We had a lot of competitions throughout the winter on playing spin, trying to put our players under pressure.” There were, Nixon laughs, “a lot of forfeits”.

Nixon played 20 games for England in limited-overs cricket - AP
Nixon played 20 games for England in limited-overs cricket - AP

From his playing days with Leicestershire, when he was deployed as a floater to target spin bowling, Nixon has thought that a T20 batting line-up should be focused on roles, not fixed positions.

“After six overs I would go in and try to get the spinners down, regardless of wickets down really,” he explains. “I'm a big believer that people go in at a certain time - because of match-ups you roughly know who’s going to bowl from the opposition. And you want to try and be ahead of the game.”

Players specialising in one format of cricket is one of the game’s dominant trends. Increasingly, the same is also true of coaches. While Nixon is “loving the journey” with Leicestershire in all formats - they have defeated Middlesex and Gloucestershire in consecutive Championship games - it is in T20 that his pedigree is greatest.

Of all the coaches to have coached at least 30 matches in the IPL, BBL, PSL and CPL, none have won a higher percentage of games that Nixon’s 65.6% - though Nixon has only coached in 32 such fixtures, a relatively small sample.

Should Nixon maintain this impressive record, he could one day even be a contender to coach England in T20. Scant attention was played to Chris Silverwood’s T20 record with Essex - a mediocre 12 wins and 14 defeats - when elevating him to England head coach.

But with T20 World Cups to be played in 2021, 2022 and then every two years thereafter, it seems inevitable England will one day split the job of head coach, so no person has to lead the team across the three formats.

“I love T20 cricket - had great success as a player and as a coach so far,” Nixon says. “Obviously, every player and every coach wants to reach the highest they can reach. Is it the most fun to coach? You've got to control your heart rate as a coach, I know that.”