Indoor Cricket: Retiring Australia coach Ross Gregory speaks exclusively to RealSport
The recently retired seven-time World Cup winning Australian Men’s Indoor Cricket coach talks to Ahmad Khawaja about his career and the indoor cricket environment.
I stood in the hallowed halls of the Cricket Victoria offices, just next to their counterparts at Cricket Australia, and only a short stroll to the famous Melbourne Cricket Ground.
Sitting across the table from me was Ross Gregory. Put simply, his achievements in a sport not known to the mainstream will always come as underrated. Affectionately known as ‘seven-time’ by his colleagues, his 25-year coaching career culminated in a seventh straight World Cup victory by the Australian Men’s Indoor Cricket side at the World Cup in Dubai last year.
He started his career by playing and captaining the Victorian Men’s side through the 1980s before turning his hand to coaching the same side in the mid to late 1990s, leading them towards a State Championship along the way. In 2001, he took up the role of Australian Men’s coach. Gregory expected it to last four years, but he was there for 16. Alongside seven World Cups, he developed Australia’s domination of World Indoor Cricket during that time and a culture of team-first, discipline and professionalism, something impeccable for an amateur sport that relies on players and coaches to pay their own way.
Australia’s win over New Zealand in the final was a fitting end for someone who has given so much to a sport that has lived in the shadow of its older and much bigger brother since its inception. He has received nothing back other than the memories of an impressive playing and coaching career, filled with the hundreds of people who have had the privilege to work with him.
He continues his work in the sport as in the indoor cricket manager for Cricket Victoria, based in Melbourne, Australia. He remains, as ever, a very astute observer of the game, and a pragmatic teacher. With the dust settled, Gregory opened up about his impressive career and indoor cricket.
RealSport: What is it about indoor cricket that has made you so passionate and so involved over such a long period of time?
Ross Gregory: For me it started in the mid to late-1970s (indoor cricket was introduced in the early 1970s). My brother and his mates were short a player for a game and asked me if I want to fill in. My first question to them was, ‘what’s indoor cricket?!’
I instantly fell in love with it. I also found myself being pretty good at it, because I was an outdoor cricketer to begin with, an all-rounder.
It’s a game that suits everyone; everyone gets a crack. You are as good as your worst player and everyone supports each other in that respect. No one is as good as anyone else in the sense that not just one person bats or bowls all day. Then at the end of it, you have a beer and a laugh. That makes for a great community-type environment.
And it’s just the essence of the game. I was walking by the nets one time at the centre I owned (in Knox, Victoria) and there was a ‘D’ grade game being played. The guy bowling threw this hand grenade (sub-par delivery, easily hittable) to the batsman who wasn’t that great himself. He bunted the ball to the cover fielder for what was an easy catch. The guy juggles it and finally catches it. And for that one moment that guy was a hero. His teammates were patting him on the back and getting behind him, and he wasn’t a sporting person. It shows, that in indoor cricket, you can be that average joe person with not a lot of sporting ability and still be a hero for a minute. It really is a great game.
RS: What was your pathway through the sport?
RG: After I took it up, I took part in inter-centre competitions (competitive league cricket between indoor sports centres in each state across Australia) and were making the senior sides at the club. That was in the late 1970s/early 1980s. And then I found myself making the Victorian State team. I was a mix – batting left-handed and bowling right-arm and was fielding at cover. I preferred it there – you knew the ball was coming to you and would expect it to happen every time.
From 1984 onwards, I was captaining the team which was a real honour. I played until the early 1990s when I retired; I was getting older and these younger guys were a lot faster! From 1993 onwards I made my way into coaching.
I loved everything about it so much that I then bought into a centre. I originally managed Waverley (in Victoria), setting up the Waverley Chiefs, which then became the Knox Chiefs (he was one of the first to implement coloured and matching team uniforms for teams, which are now commonplace for competitive indoor cricket leagues).
RS: I recall watching the 1984 Australian State Championships Final on YouTube the other day prior to talking to you, and you came up against two young future Australian cricket brothers in Mark and Steve Waugh, who were playing for New South Wales?
RG: Yes, I recall that (smiles). They were both only 18 at the time and very talented (and superb players in their own right; Mark playing for the Australian Men’s Indoor team before they ascended with their outdoor honours.).
New South Wales beat Victoria in the round-robin and semi-final matches comfortably; we couldn’t get within 30 runs of them. And back in those days, the indoor ball was a tennis ball with a proper leather casing around it; a plastic casing in a leather cup. Therefore, when hit it would go dead off the bat. You couldn’t play what you would call a basic down upshot these days (hitting the ball into the ground and over the fielders). You couldn’t hit it over the fielders because it came so soft off the bat. The scores were, therefore, a lot lower.
But on that day, we finally got the better of them in a low-scoring match and won the State Championship.
Then and now
RS: What do you think have been the main changes since you played and coached compared to now?
RG: The main change, and as I was mentioning just before, was the ball. And I don’t know if that is for the better. In 1989 there was an operational change. The operators (being the owners of the indoor sports centres) decided to use a modified cricket ball – having the traditional harder leather on its outer. The change was generated from the fact that the previous indoor cricket balls would last four to five matches before having to be discarded. The ones that are used these days can last anywhere between 10-15 matches per use of ball. It came down to the bottom line.
The rules are also a lot better now. Blocking strategies (whereby fielders would intentionally obscure the view and direction of the batsman at the non-striker’s end) has been umpired out of the game. Victoria used to cause issues with the way they went about it, setting up fields in advance to be in the way of the batsman’s running line. So overall, the direction has moved for the better.
RS: Do you think the change in the material of the ball has detracted from the sport’s quality for attracting spectators?
RG: For a spectator, it is boring. One team hits the ball over the fielders easily playing a down up, because the ball bounces a lot higher. That’s great for the teams who are batting, as they can amass high scores more readily, but boring for the spectators to watch.
You would make the game a lot more exciting if you could take the down up out of the game. If the ball is hit and kept below head height, this keeps the fielders in the game every ball. Scores will be between 50-60 runs each innings, not 100-120. A near miss, a run out, a catch would be a more frequent occurrence, creating excitement. Not only that, it becomes tough for batting.
The key aim for operators is to bring it back to being a spectator sport. Back in my time, you would find hundreds of people turning up for matches. I was playing against Gary Cosier once; former Australian test cricketer in a Victorian league match. We scored 24 runs all up and restricted them to just five runs! And not one person left their seat.
The odds were against you back then because of the softer ball, but it was always possible to win a match. The spectators came in the 80s, and after the hard ball came in, the crowds dwindled.
RS: How do you think team strategies have evolved in recent times?
RG: The tactics used have changed. For example, moving batting positions and batting partners around. It used to be that the openers faced the quick bowlers. But now the thought is why would you do that? Wait for the weaker batsmen and bring on your best bowlers then (to maximise your chances of getting a wicket).
Skins were also introduced in the 90s (whereby each batting partnership is worth one point in each match, separate to points for winning a match). There is a lot of pressure there for a captain. I have never played in a such a game where you go backwards while out there! And I used to bat last regularly.
Coaching strategies have changed as well. Bowling always used to be delivering it at the hip of the batsman, because as an outdoor cricketer, playing off the hip was always difficult unless you were good square of the wicket. And the nets are an obstacle. But then batsmen starting developing the front foot pull shot, where you would slap it down straight into the surface, to make it bounce above the fielders; pretty much like a leg-side down up. So, in the 2000s we started trying to vary our approach to bowling. A full and wide delivery on the third ball (which you must score off and run on to avoid losing a wicket) became a hard ball to hit safely. So, for every attacking move you make, there is another to counteract it. Some teams are very slow on it, like New Zealand. We have been playing the same game for years; they should have picked up on that by now. But there haven’t been too many sides that have put us in that position. I have been waiting for it, but it has never happened.
RS: How did you get into coaching and how do you reflect on your time now you have retired?
RG: I played through the 80s and by the time it got to the early 90s, I felt the next natural step was to coach.
In 1993 I took over the Victorian Men’s team (1993-97) and created a model of success. We made two grand finals, winning one State Championship. I left the Victorian side in 1997 and set my sights on the Australian position. I was recommended for the role and started in 2001.
I thought to myself, this will be a good four-year stint. And 16 years and seven world cups later, I had retired! I took over a side I made some dramatic changes with in the beginning.
RS: Why and what sorts of changes were these?
RG: Well, there was a drinking culture within the Australian team. I’m not a big drinker myself. A smoking culture I could tolerate; a drinking one most definitely not.
I found it hard to tell players they would not play in a grand final. To see people not putting themselves in for the team, not contributing to team goals, or upsetting the team balance, or anything wrong for the team (was not right). Abusing yourself, (to me), is just as bad as abusing the team. Drinking at midnight or 3am the day before a match, not giving yourself the best opportunity; I couldn’t tolerate it. You let yourself down and you let your mates down. So, originally, I installed a curfew, for grown men. 11.30pm you have to be in the rooms. If I caught someone drinking, then I would butcher the team in front of them.
I’ve done many strange things. Once we were at a tournament in Sri Lanka. Two guys had been caught out drinking. So, I made those guys sit in a chair. Put drinks around them. And then made them sit and watch as I ran the rest of the team into the ground until they vomited. They were very upset I did that to the team and not them. But they had done the same thing. They drank (when they were not supposed to); they abused team rules, my rules, and lessened the team’s chances of winning, as I would have played them (in the next match). They were not fit and ready for the game. and therefore, not at their best. They had abused the team like I did. And I said to them after, ‘you see what I did to the team, next time what I would do to you would be much worse!’
RS: So, there was a shift in the team culture, eventually?
RG: Yes, it took a few years to develop. The senior players helped to form and develop the culture.
Now it’s the first night, have a drink. Then next day, job on. It is a very professional outfit and approach to the game. For example, all teams had a day off in Dubai (during the World Cup) last year and I told the team we are training. And all the guys said okay. No one said anything. Everyone else was off sightseeing. And here we were, sitting atop the ladder, and they trained. Whatever is required to be done, they will do it. They are a very professional unit. I’m glad that I retired, leaving the Australian team in a much better place than I found it. The guys in the team are absolutely outstanding. Nothing is too hard for them to do.
RS: How hard of a taskmaster have you been?
RG: Oh, I’ve done some nasty things! Once I dropped all the players in the team for the final, for a World Cup final, except for the captain.
I think it was the World Cup in England. I took every player aside individually and dropped each one. I had a bin outside my door, and it received several kicks. I told them all before the team meeting so it wasn’t a surprise. The whole team was very upset.
RS: Why did you drop them?
RG: The reason was that you had learned something about yourself. You learned about how much it meant playing in a team. You don’t appreciate how much it means to you until it is taken away. So now you had been given an opportunity to realise something about yourself; how important to you it was to be part of the team. And how hard it is to be sitting on a bench. But I like doing things like that.
RS: Obviously there aren’t a heap of team trainings, given everyone has to pay their own way, and with time constraints. So, do you expect as a coach for them to be fit and motivated before coming together in camp with such little time together?
RG: They need to be fairly fit before a training camp, as we run them hard early on. You expect the players to be self-motivating to see where they were at and therefore we’re expecting them to have a sufficient level of fitness before they came together. That would mean doing the work at their local centres.
A guy like Vinesh Bennett (recently retired Australian Men’s player) who is 41, started at a lower level; now he is elite. And he doesn’t realise how good he is. The time he has put in to his body, skills, and training. He will be sorely missed. He doesn’t realise how far he has come. He is a true professional indoor cricketer, he just doesn’t get paid.
Australian domination and World Cup success
RS: Do you find it incredible, about just how dominant Australia has been in this sport? The Men’s and Women’s teams have never lost a World Cup. You took the Men’s to seven straight. And even the Boy’s and Girl’s Under-22s are carrying on in the same way. From where I was watching, there was still a massive gulf between Australia and the other teams competing.
RG: Our main rivals have been New Zealand, and we certainly expected more from them in Dubai last year. It was quite closer in the early days – one tactic and one player would make the difference. (But) over the more recent World Cups, our professionalism on and off the court has made the difference. These are the best teams we have ever put on the court and that’s why Australia is in such great shape at the moment. The older guys are getting to a stage where they will not play the next World Cup, so you look at the younger generation. The Floros brothers and the like will be around for a long time, to take it to the next level. And they are more than capable of doing so.
Sri Lanka have come up with some very, very quick bowlers. They have some very good players there. They pushed us very hard when the World Cup was held in Sri Lanka (in 2004).
For some teams, generally, I would always find it incredible when I saw them arrive for a tournament, and then start drinking. Everyone is paying to be there and not getting paid anything. So not only were they wasting money on alcohol, they were wasting the money they spent to get there.
In fairness to indoor cricket, and I can say this since I’ve now retired, but it would be good for world indoor cricket if Australia lost. They need to be beaten. I don’t want to see anyone I have coached be beaten or anything but, I can understand it being better for world indoor cricket, if the love would be shared around a bit.
RS: When you look back on all your achievements in the game, how does it make you feel?
RG: As you know, in indoor cricket you have to pay your own way. And someone once asked me how much I would have spent on indoor over all these years. I said to them; I pretty much could’ve bought a house!
But then they ask would you change anything? And my answer was no. For all the ups and downs and everything in between, I wouldn’t. I’ve had to make sacrifices, missing my daughter’s birthday most years because I was travelling interstate, which has been all part of it. It has been tough.
But I wouldn’t change it though and I have enjoyed the ride.
RS: Who are the best indoor cricket players you have seen play?
RG: I will say Jay Otto and Vinesh Bennett (Australian Men’s players).
Vinesh came up to me at the end of a national tournament once and said, what do I need to do to make the Australian side? I said to him; ‘are you Australian mate?’ He said ‘nah, New Zealand passport. So, I said ‘the first thing you need to do is get an Australian passport!’
And he bowled everything. I told him once, Vinesh; you are the jack of all trades, but master of none. You can bowl all deliveries known to man, but you are good at none of them. And in typical Vinesh fashion, he went back, and worked on this and this and this, and the same with his batting and fielding. He didn’t even make the next Australian team; great players like him worked on their games and spent times on the bench before they played in the eight. They didn’t earn their place on the starting team straight away. A really nice guy.
Jay was naturally gifted. Good bowler, batter, fielder. Had all the skills there and could bring them out in himself. He retired and then came back, playing at the World Cup last year. He is a legend of the game. His brother Corey was one of the fastest indoor bowlers I have seen as well (if you don’t believe him YouTube the clip from the 2002 World Cup where he knocks a poor New Zealand TV reporter in the head with a bouncer).
RS: Where is Cricket Australia Indoor heading? And where does your position as Cricket Victoria Indoor Cricket Manager fit in?
RG: My role is to oversee initiatives for indoor cricket in Victoria. Look after participation numbers.
As far as Victoria goes, we have to tell our story better, get our story out there, make people believe in our game and in our product. The issue is we don’t have control over it. For the (indoor sports) operators, it’s a business to them. If indoor cricket doesn’t make money, there is no point in promoting it. We have to push it at super league (inter-club) level, state level, and get it to the general public. The marketing is lacking, and that has generally been an issue.
Indoor cricket survives off the back of outdoor cricket so it is the key that outdoor cricket is marketed well. But I genuinely believe if you give it two or three years with the soft ball, the crowds will come.
RS: What direction is the Sport heading in? It’s an amateur sport that is pay-to-play, with little return for the players, so resources and funding I believe will always be an issue.
RG: At a National level, if every country could get associated with their outdoor counterparts, they will find different opportunities and resources will come to them. Not necessarily seeing all those resources coming to them, but different things will come to them at some point. And once they do that, and it is recognised by the ICC, then you are on the road to success.
If indoor cricket in Australia (known as Cricket Australia Indoor) wasn’t a part of Cricket Australia, then you wouldn’t be going anywhere; you would just be treading water. It means there is still a road to go down. If you aren’t going down that road, you are going nowhere.
Those countries need their cricketing boards on board. Get a connection with the ICC, then get some decent coaches, and officials, educate them and then they can start to become competitive. Imagine the promotion of the sport if one of these other countries won. Like India for example, that would be huge! If Australia lost, it would be good for them in the long run. I was just not prepared to have that happen on my watch!
RS: What do you look for in a good indoor player?
RG: For a start, I look for a batsman that can bowl and field. Unless you are an outstanding bowler that can bat a bit, you need to be able to hold a bat.
Secondly, you have to fit into (my) idea of a team. That means you will do whatever it takes, to do your utmost best for your mate. You will support your mate and help him out in whatever way you can. You will sacrifice your game to help his game.
That also means you work on your game; you look after yourself, don’t drink, etc. That means if you miss a catch, if you get out; you will get a pat on the back, because you are doing your utmost best for everyone else. If you have one person who doesn’t fit in the team, you have a problem. So, it’s the make-up of the person, their essence, (everything) more than even their skills, that matters.
RS: Where does the World Indoor Cricket Federation (WICF) fit in to the overall scheme of things?
RG: The aim is to form a relationship with the International Cricket Council (ICC) and eventually dissolve themselves to become a wing under the ICC. This would require a relinquishing of control to the ICC to do what is best for the game, which can then govern the game appropriately and provide support and resources to develop the game.
RS: What is your most memorable moment?
RG: There are lots, but a couple of things stick in my mind. We were in New Zealand, playing in Christchurch actually. And seeing Lyle (Teske; current Australian Men’s Captain), Lance (McDougall; former Australian Men’s player) and Vinesh eventually coming off the bench, batting the way I knew they could, playing the way I knew they could. I thought to myself ‘welcome to the stage, welcome to the start of your career.’
The wins stick in your memory, (but) I like to sit back and look at things, the faces on different players and what it means to them. Sometimes you take winning for granted, and it’s good to see many people don’t. Seeing bench players I know will be great eventually hitting their straps, and when they win or achieve what they set out to.
It’s also inspiring to see the bench players excited when the team wins, because they are included; they worked just as hard to get the team there as well; some players being used for the purpose of being a workhorse (for example). But seeing the look on the players faces (was most memorable).
RS: What do you attribute your success to?
RG: Having the right people around me. Coaching is simple – you just make sure the players are doing the right things and you laugh! I can see weaknesses and formulate plans, but they still have to be the ones to execute them. They work for one another and never let each other down. As I’ve said, the consequences are harsh if they go outside those rules. The culture now developed has been great; there is no elitism.