Mind matters from a modern cricket thinker

Review: Archie Henderson

The Barefoot Coach: Life-Changing Insights from Coaching the World’s Best Cricketers. By Paddy Upton (Self-published).

barefoot coachPaddy Upton worked with two of the best cricket teams in the world, South Africa and India. He was fitness trainer for the former and mental coach to the latter. Was it any wonder, then, that India won a World Cup and South Africa didn’t?

South Africa’s cricket team, the Proteas, one of the fittest teams in the world, are famous for having lost World Cups in their head as well as on the field. At the most recent World Cup, they lost on both, but that is another story. This is about an extraordinary man who delved deeper into sport than most, and discovered that motivating athletes was no different from doing the same with the athletes of business, a path he is now pursuing.

Upton, a pretty good cricketer himself, had ambitions of becoming a sports scientist, which was how he was recruited by Cricket SA in the first place. He worked with the team during Hansie Cronje’s era as captain, then abruptly left to broaden his horizons beyond sport. This entailed backpacking through Asia and joinning an NGO in Cape Town to work with homeless youths. It opened his eyes to life beyond cricket.

But cricket kept drawing him back and when his good friend Gary Kirsten, one of the four famous cricketing Kirsten brothers, persuaded him to join in the big adventure of attempting to climb the Everest of the game – the World Cup – it was difficult to refuse.

Upton is a modern thinker on sport, and cricket especially. When he and Kirsten joined up with India, it was a cricket team of great potential but – much like South Africa – had never quite delivered. Upton got to know every member of the team, their strengths and weaknesses. His identification of Gautam Gambhir’s weaknesses caused much controversy in India, but it helped the Indian opening batsman realise his potential.

Whether it was an ordinary talent or an extraordinary one, Upton appears to understand what makes athletes tick. Here is what he thought of Sachin Tendulkar, one of the greatest players of all times: confidence combined with humility. 

“Confidence and humility are different,” he says. But if you don’t have one, the other is more difficult to attain. “Humility without confidence tends towards insecurity, and confidence without humility tends towards arrogance. Humility and confidence should ideally exist in equal parts, and in abundance.”

Tendulkar had both, but Gambhir, sadly, suffered terribly from insecurity. A run-of-the-mill coach would not have been able to identify this in a player, so Kirsten, as the Indian coach, was lucky to have Upton alongside. It helped take India to the World Cup triumph in 2015, an achievement for which both men are still revered in that country.

Readers who love sport, and especially cricket, will find many endearing traits in Upton. For me it was his admiration for the late Hylton Ackerman, a player and coach of renown with Western Province and Northamptonshire. 

A teenage prodigy at Dale College, Ackerman made his first-class debut at the age of 16 and would have been a fine test cricketer had it not been for apartheid isolation. He was also one of the original deep thinkers of the game, although he often hid it behind a lighthearted exterior. Upton called Ackerman “one of the best cricket brains I’ve ever had the privilege of working with”. Yep. Many of us would agree.


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