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The secret coach who revived Alastair Cook’s career

In the spring of 2015, Alastair Cook’s England future looked bleak.

It was almost two years since his last Test match hundred, and he had been axed as ODI captain just months before the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. To make matters worse, Head Coach Peter Moores had just been sacked, and there were whispers of a big overhaul within the national set-up.

But in a ‘batting lab’ near Oxford, Cook found redemption. Then-England batting coach Graham Gooch had been contacted by a former Somerset player named Gary Palmer, who had contacted him in the belief that he had the ability to correct a few technical faults in Cook’s game.

The move instantly paid dividends. After just a month with Palmer, Cook hit 162 in the first Test of the English summer, and played with an elegance and fluency that was almost unprecedented in his Test career.

Last week, Palmer agreed to a rare interview with Cherwell, and I presented him with some statistics about Cook’s Test record before and after working with him.

Indeed, the numbers are pretty clear that Palmer’s work with Cook when facing seamers has been extremely successful: before summer 2015, the Essex batsman averaged 40 against pace bowling, but since then has averaged 59.

“He used to be reasonably sideways-on when he batted,” Palmer commented, “but he now looks a lot more open. He holds the shape of his shots more, and technically, he’s more aware of trying to get into good shapes every time he hits the ball.

“He sets himself a really high standard, and generally, he’s a really easy guy to work with: very open-minded, very humble.

“It really is an honour and a privilege to work with Cook: he is a legend of the game.”

Whilst he may be Palmer’s highest-profile client, Cook is by no means the only top player that the 51-year-old has worked with. Indeed, the ex-England trio of Ian Bell, Michael Carberry and Nick Compton have all spent time at the Palmer Batting Lab, and Pakistan opener Shan Masood recently used him to get his career back on track.

There are other names that have been rumoured to have worked with him, but he is watertight in maintaining their anonymity, so declined to say who they were.

And yet despite his success, Palmer remains outside of the cricketing mainstream. Whilst his methods are simple and effective, he is something of an innovator in his reluctance to stick to classical, by-the-book methods.

Indeed, the ECB remain set on hiring former internationals to form part of their extensive coaching staff: they have never openly contacted the man who sorted the nation’s all-time leading run-scorer’s form out in a matter of months.

“You can understand why they hire ex-England players,” Palmer says. “They have a wealth of knowledge which is complemented by their experience of playing at the highest level of the game.”

But that is not to say that it is only the top players who can be elite-level coaches: “coaching technique is an art form in itself—you need years and years of experience to really know your trade,” he adds.

“I’m coaching the same methods that most of the best players in the world are using, but what they’re doing is not quite the same as what is in a lot of the manuals that you see out there, which makes it awkward for me in a lot of ways,” Palmer continues.

In 2015, ESPNCricinfo’s George Dobell suggested that Palmer “has often […] been dismissed as something of a maverick,” due to his hands-on approach and innovative methods.

But in reality, Palmer coaches the basics, and focuses on hitting the ball straight to the highest technical standards. He does use inventive techniques and grooving systems to construct, repair, enhance and challenge his clients’ movements, but ultimately his message is clear and simple.

“The stuff I coach works. It’s successful. There are a few subtle things that I do—[alter] back foot position prior to hitting the ball, being a bit more open—that aren’t in the textbook, but technique has now moved forward as the game has.”

Why, then, are more coaches not adapting? Surely, if Palmer’s methods were as good as he suggests, the cricketing mainstream would quickly be following him?

He disagrees. “If suddenly someone comes along and goes ‘well actually, I don’t think you should be that sideways on, you should be more open’, it’s quite a big, bold statement,” Palmer told Cherwell.

“But, you know, it’s difficult to change people’s mindsets if something’s been done the same way for donkeys’ years, and great players over the years have said ‘this is how you do it’.

“I’m not high-profile enough to have the input that they would have on changing something,” he says, evidently frustrated at the fact he remains on the periphery.

And yet despite this view of him, Palmer’s coaching appears to be intense, but not completely revolutionary. His website provides a clear outline as to how he wants batsmen to play, and emphasises the importance of a strong technique to be able to hit straight back down the ground in the ‘V’ between mid-on and mid-off.

There is not a massive difference in the way he coaches depending on his clients, be they young cricketers who have been gifted a session by their parents or Test players: he wants players to build up a muscle memory and enhance their concentration by simply hitting a lot of balls well over the course of a session.

It is an uncomplicated message, and one that has clearly been effective for his clients.

However, there are difficulties in working in his environment. Palmer doesn’t get the luxury of being with players on a day-to-day basis, and has to make a positive and noticeable difference to a batsman’s skill levels within any given two-three hour session.

“It is all about attention to detail,” he says, “and striving for perfection as regularly as you can.

“Once a technique has been coached, it needs to be serviced and challenged on a regular basis to maintain it. This leads to consistent positive performances.”

Therefore, it is not out of the question that there could be a path for Palmer into the ECB set-up. He says he would “love to be involved” with the national team in some way, shape or form as a specialist consultant, so that he could share his ideas with players and coaches.

Last year, England assistant coach Paul Farbrace invited him to a practice day on the eve of a Test Match at the Oval, and he remains in regular contact with certain coaches involved in the national set-up. The opportunity to work with top batsmen every day is one that he believes he would grasp with both hands.

When asked about the short duration of a lot of his sessions, Palmer comments that it means “I’ve got to make a difference here and now.” This seems like an apt way to demonstrate his drive. Without a moment of doubt, it is in the interests of the game for Gary Palmer to enjoy a bountiful and successful future.

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