Ian Salisbury: ‘To coach players you need to show you care for them’

At around the midway point of a conversation that has ranged across the plains of love, loss, tragedy and belonging, Ian Salisbury finds his flow suddenly suspended by a wisp of magic from Adil Rashid. The leg-spinner is bowling achingly slowly for England on TV, and his brilliance has stopped Salisbury in his tracks. “What a bowler, by the way, Adil. Probably the world’s best at what he does.” There’s a pause, so as to watch the replay. “So good.” Another pause, the voice falling onto the black keys. “What a shame he’s only playing T20 and one-day cricket, rather than Test matches. But he will have his reasons. I love Rash.”

What follows is a mini-seminar on white-ball spin versus red-ball. “The big misconception,” he concludes, “is that if you’re bowling spin well in white-ball, you can’t bowl well in red-ball. If I ever felt out of nick in red-ball cricket, I used to find that the one-day stuff used to get me back in nick. Four-day cricket is pressure. You’ve got a slip in, men around the bat, you’re expected to take wickets but not go for runs. But in one-day cricket you can put the field out and go through all your variations, re-find your rhythm, and then take it back to four-day cricket.”

Salisbury retains a limitless affection for those fated to turn it off the straight. It’s his life’s work, after all; an enduring study borne of devotion to the form that would yield 15 Tests, 884 first-class wickets, a deeply embedded life in the game, and at times a whole heap of hassle.

As a leg-break bowler in the 1990s, Salisbury was briefly the muse of English cricket’s romantic poets. Christopher Martin-Jenkins, in particular, was an avowed admirer who saw only joy. When Salisbury made his Test debut at Lord’s in 1992, ripping a beautiful leg-break across Javed Miandad, he became the first specialist leg-spinner to take a Test wicket for England since 1968.

“It was not so much a feather in a new cap,” declared Scyld Berry in the Independent on Sunday, “as a head-dress to grace Hiawatha.” He took five in that match, though England would lose by two wickets; that summer only Courtney Walsh took more first-class wickets. Wisden made him one of their cricketers of the year, remarking presciently enough that he was blessed with the requisite mix of optimism and realism of the kind “demanded of one who plies such a precarious trade”.

He was 22, far too young to be bowling leg-spin for England, but doing it anyway. It couldn’t last.

English cricket was not an especially welcoming place back then. In early 1993 he was taken to India but as a net bowler, and still ended up playing in the first Test. He had a catch dropped off him by Mike Gatting at silly-point that still beggars belief. He struggled thereafter against Azhar and Sachin, which wasn’t especially surprising considering he’d never been to India before and had only started bowling spin six years earlier. (He had been a batsman initially, good enough to make a few runs for Northants stiffs.)

Soon enough, and with categorical wrongness, Salisbury would be held up as a kind of symbol of the culture’s limitations, when he should have been lauded for making it so far in the first place. It didn’t help his cause that Warne was coming through in the other camp, skewering everything. “At the time it was really hurtful,” he says. “All you’re trying to do is play the game you love and do the best you can for their country. But there were some very good cricketers who got persecuted. Hick, Ramprakash. Devon Malcolm. It’s softer now, there’s a bit more empathy. And it’s better for it.”

England would occasionally come calling over the next few years, but by then he had settled for a career in the shires, first at Sussex, where he made his name, then as part of a lethal spin partnership with Saqlain Mushtaq at Surrey, and finally to Warwickshire. Now, after stints as a specialist spin coach working with England Women and a revelatory time in charge of England’s Physical Disability team, he’s back where it all began, appointed as Sussex’s new head coach in a joint stewardship with James Kirtley.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool actually. Full circle obviously. Does fate play a part? I don’t know. Perhaps everything happens for a reason. Good and bad.”

In January of last year, six years after her first diagnosis, Salisbury’s wife Emma died of a brain tumour. “The first time I took my foot off the gas in five years was June [2019], and literally a month later she started feeling unwell again. Two months later they said a whole new tumour had grown in that short space of time.” He trails off.

There were over 350 people at her funeral, coming in from all over. “All the friends we’d made along the road.” They had first met 31 years ago, in the dining room at the county ground in Hove, and in recent months he’s been back, presenting a few awards in the very same room. “In a way it’s therapeutic, just to be able to talk about it.” Their daughter Anya, when she’s not at university, lives with him in London. “And we work through it.” Life, he says, is not boring in any capacity.

“We’ve all had our ups and downs, and our treatments and counselling for different things, and I’m no different. I’ve always had a handle on people with anxiety. I’ve had my own bouts of depression when I was younger, actually in the aftermath of Ben [Hollioake, the Surrey cricketer who died in a car crash in 2002 aged 24]. I’m no amateur psychologist, but I’ve learnt and read a lot. I know how to self-treat myself but I also know what my triggers are. It never hurts to ask people how they are. I’m big on looking after the person first and foremost, believing that the rest will follow.”

Is it possible to store up all that he’s experienced of psychological trauma and infuse it into his own coaching philosophy? “That’s very much a part of it. I think it’s an insult to think you can coach a team or a bunch of individuals without any knowledge of them. How can you ask them to do something without knowing anything about them? So just show that you care for them. Show a bit of empathy, it just helps. They don’t remember you teaching them how to bowl that ball or hit that shot. Do you help them in life to become a better person? That’s the job.”

It’s quite a departure from the environment he first came into. “Cricket back then, you couldn’t show vulnerability. If you were down, or seen to be down, you were seen to be mentally weak – rather than being seen as strong for being open to talking about that stuff. That’s stronger than hiding it. Thankfully we live in a different world now, but men are still the worst.”

Working in the women’s game, he says, was one of the best things he’s ever done. “Because women have such huge empathy, they’re just born with it. I hope there are more women who work in the male game going forward, I think it is an underused tool.” He adds that Sarah Taylor was working with the Sussex men’s wicketkeepers last summer and will do so again this year. “As much for her expertise, but we enjoy having her around the changing room. And she’s had her own issues.” Again, he says, it’s about empathy. “She knows what it’s like to carry anxiety around, to live with it, and still go out and perform and win World Cups.”

To the season then. He’s hopeful that the conference structure of the County Championship – with three seeded groups of six and a final round of games in September to determine the champion county – will help improve the spinner’s lot. “With the conference system there’s hopefully not the same urge for players to leave clubs, so you can invest in your academy and encourage the youngsters to come through. If you’re not worried about promotion or relegation, then you can bring young spinners through with confidence.”

He points to the fact that last season Sussex gave a debut to Jack Carson, their Irish-born off-spinner. “He was 19, and he was our highest wicket-taker, he got his first five-for at The Oval. We both had young spinners playing in the game [Surrey fielded Amar Virdi and Dan Moriarty]. Anything we create has to involve batsmen batting long and bowlers bowling lots of overs.”

He’ll also be working with Rashid Khan, who has re-signed with Sussex to play 20-over cricket. With the mention of his name, Salisbury is up again, describing how the Afghan phenom came about his unique style – how he grew up bowling to his older brothers in the back yard and finding after a while that he needed to be quicker through the air, developed a way of zipping it from the fingertips; how he spent years “getting the pace off, moving it a little bit each way and using all his skills, which are immense by the way”; how this sits in contrast to the conventional way of imparting side-spin, which he says acts as a kind of “brake-pad on the ball” – and how you shouldn’t try this at home. “If you try to get people to copy that, it won’t work! That’s where the genius comes in.”

As a leg-spinner, Salisbury has been around geniuses all his professional life. He used to be compared to one, as if genius can be aped. Salisbury was no genius but he was a damn fine bowler, in thrall to his art in a way that never grows old. Like many English spinners, he’s learned to root for the underdog. Like a handful of English men, he has learned to speak of the heart. He may just be the man for his time and place.