Interview by Rvel Zahid
Bangladesh U19 team won the ICC Under-19 World Cup in February earlier this year. They edged out, the tournament favourites, India in a low-scoring intense final at Potchefstroom and their strength and conditioning coach Richard Stonier was Bangladesh's unsung hero as he worked tirelessly with the exuberant young guns to get the best out of them. The passionate coach is called 'Pagla' by the players which in Bengali translates into 'crazy'. He has got this title for his exceptional fitness habits and he instructs a tough exercise regimen for his apprentices as he aspires to make them elite athletes. Richard Stonier has certainly been a vital cog in Bangladesh's supporting staff and he played a big role in helping Bangladesh win their maiden U19 World Cup title - an incredible victory that inspired the entire nation.
How fulfilling was it for you to see the young guns of Bangladesh, after all the laborious work behind the scenes, clinch their maiden U19 World Cup title?
For me, it was the most satisfying and rewarding experience but the most important thing which I have said to a lot of people is that this is about the players, the people, the sacrifice that goes into it. And it all boiled down to the final. I said the night before the game, they were the best team in the world. I believed that from 12 months of working with them. They just had to go out and be fearless and selfless, play with high energy, high intensity, be aggressive, be smart and I was so proud of the boys of how they responded in the final because it was a difficult situation but I could see it in their eyes during that final; they were ready.
I believed they were going to win and I always said as long as you give a hundred and fifty per cent in everything you do, win or lose, you will always be a champion and that's all I can ask for. They just made me so proud. The boys did it for them, for their families and certainly, for the fans and the supporters across Bangladesh, we did it for the country and brought them together and give them a smile and that smile will live in our hearts forever and nobody can take that away from us.
Could you imagine if they had the access like England do with their training academy, South Africa do with the high-performance athletic centre and New Zealand, Lincoln University?
Bangladesh U19 players celebrate with the trophy after beating India ©Getty
It was a really intense final with emotions running high on both sides, which memories of that exhilarating final will stay with you for a very long time?
I think the entire day will stay with me for a long time. I was awake at 4:30 in the morning. I was at the ground before anybody. I did 12 laps at the ground to warm up with. We were set up, we were ready to go. If I was to distinguish a single memory, I think the attitude, the energy, the intensity that the boys in the field, with the ball, the way they looked, the sharpness, the quickness, the agility, I think that's a memory that will live on with me for a long time. I mean we have been a fantastic fielding unit all year but that day I thought we were extra special.
Nothing can take away the captain's innings, such a cool, calm, hard-working driven young boy and tactically he was the best captain (Akbar Ali) in the tournament. I think just the fact that because he went through a personal heart-ache during the tournament after losing his sister and to see him getting over the line and lift the trophy, I think that's a special moment that will live with him and me for a long time.
Hailing from England where there’s a well-developed cricket infrastructure, how was your experience of working in Pakistan domestic cricket and what sort of unique challenges you had to face?
I think one of the major things across the subcontinent is everybody needs to develop patience. Everybody expects results now! Unfortunately, they don't have the infrastructure and the facilities. They have produced some absolutely phenomenal talent and I got the pleasure to work with a lot of talented individuals but we don't have the resources and maybe it's not the same now - I mean the facilities, the equipment, the knowledge and the understanding to develop the cricketers even further. Could you imagine if they had the access like England do with their training academy, South Africa do with the high-performance athletic centre and New Zealand, Lincoln University?
Could you imagine if there were facilities like that in Pakistan or in Bangladesh or in subcontinent because the drive is there, the talent is there...For me, I am quite lucky, I don't need anything. I can still inspire boys with lack of resources and facilities. There is a big misconception; you don't have to be lifting heavy weights to bowl faster, to run quicker. You have to be cricket specifically trained. And that's the most important thing why a lot of my bowlers are not breaking down. It's not because of the workload or all the science or technology.
It's because we follow the principles of trying to keep them 'cricket fit' on the pitch and off the pitch. You know, replicating three-dimensional movement, lateral movements, the agility, the focus and that's making people cricket fit by incorporating these skills into their training. A fast bowler works right to left so you could do something with the right arm and the left leg, improving core development, flexibility is massive, mobility, to reduce the risk of injuries.
Injuries happen but also don't be scared to step outside the box as I call it. Sports science is a beautiful thing, I love science, I love reading. Also in the real world, we don't have access to all of that and sometimes you got to be creative, you got to be spontaneous, take the initiative and also, take a challenge or try something. What works for one person doesn't necessarily work for everybody. That's what I try to instil and say it to everybody, 'you have to find your own routine'.
Stonier posing with the U19 World Cup Trophy ©Richard Stonier
All 15 of my players in Bangladesh, the day before the final were training with me at some capacity during the day. Fast bowlers in the morning, a few batters at night, a few of the all-rounders later on. We did a pool and cold session, contrast bathing. That worked for them and they bought into that over the 12 months. That doesn't mean it works all the time but it makes them feel good. If it makes them feel good, ready for the next day, brilliant. Mahmudul Hasan Joy, scored a hundred in the semifinal, fantastic hundred. The day before the match, at 5:30, he is at the gym with me for half an hour, doing specific drills that make him feel good.
Virat Kohli is an inspiration and legend to our sport and he has changed training but what works for Virat might not work for 99 per cent of the other people but you can use what he does in your own routine. So if he gets up at 6 am and trains before practice, that's what he does. Why don't you try that? Maybe try it, if it doesn't work for you, try later in the day, your body reacts differently. But the most important thing is don't' be scared to take a risk or a challenge to make you feel better physically and mentally and that for me is the difference between being a professional cricket player or an elite athlete.
In all honesty, I love my job. I love everything about it and I love inspiring others to be better however big or small.
Did the similarities in the culture and domestic system in Pakistan and Bangladesh help you get accustomed to your new role with the U19 team?
For me, specifically with the Under-19 team, we were playing against England, Sri Lanka, India and everybody has got their own philosophy. My philosophy is like me. I mean I have been doing a live workout this morning on my Instagram page (@stonierstoney) and I am all for helping as many people as possible without financial gain. Subcontinent teams are [ahead] of the western world. I think that's clear to see, the under-19 World Cup final proved that. In terms of preparation, look who played in the two semi-finals and the final.
Sometimes people are scared of change and that's very very obvious to see but I think they need to realize that change sometimes is good. People are set in their ways. I think senior players across the world, a lot of them lead by example. Some of the players [in subcontinent] are above themselves and actually don't realize that a lot of the young guns that are coming through are now far superior and I think that's the important thing that if they are prepared to make a change now then I think a lot of countries have a bright future.
But for me, my experience in Pakistan was certainly an eye-opener and it taught me to be a little bit more patient...When I do my training, I train with the players and lead as a role model and example so one, they can look at my technique and posture and two, bounce off my energy and enthusiasm and three, that way, I know what it feels like when I am doing certain movements so the players and the boys I know what it feels like for them. And really, that's probably my unique selling point. That's why they call me Pagala in Bangladesh which is crazy man, bonkers and the high energy and the intensity that I instil.
For me, it's the nine words to follow. So the first three play with energy, passion and be focused. The other three words are regarding being an athlete is the prevention, your performance whether that's a match or practice and your recovery and then the most three important words are the intensity, your integrity and your intelligence. Nine words that I groomed and put it into the boys and explain why and it's something that I believe in.
Apparently, it felt like you worked out of your job description and went one step ahead in inspiring the players to think big and it's almost like you were their coach and mentor as well. Is this perception well-founded?
For me, the role of strength and conditioning coach, that isn't just my role. I'm like a friend, a brother, a best friend like you say, a mentor. I would say it's really more like an assisting coach role and you know without having certain credentials, I help with whether it's bowling or side-arming in the nets whether it's catching and fielding drills whether it's the stuff that we go off the pitch and talk about the psychological stuff, the nutritional stuff but that's my character, that's my personality.
If I feel there's an area where I can improve on, I am not going to sit back and not do stuff. I am very blessed obviously that the head coach loves for me to get involved. Some head coaches might not want that. They might just want us to focus on certain stuff but to me, I am their 12th man. I will go above and beyond if we are in a practice match, I will stand in the field with them, you know, because of being a player and ex-player myself. I never got to play at the professional standard so if I can do anything possible for them then I believe I am going to learn all the tools to prepare them a lot better as individuals both on and off the pitch. Yeah, I just love it. Sometimes it's tiring with all the training then going for the practice for three, four-five hours and then coming back and having to do gym sessions, training sessions, build sessions but I love it and in all honesty, I love my job. I love everything about it and I love inspiring others to be better however big or small. The most important thing is if people want to change their lifestyles, they have to find their own routine and If I can help along the way, brilliant.
How was the camaraderie among the players and what was the environment in the dressing room? Do you recall any particular incident that exemplifies a well-gelled unit?
Yeah, we had a great dressing room, great team ethics. Good team meeting room, we played games night before matches just to keep the morale up. The boys always had a smile on their face, you know little things like even joining in with the boys, playing a little bit of cricket in the dressing room or talking about superstars. We did quizzes and just different things to take the mind away from cricket at times. The boys love football, so we play football and futsal, tennis. I make up a lot of games as well. And practice time was fun because at the end of the day there is no 'I' in a team. There is an individual that gets to win it, potentially a couple of individuals that get to be the superstars or win that match, that day. We have instilled in them, if you are on 50, 60 make sure you go on and get a hundred, win the game. If you are on the field, that diving stop, that crucial catch whatever it might be and just reiterating the game plans, day in and day out. For me, I am like a coach, mentor, a teacher so to speak and I constantly remind them of their job. The skill-set is there, you are gonna develop as you get older, but you got to learn the other elements away from cricket that can make a huge impact.
Dressing room wise, we just have a lot of fun. I mean somebody found videos of me laughing and joking and acting in the dressing room and whatever, we have put them all together on YouTube I believe and that's what it's about; keeping a smile on the face and keeping the players relaxed.
As the world battles with the novel coronavirus outbreak and players are forced to stay indoors, would you like to suggest any specific exercises and routine that can easily be managed at home? Also, how are you personally coping with the COVID-19 crisis?
Yes, players are isolated and stuff like that but I am running for live workouts from my home per week on my Instagram page, people can see updates. Keeping people fit and healthy is important so they mentally feel a lot better during these difficult times. I have been helping a lot of people at the moment; NewYork, Sydney, France, Switzerland, Bangladesh obviously everybody joining in and everybody is welcomed, it's free of charge. A lot of players from Bangladesh have joined in both [online video coaching] sessions so far and absolutely loved it. Everybody's sticking together, this is a moment where we all come together.
There is a belief that fast bowlers are inherently injury-prone, do you agree with this belief and what in general can players do from your vantage point to keep the injuries at bay?
Regarding fast bowling, injuries happen. I am not going to stand here and say what I do is gonna prevent it because injuries happen. Unfortunately, it's difficult to say unless you are working within a team or an individual because obviously there is a lot of assessment that goes on, there is workload management and everything. So what I tend to do, I have some specific workouts on my youtube channel for bowlers, batters, speed sessions, sprint sessions, biomechanics and if they have done that before, fine, it just gives them the skills but you can't tell an individual where there are two hundred and fifty million people. I mean this is the stuff I get messages from people, 'I am fast bowler, how would you make me faster? I can't do that. I don't know the person. I don't know what his life is. I don't know what his body structure is so I will give things what I know, and if done correctly, it's gonna potentially help them. But the most important thing is that they are acquiring new skills and knowledge. However, one thing I have learned, too much knowledge is very very dangerous so simplify stuff. You got to put the hard work, 70 per cent is the mental, 30 per cent is physical but they still gotta want to do it. And the moment they actually start seeing the difference, they'll believe in the process but it takes time.
Are you interested in working in Pakistan with perhaps a PSL franchise in the future if an offer comes your way?
For me, I don't even know where the next few months are going. I don't know where I am gonna be. It's all about developing, developing myself, franchise cricket is a great world, it's great to be a part of, it's great to work with so many different people and it's a fantastic experience, you can't deny that but what will be will be. If people want me or people would like to work with me, then fantastic, great, I can talk to them. But it's a very ruthless world and people can change minds, change decisions anytime. I am grateful for the support network, I am grateful for what people come back and say to me, that means a lot and it does mean a lot. Unfortunately, in my world, I will only ever be classed as a trainer, fitness coach. I am just grateful for the likes of yourself, obviously, you saw something which was action beyond my job role goes and I think that's the important thing. I can say to anybody listen I can do this this and this and you know my primary role is obviously to work as a trainer. I am not a head coach, I am not an ex-superstar. I am not somebody whose face is recognized globally. I am very content and very happy and if people would like to work with me that's all that matters as for the future, I don't know what will happen and I certainly learned that over the bumpy ride over the last sort of 10 years. I come to realize okay what would be, would be and you got to enjoy the ride, enjoy the experience and let's see what happens.
What inspired you to take up a career in strength and conditioning and how did you develop an interest in cricket?
Going back in time, what inspired me originally was a 14-year-old lad that was made fun at school with my body shape, the way I looked, that was a start.
I have an interest in all forms of health and fitness, football, American football, yoga, swimming pool, circuit training, bodyweight training, TRX (also known as Total Resistance exercises), everything you can think about this, you try to learn and develop as a person. I am not just one dimensional. From a cricketing perspective, I started playing cricket at the age of six, represented the county, Staffordshire, for six years. Only recently stopped playing due to the fact that I have spent the last few years working overseas. It's been a long road where we are today and that's why the success at world cup meant a lot to me, my family and everyone else.