Liam Cook: The Englishman coaching Brazil women’s cricket team
Liam Cook had only been in Brazil for a few hours when he realised interest in cricket might be greater than he first thought.
“I was sitting in a coffee shop and I spotted a Somerset cricket shirt coming down the road,” he says. “I was thinking: ‘There can’t be a Somerset shirt in Pocos de Caldas.’
“The guy nodded at me. He had ‘C Overton’ on the back of his shirt. I thought: ‘There you go, I’ve arrived from Devon and there is a name of a Devon lad on the back of a cricket shirt in Brazil.'”
Working with the Brazil women’s team would not have been high on the list of probable outcomes when Cook, a club cricketer, quit his job with an energy company at the age of 26 in a bid to forge a career as a coach.
The opportunity came from a street cricket tournament in London during the men’s 2019 World Cup. It is what led Cook, now 32 with experience of setting up his own coaching business and working with the Kent women’s set-up, to Brazil for the first time in February.
His first trip was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic, but he returned at the end of the UK summer. Although the rough idea is to divide time equally between his business at home and Brazil, plans to leave have been pushed back.
Cook’s only previous knowledge of Brazilian cricket was meeting Roberta Moretti Avery, the women’s captain, who asked for coaching sessions when she was on holiday in the UK.
“I knew Roberta was a good player, but I had no idea what the others would be like,” says Cook. “When I watched them play, I was very surprised. They were very raw. Their bowling actions were different and they all knew how to hit a ball a long way.
“They didn’t look perfect, but the game is moving away from what looks good to what is effective.”
Brazil’s women sit 27th in the world rankings – bar West Indies, they are the highest-placed team in the Americas.
In January 2019, 14 players were given central contracts by Cricket Brazil. They train in Pocos de Caldas, a small city 250km north of Sao Paulo, where the mayor is happy to invest in cricket and boasts that it has more players than football.
Some players are recruited because they have excelled in other sports. Others have been introduced to the game through projects in schools and community centres. It’s not just about the elite level, either, with children from all backgrounds being encouraged to play.
“Kids that might be off doing things they shouldn’t be are staying on after school to play cricket,” says Cook. “The more they get into that, the more opportunities they get to play, the less likely they are to take the wrong path.
“One of the boys, Derek, aged about 16 or 17, comes from a tough background. His parents have been in and out of prison and he tries to avoid school as much as possible.
“The only time he wants to go to school is if he knows he’s got cricket in the afternoon. He turned up to a game last weekend. In those three hours, he had something that really mattered to him.”
As for the Brazil national side, they are working towards the American section of qualifying for the 2022 Women’s T20 World Cup.
In doing so, they have been helped by South Africa legend Jonty Rhodes, who has been appointed as coach of the Sweden men’s team.
“He followed us on social media and commented on some of the posts,” explains Cook.
“I sent him a message saying that I’d been telling the girls about the importance of being the best fielders we can be. I asked if there was any chance we could have a Zoom call to talk about his experiences and his values as a fielder.
“He talked about playing for South Africa after their exclusion for apartheid – how they had nothing before them, because no-one in that team had done it before. They were able to do it their own way, with their own values, to be the best and fittest they could be.
“He related that to Brazil. We’ll go to the T20 qualifiers next year and no-one in our team will have done that before, so let’s do it our way and create our own culture.”
While Cook negotiates the barriers of coaching in Portuguese with the help of some translating from fellow coaches and players that can speak English, there is also the adjustment to life in Brazil. Pocos de Caldas does not attract many foreign tourists, so Cook can draw curiosity from the locals.
“I was having dinner in a restaurant and someone heard me speaking English,” he says. “He asked if I played football and invited me to some five-a-side with his friends. I got smashed left, right and centre – the football can be quite full on.
“Afterwards, it’s a social occasion – they have beers and a barbecue. They were asking about cricket. They had no idea, but then they knew what it was. If they then go on to tell people, it’s spreading the game.
“In Pocos, people are genuinely proud that the cricket centre is in the city. They say things like: ‘When we qualify for the World Cup, everyone will know about Pocos.’
“Local people see the good that is happening. If you were to walk around the city centre, you’re guaranteed to bump into a kid with a Warwickshire top or an Essex top because the Lord’s Taverners sent a shipping container full of equipment.”
Cook admits that the impression he had of Brazil – the sun, beaches and parties – sweetened the deal when he decided to take the plunge into the cricketing unknown.
Now, though, the dream of the carnival lifestyle has been overtaken by the desire to make Brazil’s mark on the global cricketing landscape.
“The real living the dream will be going to the T20 World Cup qualifiers next year, wearing our kit, putting everything we’ve worked on into action,” says Cook. “Hopefully we’ll surprise a few people.”
Brazil are the current South American champions, having won a tournament including Argentina, Chile, Peru and Mexico in 2019.
To advance they will have to overcome the might of the USA, but all nations on the fringe of the women’s elite have taken inspiration from Thailand, who rubbed shoulders with the best at this year’s T20 World Cup.
“The England and Australia players are so well known here,” Cook says. “The dream for our players would be to step on the pitch with Heather Knight or Meg Lanning.
“I want to help them achieve that. If we set that as our goal, that is a good place to start.”