The future may just be the start for Gareth Berg

NICK HOWSON: The Northamptonshire allrounder and new Italy head coach is approaching what he believes could be the most satisfying period of his association with cricket


Northamptonshire allrounder Gareth Berg named as Italy head coach

The saying goes that you are a long time retired, that life beyond the bright lights of competition is a concept barely worth thinking about.

Gareth Berg is preparing to prove the adage that life very much begins at 40. He has enjoyed a fine career across multiple decades but there is a feeling it has all been building to this moment.

The Cape Town native has not had what could be described as a normal route to the top.

Berg had the perfect grounding, coming through the same Western Province academy which produced Jacques Kallis, Gary Kirsten, Jonathan Trott, JP Duminy and Ryan ten Doeschate. But it took until he'd spent more than 10 years on the scene - centrally for Northamptonshire Second XI playing at venues such as Campbell Park and Hare Field - for him to win first-class recognition.

No sooner had Berg become an established figure after doing the hard yards did he have to start all over again.

The year 2014 was very much his nadir. Berg played one County Championship match in his seventh season at Middlesex, a shoulder infection needed seven surgeries in the space of two months and his contract at Lord's was cancelled with 12 months still to run.

"I've played half of my career after being told I wouldn't have one anymore," he told The Cricketer. "It depends on what is burning inside of you. If it means that much to you there is no reason why you can't push for it."

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A successful spell with Hampshire which included a Finals Day appearance in the T20 Blast and winner's and runners-up medals in the One-Day Cup acted as the reward for his perseverance, before a return to Northamptonshire where he is no longer just making up the numbers.

For players whose careers are at a crossroads after an uncertain season, Berg - who could bring up 300 appearances across formats this year - acts as evidence that even the greatest of hurdles can be overcome.

"It took me 10 years to become a professional cricketer," he explained. "It wasn't top of my list, but it was something that I wanted. There were other things I needed to do to survive at the time.

"Certainly, the resilience and drive to make it, people who have fallen out of the game now if it is something they want to pursue still and have the passion to be a professional for a longer period there is no need to give it up."

Understandably after having a lifelong dream constantly dangled in front of him, only to be taken away, Berg has noticed a significant change in his character and temperament.

"It definitely helped strengthen everything in my life," Berg admitted. "The determination to get back into the game, the feeling that it was not the end of me pushed me harder.

"I was resigned after a few months that I wasn't going to get another crack at this. It shaped me going forward. The transition I am trying to make at the moment is all built on those bad times that I had in 2014.

"I became more of a die-hard in the sense that you don't get if you don't ask, if you don't ask you don't get. From that time onwards I pushed harder for people to give me answers which has stood me in good stead now in the business world.


Gareth Berg had to wait until aged 28 to make his first class debut

"If I just lay back and just let people take me for a ride that would be the old me, but not anymore.

"I wouldn't say I am an ugly version of myself anymore. It is more about having the determination and will to push hard for things. Not accepting a 'no' really and a way that things can work for both parties in any form of relationships."

With ample experience of what the end feels like, it comes as little surprise that Berg anticipates 2021 could be his last in the pro ranks. A tailored white-ball deal is possible beyond this year, but it remains to be seen what is realistic in the current climate.

Normally, this is the point in the interview where an imminently departing sportsperson utters the cliche of retiring without regret. However, should Berg take his leave with his run since his last senior-level century, dating back to 2011, extended there is little doubt he will be a tinge rueful.

Berg's two hundreds in 2010 and 2011 are sandwiched by four scores in the 90s. Since his last ton against Leicestershire at Grace Road he has twice finished on 99, run out by Sussex's Matt Hobden in 2015 and then left stranded one short of the landmark against Yorkshire two years later. Set against 450 wickets is a return of two centuries and 37 fifties.

"I've had a couple of close shaves along the way. I'm going to play a bit more freedom this year, which should hopefully stand the club in good stead."

Only when Berg finally hangs up his bowling boots and batting helmet for the final time will he be able to pursue his real passion on an exclusive basis. While hunger and talent have inspired his playing career, pure infatuation will fuel the next step.

Ever since his teenage years, Berg has experienced a buzz for coaching which his playing days have never rivalled. From obtaining his Level Three certificate, working at Ryan Maron Cricket School of Excellence with Jonty Rhodes, running Chance to Shine out of seven Hertfordshire schools or working alongside Martin Bicknell at Charterhouse, a desire to help others has run through his entire adult life.

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Amid a playing career dogged by undulations, nurturing others has been Berg's sanctuary.

"I've always enjoyed success in my peers and I've always found that happens a lot in coaching," said the head of Gareth Berg Coaching. "I've had a lot of time in the coaching side of things where I've seen kids progress in school or club cricket and enjoyed that progression. That satisfies me. I like to see kids getting better at the game and moving on into the next phase. That's rewarding.

"I've had some amazing highlights in my [playing career] but the ultimate is seeing kids get involved with the games, taking it as far as they can and enjoying it."

After years of bouncing around the coaching circuit, Berg will have a constant in the form of the head coach position of the Italy national team. Once again, this is far from a case of Berg landing on his feet, having made 20 outings for the country between 2012 and 2019. This is not the start of a new chapter, just the continuation of an old one.

Such a position is no longer the ambitionless role it once was. Italy currently earn a share of $160 million in grants from the ICC, have a T20 ranking (27th) and play in official internationals every time they step onto the field in a 20-over game. (Long-winded) qualification pathways to World Cups have opened. Tournaments like the European Cricket League and Cricket Championship (which takes place for the first time in September and October) give players semi-regular exposure to high-level competition like never before.

What was probably a thankless task when Berg was turning out for his Azzuri debut in Dubai almost nine years ago, now provides an opportunity for growth. The national federation, led by President Fabio Marabini, are fully on board too with plans afoot to develop 20 grounds and build a national hub with indoor and outdoor facilities, afoot. Soon, Christian Vieri yearning for attention will not be a story.

Typically for a man who does not do half measures, this isn't just a case of turning delivery drivers and labourers into fully formed international cricketers - many of Berg's teammates work two jobs alongside their sporting ambitions - but overseeing a project to take Italy out of cricket's shadows.

Berg adds: "I've worked with committees who are focused on what is in front of their nose - the Italian federation are not like that. We want to produce results and move up the rankings but there is the other eye on the younger generations. At the end of the day that is going to help the national team in 10-15 years’ time, so we have to put the focus on the schools.


Constant shoulder problems looked to have ended Berg's career prematurely

"I could easily just focus on being the head coach and on the competition. But I am not that type of person. I am very much focused on the whole process. For the next 10-15 years, even if my job only lasts for two-four years I want to put things into place."

Just imagine the transformative effect a return to the Olympic Games could have. Additional financial support, huge exposure and a fresh set of eyes on the sport. Suddenly, all of the aforementioned objectives become not just realistic, but inevitable.

"Hopefully at some point this year we will get the go-ahead for that, 2028 or 2032. It is just a matter of how many European teams would be available for qualification, that is our only issue. Six would give us a good chance to get in there.

"It would open up a huge amount of money for us to pump into the national team, grassroots, clubs, facilities, it opens up sponsorships.

"The vision and goal to be better is a priority. There is a big Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Indian culture in Italy and these guys love cricket. We are focusing on these communities in Italy.

"People watching from the outside seeing these guys playing the game will hopefully inspire the people to come and join in.

"For guys who are 15-16 years old, who knows they could be in the squad playing at the Olympics. How good would that be?"

In the short term, making progress in the qualification tournaments for the 2022 T20 World Cup and next 50-over tournament is Berg's focus. Events in Finland, Canada and Jersey are to come this year in the first of three steps to reach either competition. It is a drawn-out and often demoralising process.


Berg reached two One-Day Cup finals with Hampshire

Balancing his international commitments with Northamptonshire's schedule will certainly require compromise. Attendance at all of the major events this year would prevent him from playing in large swathes of the latter stages of the County Championship and even the Bob Willis Trophy final. "Hopefully something will be agreed where I can slip out and go and do my job," he added.

With eligibility rules having been simplified in recent years (any passport holder is now permitted to compete), Berg hopes to have a squad with at least a handful of recognisable faces involved. Sydney Sixers' Ben Manenti and brother Harry as well as Grant Stewart from Kent. Talks have also been held with Surrey's T20 captain Jade Dernbach. "I'll keep pumping tournaments and fixtures to him and wait until I hook a good one!" Berg said.

Having had most of his professional life to prepare for this moment, Berg will not be returning to the Italian dressing room to make up the numbers. Neither will he be content with just filling the role of coach.

"I look at my athletes as people first," Berg reveals. "That for me is a very important thing. It is important to understand them as a person before you understand them as an athlete.

"You can work a lot out from a person and the way they are, their attitudes, their drive, motivation in sport or anything in life and transfer it into the game. That is my way of dealing with things.

"Gelling is having one-to-one chats with these guys and understanding them better before we go out and train. It is very easy to get a squad and try and drill them and make them do everything you want to do to make them better.

"But someone won't enjoy the way you want them to train. To understand what has made them a great player and try and work around that.

"I'm probably not patient, but I've got bite my tongue at times too and understand the processes. Rome wasn't built in a day."

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