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Life's tough, but this was really tough!
While battling his demons, Mark Coles found healing and hope in an unlikely place: a dusty cricket pitch on the other side of the world
Seat number “54 bloody F”. That’s where Mark Coles found himself – right down the back of the plane, travelling from Auckland to Dubai.
For some people, a long-haul flight would feel like the start of an adventure. For Coles, it was terrifying.
“When I checked in, I was a nervous wreck,” he recalls. “I couldn’t even say my name to the woman at the counter. I ended up on the plane thinking, ‘What the hell am I doing?’”
From Dubai, he travelled to Lahore – Pakistan’s second-largest city. Before he knew it, Coles was in the backseat of a Toyota Hiace, “flying through the streets” at 2.30am. He was flanked by armed guards, but they couldn’t protect him from the 35-degree heat.
In the darkness, the van pulled up to an imposing compound with iron gates. The driver tooted the horn, and another guard whisked Coles up to a room with a bed, a shower, a toilet and a TV. Out of 37 channels, only two were in English. Coles was alone – and wide awake.
“I remember lying on the bed thinking, ‘You got yourself into this. This is what you wanted, remember? You can’t go home. You’re stuck here now, so you’re just going to have to pull up your socks and get on with it, because there’s no way out.’”
As a cricket coach, Coles had travelled to Lahore to take on a daunting new role, as the head coach of the Pakistani Women’s Cricket Team. The players had just been trounced at the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup, in which they lost every game.
The team had never had a foreign coach, let alone a Western man who had no knowledge of Muslim culture. What’s more, Coles had never coached an international side.
“There were 30 Pakistani girls standing in front of me. Some didn’t speak English. Many were looking at me, like, ‘Yeah, I have no idea what this white bloke is saying’. My glasses kept fogging up and I couldn’t stop sweating.
I said, ‘Look, I don’t really know what has gone on here in the past. But I’ve watched you play against New Zealand, and we’re playing them again in a month’s time. We need to get ready. All I ask is that you do your very best. That way, no matter if we win, lose or draw, we’ve still won.’”
The dry, barren cricket fields of Lahore couldn’t be more different from the lush banks of Wellington’s Basin Reserve. As a boy, that’s where Coles spent Saturday afternoons watching his father, Michael Coles, a fast bowler for the Wellington side.
Back then – in the 1970s – cricket was an unpaid hobby for working class men. Michael Coles worked in a plastics factory by day, and played cricket on weekends and public holidays. He was idolised by his son, who was an only child.
“At night, I would stay awake for as long as I could, until I heard the car pull down the drive. Dad would come into my room and I’d whisper, ‘How did you go? How many wickets did you get?’
“I lived in the shadow of my father. From a young age, people would say, ‘Oh, you’re Michael Coles’ son’. I thought, ‘No, no. I’m Mark’. But I was always trying so hard to be like my dad.”
In his teens, Coles developed severe back pain – possibly because he had been bowling so much. Doctors advised that his playing days were numbered. That prognosis was devastating for a young man who had always dreamed of making the Black Caps.
But around the same time, Coles discovered another hobby – one that relieved pain, rather than caused it. He learnt how to get on the grog.
“At Wellington College, I made the First XI. I went to a party at the captain’s house. Someone pushed some alcohol down me. I went home, and mum and dad had just laid some brand new cream-coloured carpet. I christened it for them.”
By his early 20s, Coles was boozing heavily. He would embark on 15-hour binge sessions with his mates. Sometimes, he would wake up on the side of the road. He reckons he’s lucky to never have been caught drink-driving.
“I was always insecure, and always doubted myself. Alcohol gave me the confidence that I never really had. Alcohol became my best friend, because it’s always there – and it never answers you back. It helped to put a mask over what I saw as a lack of success in my life.”
Coles tried many jobs, from radio announcing to selling masking tape. He was drawn back into the cricket world as a coach. For 15 years, he worked with local teams, including the Wellington Blaze, and had stints with men’s and women’s teams in Western Australia and Vanuatu.
Whenever he found himself running on empty, Coles – like many men – turned to the bottle. It damaged his relationships and undermined his performance as a coach. But it also helped him to cope with his low self-esteem.
“Everybody wants to play for New Zealand, right? I didn’t fulfil my potential as a cricketer, and that was really frustrating. Even in my 40s, I was still yearning to become someone that I was never going to be.”
In March 2017, Coles was coaching full-time in the Waikato. He was under pressure at work, and felt anxious and overwhelmed.
One day, he found himself in darkest space he had ever been in. At the local pub, he embarked on a five-hour bender, before going home to his partner and young family at dusk.
“I remember saying goodnight to my seven-year-old daughter. I told her, ‘I’ve got to go away for a while’. She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I’ve just got to go away, okay? Mum will look after you. Always remember to say please and thank you.’ Then I kissed her goodnight.”
Coles closed the bedroom door, and told his partner, Mel Humphrey, to call the police, because he was going to kill himself. She refused. When Coles tried to grab his keys and leave the house, Humphrey stood in the doorway.
“She told me, ‘You’re going to have to kill me to get out of here, because I’m not letting you go’. So I went to the spare room and slammed the door. I lay there all night thinking, ‘What the hell have I just done?’”
The next morning, once he was in a calmer and safer space, Coles went for a long drive, and ended up at The Warehouse in Hamilton. He spent an hour sitting on a bench inside the store, staring into space “in a trance-like state”.
There, he realised that everything he treasured was at risk. If he wanted save his 12-year relationship – and avoid losing his two school-age daughters – he needed to seek professional help.
Coles saw a counsellor, who helped him to recognise that he was a binge alcoholic. He took time off work, reduced his stress levels and built healthier habits in his life. But he still had a nagging sense that something was missing.
Four months later, Coles was lying on the couch at home, watching New Zealand play Pakistan in the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup. New Zealand “absolutely destroyed the poor Pakistani girls”.
An outlandish question popped into his mind: what if the team needed a new coach? Coles made an enquiry, but didn’t expect anything to come of it.
One night, the phone rang. A “chap from Pakistan” was asking him to be the head coach of the women’s team. Coles thought one of his mates was playing a prank. Minutes later, an email arrived. The offer was real.
“Mel said, ‘Mark! Are you crazy?’ I said, ‘Well, you do know that I have those tendencies’. But my childhood dream was to play international cricket. If I couldn’t make it as player, I could still have a bloody good crack as a coach – without my friend alcohol by my side.”
Initially, the job would be a labour of love. The Pakistan Cricket Board was offering Coles the head coach role on a volunteer basis. He even had to pay for his own flights to Lahore. But he wanted to prove that he was committed, so he did so.
The team comprised 30 women, ranging in age from 18 to 33. All were Muslim.
“On my first day, I heard some bloke on a loudspeaker, echoing from a nearby village. I turned around, and all the girls had sat down on the grass. I said, ‘Girls! No, no, no. No time for sitting down, we’ve got to keep moving.’ Another coach said, ‘Um, Mark, it’s prayer time’. I said, ‘Oh!’ And I sat down with them.”
Captain Sana Mir, who had more than 200 international matches under her belt, remembers the arrival of her new Kiwi coach.
“Mark brought neutrality to the team,” she says, “because he had no bias towards any player. That was very refreshing. He was quite sensitive and very respectful of our culture, which made the girls very open to what he was bringing.”
Women’s cricket was introduced in Pakistan in 1998. Until then, women and girls had not been allowed to play cricket in open fields, because of the country’s conservative Muslim values. According to global indexes, the country still ranks poorly on gender equality.
When Coles arrived, he discovered that female players were often treated like second-class citizens. He heard critics suggest that women’s cricket was a waste of money, and that the women should be “in the kitchen or looking after children”. When he discovered that his players hadn’t been paid their salary for six months, he went into bat for them.
One player was so poor that her running shoes were two sizes too small, and her boots were two sizes too big. Another woman, who couldn’t afford cricket balls, had melted a bunch of plastic bags over a hot fire, and fashioned the plastic into a ball. Coles was stunned.
“Imagine saying to a top New Zealand player, like Sophie Devine or Suzie Bates, ‘You wanna practice? You’re gonna have to buy – or make – your own cricket ball.’ I had no idea that the gap between these countries was so big. But the Pakistani girls are so determined that when someone says ‘No’ to them, they find a way.”
One player would spend two hours on a bus to reach the cricket ground in Lahore. Someone from her village recognised her, and told her family that she was playing cricket. Her father and brother beat her up for bringing shame on the family.
She was determined to keep playing and cut her hair short to make herself look like a boy, so that people wouldn’t recognise or bully her.
“We ended up picking her for the national side,” says Coles. “The girl who was rooming with her said, ‘Did you know that she goes to sleep in her cricket uniform?’ She was so proud to be part of the team that she was wearing it to bed.”
A month after his arrival, Coles and the team headed to Dubai for a clash with New Zealand in a three-game ODI series. They were beaten in the first two games.
Coles sat in his hotel room, his mind overflowing with negative thoughts. He sent a WhatsApp message to the players, telling them to gather in the foyer at 7pm for an important meeting. When they turned up, he took them to an ice cream shop.
“I said, ‘My treat. Chocolate, strawberry or vanilla – you choose’. They looked confused. Then I said, ‘That’s the end of the meeting. We’ve got a game tomorrow. I’ll see you in the morning.’
“One of the staff said, ‘What did you do that for?’ I said, ‘I’m not sure, but I felt like ice cream’. I was really lonely and wanted some company – and I thought the girls could do with some too.”
The next day, the team beat New Zealand for the first time in history, winning by five wickets. Although it was just one match in a string of defeats, it built trust between Coles and the team.
He was offered a two-year paid position, requiring him to live in Pakistan – in a compound that had snipers sitting on the roof. He could only return to New Zealand to see his family once every three months or so.
“Some days, I wanted to pack my bag and make a run for it. But I knew that if I left Pakistan, I would have felt like a failure. I just had to get through, day by day – and sometimes, second-by second.
“Although I was missing Mel and my two daughters, the players had so much enthusiasm on their faces that it filled me with joy. I felt like the luckiest person in the world to be able to coach them, and I had to keep a smile on my face, because that’s what they deserved from me.”
In 2018 and 2019, the team achieved a series of milestones, including beating the West Indies team 2-1 in an ODI series, and tying with South Africa 1-1 in an ODI series on South African home turf. Coles faced occasional death threats from rabid fans when the team lost.
The players looked after him. One Christmas, Coles was sitting alone in his room, feeling glum. A player text him, asking to “have a hit”. He begrudgingly agreed. The woman picked him up and took him to a café where five other players were waiting.
“Blow me down, there were all these presents, helium balloons and a cake. Then I went to Sana’s house and her parents had prepared a Pakistani feast for me. I had the most wonderful day. Those little touches just kept melting my heart and telling me that I needed to stay there.”
In mid-2019, after Coles lost his grandmother and uncle in a short period of time, he decided it was time to come home. It was tough to say goodbye to his Pakistani family, but he returned to his own family as a changed man.
He still enjoys a beer from time to time, but no longer uses alcohol to mask his emotions. His now-wife, Mel Humphrey, reckons Coles’ two years in Pakistan made a world of difference.
“Mark had always battled with his own confidence. Now, he’s much more aware of what he’s capable of, because he has learnt how to believe in himself. He lives in the moment, and he’s a better father too. That’s a testament to the work he has put in.”
The family now lives on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, where Coles coaches a club team. He thinks about the Pakistani players “a hell of a lot”. They text him and ask how he is. Sometimes, they ask him to return. But he says that chapter of life is over. He fulfilled his boyhood dream – not as a player, but as a coach.
“I hope that one day those girls say, ‘That crazy old white bloke taught us a few things’. It was never just about winning. That’s not all we set out to do. We set out to enjoy each other’s company – in good times and bad. And we did that.”
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