October 11, 2001

Veletta eyes new challenge

Michael Veletta still loves a challenge.

Just as much as he did when he appeared in first-class cricket for the first time for Western Australia as a gangly teenager back in 1983.

Or when he inherited the job as the Australian Capital Territory's captain-coach shortly before its seminal admission into domestic competition in 1997-98.

Or when he represented his state in each of 16 semi-finals and finals.

Or even when he played a celebrated pinch-hitting role on the way to Australia's stirring World Cup victory in 1987.

So it's probably little surprise to discover that he returns to a new position in Western Australian cricket - this time as state coach - in as enthusiastic a frame of mind as ever.

"The biggest challenge is to keep an enjoyable and progressive atmosphere around the state squad. If we can retain that, I have no doubt that we'll not only play well but also that we'll keep improving," says the 37-year old at the outset of a summer that will see him attempt to follow in the very imposing footsteps of Wayne Clark.

"There's a diverse range of things you have to contend with as a coach.

"I'm now in charge of a group of 29 and they obviously all have different levels of intensity that they play and train at, for instance. Everyone's got a level that they're most comfortable with, and I have to be conscious of that.

"But, over the course of your career and your life, you learn many basic lessons that can assist in a job like this.

When the Western Australian Cricket Association chose Veletta for the role in March, it made for a reasonably low-key transition. After all, Western Australians' attention back then was most keenly focused on how many of the state's players might be squeezed into a soon-to-be-selected Ashes squad. And the state's media naturally seemed just as interested in dissecting the season past as the year ahead.

Scarcely is it possible in recent memory, in fact, to identify a more unfulfilling season for the men from the West than the one they endured in 2000-01. Albeit that they still made the deciding match of the Mercantile Mutual Cup competition, it was the first summer since 1995-96 in which they had failed to garner a title. Measured against the tremendous achievements of most of the last three decades, it was seen as a disappointing year.

Many outsiders accordingly see the upcoming season as a baton-changing one for Western Australian cricket. With the loss of outstanding senior players in Tom Moody and Brendon Julian; the likely long-term absences of at least three players to international commitments; and the growing presence within the squad of a collection of fresh-faced youngsters, perhaps it's even the starting point of an altogether new era.

But, while it all might suggest that the Sandgropers are confined to at least a fleeting period at the crossroads, that only makes the impending Australian domestic program one of opportunity for the Warriors in Veletta's mind.

"The same happened when Wayne (Clark) took over six years ago, really.

"We've lost a very dominant leader in Tom (Moody), and we've lost a very senior and a very highly respected player in Brendon (Julian). From that point of view, the baton is definitely being changed and the team dynamics will change as a result.

"It offers a lot of new challenges, certainly. But I think what we've seen to date is that everyone has been prepared to step up and take on the new responsibilities that come with that."

Veletta's job of shaping on-field success - which formally begins with tomorrow's day-night ING Cup match against South Australia - will initially be made a little easier by the presence in his team of the likes of international representatives Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Damien Martyn and Simon Katich.

Yet even the first part of the season will deliver the complexity of three first-class and four one-day matches in the space of 31 days and then the question of who should be elevated to replace Gilchrist and Langer in the team's leadership roles.

"We're all conscious of the need to start well, and to play at a level that we're happy with. I have no doubt, if we do both those things well, that the results will very much take care of themselves.

"We're fortunate too in that we've got some very good senior people around. We've not only got Adam and Justin, but we also have Damien (Martyn) and Simon (Katich), 'Huss' (Michael Hussey) and 'Big Jo' (Angel). And there are obviously guys who stand up at club level too, like Robbie Baker and Ryan Campbell for example.

"Look at New South Wales: they've had to contend with this sort of thing for many years."

Fashioned from extensive coaching experience with the ACT and with Perth first grade side Mount Lawley, Veletta's approach to the stewardship of the side is by no means that of a novice. And his background has also fostered in him an impressive sense of self-assurance and commitment as he details his hopes for the Warriors of 2001-02.

"Obviously, if individuals within the group are not content or don't feel as if they have a specific role to play in our success, then at some stage they're going to lose a little bit of interest.

"So it's important for me to keep all of them interested and enthusiastic generally, and in their chances of playing cricket for Western Australia and then Australia.

"The passion, for me, never leaves. I get so involved in it - in wanting to help players improve - that the love of it will probably never go. If it does, then it's quite obviously time to pack up."

The start of a new era it might be. But, around a man intimately acquainted with Western Australia's culture of success, it's hard to imagine a connection with the old one being severed altogether.