'I was super-disappointed not to get the Australian job'
After a successful time coaching New South Wales, Steve Rixon is stepping down and going to England to coach Surrey. Here he talks to the Sun Herald's David Sygall about his successful stint at Sydney, and much else besides:
Firstly, happy birthday for your 50th recently. How did you celebrate?
Thanks. I don't usually celebrate them too well. But the best place for me to celebrate anything is with my family. We had a seafood smorgasbord and I spent the day with my kids.
You've coached New Zealand, were offered to coach Sri Lanka, and you're now heading to England to coach Surrey. Is there a chance you would consider coaching England, if the opportunity arose?
I'd never say no to anything. I've jotted down three years for England. That's my life span over there, I think. Having said that, I'd never say no to sitting down and talking about it. But it all comes back to the style of play and the role you'd be expected to play. We've all got our own strengths and purposes, and if that's what England needed and the time was right, who knows in three years' time, it may be. It's the challenge that drives me. I love cricket, but if I see a job that has to be done, there's not a lot that can get in my way to stop me getting it done. I'm strong in that way, and if it means that I don't have too many friends at the end of it, well, I'll live with it. But the jobs I've done so far, whether it's state cricket, club or New Zealand, I've always had a lot of friends at the end of it and we've done well.
You went for the job of Australian coach in 1999 and missed out. How disappointed were you? And is it a job you'd like to do in the future?
I've never said this to anyone, but I was super-, super-disappointed at not getting that job at the time. As coach of New Zealand I'd been around to every ground, seen every player in the world, and I just thought the time was perfect. When I was told I didn't have it I was very angry for a day or so. But there was this little bloke who jumped on my shoulder and said "You've never expected anything to be given to you, so why should you start now?" It was like a sledgehammer coming down, and I've never had a problem with it from that day onwards. I'm very happy for any success that John [Buchanan] has with the boys, that's great. I enjoyed having the boys come back from Test cricket to our ranks. I just had to wake myself up again after that happened. I realised that the game doesn't owe anyone anything, and it's more about getting what you need out of it. I'm driven by challenges and this place here [pointing to NSW headquarters], I'll never forget. And when you look at your backyard being the place you always wanted to be as a kid, and that's my workplace, it just doesn't get any better than that.
So you want to coach the Australian team in the future?
If the right job is there at the right time; I'm not sure that the job John's doing is the job I would like to do. That side is an extraordinarily good side and results wouldn't change under most circumstances. But the job that he's done is what they needed at the time. I'd be different. I'm very cricket-specific, whereas John's more an analytic-type guy, who gets covered in stats, which is good for some but not for others.
You said once that this New South Wales team was one with many strong characters. Has it been a difficult team to coach?
Well, I think next year will be an easier side to coach, a side still in the throes of achieving. When you have a lot of people coming back from Test cricket there's fatigue, a number of factors, and you have to lift them up to the standard, just like state cricketers going back to grade. It does take special people to be able to lift. We've had those performers over the years. Michael Bevan's been second to none in that department. The Waugh boys have averaged over 50 for the majority of their state careers. But the guys we've got now have got to carry on from what we've got now.
You were quoted in the Sun Herald in your final season of Shield cricket, in 1988, saying "Obviously harmony can't be there if there have been three different captains in a season." You've had three captains this season - Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh and Simon Katich - was it a harmonious season?
That's a difficult situation that we've got to live with because we've got that many people playing at the top level. It shouldn't have made a difference. We've had two guys who were outstanding leaders, in Simon and Steve, and as it turned out they were both in the Test team and it gave Mark [Waugh] an opportunity. Mark always wanted to captain the side, but the opportunity wasn't there. Playing a full year was probably the ideal time, but we'd already made moves to make Simon captain because we felt he was most appropriate for the job. That was a decision made two years out so it wasn't going to change overnight. But if you're really scraping the barrel to look for an excuse, I wouldn't like to go there. Our players have got to be better than that, and we haven't played poorly because of that. It's more the individuals getting their head around their own game.
There have been rumours for a while about you and Steve Waugh having a tough relationship. What's the truth?
I don't think it was tough. I mean, we're obviously two strong-willed people. I would certainly coach differently around Steve Waugh than I would Simon Katich, Steve Fleming, or Phil Emery, who I had in the early '90s. I like to be hands-on, Stephen likes to do things his own way, and that's fine, I have no problems with that. I think "icy relationship" is probably a bit exaggerated. I enjoy Stephen's company. He's a guy that I have the utmost respect for, as you could imagine, but yeah, some things I'd do differently. But that's what I inherited, so that's what I do. I've had to be big enough to move into coaching in a different style. I like to be more hands-on, have more one-on-ones with people, do lots of planning, prepare well for training.
So, you had to be less hands-on when Steve was around?
I think more decisions both on and off the field became more belonging to Stephen and, as I said, if that's the way he wanted to captain the side I wouldn't interfere with that. That doesn't necessarily mean I liked that style, but that's the way he does it and I've had to live with it. The captain runs the ship, I've always agreed with that. But I also know that if you do work more closely together you'll get a better result.
What about Mark Waugh?
Mark's very casual. He's never been a major problem. Mark's Mark and he just goes about enjoying his cricket. The fact that he was never really captain was something he was probably disappointed in, but it just wasn't his time. He was in the top group of leaders in our side, he's well thought of, and I personally have never had a problem with Junior. This has not been a good year for him. He admits that. When you've been over 50 digs without a hundred and when you're the quality of player that Mark Waugh is, well, you don't need to be Einstein, do you?
It was a peculiar season for NSW. What went wrong and what went right?
It's been a disappointing year, no doubt about it. We defended the one-day comp for three years now and we've always been able to come from nowhere to win it. This time we left our run too late. Why? I think everyone else has caught up a bit. Most teams have tried to emulate what we've been doing and reach new heights. We set a benchmark which was demanding - the first team to win three in a row, and we were trying to exceed that this year. There's no reason why we couldn't have. But I think there was continuity missing in our game, more people coming and going than in previous years. Guys like Michael Clarke and Simon Katich, we haven't had them as much as in previous years, and the young guys are just finding their way. In the other comp [Pura Cup] we lost the games that we usually would have won. We had a tie when we had played out of our skins to get about 180 in 20-odd overs. It was exciting, but there was no result for us. Give us those six points and we're sitting on top of the table. The Victorians have played well this year. They chased 450 against us. There hasn't been much dramatically wrong with our game. Just not having continuity has made life harder, and when you don't get the points on the board you start to panic a bit, and we haven't nailed it at important times. You need everyone to be on song, and our players have been guilty at different times of not being on song.
You arrived at NSW when the state team was perhaps at its lowest ebb. But there has been plenty of success in the three years since you returned as coach. What do you think is different about NSW cricket now compared to 2000?
You could go back to 1985. Since then we've won ten premierships and I've been associated with all ten. In the early '90s we built a formula that was a back-yourself-at-all-costs way of playing. You need a bit of success to keep it turning over. We've had to make sure we didn't have the elitism that many good sides do have. The older guys were able to help out the younger ones more this year than previously, with Michael Bevan around more, Simon Katich's leadership qualities, and less pressure on Steve Waugh with his retirement. There are different reasons for it all. But probably the main thing is that we learnt to play as a unit. There wasn't a side which was going to beat us in one-day cricket because we built up a habit of winning. In the four-day game we started that, but we missed out this season with those close ones.
You're a modest person, but you did say recently that you felt satisfied with what you've achieved at NSW. Is there a particular win or achievement you feel most proud of?
The first thing that comes to mind is winning in 1993 with a group of guys who were virtual unknowns - the Maxwells, Davisons, Alleys, McNamaras, the Robertsons. There was no Waugh, Waugh, Slater, Bevan etc. It was a group of guys who played out of their skins. We went on to win the double that year, so that will always be at the top for me. We got beaten in Perth in two days that year and still won the double. It was very satisfying. In the last three years, it wasn't so much the winning, but I get a great deal of enjoyment from seeing youngsters grow into young men and top-line cricketers. I've seen that in Clarke and Katich. Those guys needed to go to the next stage. I think Katich coming to NSW was one of the best things I've been associated with, because he came with expectations of doing well and it took no time for him to become part of our top-line leadership group. He is highly respected by all the players, and his contribution to NSW in a short space of time was outstanding. I expected that to happen. And I think he sits back and thinks that coming to NSW was the best thing he's ever done. That's certainly up there for me.
David Sygall writes for the Sun Herald newspaper in Sydney, in which a version of this interview first appeared.