Rebuilding the Blues
In capturing why last summer went so badly wrong for New South Wales, it is not hard to find the emblematic day. Five Test cricketers in the top six, eight Australian representatives in the XI, the Blues were routed for 91 at the WACA ground on February 17.
They had been 1 for 60 moments before the lunch break, Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja battling along with no hint of the maelstrom to follow. But Khawaja played a horrid stroke, bowled while trying to pull a ball from Michael Hogan, and from that moment the innings, and the match, went to pieces.
An innings and 323-run hiding brought many discontents bubbling to the surface, as a decidedly strong team on paper fell apart in the field. The reasons for this were many and varied. A new coach in Anthony Stuart and the new captain Steve O'Keefe floundered for direction after replacing a successful long-term duo.
Stuart's predecessor Matthew Mott had left of his own accord, but the captain Simon Katich was moved on by the chief executive David Gilbert, in what appeared a move made in too much haste. The state cricket manager, David Thompson, was in his second season and saw his old school grade cricket values clash with those of the 21st century game.
As the summer progressed as many as seven players found themselves demoted to the NSW team after time playing for Australia, grappling with the disaffection and public scrutiny of being dropped as much as their own techniques. And in the midst of it all, the squad was splintered by the Twenty20 Big Bash League, with one of Sydney's teams coached by Trevor Bayliss, who had made no secret of his indignation about Gilbert preferring Stuart for the state coaching job after returning from his time with Sri Lanka. That Bayliss' Sydney Sixers went on to win the competition only heightened the sense among some players that he may have been the better man for the job.
Following the BBL, the team reconvened in dribs and drabs, and lost heavily to Tasmania in Hobart before the WACA humiliation. They won only one Sheffield Shield match all season. Looking back now, on the eve of a return bout with the Warriors in Perth, O'Keefe is frank; he has never wallowed through a lower moment in his time wearing the baggy blue cap.
"That was the lowest point of my career," O'Keefe told ESPNcricinfo. "When you get given the mantle as captain and you go over and have the worst loss in 95 years of Sheffield Shield cricket, that resonates personally. And when you look at all the stakeholders involved in such a great side, the fans, the coaches, the staff, it doesn't hurt only me but it hurts everyone else.
"It's not that I can fault the effort, the guys were turning up and putting in each day, I just think we were in a completely different head space from where we needed to be in that match. When it comes down to it when you're facing that ball, if you're not 100% committed to that single moment, if your mind's even a little bit somewhere else or you're not thinking about the team as a whole, you're going to fall into a trap.
"If you look at that side, five out of the top six had played Test cricket, but those five guys were in different positions in their careers. A lot were coming back from the Test side, trying to find their own game and improve their own technique, trying to do that on the WACA, which can be a tough ground getting started, we were exposed. Our bowling attack, again I can't fault the amount of effort guys were putting in, but as a side we weren't moving together as one, and it couldn't have been exposed more. If you had to use it as a metaphor for our season in terms of the way we were going, that's probably the best way to do it."
If the WACA was the lowest moment, the signs of instability were evident far earlier. Thrown together into their pivotal roles at the same time, Stuart and O'Keefe struggled to divide their tasks in an adequate manner. O'Keefe had missed much of the pre-season with injury, then found himself thrown amongst the team as their new captain. Stuart had difficulty with the fact that several members of the NSW squad preferred the counsel of their own private coaches, while others required more direction than he expected. The team had an uneasy first trip away together for the Twenty20 Champions League in India. While the Blues made the semi-finals, it quickly became clear that players and staff represented different eras of the game. It was a gap that would close only marginally across the season.
"Personally I didn't fully understand the responsibilities a captain had on a side," O'Keefe said. "You look at Simon Katich and you take it for granted how well he leads a team and how well he has done in the past. It seems like it's effortless the amount of work and the 300 first-class games he's played, it all seems to come out naturally and flow well. Missing the pre-season and turning up for the second game of the Shield season was tough, I'm noticing the benefits this year of having a pre-season and getting to know the guys a bit better, understanding their games.
"Overall I think we had a lot of issues, and a lot we had were probably that we were pointing our finger as a whole group at other people, when we just had to point the fingers at ourselves. What we want to control and what we own is entirely up to us as players, and one thing I was guilty of last year was doing that. I know I've got to take accountability for how I want myself to be seen, how I want the team to be perceived, and that's where the responsibility lies.
"If we're not happy with the standard of training it is up to the players to decide and to push that forward. Last year it wasn't a really positive vibe, and for a lot of reasons. It's tough when you've got a side with so many talented players that you just expect it to roll on and work. This year we've put in place things that are a bit more autonomous in terms of the group buying into what we believe is important. It's that sort of mental attitude shift that'll put us in a better position."
Better than 91 all out.
With the end of the season came recriminations. A review of the Blues' 2011-12 summer cast blame for the team's poor showing in all directions, from players, to leaders to management. Stuart and O'Keefe were sent for sessions with Wayne Pearce, the former rugby league international, coach and motivational speaker. Their roles are now more clearly defined, and O'Keefe has been freed up to spend more time concentrating on his own game - it shuddered to a halt amid the team's difficulties last summer. The team is now encouraged collectively to share views on where things can improve.
"Stuey's been great this year, and I don't think Stuey was that bad last year," O'Keefe said. "The issue was as a playing group we had something new, and it is our responsibility to look at ourselves - if we think something isn't up to a certain standard, it's up to the players to decide, not necessarily the coach who has to keep pointing the finger and telling us. If we want a group to work together it has to be done by the group and the coach adds his dimension.
"What we're realising now is that having planned a bit better, Stuey's input's been as good as any coach I've had. He's jumped on board with looking after the quicks, an area he knows really well. We had those tough conversations last year, where Stuey and I sat down with Wayne Pearce whose helped with the leadership side of things, just to make sure we're clear on what we expect of each other.
"When we turn up to training now it's not a subconscious 'five out of the Test top six, someone will get it done'. We point the finger at ourselves, how do I improve this team, I improve it by my own actions, and I get to know my team better, understand what's making us tick, and really giving the power to each individual. On Fridays we've sat down in a meeting, gone through a few trust principles we've got, and there's a free-for-all if guys have got issues about anything, to speak their mind and bring it up, have that tough conversation with everyone in the group. That's been a fundamental shift for the side."
A trio of departures have also brought a marked shift. Hughes and Khawaja sought greener pastures, in South Australia and Queensland respectively, while Nathan Hauritz, who had given himself a second chance by moving to Sydney in 2006, returned home to Queensland. Khawaja seemed clear about his departure even before season ended, having watched his former teammate Peter Forrest flourish under the tutelage of Darren Lehmann at the Bulls. Hughes was a little more conflicted, and at one point went with O'Keefe to Gilbert to assure him that he would be spending 2012-13 with NSW. Eventually, Hughes could not resist the financial heft of SA's offer, plus the chance to bat for half a season on Adelaide Oval.
In their places will be the likes of Nic Maddinson and Kurtis Patterson, a young duo of batting talent capable of great things. O'Keefe does not want to place undue pressure on his players, and hopes Maddinson and Patterson can show the fearless batting intent that rushed them into the NSW squad in the first place.
"Nic had a bit of a muddled year last year where he was in and out, across formats. But if you look at that guy and how he can play, I know he's going to play for Australia," O'Keefe said. "Rather than making it confusing, they're young and uninhibited, so I want to keep that fearless factor for those guys. Kurtis has come out, he's got no scar tissue [from last season], he's made 160 on debut, so the less I say to him the better.
"I just want him to be comfortable around the group, to feel his opinion is valued, that he's as much a part of this XI and this NSW team as Brad Haddin. If they're comfortable in their skin in this side and I know they'll do well. My goal for Nic is to make him own his position, if that's opening the batting I want him to own it.
"From last season to this one we've got guys who were on the fringes who are now right in the mix. They've got the talent, and their doing well or not doing well is going to be the way they approach it. If they think of themselves as fringe players, they're going to play like that, and have that nervous look over their shoulder. If they think of themselves as cricketers who can hold a spot, then that's the way they're going to play. The opportunity is there."
Helping to rebuild the Blues will be Australia's Test captain Michael Clarke and his sometime deputy Haddin. Their presence in the NSW side for the early matches of the season, after Haddin has also taken part in pre-season, seems likely to make a significant difference to the team's fortunes. O'Keefe is Clarke's deputy until the senior man goes to Brisbane for Test duty against South Africa in November, and he acknowledges the impact of Haddin in particular.
"The biggest thing we've got from him is Brad's not just come along to be a passive part of the team. He's come along, he's noticed this team needs to improve and shape up and he's been more than willing to express his ideas and thoughts around the group," O'Keefe said. "And that I think is going to lift a lot of us guys who haven't played as many games.
"Someone with that experience to come back and show how much it means to be a Blue-bagger, and do well for this state, to him. That's inspiring, and he's trained as hard as anyone else, and he's prepared to stand in front of the group and say 'these are areas we can improve at'. The thing with Brad is he's always going to give it to you straight. He can bring up a point where he thinks you can improve, but he's never doing it to personally attack, he's doing it to create a better environment around the team."
O'Keefe knows that 2012-13 will be a chance for NSW to regain a level of respect commensurate with the state's central place in Australian cricket. He also knows that another year as poor as the last will result in plenty of changes. Stuart's contract is up at the end of the season, and O'Keefe admits his place as captain will also be under threat if things do not improve.
"Respect is something you've got to earn, and I'm aware with this group that if it was Michael Clarke walking in there, that bloke automatically demands that respect," O'Keefe said. "For me I have to develop to earn it. Regardless of whether I've played 20 games or 100, respect comes from your ability to produce the goods out on the ground, and also lead the way in developing the culture we want to produce.
"Last year was a blip on the radar, this year I've been given a second chance to work on it, improve on it and get it right. If that doesn't work, and I know I'm not doing my job, then it's pretty clear there has to be a change made."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here