From blunder to Thunder
Upon being drafted by what was then a lowly Dallas Mavericks NBA team in 1994, Jason Kidd declared "we're going to turn this team around 360 degrees". On the day he was formally named as the new coach of the Sydney Thunder, Chandika Hathurusingha could have been forgiven for thinking in similarly dramatic terms, if slightly less faulty dimensions.
As part of the new order at Cricket New South Wales, Hathurusingha will augment his primary post as the Blues' assistant coach by helming the Thunder. Trevor Bayliss, for two seasons the Sydney Sixers' mentor, has recently been installed as state coach. As side projects go, Hathurusingha's may be all-consuming: the Thunder had by the end of season two of the tournament become rusted to the bottom of the table, winning twice in their first season and not at all in their second.
Australian cricket has plenty of issues to address this year, but the Thunder are among the most troubling, so far proving less a gateway to Sydney's west than an anaemic warning for parents in the area to send their children to watch the A-League football team instead. In 2012-13 they exhibited just about every problem a dysfunctional cricket team may possess, from a paper-thin squad and a want-away star player, to an absentee captain and a culture that was not so much poor as nonexistent.
In Melbourne, the Renegades had suffered similarly as the alternative to the more establishment Stars in season one, but regathered stirringly in year two to lead the competition table before falling in the semi-finals. It was the sort of result the Thunder dreamed of while stumbling around the country in a numbing sequence of losses that had many wondering at the wisdom of their very existence. Mainly, their travails seemed to suggest that Australian cricket does not possess sufficient depth to stock eight passable teams.
So there is little doubt Hathurusingha has a stern task ahead of him merely to develop a combination that is competitive, let alone trophy-winning, and no surprise that he homed in on culture as a key to changing the team's fortunes. "We need to get the right culture, the right players around and then get good combinations of players," Hathurusingha said.
"I don't think they had enough players in a balanced outfit to compete in the tournament, so that's one thing. The other one is the culture and the training, they all play a role. For me the culture is that the players have to trust each other, so the culture of trust is there. And the clear messages and communication for that is you have to treat everyone equally. That's one thing I would want to start with."
Already there are signs that a stronger squad will be knitted together for 2013-14. Early discussions have been had with the management of the Test match retiree Michael Hussey, and there is the possibility he may be installed as captain whenever Michael Clarke's international duties keep him away from the team. Brett Lee is another target, while Hathurusingha's Sri Lankan connections may yet lure the likes of Muttiah Muralitharan or Mahela Jayawardene to Sydney.
A major advantage of Hathurusingha and Bayliss now sharing management of the two BBL teams is a dialogue about shared resources. While rules and conventions dictate a separation between state and franchise, the two coaches will be able to discuss how best to balance the two squads among those NSW players intent on staying in Sydney during the BBL.
"We had a phone chat a few days ago about how to approach that," Hathurusingha said of Bayliss, currently preoccupied by the IPL. "We haven't spoken about any individual players yet, but we have had a chat among us about how we're going to work on that situation. Because of western Sydney, probably the players coming from that part will be more inclined to play for the Thunder, so that's one thing we need to decide, but then again the balance of the team also has to be taken into account.
"I have a good idea of where and how I want to take the team forward. It depends on the player group available first, and then devise a strategy for how we're going to approach the tournament."
Part of that strategy will be to ensure the Thunder players feel better about their surrounds, both on the field and off it. The drop-in pitches at Sydney's Olympic Stadium have been the subject of some criticism, their spongy countenance making life unpleasant for all the batsmen, while only the highly skilled and travelled Dirk Nannes was consistent enough with the ball to use it to his advantage. A new training precinct has been added to the venue, allowing the team to prepare more fruitfully where they play.
Another issue in the first two years was the players' accommodation and transport. A lack of cars left squad members feeling isolated, whether it be at Rooty Hill in season one or Parramatta in year two. More comprehensive logistical arrangements are being planned, the better to have the players enjoying their time together off the field and so more likely to gel on it.
"There were some issues like that and we are looking into that," Hathurusingha said. "We've got a nice new training facility there, hopefully it'll be up and running and up to the standard by the time the tournament starts. The home ground is going to be ANZ Stadium, so that is one thing we need to take into account, even when we are choosing the players because of the shape of the ground as well."
Shaping a team to fit the Thunder's home ground makes rather more sense than the approach taken in the BBL's first two years, when the XI seemed too often like a compilation of spare parts, among which the heavily salaried Chris Gayle was expected to perform miracles. Hathurusingha has a testing road ahead, but one that with a little more thought and care can result in a turnaround - of the 180-degree variety.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here