Australia April 6, 2013

Don't blame Pat Howard

Seemingly because he used to be a rugby player, Cricket Australia's General Manager Team Performance has been on the receiving end of some unfair criticism. The team is not performing highly but that is not (yet) Pat Howard's fault

Pat Howard may be a rugby man, but that doesn't make him under-qualified for the position he holds © Getty Images

Attended a "Do" the other day, a function attended by various sports and media types. Because that's what you do when you're a sports and media type, you attend Dos. And there you drink and eat and talk sports and media with fellow sports and media types, and there is no argument, it is all good.

So I'm at this Do, doing what you do, at Dos, which is talk about sport. At my table were three other journalists, a couple of retired rugby league players, and a former Australia fast bowler. And so the conversation rolled around, as conversations among Australian sports and media types tend to, to the Australian cricket team, and the recent travails thereof.

And a couple of these types decided a lot of the problems lay with Pat Howard, General Manager Team Performance. "I've spoken to heaps of people and no-one's had a decent word to say about him," said one fellow. "They reckon he's rubbed a lot of blokes up the wrong way," added another. "Quite an abrasive manner, apparently."

And there was nodding among this table of professional sports and media talking-heads and scribblers that this former rugby player could not be successful in a gig as general manager of team performance of the Australian cricket team.

Well, I wasn't going to voice an opinion, given the fast bowler and the other types were in more of a position to comment. These were People Who Knew, or at least sounded like they did. And I've never met Pat, know little about him, nor even what a general manager of team performance does.

But when it seemed nobody was going to offer an alternate viewpoint, I thought stuff it: I'm going into bat. In to bat for Pat. "He's got to be doing something right," I said. "He's come from elite level rugby where he's worked for years. Did roughly the same job. The board's identified a need for a role and appointed a bloke they felt would best fill it. How did he get the job? He's got to be doing something right."

"He's very good at powerpoint presentations," ventured one fellow. "He talks a good game," said another.

I nodded. Others nodded. And that's where the topic was left, the conversation bouncing on to rugby league and the Socceroos, and the winner of the fifth at Flemington. And there it might have stayed, but here we are.

Pat Howard? There seems to be a slightly bigoted and slightly arrogant consensus among some cricket types that a [sniff] rugby player could not possibly look after Australian cricketers. What does he know about the management issues of fast bowlers? What does he understand about "the culture" of Australian cricket? Who the bloody hell does he bloody well think he is?

Well, Pat Howard has been a corporate Chief Operating Officer. He has been in charge of high performance at Test rugby level. He ran rugby's Leicester Tigers. He sits on boards. He is a pharmacologist. He owns 14 pharmacies. He is a smart man.

According to one Cricket Australia type, Howard is driven, analytical, to-the-point, and process-driven. He will tell people what he thinks. He does care about how he's perceived but won't let it deter him from his goal, which is to make Australian cricket strong. He is a leader.

Pat Howard is an expert in high performance of elite athletes. It's what he does.

He probably doesn't know the physical requirements of a fast bowler, but he doesn't need to. He would defer to the sports scientists, the physiotherapists - the experts. And he would make a decision thus. They haven't plucked "rotation" from their bottoms. It's been a carefully thought-out process which aims to stop athletes breaking down. (That they're breaking down anyway does not invalidate it.)

Should we put Geoff Lawson in charge? Or "The Rocket" Rodney Hogg? Or Thommo? If those fellows had their way no fast bowler would ever rest, ever. But when they played (30-odd years ago) there was no T20, IPL, any of that. They barely played English county cricket. They might've gone for a run in the winter. Then played six months cricket. And then stopped, and rested, which is rotation's aim.

A rugby player can't know about another sport? Please. England's rugby coach Clive Woodward went to Southampton FC and then helped the British Olympic team. Steve Waugh and John Eales have helped the Australian Olympic team (and no-one's whined about that). Psychiatrist Steve Peters knew nothing about cycling but is largely credited with getting British cycling to No.1 in the world. He's since helped Ronnie O'Sullivan's snooker and Liverpool FC, and reckons he could turn his methods to any sport.

The Australian cricket team's much-loved former physiotherapist Erroll "Hooter" Alcott got his nickname because he once asked, "when did a Test match begin, do they let off a hooter?"

Harry Harinath is a doctor. He's on the board of Cricket Australia because he's a good man and loves cricket. He didn't play beyond grade cricket in Tasmania. By some experts' rationale, he shouldn't be on the same table as fellow board members Mark Taylor and Matthew Hayden - men who presumably know about cricket - and who appointed Pat Howard.

Cricket Australia's high performance "unit" was created on the advice of the Argus Review (which heard submissions from every corner in Australian cricket). Its manager (that would be Pat Howard) knows as much about the management of elite athletes as anyone. Pat Howard is an expert in high performance of elite athletes. It's what he does.

It irks some that Michael Clarke, Mickey Arthur and selectors would report to him. Change does irk some, particularly when there aren't immediate results. But presumably those who advised Don Argus know cricket.

Howard would perhaps would like to restructure if not outright retract his comment that Shane Watson "is a team player - sometimes", and so expose himself to the poison arrows of Twitter and the professional parts of the commentariat. He'd probably like to phrase a few of his other press utterances differently. But there you go, that's life in the jungle.

But one fact is this: Howard is copping criticism because the team he is managing the high performance of is not performing highly. But that is not (yet) Pat Howard's fault.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here