June 27, 2013

The artistic bloke

As a player, Darren Lehmann was gifted and a perfect fit in any team. As coach, he could inspire Australia the way he did team-mates and fans for years in county cricket

Darren Lehmann could pick up line and length far quicker than the average batsman © Getty Images

Does it seem premature of me to name Australia as winners of the Ashes? Not the actual Ashes; I mean the game of schadenfreude Ashes that Australia and England have been playing on their supporters over the last nine months or so. It's been closely contested - with every mistake made by one side allowing opposition fans a chance to briefly revel in the misfortune before seeing their own team respond by messing up in equal measure.

Ultimately Australia have had England covered every step of the way. England lose the first Test in India; Australia lose their series 4-0. England are bowled out for 167 on the first day of a Test in New Zealand; five days later Homeworkgate dominates the headlines. Punch, schadenfreude, counter-punch. All culminating this week with an England batting implosion during the Champions Trophy final that was followed almost immediately by Australia sacking their coach, Mickey Arthur.

Actually, it's unfair on Arthur's successor, Darren Lehmann, to characterise his appointment as another misstep in Australia's stumbling approach to the coming back-to-back Ashes series. The timing, just 16 days before the Trent Bridge Test, is ridiculous, but Lehmann has built a fine record as a coach, and I know from the time he spent playing for my county, Yorkshire, just how inspirational a figure he can be.

During the seven seasons he played for us he was pretty much a perfect fit for the team. But then he'd have been a perfect fit for any side. What more could you want? A mountain of runs, scored at a pace that advances the game quickly in your favour and with the kind of destructive strokeplay that mashes up the bowlers' mojo for the guys batting at the other end. All done with a "put me ciggy out, pick me bat up, knock the winning runs off" nonchalance that made supporters feel like it was one of their own, an ordinary bloke, taking to the field.

He was anything but, of course. Sure, the cavalier off-field attitude to fitness, and the image of someone happiest with a cigarette in one hand and a pint in the other gave the impression that here was one of us. But once out in the middle, the illusion was lost and we were reminded of the truth; that here was someone with gifts far removed from the ordinary man.

What set him apart was the ability found in all great batsmen to pick up the line, and especially the length, of the ball, far quicker than the average player. It was that which allowed him to use the depth and width of the crease to dominate an attack. How do you bowl at a man who starts on a leg-stump guard but has time to move outside off or confidently down the pitch with an economy of movement that still leaves him balanced, composed, and in position to time the ball where he wished with both power and placement? It was a problem county bowlers proved incapable of solving, at times making them look like children fruitlessly bowling at a gifted teacher in the school nets. Such was a technique that possessed the genius of simplicity.

By the time the new century started, Lehmann had already played two seasons for Yorkshire, already proved to be the spine of our batting, already played some remarkable innings. But so much more was to come. Not least the torrent of runs that helped take Yorkshire to the Championship title in 2001, their first in over 30 years. He was immense again in 2006, his final season at the club, scoring with the same flair as always despite a desperate fight against relegation. It seemed an injustice that his final game could coincide with Yorkshire dropping out of division one, but it was a distinct possibility. A possibility that was avoided when Lehmann played one last great innings for us, gave one last gift to a club that had been his home-from-home for nine years: a towering eight-hour epic innings of 339 in the final match of the season. It was just enough to drag Yorkshire to safety. Fitting perhaps that a player who had carried the batting for so long should do so one last time.

The memories Lehmann left behind are not just of the great innings, the dismissive stand-and-deliver cover drive, the destructive pick-up off his legs, but that he played with such astonishing consistency. He was always the leading batsman, always the get-out-of-jail-free card, never seeming to lose his form. His was a remarkable talent. Some sportsmen are said to break the mould, but in Lehmann's case there was no mould to break. His ability was hand-made, the work of a skilled artisan.

In truth, his one season as captain for Yorkshire, in 2002, wasn't a success. That year Yorkshire were relegated, and while the team was beset with injury and loss of form, there was also a feeling among supporters that Lehmann found it hard to maintain the distance needed for leadership, hard to instil the same discipline, that he was too much one of the lads. It felt like the players had stopped sucking their stomachs in for the first time in years.

Captaincy is different from coaching, of course, and Australia's players are perhaps in need of a more relaxed team atmosphere. So while there is nothing Lehmann can do to ease the pain in Michael Clarke's back, and no way he can take ten years off the age of Ryan Harris' knees, if he can find a way to inspire Australia from the sidelines in the same way he inspired Yorkshire from the middle, he could prove to be a shrewd choice as Australian coach.

Dave Hawksworth has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses