Australia chase All Blacks' dominance
Australia's blueprint for sustained supremacy in world cricket is being informed and inspired by the New Zealand All Blacks' enduring domination of international rugby. Encouraged by the rugby grounding of Cricket Australia's team performance manager Pat Howard, Michael Clarke's team and the pathway beneath them are being shaped with New Zealand's century-old dominance of the oval-ball game as a major influence.
As part of Australia's push to rise again in the world rankings, all Cricket Australia contracted players are now assessing themselves according to the individual player program used by the All Blacks in the lead-up to their 2011 World Cup victory. Earlier this month, New Zealand rugby's high performance director Don Tricker and their player development manager Mike Anthony were the keynote speakers at CA's sports medicine and coaching conference in Canberra.
CA are also looking closely at the relationships fostered by the All Blacks with New Zealand's five Super Rugby professional club teams, to better aid the movements of players and coaching philosophies between the states and the national team. Much as Super Rugby added another layer to a system that had once flowed seamlessly from provincial sides to international level, so Twenty20 club teams are adding complexity to the task of managing players from state cricket to ODIs and Tests.
Howard told ESPNcricinfo he aspired to the sort of long-term performance level that New Zealand have kept up for decades, despite being among the smallest nations playing the game. A similar goal was outlined in last year's Argus review.
"I try to refrain from going to rugby because obviously it's where I'm from, but on a world scale the All Blacks are very hard to compare against - a nation of four million people who over a 100-year period have been extremely dominant in a world sport," Howard said ahead of Australia's ODI series against England. "They constantly innovate, and they turn players over a reasonable amount, so there are some learnings there for us."
One of the central tools being brought over from New Zealand to Australia's cricketers is the individual player plan used to assess performances, strengths and weaknesses. These questionnaires allow the players' own views of themselves to be cross-referenced with coaching and selection judgements, resulting in more rounded and constructive discussions of ways for each player to improve.
"We have adopted it and it's gone quite well," Howard said. "So very much being player-led, the players take their individual player plans and look at where they're performing well, or areas to improve on, and we obviously support it with the coaches and the sports scientists to address those gaps. Also for the coaches to say 'we thought your strengths were here, you think they're there, let's actually use that as a discussion to assess the reality'. It is a good affirmation for some players and coaches to look at different parts of players' games.
"New Zealand have used it for a couple of years and the fact is that the players get the input into really being able to sit back and assess their own game. I think that's an important part of reflecting. They'll often think about their core skill, but whether or not they're physically in great condition, mentally in great condition, assessing all the parts of their disciplines where they can look for that edge to get into the team.
"Just the ability to reflect is important, and to a certain point it doesn't matter where it comes from, as long as it comes from a sound place with some reasonable background. Someone else has nicely tested it for us, which is a great thing."
In Canberra, Tricker and Anthony presented to the nation's coaches on how New Zealand had created the right environment for success. Howard said that while CA could take plenty of succour from the All Blacks' ability to stay at the top of rugby despite repeatedly facing other larger countries, he acknowledged that New Zealand's focus on the game and its smaller geographical area made several of their measures more easily employed.
"There's no magic bullet, and funnily enough they used that term as well. You need to have a combination of things to make sure your environment is something that helps you excel," Howard said. "But we've got to take their processes and try to take them over a far larger geographical area. New Zealand is a little bit like England, a little bit smaller, and obviously the geographic divide of Australia means you have to run those different satellites a little more strongly.
"But they were very big on player plans, dealing with sports medicine but also sports medicine being a balanced part of decision-making - it can't drive decisions but it helps form them. Those things were very good messages and support coaches making good decisions and in a cricket sense coaches with their selection panels.
"They presented very well, had some very similar ideas and concepts for where we want to go, and also some things that we're already doing, so the confirmation of our methods was also good for us. Obviously they come from a very successful environment. It was pretty meaningful."
Howard's non-cricket background has proved to be an asset for CA in combination with experienced cricket minds like those of the coach Mickey Arthur and the national selector John Inverarity. He said the search for outside ideas had so far been fruitful, though always leavened by the need to adhere to basics.
"Don Tricker, the guy heading up New Zealand rugby, has a softball background. And the fact he came from an environment outside rugby in that country, was huge," Howard said. "The ability to come in and question things is a good thing. We've got some guys on this tour from outside as well, so I think it's important to assess yourself against your competitors, but also other sports."
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here