The coach with a hand in both camps
When the second semi-final of the ICC World Cup 2015 gets underway at the SCG on the afternoon of March 26, in a south-west corner of Sydney, one man will boast of an involvement among the XIs on both sides. Neil D'Costa, one of the more maverick coaches working in Australia, has been associated with two players in the Australian XI and spent three years in the home state of one of the Indians.
D'Costa, 44, was involved in the formative years turning Mitchell Starc from wicketkeeper to fast bowler and working and managing Michael Clarke from a very young age until the two parted ways a few years ago. He spent three years as head coach of the Vidarbha Cricket Association residential academy in Nagpur from 2008 to 2011 and watched a young raw tearaway called Umesh Yadav find his feet. There is a good chance all three will feature in the semi-final and D'Costa said watching players he had worked with develop and get to the highest level of the game was about satisfaction and pleasure: "You have pride that you helped that person get there."
There is a fourth character in this story, whose presence, or rather absence will also be a part of the semi-final story, and with whom D'Costa had very close links. The semi-final will be the last international match to be held at the SCG in the season that began with the awful on-field accident that led to the death of Phillip Hughes. D'Costa was Hughes' mentor and guardian when he moved to Sydney. "Emotionally Philip and I were more alike. I was the person Philip saw to for his health and welfare, he didn't have mum and dad, they were 800ks away."
The idea of life without Philip has been baffling: "Straight, honest answer I still forget he's gone. I still forget and when I get reminded of it, it feels like a shock. I still can't believe I am never going to see him again, I can't get my head around it."
D'Costa describes himself as a "life coach, who uses cricket as a vehicle" and describes his job as being about "developing a human being's motivation at being good at what he does. Everyone's story is different." Name the young players whose early years featured passing through D'Costa's coaching regimen - Clarke, Hughes, Starc and later as an England pro Nick Compton among others - and D'Costa asks with a straight face, "is it a coincidence I am involved?"
Of all the stories, it is Mitchell Starc's that contains in itself, a touch of whimsy. When head coach at Western Suburbs CC, D'Costa wandered over to see what was happening at 'green shield' (under-16) trials. He watched a gawky, self-conscious, spindly teenager throw the ball, hard, flat, fierce with an arm so powerful that he startled him. When he took the boy aside and asked him to have a bowl, he replied, "I'm a keeper I don't bowl." D'Costa replied, "humour me, bowl the ball." At first sighting from a rudimentary run-up and action, D'Costa saw that his hunch was spot on. "We put Mitchell into a high performance programme, grabbed a bucket of balls and showed him how bowl first off one step." Starc was asked to empty out four buckets bowling off one step and "go home." A week later two steps, "and the week after that three." Then the run up and it was from there D'Costa says that, Starc and his bowling had been "manufactured from scratch". Once when D'costa found Starc "mucking around" during training, he sat the younger man down and said, "Do you realise you could play for Australia? Not like them", he said, pointing to other players killing time joshing about. Left-arm whippy, quick, athletic Starc got picked for state sides and moved up the ranks. In Sydney on Thursday, he will be Australia's key strike bowler in the semi-final.
The Michael Clarke story starts when the Australian captain was seven or eight and put in charge of D'Costa by Clarke's father who had bought a sports centre in Liverpool, NSW where D'Costa, a regular in Sydney grade cricket, trained; "you could see even at that age, he was better than most, he had a bit of pizzaz about him."
During his stint with Vidarbha, D'Costa said while he did not coach Umesh with this bowling as there were specialised bowling coaches to do so, the two men have had important conversations. Umesh was told about the responsibilities of being a professional, understanding what a professional psyche was all about, about looking after his body. The two men met the last time the Indians came into Sydney for a lengthy interval: D'Costa met with Umesh again and says, "I am so happy to see him doing well." He has worked with Ross Taylor briefly, conducted a few sessions with VVS Laxman and England batsman Nick Compton, whose ghosts he set free by starting with a simple exercise: remove the pads, face tennis balls and play freely like you did when you were five.
D'Costa is now head coach/coaching director of the Campbelltown Camden Districts Club and the Ghosts Cricket Academy. The Ghosts just happen to be the collective nickname for all local sports teams, based on a local legend about the disappearance of a farmer, Fred Fischer, and, four months later, a sighting first of Fischer's "ghost" and shortly after, his body. Every team that plays out of Campbelltown are called the Ghosts.
Campbelltown is a 48km train and cab ride south-west of Sydney, where on a Monday afternoon, boys around the ages of 8-12 had turned up on time and headed to their indoor nets with the head coach's messages written on the walls. As they learn the finer points of full-blooded and check drives, time out in between is spent air-batting showing off a shot named "the Virat Kohli" - pick the ball from outside off stump and flick it away for a four.
Despite his regular success as a development coach of young players, D'Costa works outside the 'elite pathway' in which the rest of official Australian cricket operates. The son of Anglo-Indian parents who moved to Australia in the 60s, he says there are times when he wonders about his identity: in Australia, growing up, he was thought of as an Indian boy. When he travels to India, he is considered Australian and the absurdity of it makes him laugh.
He says boldly his ambition is to flood the New South Wales team with the best players from his region and gives himself seven years to get there. He is proud of the cream of his under-15s and under-17s at Campbelltown and where they stand in terms of talent from other parts in both bowling and batting. He speaks with as much affection he did about Hughes, Clarke and Starc about a cricketer named Jordan Gauci, of Maltese origin and brimming with promise.
D'Costa is known to be a rocker of boats, has been called a "veteran coach" - ready for pipe and slippers at age 25 - and is hardly acknowledged by the Australian cricket establishment as that coach with a rare "eye." He remains confident that, as his players keep coming through (and they will) they will be all the proof needed if not the recognition of his knowledge, experience and abilities.
After all, look at what happened to three boys with whom he crossed paths not so long ago. They will turn up as key protagonists in a tight, tense match, adding another chapter in the one of the biggest rivalries known to world cricket in what will be their biggest 50-over game in years.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo