March 28, 2015

A tale of two coaches

Their playing careers were vastly different, and so are their personalities, but the road to the World Cup final for Hesson and Lehmann has been similar

From team-mates to trusting allies: Hesson and McCullum have taken New Zealand up the rankings in Tests and ODIs © AFP

In 2004, the playing careers of Darren Lehmann and Michael Clarke briefly overlapped when Lehmann offered to give up his Test place for Clarke, who had just scored a debut century in Bangalore. Now they are coach and captain of Australia, together plotting to win a World Cup final.

In 2001, the playing careers of Mike Hesson and Brendon McCullum overlapped too, at a slightly different level. They batted together for Otago A, Hesson the opener and captain, McCullum, the young emerging wicketkeeper-batsman who had played five first-class games but was yet to score a fifty. Now they are coach and captain of New Zealand, together aiming for a World Cup triumph.

Clarke and McCullum have both spoken of their friendship and great mutual respect. They are aggressive captains who always look to move the game forward. They do so with the backing of coaches who share those principles and have created a calm environment around the squad, yet who differ greatly in background and public image.

Otago A was more or less Hesson's peak as a player; he never appeared in a first-class match. Lehmann represented Australia on 144 occasions and remains the all-time highest run-getter in Sheffield Shield history. You could say that between them, the coaches in this World Cup final have made 25,795 first-class runs.

Lehmann is one of the most easily identifiable men in Australian sport; Hesson one of the most anonymous in New Zealand, that guy who hangs around the cricket team and kind of looks like Andy Flower. Lehmann is the joker, the larrikin, always up for a beer with the boys; Hesson by his own admission is "not the type of guy to go out and celebrate and jump around like a mad man".

But they have brought a common approach to their respective sides, most notably fostering an atmosphere in which players are not afraid to fail. Former England captain Michael Vaughan played under Lehmann at Yorkshire, and once wrote that one of Lehmann's great strengths was "his ability to make people view cricket as just a game".

Lehmann is one of the most easily identifiable men in Australian sport; Hesson one of the most anonymous in New Zealand, that guy who hangs around the cricket team and kind of looks like Andy Flower

Hesson knows full well that there are more important things in the world than cricket. When he coached Kenya, his family was subject to an attempted carjacking, and bombs went off near his house. Not surprisingly, such incidents encouraged him to bring an early end to his time in Nairobi.

"It was all too close to home," Hesson told the New Zealand Herald last year. "It gave me a bit more perspective on life, to be honest. Now if things aren't going so well from a professional point of view, I just think 'oh well, things could be worse'."

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The presence of both Hesson and Lehmann at this World Cup final is a reminder of how much time and effort both New Zealand and Australia have spent trying to get their set-ups just right. Both teams have bottomed out in the past five years and put in place measures to ensure such depths were not plumbed again.

Australia's Ashes debacle in 2010-11 led to the Argus report, which in turn led to Mickey Arthur being appointed coach, which ended in chaos when he was sacked on the eve of the next Ashes. But his axing was proof that Australia would not be happy to simply coast along, and they felt Lehmann would be a unifying force in the squad.

New Zealand sought improvement by installing John Buchanan as director of cricket, and Buchanan in turn went for the extreme left-field appointment of Kim Littlejohn as national selection manager. Littlejohn worked in lawn bowls high performance in Australia, but Buchanan saw his data analysis as a strength and thought he could revolutionise cricket selection processes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Littlejohn lasted only two years. But Buchanan's other significant appointment, though, was that of Hesson to replace John Wright as coach, and that decision has been a triumph. New Zealand were ranked eighth in the ODI rankings when Hesson took over; now they are ranked fourth and are competing in a World Cup final.

Clarke and Lehmann: a partnership that stabilised Australia after a rocky phase William West / © AFP

Lehmann had come from coaching Queensland, Hesson from Otago, and both found out the hard way that the scrutiny upon moving up to international level increases exponentially. During a radio interview in Lehmann's first series in charge, he carelessly accused Stuart Broad of "blatant cheating", a comment that was highly inappropriate for an international coach.

Hesson wanted McCullum as captain but made a hash of the changeover from Ross Taylor, who was so upset by the way the situation was handled that he took a break from the game. It was a steep learning curve for Hesson, who had started coaching in his early 20s but now had a role that was far more important than any he had previously possessed.

Ultimately, though, the move to McCullum has been a godsend for New Zealand. Under the Hesson-McCullum leadership, New Zealand have not only risen in the ODI rankings but have beaten India, Sri Lanka and West Indies in Test series, and drawn admirably with Pakistan in the UAE last year, shortly after Pakistan crushed Australia 2-0 there.

Australia have still had their downs, but their ups under Lehmann and Clarke have been significant: an Ashes whitewash at home, a 2-1 Test series win in South Africa, and a thumping of India in Australia this summer. The simultaneous rise of the trans-Tasman neighbours culminates in Sunday's World Cup final at the MCG.

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The World Cup final will be New Zealand's first match at the MCG in six years. But it will not be the first time their players have been to the ground. Four months before this World Cup campaign began, the New Zealand squad visited the MCG on a quiet Tuesday afternoon in October, soaking up the sight of the grandstands, getting a feel for the dressing rooms.

"I think he's probably the new breed of coach, in terms of not necessarily someone that is overly vocal from a team point of view but works very hard behind the scenes and pulls a lot of things together"
McCullum on Hesson

The visit was proof of Hesson's thoroughness of preparation. New Zealand hoped they would reach this weekend's decider and if they did, he did not want his players to be visiting the stadium for the first time. If such a reconnaissance mission could give them even a tiny benefit heading into this match, it was a trip worth taking.

"He's a meticulous planner and a behind-the-scenes communicator," McCullum said of Hesson at the time. "His preparation is outstanding as a coach. I think he's probably the new breed of coach, in terms of not necessarily someone that is overly vocal from a team point of view but works very hard behind the scenes and pulls a lot of things together."

Hesson is also renowned as for his ability to spot talent that will translate to the international scene. Corey Anderson emerged under Hesson's tenure as a coach and selector, Matt Henry showed he could step up from domestic level, Jimmy Neesham and Mitchell McClenaghan as well. It is not just players Hesson can identify, but coaches too.

"We've got a massive support staff which Mike has employed, and he's not too proud to employ cricketers who have higher profiles than he does," McCullum said in October. "It's a measure of the man that he's prepared to do so. We've got a nice group behind the scenes, now we just need to make sure we get some silverware."

A few months after Hesson was handed the reins, he brought in Shane Bond as bowling coach. Craig McMillan has since then followed as batting coach. Hesson has a long coaching history, from Argentina to Kenya to Otago to New Zealand, but he knew the value that such former international cricketers would add to the squad.

Lehmann has likewise ensured that Australia's players always have access to the finest of ex-cricketers. Under Lehmann, Craig McDermott returned as bowling coach, and retired champions such as Shane Warne have also provided their services at different times. During this World Cup campaign, Steve Waugh was the latest to don the team warm-up gear and help out.

It is not as if Lehmann's playing or coaching credentials are inadequate - he started coaching in 2008 and has worked in the IPL and at Queensland before his sudden appointment to the national job - but he sees the value of an inclusive approach.

Hesson and Lehmann, for their vastly different playing backgrounds and public personas, have found what works for their players. It is no surprise that the two sides competing for the World Cup have spent such effort getting things right off field, and have created environments in which their players are comfortable.

As Hesson said last year: "It's not about me, it's about helping the players get to where they want to be". The New Zealanders and the Australians all wanted to be at the final of their home World Cup. Hesson and Lehmann have helped make it happen.

Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @brydoncoverdale

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