The best thing since sliced bread
In October 1999, when a lanky ex-schoolteacher took over as coach of the Australian team, there were more than a few raised eyebrows. After all, even though this John Buchanan bloke had taken the Queensland Bulls to domestic first-class and one-day titles, he'd never played a Test. He was also proposing new-fangled ideas such as creative visualisation and group poetry readings. Worse still, he seemed to be touting the theory that sport could be approached from a scientific viewpoint, and that raw talent could be harnessed, managed and streamlined.
Four years on, any detractors have been well and truly silenced. Since his appointment, Buchanan has taken the Test and one-day sides to new realms of sporting excellence. Statistically, there is no denying his overwhelming effect. In Tests he oversaw 15 of the record 16 successive wins, while the one-day team has now put together 21 straight victories, including the clean sweep at this year's World Cup.
It's little surprise, then, that during this current Test Buchanan's signing of a new two-year contract was announced. "Since his appointment John has played a major role in Australia's international success," said James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia. "We are very pleased to have been able to extend John's contract. The Australian Test and one-day international sides are now regarded as the best in the world, and one of the reasons for that is because we have a world-class support team."
A major part of this march towards world domination has involved the implementation of the coach's unorthodox methods. From his first day, Buchanan has attempted to bring the global game into the 21st century, introducing such practices as massage therapy, Pilates, and blind (eyes wide shut) fielding practice. And anyone assuming he's about to rest on his laurels and take it easy on the opposition had best think again.
The reappointment means he'll be guiding the forthcoming tours of India, Sri Lanka and Zimbabwe, plus the ICC Champions Trophy in England next September, as well as home Test and one-day series for the next two seasons. As far as forward planning is concerned, Buchanan is apparently keen on raising the bar even further. "We have had a great deal of success so far," he says. "The task of remaining the No. 1 side in the ICC's Test and one-day rankings is an ongoing challenge."
For the smattering of visiting fans at the SCG, it wasn't good news. "That's all we need," said Paddy from London, who's in town to follow his beloved rugby team, and opted for a detour to the cricket. "Looks like we'll never win those Ashes back at this rate."
His friend Michael was similarly nonplussed by the prospect. "I hate to admit it but that Buchanan seems like a genius," he said. "He's got these blokes playing like nobody's business. I can't see anyone beating them in the near future. Where did he come from anyway?"
The majority of Australian fans, if asked, probably couldn't come up with the correct answer either. But it doesn't stop them admiring the man on the top rung of the team pecking-order. To many, Buchanan is more than just a coach; he's practically a candidate for canonisation. "What he's done for team consolidation is remarkable," said Matty from Penrith, who has so far attended each day of the second Test. "Sure, some of us thought he was a bit odd when he first came on board with all his weird ideas, but it's working. If reading poetry wins us games, then bring it on."
His son Luke, 12, agreed. "He's a bit like my coach in the under-14s," he said. "He's quiet and doesn't say much, but when he does you know he means it. You wouldn't want to cross him."
Vicki, who had driven from Melbourne to watch the game, believes Buchanan's influence owes more to his projected image as the quiet, no-nonsense achiever. "He comes across as a definite father figure," she explained. "He seems like someone you'd trust and respect; someone who's logical and capable of thought, and someone who just gets on with the job without fuss."
And her sister Margaret was happy to add a few layers to the theorising. "He's not one of the boys," she said with a laugh. "He's got that schoolteacher air about him. You can't imagine him swilling beer and acting like an idiot. Any moment he might send you off to detention."
Whatever the perceptions surrounding John Buchanan, the reality is that he's here to stay. So, it seems, are the poetry recitations, massage therapy and creative visualisation. "There's an old adage that applies here," said Margaret. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Christine Davey is a freelance writer based in Melbourne, Australia.