December 25, 2010

What approach will John Wright take?

Andrew Alderson
New Zealand's new coach has plenty of previous experience in the role. Just how will he go about things this time round?

The rhetoric is over, the reasons are obvious, and the resurrection of the New Zealand cricket team begins with a Twenty20 international against Pakistan on Boxing Day for new coach John Wright. He has less than two months to transform a side on an 11-one-dayer loss streak into one that can qualify for at least a sixth semi-final in 10 World Cup attempts.

Wright's pedigree was evident from his five-year stint coaching India - a period that among other achievements saw the team reach a World Cup final in South Africa in 2003 and draw a Test series in Australia the following season. The public rallying cry has been loud and lingering but it took until last Sunday for Wright to be approved by the board.

New Zealand's cricket structures have had a rough time of it lately. Wright is the fourth coach in just over two years. The John Bracewell regime came to a shaky end towards the end of 2008. The Andy Moles reign surrendered meekly a year later. And the Roger Mortimer-Mark Greatbatch-Daniel Vettori conglomerate provided unacceptable answers to searching questions from August to December 2010 on the subcontinent.

A blip of hope emerged with two draws in the three-Test Indian series, but that has since been forgotten as New Zealand's second worst one-day international losing run edges towards the 13 that fans endured from April 1994 to January 1995. The strength of India, albeit with a weakened top order, has to be acknowledged, as does the ongoing development of Bangladesh, but neither reason can fully justify the recent capitulations.

Wright has been approached in the past to help. He was rung by Vettori as recently as the Indian tour but is understood to have wanted to take the team on his own terms. That mandate is already in action with the decision to scythe through the previous support staff. Performance director Roger Mortimer, coaches Mark Greatbatch, Shane Jurgensen and Mark O'Donnell are among those cut. New Zealand Olympic chef de mission Dave Currie has survived as manager (for now), while New South Welshman Trent Woodhill, who joined the group before the tour to Sri Lanka mid-year, moves from performance advisor to assistant coach. He previously spent two seasons with the Delhi Daredevils (Vettori's team) in the Indian Premier League.

The overwhelming value Wright brings is said to have contributed to the NZC's new Cricket Committee making an almost unanimous decision. While he was one of several candidates, his credentials stood out.

His approach to coaching has also had a relatively simple mindset: don't use the term "don't"; as in, "play straight" rather than "don't hook"

Vettori will now have the chance to step back and focus solely on his form and the captaincy after being demoted from a selector on the panel to a role of "consultant". But while his preferred management system has been replaced, in a defeat for perceived Players Association influence, Vettori looks set to continue as captain beyond the World Cup. At this stage it will be in all forms of cricket. He has also accepted the need to forge a new relationship with Wright, given Ross Taylor is learning his craft as an international leader.

So what sort of mentoring style will Wright adopt? Will it be the hard-nosed approach of a Bob Simpson, the organised platform of a John Buchanan, the measured methods of a Bob Woolmer, or the more irreverent stance of a Bob Cunis, the New Zealand cricket coach when Wright was Test captain between 1988 and 1990?

Wright's playing nickname of "Shake", as in what you do with your cricket coffin to fit your gear in at the end of a day, indicates the Buchanan approach might be a struggle, but evidence suggests the other philosophies could all feature. If anything was learnt from Wright's successful Indian tenure it was that he knows how to listen and adapt his behaviour dependent on the player. However, he has firm views on putting country first - before the team, the individual or any IPL franchise.

Wright will also have to take care with the fragile transition, getting to know the players. He knows the value of team spirit forged in the sheds but still expects a decent attitude. It is sometimes forgotten that Wright was one of the country's first professional cricketers, playing for Derbyshire from 1977-88. He knows what it takes to play day in, day out. His approach to coaching has also had a relatively simple mindset: don't use the term "don't"; as in, "play straight" rather than "don't hook". And adhere to the Lord Cowdrey mantra, which says: for every hour in the gym, spend three hours practising cricket skills.

There is a lighter side to Wright too, which hopefully won't be lost, provided he establishes a rapport. He used to be a fine prankster. The prawns in Rod Marsh's wicketkeeping gloves during an Australian tour had Wright's fingerprints on them. Speaking about the incident years later, he said all he could smell at the wicket during the next game was rotten prawns and disinfectant when Marsh passed by, seething and refusing to speak to him. On another tour he was guilty of arson on coach Cunis' white floppy hat, using a lighter and a cardboard cricket ball carton as ignition, much to the team's amusement. A realistic fake snake was known to slither its way into New Zealand gear bags on the subcontinent as well.

Wright has a good grasp of the meaning of mateship from bygone eras. Hopefully some of that can translate to the current period, albeit in a coach-to-player manner rather than as one of the boys.

At 56 this could be his last chance to forge a career in the international arena before he moves to consultant status. Cricket has been his life, so there's no lack of passion. Wright tried a few desk jobs post-retirement but tired of them quickly and it wasn't long before he was coaching Kent. He explained in his second autobiography, Indian Summers that he knew then, as he does now, he would always rather be deafened by the sound of a roaring crowd than the ticking of a clock at a desk.

Andrew Alderson is cricket writer for New Zealand's Herald on Sunday newspaper