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John Wright talks about the place of coaching in the modern game and looks at his assignment with New Zealand, as well as his time with India a few years ago
Interview by Sharda Ugra
April 21, 2011
If cricket coaching could be transported into extreme sport, John Wright would probably not opt for the elastic security of his native bungee, or even skydiving. Wright would be a BASE jumper, the stuff of shorter freefall and greater hazard, leaps taken off buildings and cliffs. Better not go further with the metaphor, though; Wright doesn't even like flying in an airplane too much.
Yet it's no coincidence that both his international coaching jobs so far have involved risk-taking and a sense of why-the-hell-not? Coming cold into India in 2000, and then, 10 years later, joining up as New Zealand coach, with a team at an ebb and two months left for a World Cup, does indicate an appetite for adventure.
At the World Cup, the previously easybeat Kiwis strangled South Africa in the quarter-final before losing their semi-final. The sight of a baying pack in black astonished many, the result shook the World Cup's rafters. Wright says drily, "I'd rather that happen than for us to leave limping meekly. We're not playing in a church or a classroom." Those words are not quite in sync with his decades-old image as "nice guy" and "gentleman." While the image is not entirely untrue, it's not entirely him either. In a game situation, the hard-bitten on-field competitor in Wright would always punch the gentleman's lights out. It is how his coaching works. The basics over the bull, the "wins" column over the window-dressing.
He is today one of the world's most seasoned coaches, an individualist in a world of jargon-junkies and cheerleaders. In his time away from the disco lights of Indian cricket, Wright's kinship with the country has only grown deeper. At the World Cup, New Zealand never had a shortage of net bowlers; hotel staff talked family with Wright; his India captain, Sourav Ganguly, called to give batting tips ("Don't play square so much", "When tackling spin in India, keep your legs out of the way"). Wright watched the World Cup final in his home outside Christchurch, pleased to see many men from the 2003 final laugh and cry, celebrate and be celebrated.
In between the two big jobs, he got an offer to head the Australian Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, worked as New Zealand High Performance manager, contemplated frequent IPL coaching offers (at last count, three), and late last year was about to sign a World Cup TV contract in India. Then he was asked to walk through a door that until then - to the utter bewilderment of the outside world - had been kept shut between a tailspinning national team and its country's most prominent international coach. Once again John Wright took a leap into the unknown.
He spoke to ESPNcricinfo in two parts; the business of coaching and modern cricket was discussed during the World Cup, and matters New Zealand early last week.
What is your assessment of how the World Cup went for New Zealand? What did the World Cup prove to you about the Black Caps?
That we can beat anyone. Losing in the semi-finals was bitterly disappointing, but I hope the team has learnt. I think it has grown. What's important is that we just played as hard as we could with the resources we had.
The semi-final was just a case of the batting going wrong, wasn't it?
We won the toss at the Premadasa which was a bonus, but we couldn't achieve what we wanted to with the bat in the last 10 overs. We had a pretty good target to achieve. We knew that a 240-250 target in a semi-final would be tough, but we had our hiccups in the latter phases. We just didn't get to where we needed to be with our batting. We lost three wickets just when we were about to take the Powerplay. When we came into the break, what we talked about was that we just needed to replicate the attitude and the quality of our display in the previous game. We didn't have much to play with but if we went out there with the attitude we had in the quarter-final, you never know what could happen. In a one-off tournament anyone can be beaten.
In the team's net session in Ahmedabad, batsmen weren't allowed to hit over the net? What was that about?
We have got a lot of good ball-strikers, but we hadn't had a lot of hundreds before the World Cup, and that's been really because we have not been prepared to work the ones and twos. It's all very well to be a net tiger and play all the big shots. Before the Australia game I saw we were were hitting the ball all over the place, but when we went out there we found that didn't work against a good bowling attack, and we had to knuckle down. So we changed how we trained. The guys didn't like it very much for a start because it challenged them. It was a way of getting them to work on their first 10 minutes on the batting crease. So if they practise irresponsibly, they'll go out and someone else will get a bat. I think you have to practise with purpose, as if it is going to help your game.
The du Plessis incident surprised a lot of people. No one had seen the Kiwis sledge someone so hard. The captain got fined.
Well, it wasn't carefully rehearsed. But I'd rather that happen that the other way around, to go out limping meekly. We're not playing in a church or a classroom.
As coach, what was your best moment from the World Cup?
Seeing a team starting to believe in themselves and in each other. That's a big thing. The fight the boys showed tells you about the team - that it can get better. We have the opportunities at this stage to get better.
What's with these almost self-destructive jobs you like to take on? First India, which you didn't know much about and then a struggling New Zealand, two months before a World Cup.
The Indian one was sort of just an opportunity you couldn't miss: to be the first foreigner to coach India. I always thought if I got the opportunity and if I hadn't had a go at it, I would have regretted that when I was at 60 - not much older than I am now, really! It's been a great life experience for me, to be honest.
This one, New Zealand, was slightly different. I'd been working for New Zealand Cricket for two years and a bit. They had hired various coaches, and I probably was their last resort. I thought the side could play a bit and just needed a bit of tweaking and changing one or two things.
I suppose it was a bit like unfinished business - to come back to India and do a World Cup with your own country. It's nice to be back coaching. After India, I of had two years of recovering, fixing up the farm, and working with some of the younger New Zealand players - a variety of roles, a little bit of a coaching. I wanted to get back to team coaching. I like the competitiveness of team coaching, of having games where you want to win. I like that. It can be… not nerve-wracking, but it keeps you on your toes.
What from your Indian experience have you learnt or unlearnt?
You just keep learning. First of all, the way you become a good coach is, you need to have good cricketers. And that's it. Not only good cricketers, if you get that combination of a great cricketer and a very competitive character, a good character, certain behaviours. You look at the way that people react to competition, to pressure, all those things. It's just moulding all of that together.
I've always believed in old-fashioned stuff: work ethic, honesty, and really enjoying playing for the team you are in, whatever that is. Coaching is just moulding a group that has the skills and the attitude to win. It's probably a different challenge with this team, with difference pieces that perhaps we haven't got, that we had with India, and vice-versa. You just work all that out. I think most coaches come into an environment and they have to sit and listen and look and find out where what needs to go, where, if you do make a change, it makes the biggest impact, and hopefully you win games of cricket.
One of the things I learnt in India is that you are so dependent on what goes on underneath the national team. When we mentioned to Mr [Jagmohan] Dalmiya [former BCCI president] that A teams are really, really important so we had to have regular A-team touring, it made a lot of difference. It creates heat on the incumbents, which is good, because you don't want comfort zones. Then again, the selection has to be very accurate and ruthless, and you have to have succession planning. I don't think many countries get that right, personally. I think you have to be thinking a year ahead, at least. That doesn't mean you're changing the team now, but you know you have to. You can't stand still.
|"Personally I've given a high score on attitude or character, or whatever you like to call it, because I don't think you get it on talent. You have to have a certain amount of ability, but I think the players that have attitude will always go further. You probably want people [who], if you had to go to war, you wouldn't mind them being on the same bus"|
Where does it stand in New Zealand at the moment?
I just feel we have got a long way to go. We are missing one or two bits here and there, and we've got some good youngsters coming through underneath. If we get them some really tough playing opportunities to bridge the gap between international and first-class, in two or three years time we could have a good side.
Given the team's poor results last year, isn't New Zealand Cricket worried about reduced public interest or the shrinking of the talent pool?
I spent the last two-three years working with 16-19-year-old kids, some of them now 20-21. Kane Williamson is in this team, Adam Milne was in the Under-19 teams. We've got four or five, maybe six, kids that really show a lot of potential. I've been really impressed with some of the talent I've seen in the last couple of years in U-17 and U-19 tournaments.
I know that as long as we can put a playing programme in place for these guys coming through, it challenges them and bridges the gap between first-class and international cricket. The ones with that talent, the ones that really want to make it, we could hopefully hold on to. There will be a few changes from this team over the next years. The opportunity for the boys to earn huge money with the IPL, of the kind we wouldn't be able to generate in New Zealand, is exciting. That may attract more kids to play the game, or think about it anyway. The critical question is whether the administration makes the right cricketing decisions.
Much was said about how you had been kept off the coaching job because of player power in New Zealand. What's it like working with perhaps the most powerful of New Zealand's players, Dan Vettori?
I'm all for player power, particularly if it's on the field. Dan's been great to work with. I've enjoyed working with him and we have got to know each other. As captain, he tried to lead with performance on the field, and he achieved that.
The 2015 World Cup in New Zealand is going to have only 10 teams. As someone who's been a part of the tournament, do you agree with the idea?
The World Cup has got to be about the world - they [the ICC] have to be sure they have got the 10 best teams in it. No matter where they come from. Otherwise it's a nonsense. Surely it doesn't take eight years to sort that one out. Ireland were a revelation this time. They have shown they can knock over big sides. There needs to be some incentive for the [Associate] teams to get the opportunity to play in the World Cup.
Fifteen-odd years into coaching, is there anything that you did in the past that you wouldn't do now?
The one thing I wouldn't do is overestimate the importance of the role of coach. Because I think there's a lot written about this and that. It's the players that win you the games, that's it. As a coach you can do some things, but when you sum it all up, matches are won because DW Smith got 124 or SL Patel took 6 for 38, and they, the players, did it.
You've been involved with two very different teams. In a skill-driven sport like cricket, what do teams really need to win - talent or application?
In India, belief was a big thing [when] playing away. That was built slowly, like a win here and a win there. Now they have got that and the latest crop has taken it to a much higher level.
I mean, a simple thing like fitness. When you look at it, when I first started, it was a coach and a physio, and it took us a year and a half to convince people that a fitness trainer might help. The support team now with the Indians is very, very professional. So there were lots of areas of improvement.
In the end it's about working particularly with your captain and your seniors players, to say that, "Well, look this is probably the way to go if you guys want to be a part of a winning team." You have got to be able to sell it to them. Not only sell it, sometimes you have to convince them and sometimes you just instruct. But in the end they have got to take ownership. If you can't sell it, you can end up frustrated and you are probably not a right fit with that group.
The best thing is to have a highly talented player who has the best attitude and wants to be the best player in the world. It's not common but coaches can get a few of those. Look at all the good teams - they have five or six or seven of those. Now if you are playing international sport and you don't have that attitude - those individuals who like to compete and have a lot of courage, you're not going to make it.
Personally I've [given] a high score on attitude or character, or whatever you like to call it, because I don't think you get it on talent. There's a huge amount of talent everywhere; getting both in a package is fantastic. You have to have a certain amount of ability, but I think the players that have attitude will always go further. You probably want people [who], if you had to go to war, you wouldn't mind them being on the same bus.
Culture becomes immaterial, then?
I think you have to be mindful of the culture you are in. I would always try and be me wherever I work, but you have to appreciate where you are. It took me two years to work out how things worked in India. I could never work out why there were 15 players with every team at home when all we needed was 12. But that's fair enough, you understand and accept it.
One of the things you get quoted a lot is saying that you can't coach "want". How, as a coach, can you pick want?
That's easy. A ten-mile run will answer that. You see it in the way a player approaches everything, particularly on the training ground, particularly how they react to individual success or failure.
What would you say has changed about you since your two international jobs?
When I coached India there was so much at the start. You were virtually coaching for your career, every game almost. It was trying to manage your emotions that was important. I think I used to take the losses when I was coaching India a bit personally, which is not so much now. I'm a bit older and wiser. I don't know how the boys see it, though. I wanted to make a difference with India, and so it meant a lot. Here I'm a bit calmer. It's a big role in terms of New Zealand, but actually coaching the All Blacks would be similar to coaching India, in a much smaller fashion - a country of four million to a billion people.
You get better at things, areas you try and improve, areas where you need to improve. I still don't smile much during matches.
What's said most commonly about the Indian team is that they play with so much expectation surrounding them, while the Black Caps don't really have to deal with that. Does the pressure of expectation bring a team closer? Or does having a relaxed environment produce better cricket?
I think any fan, whatever sport they watch, just wants to know that their team plays with a lot of courage, plays with a lot of fight. I know that all New Zealanders - and we've had a bit of an up-and-down period - want to see their team wants to play good cricket, is proud to play their sport for their country, and fight like hell.
Realistically, man for man, against some teams, statistically we don't match up, but if we can put on a good performance, people will accept that,. And it wasn't too much different in India… although, come to think of it, it was different. Fighting was important but you had to win. As a foreign coach, you had to win. Sourav and the boys, we had a good cricket team, and we needed to win.
As New Zealand coach, are you tempted to talk about the team you played for in the 80s?
No, absolutely not, they're not interested. A lot of them would have [had] the 80s rammed down their throat. Some of the guys who have played in the 80s are commentators now. It is good to reflect on the past, but as a coach you don't do that at all. Players want to set their own era. A few things you want to avoid [as a coach] is saying, "Don't do this" and "In my day." We were playing Test cricket and we weren't a great one-day side.
The modern cricketer is interested in the Twenty20 landscape. There are many more choices. They are professional sportsmen and are earning lots of money. When you work with them for New Zealand, you want a good support crew around so they feel like they're playing for the team, but they have also got other things they do too.
So whatever you are, it is that team thing that you are talking about, about getting the culture right. As coach, the other thing is simple: you put a group around you - the physio, the trainer. Bob Simpson, who had a big influence on my coaching career, always told me that as a coach you always try and get your batsmen to score more runs and bowlers to take more wickets. You always go back to that, because if a player is not learning his own game, he will, after a time, become a little dissatisfied.
You are trying to help them learn their game, trying to put together a team that wins, because that's how you have fun playing international cricket. It's not fun losing. All your fun comes from winning and that's how it should be.
What about modern coaching do you not like?
Having a lot of meetings sometimes doesn't make much sense to me. Generally I think they are overrated. I'll try anything if you think it's going to make you win and make a player work. As a coach you're constantly thinking of what those things are. I have probably done some dumb things over the years myself, but the longer you go on, certainly I think you can throw away a lot of the meaningless stuff. I've always thought there are two levels. There is the team thing and then there are the individuals. The trick is finding the key that turns the lock for a player and gets the best out of that player.
I would have to say I have seen a lot of kids get messed up by poor coaching. Saying stuff when it just complicates it for the individual or the team, I think that's just someone trying to justify their role, and I really don't have time for that.
Sometimes it's easier to say, "Look, this is what we need to achieve." Good people and good players generally work out how to get there. They might need a bit of tweaking, and if they go down a blind alley, you send them back. That's where selection is critical and the characters you pick and the make-up you pick.
The other thing that I hate is when people start talking about others. I always think they should look at their own game first. That's really important. Once you start reviewing each other, you don't review yourself first. And that applies to coaches and everyone. You can't just blame the players.
You're interested in the work of other coaches. What's the latest going on there?
I was reading Roy Keane's book and the boys are reading it too. His insights on [Alex] Ferguson, for instance, were very interesting. He was obviously a very, very good operator, with a great attention to detail, and he stood up for his players. Meeting other coaches is fantastic, but you don't get too many chances, so I read up a lot. These days it's almost like you've got to have several PhDs to qualify for some of these job descriptions. I always go back to coaching the game and coaching the skill and then putting the management structure around it. I think when you are at the international level you are always judged by your results. So don't fluff over them with all the other stuff.
|"I have seen a lot of kids get messed up by poor coaching. Saying stuff when it just complicates it for the individual or the team, I think that's just someone trying to justify their role or whatever, and I really have no time for that. That's basically getting in the way of players"|
You've played and seen limited-overs cricket for close to four decades now. Where do you think the game is now?
I think the all-round batting is of a higher standard. The ball-striking ability is something that has really evolved since Twenty20, and players are smart about it. The running between the wickets varies from team to team.
There are more shots, a lot more players now play the reverse sweep than they ever did. They are probably more fearless now. The boundaries aren't huge, and players look at someone on the boundary and say, "I've got the power to hit over them." That used to be the bad option, but now there are players that can do that at will. Whether this means that Twenty20 specialists will be the way to go, though, I don't know. We must see how the stats of the good Twenty20 players came through in the World Cup. I think your more all-round batsmen will come through in 50 overs. Whereas in Twenty20, it's your impact players, who don't bat for long. But you still have to set an innings up in 50-over cricket. And that is set up by the top four. If someone out of that gets a hundred, then you're going to be okay.
How does coaching work in Twenty20 now?
My first match with New Zealand was a Twenty20, and I hadn't worked that before. It was interesting. You have to be really fast tactically, you need to get people in the right places quickly - like, your batting order can change. And then where you bowl and who you bowl to. It will get to a stage, I feel, where you will have match-ups. You put that bowler to that batsman. You can do a lot of research in that area. For the bowlers, the variation of deliveries is really big. That's probably come through in the World Cup: slow bouncers, all sorts of different balls, taking the pace off the ball... Spinners are a lot more effective than people thought they'd be in limited-overs cricket, mainly because [batsmen] can't use the pace of the ball.
I enjoy Twenty20 because I think it'll evolve into a lot of match-ups, where you put players who will have an impact, and player stats will get more important. Your research and planning will have to be interesting. What's the point of having a player with a strike rate of below 130, for instance? You look at all that information, you look at players that can bowl at different times and in different places. Now sometimes when you look at how IPL franchises assign values to different players, sometimes you just say, "How does that match up with the stats?"
I think it's like baseball where numbers will be really important. Eventually players will be bought and sold on those valuations. Twenty20 is only going to evolve that side of the game. As a coach, you don't have to sit for so long and I think there's no time to get anxious because Twenty20 is pretty cut and thrust, pretty intense.
Did you follow the IPL auction?
Yes, we were in the changing room, having finished a day's play and it was an hour after that. The boys were following it on their phones. Ross Taylor was sitting on the couch, and was sold for a million. So that was the fastest million you've ever seen. It was quite surreal. But that's where it's going.
What's the type of coach India now need, given that Gary Kirsten is leaving?
Gary Kirsten's done a great job. What type of coach? Just a good one. The team is at an interesting stage. It's probably going to be a younger team in two or three years. It's something the BCCI is going to have to think about. Obviously what they want is someone who can win games of cricket with India. One who can work with the players and challenge them to keep getting better. Coaching is a lot of man management, being a hard task-master, and yet, also making a player feel good about himself. In reality it's a mixture of both: you have to do both things and you have to work out how to do it with each individual.
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