Wright and Donald could do Australia good
That changes are needed was apparent from the team's fragile performances last summer. One scribe, writing a book about the campaign, contemplated calling it Going, Going, Gone!, only to be told that it lacked the required pizzazz. However, its accuracy could not be faulted. In a trice the Ashes and the World Cup were lost.
Admittedly it'd be foolish to put all the blame on the shoulders of luckless assistants. As eminent observers have often remarked, coaches don't take wickets or score runs. Nor do they arrange fixture lists, choose teams or cause injuries. Still, it was not so much the defeat that rankled as its manner. The Australians lacked snap, crackle and pop.
That the only casualty so far has been the captain, and that voluntarily, confirms that the cricket community is in dire straits. A board that is itself under scrutiny, and whose very existence has been called into question, is poorly placed to change anything, let alone confront the flaws that came to light in the summer. Defeat is always more illuminating than victory and the challenge is to analyse its causes correctly and apply the proper remedies. Dentists are expected to pull out the right tooth.
Nevertheless it was hard to avoid comparing the coherence of England's display with the disarray detected among the Australians. England strode towards their destiny while their hosts were desperately trying to avoid their fate. For decades it was the other way around. England's fielding was sharper and their tactics more penetrating and more precisely applied. Every move the visitors made was part of a plan. At times their opponents seemed to be thrashing about in the dark.
Undoubtedly those given responsibility for these matters ought to be called to account. Already the previous bowling advisor has moved to the high performance centre in Brisbane. By and large bowling coaches don't last long. They are responsible for only one aspect of the team's performance. Except that it is unnatural and features many moving parts, bowling is not an especially complicated activity, and a coach blessed with the gift of the gab can convey his expertise in a few days. Actually he is not so much a coach as a teacher instilling an appreciation of the craft and an understanding of how a particular action works best.
Once that has been achieved the bowling coach spends his time checking that every part of the action is functioning properly. Bad habits can creep into even the most advanced technique and often the player does not realise they have taken hold. At such times the bowling coach becomes a talking mirror. To his misfortune, though, he can easily become a victim of weak thinking, whereby a struggling bowler blames not his own lack of fitness or skill or concentration but the coach's failure to provide a cure for his ailments. Harry Potter and company had plenty of magic wands, but they tend to be thin on the ground in cricket dressing rooms.
Accordingly it'd be silly to suppose that nominating new coaches will transform the Australian team. On the other hand it is important to get the best men for the job. England's fortunes have risen considerably since they started appointing African coaches. India too have realised the importance of selecting the right man and clearly expect Duncan Fletcher to continue the good work discreetly done by his immediate predecessor. Fletcher has the required knowledge and will command respect, and his success will depend on the steadiness of his temperament.
Wright and Donald are the right combination for Australia and they can work together. They forged a strong partnership at the recent World Cup, thereby helping New Zealand reach the semi-finals, whereupon they came unstuck against a vibrant Sri Lankan side playing in their own backyard and in front of their own supporters. Of course it was not the first time New Zealand surpassed expectations, and the captain and players deserve most of the credit. Still, it was a strong display and all concerned confirmed that the coaches had played their part. They were shrewd appointments made by a board that has often lacked conviction and has allowed the players' association to impose itself.
However, they were temporary appointments and these gentlemen remain open to offers. Both combine the best of the old school with a willingness to absorb new methods. Both prefer to retain simplicity in the face of the inexorable advance of complexity. Indeed, they correctly assume the existence of a simplicity beyond complexity, and to that end believe in acquiring all available knowledge, assessing it and reducing it to the bare essentials. In their eyes instruction ought to be simple, plans need to be straightforward.
Apparently Wright was able to coax superb performances from Jesse Ryder by restricting himself to two pieces of advice: don't drink too much and don't throw your wicket away. Ryder responded by producing some superb and responsible innings. Doubtless the same basic principle was applied in other cases. Wright has a way of getting to the nub of the matter.
Like so many of the best coaches, he had to claw and sweat his way to success as a player. Every innings was an ordeal, and at times even fieldsmen shared his suffering as the ball squirted away or another shot was mistimed. Or they did until they noticed that once again he had reached lunch unbeaten, with 53 runs beside his name. Wright scored runs because he worried, not despite it. He fretted his way to accomplishment. A few decades ago I asked Viv Richards how to play spin bowling. He looked astonished by the question and narrowly stopped himself saying "Put your foot out and hit it for six." Wright understands doubt and difficulty and so can offer suggestions.
Wright also has the sort of track record calculated to impress players and officials alike. Besides New Zealand, he coached India and guided them towards the top of the table. He has an ability to adjust his approach to conditions and cultures and is liked by cricketers of all shapes and sides. Not that he is a soft touch. He likes players with character and a bit of mongrel in them, and is not afraid to speak his mind. Just that he is not much of a fellow for putting on public displays.
Donald is also highly regarded by the people who matter most: those operating under his wing. Although a supremely gifted athlete, he had to work at his game and understood that bowling was a fine art. Perplexed that he could surge to the crease one day and deliver thunderbolts and the next feel that his deliveries were powder puff (the difference was never as obvious at the receiving end) he took to timing his run-up on the best days and asking coaches to use stopwatches and send out messages telling him that he was running in too fast or too slow. Rhythm is everything in bowling and can be upset by footholds, slopes, wind, and all sorts of other things batsmen do not take seriously till someone puts the ball in their hand and says, "It's your turn."
Unlike some past players, Donald does not rest on his reputation as a great bowler. He knows that coaching is a specialist task that requires constancy, effort and the ability to communicate. By all accounts, too, he is a hard taskmaster prepared to listen but unwilling to waste time on weaklings and whiners. He applies himself and expects his charges to do the same.
By no means are Wright or Donald the only impressive candidates for the positions, one of which is not yet open. Some very good men, including Australians (not least England's bowling advisor), are tied up, but others remain available. Geoff Lawson and Venkat Prasad know a thing or two about bowling. Gary Kirsten has not been pinned down.
That both nominations are foreigners is beside the point. There is a time to teach and a time to learn, a time to be confident and a time to show humility. In any case misguided pride has not prevented outsiders taking charge of Australia's rugby and soccer sides. Sometimes even the best system stagnates, and then fresh blood is needed. It is not, though, a time for novices but for outstanding men capable of uplifting the morale and prospects of an ailing outfit.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It