'We need to recover quicker than West Indies'
Steve Rixon was last week named Australia's new fielding coach. The former Test wicketkeeper joins Justin Langer and Craig McDermott as the assistants to the head coach, Tim Nielsen. After his appointment, Rixon spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his new role and the current state of Australian cricket.
After 20 years of coaching around the world, it must be pleasing to be part of the Australian side again?
It is. I've spoken to a lot of people who said, "It must have rejuvenated you a lot." I haven't needed any rejuvenation! I've been extremely rejuvenated wherever I've been involved, and have had plenty of success wherever I've been involved.
It is always great to be involved with any Australian side. My big thing is about being able to do something to actually try to help get Australia back into a better place. At the end of the day, a lot of people sit on the fence and do nothing. Well, I've been given an opportunity to be able to do something about it. I'm extremely excited at the proposition of working with a lot of those kids I've seen over the years. I've seen things that I would like to sit down and talk to the boys about, and hopefully turn them into better cricketers - certainly from the fielding perspective.
What do you think of the fielding standard around the world at the moment?
If you go through the best sides of the past, whether it's the Windies in the 80s, through to the cream of the crop with Australia, we've had some outstanding fielding teams. You can see the English now have upped the ante with their fielding, and it's standing out. I've noticed the Indians are starting to hit the deck more often, and they've become better. Everyone has eventually realised that you can't have a passenger in the field anymore. To me, it's always been an important part. You can walk into any organisation and really not know whether someone is going to go out and get a hundred or get five-for, but there's one thing you should always be assured of, if your preparation has been good, and that's that they make limited errors in the field, and maybe do something that might change the pattern of the game.
Not long ago Australia were the world's best fielding team. Is that still the case?
I don't think so. I won't say that. We've got some world-class fielders. Ricky Ponting, Michael Clarke and Michael Hussey - they're three of the older boys. That tells me there are a lot of youngsters that need to get back to some simple basics in the field like they do in the other aspects of their game. I have no question they are crying out to be helped, and I think they will improve. But we're definitely not leading the way in the fielding anymore.
It was a little bit different when you had Warne and McGrath in your side, because even if you did drop a catch, it wouldn't be too much longer before McGrath would give you another opportunity. Warnie just created opportunities for fun, and you can't buy that back. In the changing of the guard, you don't have that. That, to me, is something we've got to be realistic with. So what we've got to do is make sure that when we have an opportunity, we're going to make the best of it. That's when our fielding will be at a new level, because we'll have people who are not missing anything, really. That's in the perfect world, of course, but that's the objective. We're talking about getting less opportunities but getting more catches when we do.
Is the fact that the fielding standard has dropped a reflection on domestic cricket around Australia?
I think that's a very good summation. I have seen some of the domestic games, and there is the odd standout, but it does need a new level brought into state cricket. They've fallen off the pace quite a bit there. We need to be much more consistent and realise that every opportunity that comes could be the changing of the game. It is a reflection on our domestic game, which is a bit sad, because that has been without question the strength of Australian cricket. Our grade sides have been strengthened by the fact that we've had a lot of state players go back to grade cricket on occasions. That lifts the standard, as does Test cricketers coming back and playing state cricket. If we're looking at getting that standard to a higher level, we're certainly going to have to do that.
Why have fielding standards dropped away in domestic cricket?
I've seen some games where the fielding is very, very good, and I've seen some games where the intensity level is down. Your intensity level comes from your preparation. If you prepare and train smart, you'll probably find you've got a little bit of an edge. It's not by accident those three older guys I talked about [Ponting, Hussey and Clarke] turned out to be very good fielders. They're all quite athletic, but [the more important question is] who does that little bit extra from a young age all the way through? These guys have done the extra work.
We need to focus on the intensity of training, and also the smartness of when to stop. I've seen a lot of people will field for hours, and eventually they'll walk off when they've had the worst quarter hour of fielding of the whole time they were out there. You gain nothing out of that. You stop when you're on top of your game, and you trust that preparation is the way you're going to go out into the next game.
How important was fielding practice in your previous coaching jobs?
I remember only too vividly turning a group of guys in New Zealand into arguably the best slips cordon I've seen, outside of anything Australia have produced. We had [Adam] Parore, [Stephen] Fleming, [Nathan] Astle and [Bryan] Young, and I can't remember them dropping any more than about five catches collectively in all the games that we had. So we did have something special. We had to, because we didn't have the bowling power or the batting power to compete with a lot of nations. That single-handedly kept us in a lot of these games.
Will you be working with the keepers as well?
I've been working with Brad Haddin for seven or eight years, so nothing will change there, except that I'll be around more often. Hadds and myself have had a special relationship for a long, long time and that's never waned. I'll certainly be doing my work with him and [Tim] Painey. It's something I really enjoy doing. The slips cordon is something I'll be doing a lot of work on.
I want to make players take ownership of a position. We've got to work out where everyone fits into the equation. We want players to have a wishlist of where they'd like to be - outside of stuck at fine leg or third man all day - if they'd like to be at slip or short leg, or be one of the important players square of the wicket. If you feel you can do it, let's put it on the wishlist and work towards it. Then if the situation ever arose, you're not out of your depth. That to me is very important - you have the basics covered but also have something in mind as to where else in the field you might be able to contribute, so we don't have any passengers at any stages.
The appointment is for the tours of Sri Lanka and South Africa. Do you want to stay on after that?
They [Cricket Australia] came to me asking the questions, I didn't go chasing the job. I've never taken a coaching job and committed to anything like three or four years. I back myself to do two years and then reassess. Let's see how it goes for two tours and see if it's the sort of thing I would like to continue with - I'll be very surprised if it isn't. IPL is very much part of my life at the moment, with the Chennai Super Kings. They've been extremely good to me, so I've said from day one that that will be a priority. The idea of the shorter term is as much for me as it is for Cricket Australia.
Will you be a sounding board for the other coaches as well, in areas besides fielding?
Most definitely. With 20-odd years of coaching and 15 years as a player, I'd be very surprised if they didn't want to hear from a new set of eyes around the place. If I was a coach and had someone new come in, I'd be all over him. I'd want honesty out of him and I'd want him to tell me as he sees it, because that's the only way you move forward. As Michael [Clarke] and Tim [Nielsen] know, I'll be very happy to be honest with what I see. It's not about individuals, this is about a group going together and trying to get Australia back on track, to get away from ever looking at fifth position on a Test table ever again. We don't want to ever be seen or thought of in the same breath as, say, West Indies after their reign at the top of the tree. We need to recover quicker than anything West Indies have done.
Are you confident Australia has the young talent to climb back up the Test rankings?
That's the only part I really do know without any apprehension. I look at what we've got in our youngsters, throw in your mix of senior players, and we have the ability to get back on top of things very quickly - albeit we will be taking things in small steps, looking at the fourth position before we look at first. We want to be tracking to that first position, but that may take a little bit of time. We definitely have the quality of players in Australia, no question about that.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo