August 30, 2011

'Australia need to live and die by the sword'

Darren Lehmann, one of the lynchpins of Australia's batting on their extraordinary 2004 tour to Sri Lanka, looks back at that series

Australia's last series in Sri Lanka, in 2004, turned out to be the most unlikely of 3-0 sweeps for the visitors. In Ricky Ponting's first series as captain, the Australians trailed on first innings in each Test, and had to contend with Muttiah Muralitharan at close to his best on spinning pitches. Darren Lehmann, now the coach of Queensland, was a key figure in the victory as an aggressive batsman, left-arm spinner, and confidante of Ponting. He recalls the 2004 Australians' attitude to the series and what the 2011 tourists can learn from their succcess.

In 2004 you won the series 3-0 but trailed on first innings in each match.
For us it was good, tough, hard cricket for five days every game, and they were pretty close games. We just managed to get our noses in front every time and win the key moments. But to be behind on the first innings of every Test match and come back and win it was down to the character of the players at that time.

Was it also a strong lesson about fighting games out until late on day five on pitches that would deteriorate?
That's exactly right, and in those matches we were lucky enough that we batted first in each Test, and turning up to bowl with Shane Warne in your side helped. He had an amazing series, and the difference between the two sides I thought was that Warne got a lot of the top-order batsmen out and Murali got a lot of the tail-end batsmen out, so it [Murali's tally of wickets] wasn't too bad for us.

Damien Martyn and you were the standout Australian batsmen on that tour, but you used quite different styles to combat the spinners.
We had two totally different ways of playing that worked well for us. He played a different style, more based on the back foot, I was more aggressive and got down the wicket. So it worked for both of us. We had a really good series. Everyone had their own plans, and as a batting group we made enough runs to win the series.

What is your advice to the Australian batsmen about to embark on the same task?
They're going to have to play with plans to face all those sorts of bowlers, and really live or die by the sword. Whatever plan it is, have it, believe it and implement it. At some stage if you're not picking Mendis or Herath - Murali in our case - you have to try to work your way through those issues. Work through, have a game plan, a team plan and an individual plan, and actually believe in it and implement it themselves.

That 2004 side, although under a new captain, had a lot of self-assurance from past results. How can Michael Clarke's team build that without the foundation of recent success?
I think confidence is the biggest thing. You've just got to communicate all the time to the players as leaders, and you've got to be happy that some players are going to play a different role and play a different way to the way you might want to play. You want team success, but individuals play differently, so they're going to have to work through those issues as well, and actually come up with a group plan and individual plans and work through all of them.

In Ricky Ponting's first few series as captain you were something of a mentor, and the two of you were often seen discussing ideas on the field. Is that now Ricky's role with Clarke?
I think very much so. He's going to have to play that role and be a sounding board for them all. So for him to do that he has to make sure he's ready to give any info. He's one of the greatest players of all time, so if he gives that info then he can work that through with Michael and have the best possible outcome for the players. When Michael has hard times, which he certainly is going to, they'll be making sure those times are lessened and he has the sounding board that Ricky provides as someone who's been there and done that at that level.

Clarke has two young spinners in Michael Beer and Nathan Lyon. How did you deal with the task of captaining inexperienced slow bowlers?
The big thing is making sure you're always playing the role in working out how to get the batsmen out, but also protecting the kid so he stays on and bowls. So you've got to find a happy medium. I think Michael, with Ricky and the senior players, will find that for our younger guys. I'm not too stressed about that - it'll be about giving the guys a chance to play and learn.

"Our fast bowlers have to realise they have to get early wickets to make it easier for our young spinners. So they've got as big a part to play as anyone else"

The pitches are likely to mean they will be used as attacking weapons, rather than just bowling a few overs when the fast men are spelled.
Only time will tell [how the spinners are used]. But the quicks have got to get wickets with the new ball. It's one of those things they have to work through. If the quicks can get a couple of early wickets with the new ball then the spinners' job becomes easier. If it doesn't then you've got to find the right mix between pace and reverse-swing and all the other things that come in over there.

Michael Kasprowicz and Jason Gillespie filled that role to perfection in 2004. They didn't take a lot of wickets but invariably grabbed one or two at the start of an innings.
That's right, early wickets are the key, and I think our fast bowlers have to realise they have to get early wickets to make it easier for our young spinners. So they've got as big a part to play as anyone else.

How do you view Sri Lanka's senior batting trio of Tillakaratne Dilshan, Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene?
Three greats of the game, especially Sangakkara and Jayawardene. Dilshan will end up one as well, with his record by the end of his career, but Sangakkara is a pure genius with the bat and so is Jayawardene, so we're really going to have to nullify their influence. One opens, one bats three and one bats four, so if they have good series we're in a bit of trouble. If they don't then we're in the game.

What were your plans for them in 2004?
We probably bowled a lot straighter than anyone else had before, and bowled maybe more to their strengths than anything else, with different fields, and made sure we were always trying to tie up an end and let Shane Warne be really attacking at the other. If Warne wasn't getting wickets, we were in a bit of trouble, but he took wickets the whole series.

Dilshan is known for his provocative batting, actively trying to put the bowlers off their games. That may be more difficult for this attack to cope with than the 2004 group?
He will be trying to put the Australians off their game but they've just got to stick to their plans and make sure that they're being nice and aggressive towards all the Sri Lankan players, whether they've played one Test or 100 Tests. They must be taking the game to the hosts on their pitches in their country.

Most can remember you saying you'd give up your spot in the team to make room for Michael Clarke in India later in 2004. Have you spoken much to Clarke since he became captain?
I've had a few conversations with him. He's been fine, and he's been one of our very best players for a period of time now. He'll be looking forward to transferring that leadership role into runs as well, because at the end of the day that is the biggest thing as captain - you want the captain making runs and leading from the front. He's got to do that before he worries about too much else. That's what Ricky Ponting and his predecessors did very well.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo

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