September 11, 2011

Littlejohn's secretarial role

The former Bowls Australia official will give John Wright useful advice by analysing the talent pool, but the power remains with the coach

At face value the decision to appoint Bowls Australia high performance manager Kim Littlejohn to New Zealand Cricket's selection panel seems nonsensical, not to mention ironic, given the infamous 30-year legacy of a certain trans-Tasman underarm delivery. Probe further and there does appear to be some method in NZC coaching director John Buchanan's supposed madness.

Littlejohn's appointment is a hard sell to New Zealand cricket's stakeholders, be they players, officials, media or fans. Littlejohn's background in cricket extends to being an elite coach with Melbourne University and having played premier league cricket in Western Australia and professionally in the UK. He has been with Bowls Australia for seven years and is a former operations manager at Baseball Victoria.

He will be under considerable scrutiny to deliver, particularly as he was deemed a more suitable candidate than two former New Zealand captains, Glenn Turner and Ken Rutherford, and the incumbent national selection manager, Mark Greatbatch. Veteran cricket journalist Jonathan Millmow made a good point this week when he wrote, "Buchanan not only picked another Aussie battler for a key role here but in doing so flushed away 138 Tests of experience." It's hard to imagine Turner, Greatbatch and Rutherford lacking in ideas, despite top players sometimes having limited selection or coaching nous in transition. For those of a patriotic bent, there is the added outrage of Littlejohn joining Buchanan and two other Australians in key positions in the Black Caps' set-up: Trent Woodhill is assistant coach and Damien Wright bowling coach.

A fellow scribe emailed to say he feared the NZC set-up was becoming "Professor Buck's private laboratory". Muppet fans can be forgiven for conjuring up images of Buchanan's Bunsen Honeydew administering some garish-coloured potion to NZC's Beaker with catastrophic results. Let's hope this is not the case for the sake of New Zealand's place in international cricket. That is why it is so important to debate the situation robustly. Apathy would be a worse response to such a decision when the Test team is already ranked eighth.

It is understandable Buchanan is ripe for attack from some Shane Warne-type cynics, who see him using this as an opportunity to tinker with a system with which he does not have a national tie. The same brigade see Buchanan's approach being one that, if it works, will enhance his CV so he can apply his skills to bigger-spending countries in a couple of years, and if it doesn't, wouldn't change the fact that he was the coach of a two-time world champion team who doubled as one of the best Test sides in history. Buchanan is always going to be employable.

However, let's allow such sceptical rhetoric to go through to the keeper for a moment and give Buchanan's vision the benefit of the doubt.

Buchanan scythed through the argument that you need someone with international cricketing experience. If you extrapolate the counter-argument, where everyone in any cricketing analysis role, be it coach, manager, groundstaff or media, had to have international caps, it would make for a slim industry

What he has really done is effectively appoint Littlejohn as coach John Wright's personal secretary (and has Littlejohn fulfilling the same role with the coaches of the women's team and Under-19 side). Yes, National Selection Manager is a lofty title with all its capital-letter pomp, but in reality Wright will liaise with Littlejohn after the latter gleans the required information from consulting, researching and analysing the work of the six major associations. In political parlance it is the equivalent of being Barack Obama's White House chief of staff. Through his collation and observational abilities Littlejohn has influence but no power; Wright has the veto.

Whichever way you look at it, it is a remarkable piece of politicking by the canny Wright. He now has everything he wanted to build his own team without hindrance. On the flip side, he is fully accountable for the team's direction. He will receive bouquets or brickbats accordingly, depending on whether his players perform against Zimbabwe, Australia, South Africa and West Indies in the coming seasons.

In Buchanan's defence, he has delivered some sound logic for the appointment. He suggests it is better to have someone on board full-time, rather than part-time panellists in what is meant to be a professional environment. He also demanded the coach have the final say - mirroring the situation he wanted in Australia - because it means the captain does not benefit from selection bias.

Buchanan scythed through the argument that you need someone with international cricketing experience. The former Queensland coach ran a successful Australian team but never played for his country. In fact, if you extrapolate the counter-argument, where everyone in any cricketing analysis role, be it coach, manager or media had to have international caps, it would make for a slim industry. Time and again it has been proven the best players don't always make successful transitions to other areas of the game.

Littlejohn's skills, given he has spent so long in high-performance sport, are likely to help rather than hinder in relation to what Buchanan wants. Buchanan and NZC board member Brent King and former pace bowler Shane Bond, who are also part of the appointment panel, are convinced the skills Littlejohn applied in bowls and baseball can be used in cricket. A general knowledge of the game will be valuable, but more important, in Buchanan's mind's eye, is the ability to gather and compile information about selection so it is easily understood and accessible to those, like Wright, with the veto.

That said, it would still be a shame if the skills and willing service of Greatbatch, Turner and Rutherford were not utilised elsewhere in the NZC set-up, perhaps even as Littlejohn's subjects.

Whatever happens, Littlejohn deserves a fair go and needs to be judged on those organisational skills in getting Wright the information he needs to rebuild New Zealand's cricketing strength, particularly in Tests. Wright and the players are accountable for the results. Fans have their microscopes focused and ready.

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