'We became more mortal than in the past'
The years 2007-2011 will not be regarded with much fondness by followers of Australian cricket, for they witnessed the crumbling of an empire. In the middle of the difficult transition was the coach Tim Nielsen, who replaced John Buchanan after the 2007 World Cup victory, then chose not to re-apply when the job was reconfigured by the Argus review. In the first instalment of a two-part interview, Nielsen spoke to ESPNcricinfo about his early days in the role, the acrimonious 2007-08 summer, the sad case of Andrew Symonds, and Australia's struggles to find a spin bowler following the retirement of Shane Warne.
When you became coach it was very much as a players' man. It has been said that under John Buchanan a lot of members of the team were more comfortable talking to you as the assistant than to the head coach?
Because you're just the assistant coach you have all day every day to deal with the players. That's your total focus. Whereas when you do become the head coach there are so many other things. As an assistant you're not seen as a decision-maker, so they can open up a little more, to get to the bottom of what you're doing with their technical or cricket work, sometimes you find out about personal issues or how they're feeling about their own game, or if they've lost a bit of confidence and are probably more willing to talk to someone who isn't a huge influence on decision-making.
I always find it is amazing what comes out of a player's mouth when he puts a pair of pads on. Get them into their own environment in the nets where they feel comfortable and the outside world can't get in. That, for me, was often the best time to talk to them about how they're going and how is their family. Some of the things talked about in the nets have nothing to do with cricket whatsoever. It is a bit of a fishbowl - if you're doing well everyone wants to know why and get a piece of you. If you're doing poorly everyone thinks you shouldn't be playing. When I moved to be the head coach, I had to trust that my assistant coaches would do the same job for me as I did for Buck. We always wanted to make sure the messages were consistent.
In the months after you took over, you and others around the team were adamant that this successful team, which was losing so many great players, could actually get better. Was that the right attitude to take?
I'm 100% certain it was the right mindset to have. I don't think it mattered what we said publicly. There was always going to be a perception that at some stage we were going to get knocked over, and at different times we played some really good cricket without winning games, and people were really critical even though we hadn't played too badly. That was just the nature of looking after a team and coming into a leadership role with one that had been so successful. Success had become the norm for Australian cricket.
On the day I took the job I said we may not win as many games as comfortably or as quickly, but I hope we can maintain our competitiveness over time and win our fair share and be playing cricket the crowd want to come to see. Even at times we lost, like in 2009 in England, we played good cricket across the whole series. We also knew Adam Gilchrist wasn't going to play forever, Matthew Hayden wasn't going to play forever… Ricky Ponting can't play forever now, and the team is always going to be evolving and there's going to be change.
I'm proud that while we lost so many good players, we never really were at a stage when we were a whipping boy. We didn't win every game and we lost a couple of series by a hair's breadth. We won a series of some sort in every country in the world while I was there.
Your first season as coach was the acrimonious 2007-08 summer when India toured and the SCG Test bubbled over, accompanied by the Harbhajan Singh and Andrew Symonds case. How difficult was that?
It was a very sharp learning curve, that's for sure. You can go back a step too because we lost the first game I coached, against Zimbabwe in the World Twenty20 in South Africa - which changed the whole landscape of cricket as well, when India won it. The Sydney Test wasn't actually too bad. That Test match we won, but the most unsettling thing and the biggest challenge was actually Perth, when they'd done the Symonds and Harbhajan case in Sydney but awaiting the appeal in Adelaide. There were all sorts of dramas going on behind the scenes at the administration and board level. That's when it became quite difficult for the team, because there certainly wasn't 100% focus on what we were doing as a cricket team.
It is easy to support either side, but inside the team it was very obvious they were standing up for their mate Andrew Symonds. He was part of their team, and as you saw publicly, they went to war with him in Adelaide basically. At the same time it did take the focus away from our team as far as the cricket on the ground. We ended up losing the one-day series as well, and I think that was the hangover from the Andrew Symonds thing. At the time you're doing it and you think, "We can cope with this, we can deal with it." We spoke about it as regularly as we thought we needed to, but I think the hangover of all those things, the stress and the pressure of it all… by the end of the one-day series we were pretty cooked. Both the Harbhajan/Symonds incident and losing at home in a one-day series, tended to give you a pretty hard shell pretty quickly.
It has been said the Australian team felt unsure of itself for a long time after the SCG match, in terms of what sort of level of aggression was permissible.
The biggest difference was that anytime anything happened it was written up as an absolute drama, in the media especially. What was difficult to cop was that things that would never have been an issue in the past all of a sudden became major dramas as far as the behaviour of the Australian cricket team was concerned. That certainly created a bit of doubt among the players, and it's probably not the Australian way to be second-guessing competing. That's the point it got to in the end - we were very conscious of any action we took and how it was going to be perceived off the ground, so it probably took away that 100% commitment to competing.
In the past when you walked across the white line, whatever was said on the ground was left there. And that changed a little bit - there was no white line to cross to leave it out there, and because of that there was some doubt created among the players. Rightly or wrongly, whatever decisions were made [about Symonds] caused angst among the players as well, so those were all the things we were dealing with.
That was seen most pointedly with Symonds himself.
It was the beginning of the end for Andrew Symonds, when you look back. Such a fine player, he was only 15-16 Test matches into his career. He made a tremendous hundred in that Sydney Test match, when he was given not out early, and it would never have been an issue in the past. He always waited for the umpire to give him out or not out. This time, because of the dramas afterwards, all of a sudden he was being called different things. All those things created extra doubt, which was hard, and when you've got such hard competitors, such hard-nosed people as the guys we're talking about, they don't take it lightly to be questioned, especially their integrity being questioned. Every time something was mentioned after that, it was almost as though it was a personal slight. It wasn't about the game, because of the feeling that "Oh, they're having another go at me personally", which is bloody hard to change and bloody hard to deal with at times inside the group. We came out of it, hopefully a bit better equipped than we were at the start of it.
Is there a sense of regret about how Symonds' disillusionment really caused his international career to unravel?
One of the regrets I have is that I wasn't able to help Andrew as his coach to find a way through that period. You always hope that as a coach you provide an environment where players can deal with the issues they have and come out the other side and still be able to perform. Andrew Symonds was a hell of a player, and for the people who don't know him personally or inside the change rooms, he's a hell of a team-mate. At different times when Ponting had to worry about being the captain and dealing with that sort of stuff, Andrew was the guts of the team. He dragged Hayden along at times, he dragged Clarke along at times, he dragged these strong personalities along with him, and it was a big part of our team we lost when Roy finished up.
To every man in the side, bar none, he was a great bloke. When things changed because of what happened, no one was happy to see that happen to Roy. We all wanted him to play as much cricket as he could for Australia and be as successful as he could. The feeling was, there were external circumstances, probably outside his control, that had a huge impact. That's hard for simple old sportsmen like us to deal with.
It was a tough period but the start of the new revolution, of the need for India to be strong. They have such a money-making power in world cricket that everyone wants to be part of the system and they are critical to the survival of cricket. At some stage there was maybe going to be something that happened that pushed the balanced of power one way or the other, and that was a big point for Australian cricket.
After that summer you won in the West Indies, but then prepared meticulously to play in India and lost 2-0 over four Tests.
We were outplayed and had a couple of moments in a couple of Test matches, particularly in Bangalore in the first Test, where we could have won. I remember them almost celebrating in the change rooms next door when the game was called off, probably a bit similar to England in 2009 in hindsight, where we made the running and weren't able to close the deal. We went to Mohali - [Peter] Siddle debuted, we lost the toss, Binga [Brett Lee] struggled, coming off his own personal stuff, Sachin [Tendulkar] passed the world record for runs and they set off firecrackers, and it just felt like we were pushing uphill right from the start. Delhi was a "batathon". We fought hard well in conditions not for us really, and the last Test, in Nagpur, we were still in with a chance on the last day.
The problems you had in Nagpur with over rates really seemed to be another instance where there was confusion over what the priority should have been - winning versus Ponting avoiding a sanction for being too slow.
It was easy for people on the outside to say Ricky should have just bowled who he needed to bowl and cop the rap. But I imagine if he had bowled whoever and we hadn't won and he'd been rubbed out for a game, there would have been all sorts of outcry as well. One thing about Ponting as well is, he's got a huge respect for the history of the game. He's a huge student of the game, he understands the responsibility he carries as a captain, as does Michael Clarke now. He wasn't willing to compromise anything for the long term of the game. They were the laws, and that's how it had to be played, and because we found ourselves in a situation made by us, we had to fix it up. We would've loved to not be in that position, but I respect where Ricky's at and what he was doing to make sure we didn't take the mickey out of the game. You play as hard as you can within the parameters that are set, and if you're outside the rules, then the consequence was we weren't able to do exactly as we wanted to.
In the past, because we'd scored runs quickly or had Shane Warne to rely on to take wickets quickly, we'd been able to get ourselves out of trouble in those situations, and maybe it had come home to roost a bit. It was a pretty hard lesson and we were all given a fair whack because of it.
Another hard lesson was that the teams of the past could afford to have a bad session or two and still win Test matches with time to spare, but you no longer had that luxury.
I think it is underselling the people in the past. The reason they were so great is that Test cricket goes for five days, 15 sessions - bloody hard work. The reason McGrath, Warne, Hayden, Langer and all these guys were so good was that over five days they were able to make sure if they didn't impact now, they'd impact soon, and kept at it. That's experience, quality, and why we need to be patient with our team now. There will be times when it feels like they've gone missing a bit, but it's just how young players learn how to keep dealing with the high stress for five days. We became more mortal than we had been in the past, when, if they looked like they were dead and buried, they were able to come back just by keeping doing it and wearing down the opposition. No doubt there was a depth of talent that was exceptional.
In 2008 we saw the start of uncertainty over spin bowling, as Beau Casson, Bryce McGain, Cameron White, Jason Krejza and Nathan Hauritz were all tried after Stuart MacGill retired. Did the selectors and management do all they could to settle a spinner into the role?
It is easy to say no, because no one has been able to grab the opportunity and be the standout spinner we were hoping for. I just wonder whether we ever clearly understood what role we wanted the spinner to actually play. We came off the Warne era and the MacGill era. MacGill retired in the West Indies in '08, which was why Beau came in to debut. What really was the issue was, we counted on MacGill to play through until the end of 2009, and when that changed, it put us under a bit of pressure from a spin-bowling stocks point of view. We had young blokes who weren't quite ready and maybe thrown in the deep end a bit early. At different times there were decisions made [on the basis of thinking that] it might actually hurt them more to keep going rather than just yank them out and let them play a bit more Shield cricket.
Hopefully we're seeing the benefit of that sort of decision with Phillip Hughes now. When the pressure was on at the start of the Ashes in 2009, where the selectors decided that it would be good to get Watson in there, [and also] give Hughes a bit of a break from this barrage so we don't scar him forever.
Everyone seemed to assume MacGill would play for a long time after Warne retired, but by that point his body was starting to give way.
MacGill isn't talked about much but he took 200 Test wickets. By then he was probably older than he needed to be to play every Test match for a couple of years. He'd played a lot of Test cricket by the time he got the opportunity to be the only spinner. He must've played about 50 Test matches, and he had chronic knees. It didn't quite work out.
What we did do after that was speculate a couple of times. That didn't quite work out either. Hauritz has been pretty good, I reckon. Because we've had a few spinners in a row, it continues to be talked about, and in the background under all that you say is SK Warne - someone we relied on and loved to have for so long, was no longer there, and it was a hard place to be as a spinner because there was this public expectation of the next Warne and our Test match victories a lot of the time happened with the quicks doing damage in the first part of the game and then Warney cleaning up in the second half. When we didn't have that sort of option there was pressure put on publicly, and I'm sure [the spinners] felt it themselves, so it wasn't that easy.
Unfortunately we weren't quite able to nail it and there's no doubt we need a spinner that is an integral part of our Test team to have success. The way Australia plays its cricket and the way the surfaces are here, we need a spinner on day four and day five to have success. It is important we find one, and now Lyon has his opportunity and it is important he takes his chance and shows he can do it.
Krejza seemed harshly dealt with, in particular - dropped only one Test after he was very successful as an attacking spinner on debut.
He was… in hindsight it is easy to say exactly that. We should have stuck with him. The hard part was, he was very inexperienced, a bit like us having to pick Hauritz out of the NSW second XI. Everybody yells and screams about the [national] selectors having to pick spinners. Well, I'd like the states to start picking some spinners as well and sticking with them. While the selectors can be panned for that, it is bloody hard to go up and learn your caper at the highest level. We need to get these kids in there and give them a run and a chance to get their heads around first-class cricket and learn. Ideally by the time they get to Test match cricket, they've been up and down and through the mill a couple of times, and understand how to cope when it's not spinning a lot in Perth, or it's not going that well in Brisbane. They've learned by playing there.
What about the issues of fields, and the importance of the relationship between the captain and his spin bowler?
I can say as far as fields are concerned, I can guarantee that every spinner who played for Australia had a pretty big say in what field he had. It wasn't too often that Ponting was a dictator and said, "That's the field, you bowl". There was a lot of discussion about that, and nine times out of 10 the bowler would have got his own way.
But that adds up in terms of bowlers taking responsibility for what they want to do and how they want to go about it. They can't just rely on the captain. There has to be ownership by players at the highest level, saying, "This is my game, this is how I do it, I'm responsible for my performance".
We would've loved to have a spinner who grabbed his opportunity. We've tried a few of them. Lyon looks really good. He's got lovely shape on the ball, and I hope he can take it on as his job and grow into the next Graeme Swann in world cricket.
In part two, Ashes defeats, more Indian misadventures, and Nielsen's views on Greg Chappell, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke
Read part two of the interview here
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo