November 18, 2011

Stumper should get the nod

Ashley Mallett
Australia need a tough coach, one with a stern work ethic but also a sense of fun. Steve Rixon ticks all the boxes

Former NSW and Test wicketkeeper Steve Rixon is odds on to be appointed coach of Australia.

"Stumper" was brilliant standing up to the spinners - as good in that aspect of his glovework as any keeper we've had since the halcyon days of Don Tallon, arguably the greatest Australian wicketkeeper of them all. Standing back, Rixon wasn't in the class of Ian Healy, Barry Jarman, Rod Marsh or Wally Grout, but keeping to the spinners is the biggest test of a keeper's mettle, and he scored there.

His career came to a premature end after he signed a contract to play for Kim Hughes' Australian team on the rebel tour of South Africa in 1985-86. In 13 Tests he scored 394 runs at 18.76, with two half-centuries, caught 42 and stumped five. In all first-class matches he caught 395 batsmen and stumped 65, which compares well with Rodney Marsh, who played far more cricket: in 257 first-class matches Marsh caught 803 and stumped 66, and in 96 Tests caught 343 and stumped 12, seven of which were off yours truly (although I often let Bacchus know the number of stumpings he missed).

Rixon proved to be much more than a splendid wicketkeeper, though. He became the NSW coach and took the state to Sheffield Shield trophies. He then excelled as a coach and good judge of character with New Zealand.

A couple of years ago Len Pascoe told me that Rixon had put his hand up to coach the lowly South Australian team. "And do you know what, Rowdy? They turned him down without even inviting him to Adelaide for an interview." I was amazed that any state, especially the Redbacks, who had not won a bean since the 1995 Sheffield Shield, could possibly ignore a man with Rixon's background and obvious coaching expertise. The SACA appointed a lesser light, ex grade wicketkeeper Mark Sorell, who I came to discover didn't have a clue about spin bowling, nor much else about the finer points of the game one would expect a coach to know at the first-class level. How much more could South Australia have achieved with Rixon at the helm? Surely his expertise would have fast-tracked the development of a long list of youngsters, building a team that would challenge for the Sheffield Shield.

A few names have cropped up for the national coaching role - Justin Langer is one; another, albeit not as strongly, Tom Moody. Either of these blokes would do Australia proud if given the national coaching role, but Rixon is the man. He's tough and knows how to create an atmosphere of trust and fun. Cricket is a game to be enjoyed and the Test team needs to reflect confidence and great joy in what the players are doing. Under Michael Clarke I believe there is a better air of enjoyment than was the case with his predecessor. But fun in what you are doing never lasts unless you succeed as an individual who is helping his team win consistently.

I saw Clarke enjoy cricket to the max when he played with Shane Warne at Hampshire in 2003. Their joy of the game rubbed off on their team-mates. With this pair in the side it was obvious to those of us standing in the outer at the Rose Bowl that every man in the Hampshire Xl was thoroughly enjoying his cricket. Warne's enthusiasm for his craft and the game is exceptional, and because he such a brilliant cricketer, his expertise and his joy in the game, combined to present an irresistibly attractive package for his team-mates, the crowd, TV viewers and sponsors.

Rixon is not all about fun, though. He is a tough task master. He reminds me a bit of Bob Simpson, who led Australia at the age of 42, during the turmoil of World Series Cricket, then took on the role of Australia coach during the early years of Allan Border's captaincy. At the outset Border appeared to be a reluctant captain, but with Simpson's counsel and hard training methods a solid team was forged.

Rixon is a tough task master. He reminds me a bit of Bob Simpson, who led Australia at the age of 42, during the turmoil of World Series Cricket, then took on the role of Australia coach during the early years of Allan Border's captaincy

It was during this period that Geoff Marsh, Steve Waugh, David Boon, Mark Taylor, Merv Hughes, Ian Healy and Border formed the nucleus of what would later develop into a world-champion outfit. There's no doubt Simmo, who called all the shots at this point, was good for Australian cricket, for there was at the time no one of the ilk of Richie Benaud or Ian Chappell available to lead Australia. But once Taylor took over, Simpson realistically became superfluous to the team's needs. Taylor was the boss. He stamped his authority early and he became a brilliant leader - certainly in the Benaud and Chappell class - and during his reign along came two great bowlers, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.

When a side has a great captain it doesn't need a coach. Simpson always said that if he coached well, he would coach himself out of a job, and it is true. Chappelli will tell you a coach is a vehicle the team takes to travel from point A to point B. Under him, or Benaud or Taylor, a coach was not needed. When I played for SA we had a bloke - the very amiable and pleasant Ernie Clifton, a former Middlesex 2nd Xl keeper - who used to turn up and tick off the batsmen as they had a hit in the nets. I always wondered why Ernie was there, until one day he came up to me and talked to me about my follow-through. I thought it was odd the practice captain was doing some coaching in the nets. Ten years after I retired, I read in an old SACA yearbook that Ernie was the official South Australia coach from 1970-1979 - almost the entire span of Ian Chappell's captaincy.

Australia's national side needs tough love. In this modern age of covered wickets, it is totally unacceptable to get bowled out for 47 on any pitch against anyone, anywhere. It is my belief that Cricket Australia, unlike South Australia, will get enough votes from people with sufficient nous to appoint Rixon as Australia coach. Australia needs a man like him, one whose toughness is matched only by his work ethic.

Down the track, as Clarke becomes more comfortable with the captain's role it will make more sense to appoint a manager instead of a coach, someone to deal with everyday hassles. Already the team has Justin Langer as its assistant coach, and when the skipper wants a specialist to look at one of his bowlers - Nathan Lyon, Mitchell Johnson, whoever - he can call in a bowling guru. When that day arrives Clarke and his men will know the only coach they will be seeing day in day out will be the bus they board to get to the next venue.

Offspinner Ashley Mallett played 38 Tests for Australia