December 2, 2011

Five-eighth tackles Australian cricket

Pat Howard, Australia's new performance manager, brings learnings from diverse backgrounds to bear on his job

Fifteen years ago, 22-year-old Pat Howard sat on the substitutes bench in wintry Wellington and watched Australia's rugby team suffer a fearful pounding by New Zealand. The 43-6 scoreline, on a wet, muddy day that did not favour heavy scoring, remains entrenched as the All Blacks' most crushing defeat of the Wallabies.

Fifteen years ago, less one week, Howard played at five-eighth as one of five changes to the team at a spellbound Sydney Football Stadium, and helped the Wallabies carry off a grinding 21-16 victory over South Africa, rugby's world champions. Entering the match, the Springboks had been unbeaten for 17 internationals.

The story of that week, the change in fortunes achieved in the space of seven days, has stayed vividly with Howard, and came back to him on his first active assignment in South Africa as the team performance manager for Australia's cricket team. A traumatic defeat in Cape Town, where Michael Clarke's side threatened to set a world record for the lowest Test innings of all before "recovering" to 47 all out, was followed by a Johannesburg victory every bit as uplifting as the one Howard enjoyed that July night in Sydney. The trauma, the changes, the recovery: all form part of the thinking that Howard has taken into his new and still evolving job.

"We had to fight that night and we nutted out a pretty ugly victory," Howard recalled in Brisbane this week. "So you can turn things around quickly, through character and through determination, through pride, and you can do it with a certain amount of changes. I think there is some good character and some good fight in these players, and that's got to be a given if you want to be at the top of the tree.

"What I was impressed with about the whole team was their response to the Cape Town game. There were a few injuries and they were able to stand up and fight again, which is a great quality."

Quality is a word commonly used in descriptions of Howard, who was chosen by Cricket Australia's chief executive, James Sutherland, from a long way outside the pitch square. Handy as a player, Howard grew to be indispensable as a coach and high performance manager in club, provincial and international rugby, while also establishing himself as a strong part of his family's pharmaceutical company. This mixture of backgrounds has allowed Howard to look critically at most elements of CA's team performance workings, exactly the sort of broad oversight the role decreed.

"I'm a pharmacist by trade. I can speak medically, while [I've also] been a professional coach, a professional player, and I can understand that you can play with pain at times," Howard said. "There is an opportunity to improve that aspect and you've seen a bit of that with the decisions we made around the first Test squad.

"I expect all of us to challenge any ideas that come through, and I am coming from outside cricket, so I'll ask non-cricket questions. Mickey Arthur is coming from outside Australia, although he's been in WA for a while, and I expect him to ask non-Australian questions. I hope [collectively] all the guys in our team performance department are asking lots of questions on how we want to do things. If you don't ask questions and you don't review it, you don't improve. If we don't improve, what are we doing here?"

Not much, according to conclusions reached by the Argus review, a bold document that Howard describes as his gameplan for overseeing the regeneration of Australia's cricket performance. Whenever Howard questions why things are done a certain way at CA, he has the review's pointed observations to call on, and he made sure to make that clear when he first met Australia's cricketers, who could have been forgiven for questioning the right of a rugby player to judge them.

"The Argus Report is the views of lots and lots of people, so you want to use that as a base to make your decisions from," Howard said. "My own observations will dovetail into that as we go on. If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll eventually get run down. You've got to keep innovating, keep looking at yourself, no matter if you're first, second or ninth."

Ninth is about where some sceptical observers would place Australian cricket's injury management in recent times, given what seems a perennially stocked casualty ward of fast bowlers. Former players have blamed CA, and some at the board have bounced that criticism towards the states. In trying to seek improvement, Howard must deal with both, though his initial round of talks with state teams was delayed by the recruitment of Arthur as coach.

"If you keep doing what you're doing, you'll eventually get run down. You've got to keep innovating, keep looking at yourself, no matter if you're first, second or ninth"

"To get everyone on the same page and give us seamless treatment of players" is one of Howard's priorities. "Shaun Marsh has been with the team all week, Pat Cummins is coming up to visit during the week, Ryan Harris has been in, Shane Watson's been in, Mitchell Johnson flew back over [for surgery]. We do want to closely deal with that because that helps the selectors have a deeper squad, that helps the captain understand where his team is going for the next couple of Tests, the strength and conditioning guys monitor that re-entry into games. There is a closer co-ordination of that."

Also held to a more precise standard in the post-Argus era is the process of selection. Perhaps conscious of how close the board came to a litigious end to Simon Katich's international career after he was denied one of this year's CA contracts, in the new structure Howard sits in on all selection discussions.

"I bring that medical side to it - who's in and who's out, and also saying who can perform not just for three days or two days but for five days," he said. "We're asking those questions about who is going to be 100% fit, not 90% or 80%. And the other one is, you can justify anybody [being selected], but we want reasons for picking people, and using data to do that, and then the great acumen and intelligence around those five guys who are selecting - they did a wonderful job of that the other day and they know why certain people are in and certain people are out."

Howard and the national selector John Inverarity and his panel are still striving to reach a point of common ground on issues of rotation and rest, coming as they do from vastly different backgrounds. Inverarity and Rod Marsh in particular offer thinking grounded in years of deep cricket experience, contrasting with Howard's wider sporting and medical backgrounds. Questions about "devaluing the baggy green" accompanied the announcement of a youthful Gabba squad, and Howard was at pains to make clear the door to the team would not be a revolving one.

"If players are performing continually there will be less rotation," he said. "You're not going to be rotating 11 guys in and 11 out every week, that is absolutely assured. But the opportunity to rotate one or two guys out of a side that's performing to get them back to 100% so they can perform over five days, that will happen occasionally."

Fourteen years ago, Howard played his final match for the Wallabies, against Scotland in Edinburgh. Since the recovery to defeat South Africa in 1996, the team struggled badly, and absorbed the departure of the coach, Greg Smith. His replacement, Rod Macqueen, would not choose Howard again after this first tour as coach. But Macqueen, having left Howard behind, would go on lift the World Cup in 1999, in the midst of Australian rugby's most dominant era. The regeneration of a team, be it rugby or cricket, takes far longer than a week, and not every decision made will be popular. Howard knows this better than most.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo