January 23, 2012

'Players have been challenged and have stood up well'

The recommendations of the Argus review are beginning to be put in place. Pat Howard, Cricket Australia's general manager, talks about achieving these goals

Don Argus' review was a boldly frank assessment of the Australian team following last summer's disastrous Ashes series and the several years of indifferent performances that preceded it. Its most immediate concerns were to provide Michael Clarke's team with the right support structure, to improve coaching and selection functions, and to enhance the skills and culture of a squad that had fallen on hard times after more than a decade of global dominance. ESPNcricinfo spoke to Pat Howard, appointed to fill the role of Cricket Australia's general manager team performance, about how the review's key recommendations have been followed up, and how success has begun to flow from them.

Improve the skills of the Australian team
Mickey Arthur deserves a lot of credit and he's also fortunate to have some good assistant coaches who are drilling in some skills. Obviously Steve Rixon as a former head coach - we're lucky we're getting a complementary skill set together with all those guys. They're delivering on the basics and giving very good messages. It's great to have a plan and work on it but also to address skill-sets. The players have a fantastic work ethic and I think between all those guys they've come together to really focus on that.

We're aware the coaching team is working a hell of a lot with the players around specific feedback and training smarter. More than anything, a little bit of stability helps. The team went through a bit of transition, but there was a real focus and steadfastness about the senior leaders and the senior coaches, and as a consequence, I think the Australian players have been challenged and have really stood up and executed their skills particularly well.

The Argus review was the start of that challenge. I think the players deserve a mountain of credit for how they've embraced stepping up to that level. It hasn't been a seamless series - at times the team has been in a bit of trouble. When backs have come to the wall, people have stood up and performed.

Improve the selection function
Some of the changes came in with the last team. Andrew Hilditch is a very good man and brought in some stuff with his team, but John Inverarity's introduced some new talent to the team. What I liked was all the bowlers they looked at played in the Australia A game, and Ben Hilfenhaus bowled very well. They trialled some younger players but had faith in all of them and used them at different times due to injury or opportunity. I think the management of those guys has been very good in terms of keeping them close to the team. At the same time, the players have performed, and first and foremost the credit goes to those guys actually delivering in the middle of the pitch. They've embraced the competition for places. I think that's one of the biggest things - we all believe in the talent, not only in the 11 or 12 playing, but also those players in and around the side as well. Performances and depth will allow that really healthy competition.

The focus is that Arthur is communicating with the guys in the team, and Inverarity is spending time with those guys outside the team. We're always looking for improvement, looking for growth, but I think the first two months in the role have certainly been encouraging.

Improve the culture of the Australian team
I try to stay out of the dressing room as much as I can, but from what I've seen and in discussions with the captain, the culture of the team is extremely positive at the moment. And I think you saw that at the end of the game [in Perth] - it is a positive change room; a change room with a lot of character in terms of the ability to fight and to perform. Obviously winning helps, but it wasn't that long ago that we had the Hobart game, and the guys have bounced back from that. The players deserve a lot of credit for how they've approached this summer, and as a consequence, I think that culture is building, that belief is coming.

You need sufficient skills to be within the frame, obviously. No one is picked if they don't perform to be recognised for their core skills. But then the selection panel [also] considers their contribution to the team, the effect those players are having on the team - are they coming from winning teams? All those things are important to assess what impact those players are having. And obviously John being able to sit down with the players to hear about who the good leaders are in other teams and getting feedback can add so much to your selection decisions.

Ricky Ponting has spoken about the value people add outside their core skill. Be it their fielding, be it their character and the sort of leadership they produce, and how much they give to a side. To me, it is fantastic to see players supported [by each other]. You see David Warner score a hundred and the batsman at the other end [Ed Cowan] comes up and embraces him because he sees him as an important part of the team. Inverarity talks about adding to the pot more than you're taking out, and he looks for those characters that add to that team environment.

"I think Michael [Clarke] deserves all the accolades that he's got all series in terms of his growth. I think it has been an extremely positive summer for him to be able to assess himself and be able to look back at the end of the series"

Improve leadership around the team and define roles more clearly
There were some 360-degree reviews of some of the leadership group in one of the earlier series, and we don't believe we'll do it every series, but we will review it at least on an annual basis to get feedback from the group, and that was done not only on a player basis but also testing on coaches that come through. I was tested when I was employed. So we have a nice base on those guys who've come through and the strengths and weaknesses of not just the guys on the ground but those who mix and interact with the guys on the ground. We've got a fairly consistent approach to it that is used corporately.

I think Michael [Clarke] deserves all the accolades that he's got all series in terms of his growth. I think it has been an extremely positive summer for him to be able to assess himself and be able to look back at the end of the series. We sit back and preview and review series, so I think it has been a wonderful start to his captaincy the last six months, and there's some really positive things happening in that regard.

Improve the coaching function
I feel as though Mickey and I have a very good relationship. We work pretty closely, it is really positive. We get on very well and once we've been in training in the Indian series he's very much put a real stamp on the first series in which he's had the ability to make an impact. The remit was about hitting the ground running, and you'd have to say Mickey's done a wonderful job there.

[The coaching staff] answer to Mickey and we're very fortunate to have some guys who have been very good players in their own right. And obviously Steve's CV as a coach is fantastic and he's had international success as a head coach himself. So in terms of being able to build the team to move forward, I think Mickey's starting to get a really good framework.

Everybody's got their goals and their key performance indicators, and they've all got to achieve them by certain timelines, and that's all got to match up to the goals of CA as well. The team knows that one of the big things for us is about performance and being the No. 1 team in the world in all three forms of the game, and driving that through behind cricket's mandate for being Australia's favourite game. We're all aligned. Everyone, be they players or management, wants the same thing. They want Australia to win, to perform, and they bring to the table lots of ideas about how we can improve.

Approach to injury management, particularly pertaining to fast bowlers
We have changed the mandate for what we look for out of different series. What we have done well, and the selectors and the coaches and the medical staff have worked really hard on, is having Mitchell Starc and Ryan Harris there around the Test team. They were coming into the squad in Sydney, bowling in the nets in Melbourne. We wanted these guys in and around because we knew the workloads had been very high for the likes of James Pattinson, and we had to make sure players were ready to go. Part of it is mitigating injury and part of it is making sure the next guys are raring and ready to go. We know players will be injured, and one of the positive things we've got out of this summer is we've got a lot of bowlers we believe in, and we actually believe there's a couple more.

Provide a single point of accountability for the performance of the Australian team
I don't see myself as looking over their shoulder. I see myself as enabling that performance. We've all seen there's a lot of talent there, and making sure that talent gets an opportunity is really important.

I'm not taking credit for any of this. The players have done a wonderful job, and I'm very happy with how the selectors and the coaches have stepped in and really hit the ground running. You don't want to paper over the cracks. You want to assess and review, but obviously winning the India series is a step in the right direction, and all the players' comments have been fantastic. They've talked about continuing to win, being No. 1 in all three formats as a goal.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here