March 13, 2012

'Some cricketers today don't know anyone'

Though he didn't enjoy touring, Warren Lees, the former New Zealand keeper and coach, doesn't get why players are so insular these days

International cricket is a little like Christmas: in most places it comes only once a year. When it comes to Warren Lees' town, you can excuse him for feeling like a kid who has kept on Santa's good side.

But despite a lifetime romance with the game, in recent years Lees, the former New Zealand keeper and coach, only keeps one date a year with international cricket. When Dunedin hosts a match, he allows himself to be seduced by it. He doesn't have the desperation of some ex-players who don't know what to do with their lives now that cricket is no longer in it. For him it's like a short-lived but intense love affair.

"I've drifted out of the game," he says paradoxically. "I didn't mean to drift out, because I've just realised in the last five years how much I miss it.

"One thing I really treasure is doing the radio commentary once or twice a year," Lees said. "My wife can't get over the change in my behaviour when I do radio commentary. It's because it's only at this time that I meet up with Ian Smith and I see Doully [Simon Doull]. I only want to see them once a year, and they probably don't even want to see me that often! I just get a buzz being around the circuit and I just realise how much I miss it."

Lees retired from first-class cricket in 1988 but continued being actively involved in the game. He coached his home side, Otago, and then the national team, from 1990 to 1993.

People with lesser credentials are now full-time television analysts and there seems no reason why Lees could not join those ranks. Except that he does not want to. He describes himself as a "bit of a home person" who does not like touring. "There would be long tours when I played," he says. "The first tour I played in was ten weeks long, to India and Pakistan. People don't have ten-week tours anymore."

Lees does not like the travelling circus that modern-day cricket has become. He says it breeds self-involvement rather than fostering a sense of community. "I couldn't have the headphones on and loud music on the plane over an eight-hour flight. We used to play cards and things like that. It was a social scene, so our players knew each other very well," he said. "Some of the cricketers these days don't know anyone."

He thinks more face-to-face association should be enforced on players on a tour. "We had rules when I was coaching: between 7pm and 10pm, if you were in your room at night, you'd leave your door open so people could come and go. People go in their rooms now and they close their door. I wouldn't say I am overly interested in what people are doing in their rooms, but it's like they are not meeting people."

Although he "enjoyed coaching more than playing", Lees' first tour in charge was very tough. "We went to Pakistan and we just got thrashed." New Zealand lost all three Tests and three ODIs, by big margins. "The two openers [Trevor Franklin and David White] almost begged me not to pick them in the last Test. They were making up injuries not to be selected."

Travelling did not get any easier, and they managed only one win on the road, against Zimbabwe in Harare. But there was one standout moment as coach for Lees - the 1992 World Cup.

"The highlight for me overall was taking that team and doing so well at the World Cup. There were changes to the team personnel, but on the whole the team was just so broken and everyone had given up. There had been retirements, [Richard] Hadlee had gone, and guys who really shouldn't have been playing first-class cricket were all of a sudden playing for New Zealand. Taking that team for three years and growing it into a family was great."

New Zealand reached the semi-final of the tournament, losing to eventual champions Pakistan. "The team that I had at that World Cup, just about every one of them I would have been proud to call my son," Lees said. "They weren't great cricketers, Gavin Larsen, Rod Latham, Willie Watson, but they were great guys to work with."

While Lees may not have thought of those players as naturally talented, he had one prodigious talent in Martin Crowe, who was the New Zealand captain when Lees was coach. "I found him absolutely fascinating," Lees said. "He was a fantastic person, he was completely misunderstood and he misunderstood a lot of things about life too. He was a challenge but he was also just a great person to work with. We met at 6:30 nearly every day we were on tour or playing, and he was never late; he was organised."

Eventually, and perhaps ironically, it was a tour abroad that ended Lees' national coaching role. After the team abandoned their trip to Sri Lanka in November and December 1992, when bomb blasts threatened their safety, Lees knew he would "lose the job not long after".

At that point he felt cynical about how New Zealand cricket was being operated, because of the way the situation was handled and the pressure they were under to continue the tour. "The way people were treated was just disgraceful. In the end you think, 'How the hell did New Zealand make progress during those years?' And we didn't, until we actually treated people the way people should be treated."

He thinks things have changed and will continue to change under John Wright. "Wrighty is a very fair person. At times he needs to be perhaps a little bit more decisive but I think Wrighty's relationship with the players will be strong."

Lees' own involvement with coaching today is at the micro-level. He lives close to Alexandra, a town in Central Otago, and spends his days coaching what he calls "country kids", who do not have access to the same resources as their counterparts in big cities. "I like coaching country kids because they are receptive and they are polite, and in a way even their parents are grateful because they have had no coaching at all. I've got a database of 300 kids and I'd say 280 of them had never been coached."

Also Lees, of course, commentates on the Dunedin Test as often as he can and writes a column for a local newspaper. "It's not about cricket at all. It's about life," Lees said about the column. "People seem to laugh at it, or perhaps they are laughing at me, but it doesn't really matter."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent

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