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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Ramakrishnan on March 15, 2012, 1:22 GMT

    Thanks to Warren Lees for sharing his experiences through this article. It was really a thrilling experience to listen to the radio commentary in the 70s which we miss nowadays. @Soumyas.. Commentators who share interesting insights about the game would definitely be a welcome change. However, we should not have a repeat of the likes of Danny Morrison who talks more about things other than cricket.

  • Dummy4 on March 14, 2012, 22:41 GMT

    Love listening to Wally Lees on the radio and the banter with Waddle etc, great stuff. Would love more of it, but fair enough Wally. Also I remember very clearly the ill fated tour to Sril Lanka when the bomb went off and the disgraceful way Lees was treated by NZC, esp that Peter Mcdermott? from memory. The whole tour should have been cancelled, instead some went home (when all wanted to and should have been allowed to) and NZC sent first class cricketers over to replace who were never played hardly a game again!

  • Mark on March 14, 2012, 20:51 GMT

    I agree with others - an excellent article about a player/coach who is an example of what us Kiwis would like our current players to be like - straight up and honest, having a real passion for the game, and giving their best despite the limitations in their ability.

    Had he continued as the NZ coach he could have been one of NZ's best. He got the best out of the (Benson & Hedges!!!) 1992 WC team which, contrary to pitch_curator's comment, I don't really think it was a highly talented team, Martin Crowe aside. He installed a pinch hitter at the top of the order, opened the bowling with a spinner, used "dibbly-dobbly" bowlers like Gavin Larsen to slow the game right down and forcing wickets. He planned to the team's strengths. Got to admire the guy.

  • Andrew on March 14, 2012, 15:19 GMT

    That '92 side he coached at the WC was the best team in the tournament. They should have won it, only a rampaging Pakistan (who were lucky to make it through that far, they were terrible in the first half of that tournament) stopped them in the semis. Good memories!!!

  • Adil on March 14, 2012, 14:11 GMT

    I will confess it upfront that this is the first time I hear about this person, Warren Lee, although I should have known him as I am old enough to watch 1992 world cup ball-by-ball.... (those were the days).... And I will also confess that only half-way to the artcile, I had great respect for him, for the character he showed, especually after he left the cricket.

  • soumyas on March 14, 2012, 10:43 GMT

    "People with lesser credentials are now full-time television analysts"... TRUE, we too want to see ppl with more credentials, if u have please BRING IT ON... to make cricket more interesting. Mr. WARREN LEE please compromise the comforts of HOME and come back on TV's, Come to India, there will be HUGE ROLE waiting for u to play in IPL's...

  • Sharad on March 14, 2012, 10:06 GMT

    +1 to Benn's comment. So much better than stuff about Modi or Stanford. Here's an idea - Cricinfo should make some documentaries about ex-players and at the same time vow never to publish any Modi/Stanford/bookies articles.

  • Kiran on March 14, 2012, 9:26 GMT

    Very good article. I think players like Lees should be more involved in crikcet and media rather than some of the cuurent lot. I think the 92 WC team that he coached is the best NZ ODI team ever.

  • Dummy4 on March 14, 2012, 6:23 GMT

    Can we PLEASE have more articles like this?

  • Vikrant on March 14, 2012, 5:38 GMT

    a nice article... good to read former players talking about their days in action and on how they are involved with cricket in one way or other. There was a time when these folks were not paid enough and they played the game for fun and for representing their country.. Times have changed (for the better); they are better paid, but they end up playing a lot too !! And lets wait and see what John Wright can do with current NZ side..

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