March 21, 2012

'Not just a Black Cap'

Grant Bradburn pushes his players to think beyond national ambitions. Unlike his own career, he wants theirs to be world-class

Few coaches will tell their players "not to be like me". Grant Bradburn, who is in charge of Northern Districts, home to eight national players, tells his charges exactly that.

Bradburn, an offspinner, played only seven Tests and 11 ODIs for New Zealand between 1990 and 2001, and hopes none of his have similar careers. "You don't want to be like me and just make it," Bradburn told ESPNcricinfo. "You want to be there and play well. Nowadays there's all sort of financial opportunities to play for a long time."

Bradburn's playing days were short and staggered. His over-riding memory is his maiden ODI in Peshawar, when the team had "limes and potatoes" thrown at them. "Martin Crowe took us off the field twice," he recalled. "When we went back on the second time, Pakistan only needed three or four runs an over so we decided to play with no outfielders, only ring fielders. By the time the last ball came, Martin Crowe bowled, Ian Smith was wicketkeeper, and everyone else was back in the tunnel. Looking back now, it was really cool to be part of that."

Despite an eventful beginning, Bradburn often had to sneak his way into the starting XI. In 1992, when a bomb blast in Sri Lanka coincided with a New Zealand tour, some members of the team returned home. Bradburn, along with John Wright and Justin Vaughan, was called up and grabbed the opportunity even though it was borne out of a serious threat to team security. "We were pretty naïve. It wasn't until I got there and saw the newspaper articles that the guys had kept and the carnage. Had I seen those before, I probably would have thought twice. At the time, we were just keen to play."

Then he yo-yoed in and out of the team and realised he "wasn't good enough" to sustain a lengthier run at the national level. "I didn't take my opportunities early enough to cement a spot in the side. Dipak Patel was the other spinner and he was performing really well."

And so he asks his players to look beyond simply starring for New Zealand, and to think about where they can take the team as a whole. "We don't talk about our players as necessarily going on to be Black Caps. We want them to be world-class players. We want to be realistic, and the Black Caps are not the pinnacle of world cricket. That's not being disrespectful, that's being open and honest about where they are at. For us just to push guys into the Black Caps and make them think that they've made it once they are there, that would be wrong. We want our young guys to want to be the best in the world, not just be a Black Cap."

New Zealand enjoyed a strong summer of cricket in 2011-12, beating Australia in Australia for the first time in 25 years and Zimbabwe in all formats. However, South Africa have presented a more robust challenge . Although Bradburn is not involved at the national level, he knows a thing or two about success. His team leads the Plunket Shield by 15 points in the penultimate round of the competition.

Bradburn's coaching style has been the key to their achievements as he has drawn on ideas from other sporting codes, which was part of his training at the High Performance coach accelerator programme. "They take four to five coaches from across all sports and we come together for camps throughout the year. We all pool our ideas and resources and we are learning from it all the time." Bradburn said it helped that New Zealand was a small country because cross-linking between sports was easier. "It's never too far to say I will go and visit the rowers or the swimmers or watch a practice with Steve Hanson [New Zealand national rugby team coach] and the All Blacks. In bigger countries, it may be harder to do but here it isn't and I feel my coaching is growing all the time."

"We're starting to understand why some teams are the best in the world. Now we have to know why we seem to be happy mid-table and why we can't break through that barrier"

One of the central tenets of Bradburn's approach is to understand how to treat players at different stages of their development. He has a squad which ranges from 20-year-old allrounder Daryl Mitchell to 39-year-old keeper Michael Parlane, and has to marry the ambitions and abilities of everyone in between. "The way I coach this year with this group of people may not necessarily be the way I will coach next year with the same group of people who are a year older. They may have got families, they are getting engaged or the Black Cap door is closed, so I've learnt how to treat the same person differently in different situations."

The other crucial element of Bradburn's coaching is to keep everyone involved with Northern Districts together - they train together, work together and learn together - so no one feels more special than the others. "We integrate our next tier with our top team all the time. We have a one-squad mentality so the guys that are coming through are always in the environment of the top guys as well and feeding off them," he said.

Daniel Vettori has been one of the most important men in helping spread Bradburn's philosophy. Vettori turns out for the team as often as he can, and his attitude has helped grow the culture of respect Bradburn believes is the spine of any good side. "He [Vettori] holds huge respect not only for what he has done internationally but for the way he acts in our environment," Bradburn said. "He comes back just as Dan. The guys are not in awe of him, they respect him but they just treat him like anyone else. They know that he comes back for the right reasons and he can't fake that. They know that if he didn't want to be here, that would stick out."

For those of us who come from cultures of cricket celebrity-dom, not placing superstars on a pedestal feels the right thing to do. For locals like Bradburn, it is what may be holding their players back. "It can be a problem - that tall poppy syndrome. In New Zealand there is a tendency to knock down a person who is a little bit different."

Having not reached the heights he would have liked to in his career, Bradburn stressed that the lack of the cut-throat mentality may have been a cause in his own underachievement. He does not want it to be part of the new generation's thinking. "It's starting to change, we're starting to integrate a lot of the thinking between different sporting codes. We're starting to understand why some teams are the best in the world. Now we have to know why we seem to be happy mid-table and why we can't break through that barrier."

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent