March 22, 2012

The Lendl of cricket coaching

Has cricket missed out an obvious candidate?

To see Ivan Lendl stripy-shirted and intense in the tennis stands of Melbourne and to picture him divulging grunted subtleties about technique on Miami's back-alley practice courts is to think: "Of course."

Of course Lendl should be coaching Andy Murray of Scotland. Lendl is 52 and has not coached a pro tennis player till now. Yet no top pro ever worked harder than Lendl. None squeezed more out of what his skin gave him to begin with. Few more super-qualified tennis coaches can possibly have lived.

Murray picked Lendl. In cricket the selectors select who plays but the board decides who's coach. This minor inconsistency reflects an old distinction. The coach is seen as a board employee. The players are something between board employees and performers for their country at large. Whether the method of picking cricket coaches is the optimum method or not is one question that stirs itself. From there it's a small jump to wonder: is there someone of Lendl-like obviousness we're missing?

The Test cricket coach is a quarter-of-a-century-old invention. In Australia in that time no one's understanding of cricket's ins and outs has rivalled Richie Benaud's. A problem-solver who has pinpointed the solution before most others twig a problem exists is Ric Charlesworth. Someone who knows backwards every cricketer he sees and can turn what he sees into plain sentences with nouns and verbs in them is John Inverarity.

Frank Tyson lives on the Gold Coast and "talks like he bowled" - so wrote journalist Peter English - "a few quick words and boom. Point made." Peter Philpott has cricket's charms and technicalities roaming in his veins and passing them on is his life's calling. John Benaud speaks hard truths no player wants to hear. Geoff Dymock can offer an ear to the truths no player wishes to confess. Rod Marsh's unusual knack is to make men of all shades of masculinity fall in love with him. Mike Whitney is a born and wise storyteller whose stories make people long to be his friend. Alan Davidson could do it all - bowl slow chinamen as a boy and multi-direction cutters as a man and hit hard and catch anything. The last of these traits was self-coached: he'd pluck an orange from a tree and hurl it and chase it. If the orange landed it would squish so there was no option but to catch it.

The ten Test nations have whirred through 105 changes of coach in 26 years. Who among these 105 made their teams significantly better? Who were flops? Who knows? We do know that not many of the 105 departed totally happy or totally by choice

Some say cricket coaching's a science. This so-called science has itself been the subject of not much scientific curiosity or certainty. The ten Test nations have whirred through 105 changes of coach in 26 years. Who among these 105 made their teams significantly better? Who were flops? Who knows? We do know that not many of the 105 departed totally happy or totally by choice. Only two were full-time legbreak bowlers - Intikhab Alam and Mushtaq Mohammad - despite legspin being allegedly cricket's most cerebral art. Also interesting: predominantly dark-skinned teams have hired white-skinned coaches numerous times but the reverse scenario has ensued on precisely zero occasions. Giants on the field - Viv Richards and Kapil Dev - proved doomed coaches. Javed Miandad has enjoyed (or otherwise) four stabs (so far) at the job in Pakistan. Off-the-scale talents like Wasim Raja and Sandeep Patil lasted periods of months that were calculable on fingers. It is the lesser-gifted hard workers - grafters - who have tended to help their teams the most.

Ranatunga and Gomes and Vettori and Mohinder Amarnath - grafters all and prime raw coaching material in waiting.

Ian Brayshaw wrote a book called The Elements of Cricket that made spinning a legbreak look easier than whistling. Shane Warne exerts a similar hypnosis simply by rolling his own arm over. Brian Booth could infuse any gang of prison escapees with notions of fair play and graciousness. Daryl Foster would run them through so many sand-dune sprints that they'd ask to be put back in jail. Bob Cowper made 307 at the MCG and millions more in the world of investment banking. Bob Hawke of Perth Modern School XI made it all the way to the prime ministership: a master motivator and consensus-broker. Bruce Laird is an afraid-of-nobody peacemaker capable of uniting warring egos within a team. Darren Lehmann seems unencumbered by ego and self-effacing enough to empower players to think for themselves. Old opener Alan Turner knows the fundamental unimportance of cricket's importance. Which is an important thing to know.

The greatest cricket coach ever made might be someone with a little of everyone mentioned above in them. Someone who on top of all that is a penetrating analyst and comfortable on TV and captained his country and whose men would - and did - follow him into revolution. Someone who - is there someone we're missing? - believes a cricket coach can do a team some good.

Thought not.

Christian Ryan is a writer based in Melbourne. He is the author of Golden Boy: Kim Hughes and the Bad Old Days of Australian Cricket and, most recently Australia: Story of a Cricket Country

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Matt on March 24, 2012, 0:43 GMT

    Well I totally disagree with your choice of Richie Benaud. But Australia does have an Ivan Lendl, he also began his career and ended his career at the same time Lendl did. He has already rebuilt Australia cricket once in his life, he remains the most under rated cricketer to have ever played the game, his men would and did follow him into any battle, so no Christian we haven't missed the chance yet but we should of course be on our hands and knees begging Border to come forth once more and rebuild Australian cricket, this time by way of Coaching instead of grinding. I'm sure Border would make a great coach.

  • Riaz on March 23, 2012, 11:30 GMT

    Basically, there are two kinds of coaches - coaches who teach hard cricketing skills (batting/bowling/fielding) and coaches who excel in motivation and morale and psychology. I think Barry Richards could be an excellent hands-on batting coach and Mike Brearley a perfect motivational coach.

  • Dru on March 23, 2012, 9:23 GMT

    Missing the point here but Maradonan and Viv Richards argubly the greats of their game were possibly the worst coaches ever and I would throw Botham in that lot if he ever thought about coaching. On the other hand Flower, Kirsten (not sure if they are in the same bracket) were great players and are now great coaches. Then there are guys like John Buchanan and Dav Watmore who hardly played international cricket but were great coaches. There seems to be no corelation between the player and coach. It just seems an individual thing.

  • Ryan on March 23, 2012, 5:40 GMT

    @RandyOZ: The only "evidence" I can think of is that he led us to #2 in the World Test rankings in the early 2000s [I'm guessing but 2001-02 rings a bell] despite having an inferior team to the likes of SA, Eng, India, Pakistan and West Indies. Also our performances in ODI tournaments and series throughout last decade once again in spite of having an inferior team - Winning the ICC Knockout in 2000, final of the VB series in 2002, Semi-final of 1999 and 2007 World Cups, 2006 Champions trophy semi final, not to mention the number of bi-lateral series we won. During Fleming's tenure in charge we got to #2 in the ODI rankings on two separate occasions and in many of our famous wins it was through his captaincy that limited the opposition total.

  • Sam on March 23, 2012, 2:29 GMT

    I don't understand the Sangakkara love in this topic. He is one of my favorite batsmen and I wish him all the success but I am not sure about his tactical acuteness. Also, a lot of the things that he says in interviews are not particularly insightful. Mahela may be a better bet and someone like Atapattu (driven, hard-working, decent captain) could be good too as far as SL is concerned. Kumble and Dravid possess the right attitude, temperament and abilities. Fleming and Pollock could be the best bet as far as recent captains are concerned outside Asia. OTOH, captains and popular players don't necessarily make the successful coaches. Compare Chappell, Waqar and Miandad with Woolmer, Whatmore and Kirsten, for example.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2012, 19:27 GMT

    Chappelli right? Totally agree...

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2012, 12:35 GMT

    Yes Dave Whatmore, Mohinder Amarnath are the great coaches. Defintely RSD batting coach,Zak the bowling coachwho the each &every player inside & outside.

  • Dummy4 on March 22, 2012, 12:21 GMT

    Randy, yeah I rate Fleming as the best ODI captain of the 90's & 00's, he was very intelligent in his strategies on the cricket field, and a good batsman.

  • Shankar on March 22, 2012, 12:12 GMT

    @jkaussie - Yes, Bobby Simpson is another, thanks for pointing that out. Yes, I wholeheartedly agree with your rationale that more often than not, toughness and 'grinding it out' are qualities that great coaches possess..!!

  • Randolph on March 22, 2012, 11:44 GMT

    @FatBoysCanBat - was Fleming really that good? Every always rates him so high but I never personally saw anything spectacular. Admittedly I didn't watch too much of NZ in the 90s/00s, but would like some evidence to back up his status.

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