'No-one owns the players now'
In a little more than a year as Cricket Australia's general manager of team performance, Pat Howard has overseen a dramatic restructure of the support network around the national team and the establishment of stronger links between CA and the states. The team has largely flourished under the captaincy of Michael Clarke, but the series loss against South Africa showed much still needed to be done. Howard spoke to ESPNcricinfo about the achievements and challenges of his first year, and the scepticism faced by a former rugby international and pharmacist since being cast in the one of the most powerful roles in Australian cricket.
What do you feel has been your chief accomplishment since taking the team performance job in the wake of the Argus review?
To get a structure in place at the top level but also with the women's the Under-19s, changes in medical staff, there's been a reasonable amount of changing in personnel in 12 months across all those teams, and that has happened, and getting greater communication across all those groups as well as with the states. One of the big things I believe in now is that no-one owns the players, they can be playing for any number of six teams in a year, and the communication and continuity needs to be really good across all those teams. They enter teams, they leave and go play in the BBL, head off to a state team, come into a Test team. Right now we need to be across who's on the targeted list for the ODIs or T20s and India series and even Ashes series. Getting that across the whole organisation has been very much a platform to start building from.
How have you found the experience of coming from outside cricket and quickly becoming such an integral part of decision-making around the game?
I've asked questions which those who've been in the system a long time wouldn't have asked, and when you ask those questions sometimes the answer comes back that it's done for very valid reasons. And I think one of the core values of the team is making sure they do engage back with the past, and I think that process has worked very well for the Test series, having past players back around the team, and making sure the communication is very good. They get to understand what the Test team's doing in that case, and there's good links back to the past.
There has been some scepticism if not outright criticism of your role and expertise over the past year, in terms of a "non-cricket person" having oversight for so many areas of Australian cricket.
I haven't seen it. Not from those on the ground and from an operational level, no. When you have dialogue with any of the states, the BBL teams, those in other countries, I haven't really seen that. I'm aware there's always conversations in other areas, but in terms of those you actually have to communicate with and deal with, not so much. There's always those technical discussions and selection discussions, there's always different points of view and that's healthy. I'm not a selector, but making sure the selection panels work with their selection strategy and 80% of the time sticking with that, and the other part of the time asking 'why are you not, what's the rationale', and the discipline behind those processes.
One instance that caused some public angst was before the first Test in discussions around whether Shane Watson might play as a batsman. There were a few slightly differing messages, and a perception that you were speaking for the selection panel, which you sit in on but are not a part of?
We were all saying the same thing. I freely stated that the selectors are the people who choose the team, they have certain criteria and I was asked whether or not the selection panel prefer if he can bowl, and absolutely they do. So that's the question I was answering, and I'm absolutely sure they want people who are fit to play, so that was the selectors' choice, that's how it was talked about there, and I noted all that discussion, but it took on a life of its own.
Communication is clear internally even if it seemed confused in public on that occasion?
Committees invariably don't all agree on everything, you don't want them to. Otherwise if the selection panel agreed on everything we'd only need one person. So very much the view is they have some really good, robust conversations around decision-making, they have a selection strategy, there are criteria around it, and I think when John Inverarity announces teams or delegates to Michael [Clarke] or Mickey [Arthur] to do that, I think there's some pretty clear messages around why they're chosen, and I think they do that job very well, as a collective.
What have you found most challenging about the demands and vagaries of cricket after dealing with other sports?
I think the fact that the 11 players that take the field have got to be right, got to be physically right. We saw in the second Test obviously that if a player breaks down that it obviously has an effect on other players. So that is by far the most unique thing about cricket - it's a long sport with no replacements, so you've got to get that part right. It's a unique thing, particularly when there's three formats of the game, players are sometimes in the sprint mode versus the marathon mode, and it's making sure the guys are ready across all those at different times.
Where do you stand on the debate over whether substitutes should be introduced to the long form of the game?
I'm on the playing conditions committee and there are very valid arguments, one for tradition, one sports science. By no means would I want to test the fabric of Test cricket, that's not what we're here to do. There are traditions that are wonderful for the game. But I think in terms of some of the statements [Victoria coach] Greg Shipperd has made around other versions or other formats, I am interested to have a look at it from a health and welfare position. But not Test cricket, that's not going to change. You'd love to bring players back in to play more Shield cricket at different times without overexposing them at other times. That's a balance.
You are in the role deemed ultimately accountable for the Australian team's performance. How did you assess the first series loss under your watch, against South Africa?
I think we put ourselves in a very good position to win it. We had our opportunities absolutely, but ultimately, when the big times came we didn't take them. I think the players and the management all take responsibility in that, and so do I. We weren't absolutely top of the game when we had to be, and all credit goes to South Africa there, because they took their opportunities and we didn't. One, did we give ourselves a chance to win it? Yes we did. Did we take it? No. Our ability to identify how you make sure you take your pressure situations is pretty important.
We've got some challenges still. We had some commonalities through the whole series that occurred. We often lost a couple of wickets early, and building resilience in that area isn't going to happen overnight. There are lots of things to deal with, but you've got to look over the whole year as well and look at what's consistent. For me it's looking at what happened against the Indians here and what happened against South Africa a year later. There are some things that have happened that we still haven't got the traction on that we want, there are others where there has been significant improvement.
That was a pretty outstanding batting line-up on world rankings, and I think a lot of bowlers stood up to be honest. I think the [public] conversation's been very funny in that regard. I think there's been improvement, but to be the best you've got to be well and truly the best, and we've got a long way to go.
It has been said since the series concluded that for a developing Australian side with several faults to assume the No. 1 ranking would be premature?
We don't want to make excuses. You had your chance to go to No. 1, and I don't think anyone was having that conversation at the end of Adelaide. You take your chances, great, you don't take your chances then you don't deserve to be No. 1. In the end performances dictated that we weren't there. South Africa deserved the compliments. They won, I don't take a lot from people making judgements at various points in a series. At the end of the series we're judged, we lost 1-0, not good enough.
What did you glean from how South Africa go about things as the world's top-ranked team?
They've got world ranked players in batting and bowling and the players they introduced performed well as well, so they've had a significant amount of time in ODIs or had a couple of Tests and come in and out. They've got a fairly established team and it's very balanced, and we made a significant amount of change from a year ago. We've got a significant amount of players in their mid-20s, and if you go back to the team that was playing against South Africa a year ago, there's been some change even since then as well. South Africa played well, we knew they were going to be good and they were. But we had our chances and you've got to take those. If you don't take them ... that's sport, isn't it?
You are now entering a period in which the Test team is again in action without any first-class cricket for players to come out of. It's not ideal, is it?
The scheduling is difficult. In saying this, you get plenty of warning - it's not like they put that schedule up against you a week in advance. So we know this same round of BBL is between Test one and Test two of the Ashes next year, we're well across that. So we're 12 months in advance in our schedule and our thinking, so we need to be making sure those guys in and around the team are getting practice with the right coloured balls at the right time, with the right coaches. And they know they're playing in game X, but part of their training is going to incorporate Y. That's been communicated through the national selection panel with the states as well and through the BBL teams. That process has been happening. It's never easy but it's part of the challenge that all teams and all countries now have to go through.
However well directed and focused it is, training will never be a substitute for relevant match play.
It's not a perfect world, but you want to be able to deal with all the different formats, and it's complicated. But it's complicated for everybody. I actually think dealing with this challenge will take a couple of years for all countries, and they're dealing with it in different ways. For me at the moment you prepare the best you can, but there's also a balance there - how much long form cricket do you play before you come into a series, depending on how old you are, how much experience and all those questions. There's a lot of factors to weigh up.
One of the major issues confronting Australia is the lack of consistently prolific batting talent available. How are you trying to address that?
I think exposing different people and working with the states in terms of being able to expose different people at different levels is important. Using longer format games like Australia A to expose people, Chairman's XI like we saw the other day when it was lovely to see Scott Henry get 207 down there. There is the ability to expose people at that level, give them feedback. Get some consistency across the board, not so much technical but how do we get the best out of players and not try to clone people across the country?
We also need to give them the avenue, part of the pitches discussion with the state CEOs was about a fair contest between bat and ball and to give an environment and create a structure that allows people to score well while keeping the uniqueness of pitches around the country, and batting in different environments. We're working on that with the states and hopefully creating a system and structure that's not about tomorrow, but the years in advance.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here