Lehmann euphoria leaves England wary
There is a wariness about England ahead of the Investec Ashes series that would have been unimaginable a fortnight ago. A cricketing Falstaff is forever imagined as propped against the bar, talking about the game until the night is old. Darren Lehmann is coach of Australia and suddenly everybody senses a contest.
"Jump on board and enjoy the ride," he said ahead of their final warm-up against Worcestershire. It is the message Australia needs.
If Australia win this series against the odds, perhaps beer and fags will become a fashionable cricketing accoutrement again. There is something about a few beers - taken in moderation, naturally - that typifies Lehmann's philosophy. This philosophy is a good one.
It involves camaraderie and honest, from-the-heart opinions. It involves trust and the unerring sense that you can beat the world. It fosters self-belief. On a good day - or night - it brings occasional flashes of insight. England must make Australia sober up as soon as possible because in the mood they are now, slightly tipsy in the belief that they have miraculously regrouped, Australia are dangerous.
Coaching comes naturally to Lehmann; it just took Australia a long time to realise it. Just as England can surprise itself occasionally with its own radicalism, so Australia, the original Young Country, is more awash with conservatism than it likes to admit. It has taken a crisis for them to pin faith in Lehmann's cricketing nous. Thrown a hospital pass, he will begin by mending minds rather than techniques.
It is easy to patronise Lehmann, of course, as an old-fashioned cricket coach who loves nothing but beer-fuelled cricket chat. "Very much so," he smiled, "but I'll leave it like that." Here is a coach who is also perfectly adept at studying the data but who has the knack of slipping it into a player's consciousness without them even knowing. You have to sugar the pill.
So instead he tells the beer story. "I was supposed to be up in Yorkshire with my wife having a barbecue and a beer at the moment with some family. I'm a bit disappointed we are not playing at Headingley but that will keep me out of trouble for a start. Times have changed, it's been an eventful few days."
Mention of Yorkshire is hugely appropriate because this is where his reinvention began. It is where Lehmann, first as player then as captain, was so revered that it changed Australia's perception for ever. He was adopted by a county that prided itself in loving his straight-talking but that, more importantly, was also transformed by his positivity.
Lehmann sensed that in the north of England he could do business. He averaged not far short of 70, one of the finest overseas players ever to tread the county circuit. Australia took another look and gave him 27 Test caps and a long one-day career.
He went on to become Ricky Ponting's favourite sounding board, finally recognised as a man steeped in the game, full of good principles. Not before time.
In his last Yorkshire game, against Durham at Headingley, with Yorkshire needing points to avoid relegation, he made a triple-century and fell just short of George Hirst's record score for the county, made in 1905. Hirst's record is treasured by those Yorkshire members steeped in history; Lehmann's years at Yorkshire had gradually won them over.
It was an extraordinary morning. Lehmann had enthralled them for several seasons with his strong-arm drives and extraordinary manipulation. But he had also reminded them of something more special. He reminded them how to find a joy in the game, which in the county's endless power struggles they had mislaid. As he passed 300 and then got out, quite tamely, grown men had tears in their eyes. I know this for a fact because I had left the media box to applaud him in.
In a county so proud of its homegrown talent, there was a heretical admission that Lehmann was one of the finest players in Yorkshire's history.
"I nivver thought ah'd want an Aussie to beat Hirst's record," said one Yorkshire stalwart, acting as if to flick through a book on the second-hand bookstall. "But if anyone deserved to beat it, it was Lehmann." Then he paused. "Anyroad, he's got 300 and he hasn't quite managed it, so t'job's a good un."
That begins to explain why England are so wary. Michael Vaughan was often absent with England during Lehmann's Yorkshire years, but when Lehmann was appointed, he abandoned his habitual taunting of Australia on Twitter with a heartfelt accolade. From Lehmann, he learned to play his cricket aggressively, with character, and to view his immersion in the game not as a reason for embarrassment but as a vital part of his progression as a cricketer.
"Don't be fooled by his history of liking a drink and a smoke," he wrote in the Daily Telegraph. "He is tough. He will tell people home truths. I know because he is one of the three biggest influences in my career. He taught me to enjoy playing the game and talking about it after play. He will do that with this young Australian team. He will encourage the lads to have a beer and discuss things. It will be old school.
Lehmann, although Yorkshire captain in name, increasingly had influence more akin to a player coach. "I have always had that teaching role even when playing, as an older player," he said. "I didn't know whether I would enjoy coaching full time or not until I went to the Indian Premier League with Adam Gilchrist and I just fell in love with it. People say you can't love it more than playing, but for some reason I do, I absolutely love it. You wish you could still play but you just get older, older and wider."
The transcript is not entirely clear. He might have said "wiser". No matter.
Mickey Arthur, sacked a week ago as Australia's coach, has since had to cope with personal grief after the death of his mother. It cannot have been an easy time. He is an immensely affable man and was deeply protective of Australia's players to the end. He was able to play hard cop as he did at Western Australia or dance to the tune of "rounded player development" as he did for Cricket Australia. He deserves another gig somewhere. But there is an air of middle management about him. Perhaps that is where the disconnect occurred.
Lehmann, however much he is trying to adopt a graver persona, does fun. May he do it forever. He even admitted to playfully texting Andy Flower, England's coach, over recent days, a detail that Flower himself, a more private individual, would never have publicly revealed.
"It will be a great battle," Lehmann said. "I've obviously played with Andy for a couple of years at South Australia when he was there, so we know each other quite well. It will be interesting to see how that transpires. I loved him as a man - great man. We have already started the banter on the texts - he is winning that at the moment but I've had a bit on."
It was an intriguing story. Did he realise that England, for all the high esteem in which Flower is held, are suspected of, to put it bluntly, a little control-freakery? Was this an innocent observation of a bit of banter between two good mates or also a cleverly planted story to lift the troops?
And the troops are certainly lifted. Round Lehmann was the excited chatter of an Australia side that in a matter of days feels good in itself again. Suddenly, this is an Ashes series developing its own particular zing. Once again, everybody can hardly wait for it to begin.
"I can't see why England wouldn't be favourites," Lehmann said. "They've had a good 12 months, they are well read, and well coached. The advantage I have is coming in as a fresh face and hopefully changing some ideas."
Does his appointment signify the re-emergence of the archetypal Australian male? It is a question he has become used to.
"Yes, probably, for some good and bad reasons I'm sure," he said. "I'm not going to change the way I am. Hopefully we have some success doing it and I'm sure the boys are going to have some fun."
David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo