The Investec Ashes 2013 July 9, 2013

Old Boof, new tricks

Darren Lehmann's ascent to the Australian coaching job was seen as a win for the old school. But his rise has also been a triumph of invention, reconciliation and, believe it or not, sports science

Before he was coach of Australia, before he played Test cricket, before he lost his hair, Darren Lehmann was a prodigiously gifted young batsman... with a short attention span. In his three years with Victoria, after he was lured east from South Australia by the Carlton Cricket Club, Lehmann would demonstrate his lack of patience in the nets at the expense of the left-arm spinner Paul Jackson.

Looking on was another young cricketer, the modest medium-fast bowler James Sutherland, who also happened to be Carlton's financial officer and the author of Lehmann's contract. "He used to get bored facing Paul's tightly accurate left-arm slows," Sutherland recalled. "I have a strong memory of him turning his bat side-on and using the edge as the face - and the edges of bats were much thinner then - to practice long, lofted straight drives."

Sutherland, of course, is now Cricket Australia's chief executive. Such invention, and desire to keep the game moving, stayed in Sutherland's mind as Lehmann rose through the ranks of Australian cricket via Yorkshire, and belatedly demonstrated his prowess in a baggy green. It cannot have been far from Sutherland's thoughts either when Lehmann was chosen, swiftly and decisively, to replace Mickey Arthur as the national team coach. The Ashes will be the truest measure, but so far, Lehmann's spontaneity is resonating as much with Australia's players now as it did all those years ago in Victoria's training nets.

How Lehmann came to be coach of Australia is a far more complicated tale than that, of course. As much as he has retained the sense of fun and frivolity that made him such a watchable batsman and engaging character, Lehmann has also changed. There is a precision to his coaching, and an openness to the ways of the 21st century athlete, that he simply did not possess as a cricketer. In fact, when Lehmann retired, he sounded more or less as though he did not have much interest at all in pursuing a career in a game that had passed him by in terms of fitness and training, if never in skill.

"You change and have different views and the game moves forward," Lehmann said. "When I finished I wasn't very good either, to be perfectly honest. These guys are now athletes and they can do a lot of things. My role, and our coaching staff's role, is to make sure we're creating better cricketers. I think they all can run fast and do all that, but we actually need them to be better, and that's all we're trying to do, teach them to play the game of cricket and the right way to play it."

Lehmann's career ended in November 2007, following a series of rancorous disagreements with Rod Marsh, who was then the SACA's supremo. In his retirement press conference, Lehmann declared he and Marsh "had very different ideas about how to manage cricket teams", and he did not seem in any hurry to move into coaching. As the president of the Australian Cricketers Association, Lehmann had advocated that players not be intimidated by the world beyond the game, and that they keep their options open. He would put that advice into practice.

"A lot of the blokes are understandably very worried about their futures after retirement, but Darren really wasn't," said Paul Marsh, the ACA chief executive. "He wanted to try everything, work out what he enjoyed and then from there make some decisions. He had an approach of saying yes to everything. If someone asked him he'd accept. So he did a lot of corporate stuff, did some work for SA Breweries, he had the ACA role, and he did coaching courses. By that approach he found that coaching was something he loved to do. He probably had a really good break in terms of getting the job at Deccan Chargers in the IPL, and then his success there really motivated him to keep going."

After deciding where he wanted to go, Lehmann began to blend his ways of the old school, including a preference for short, sharp training sessions and an aggressive pursuit of results, with the innovations of the new. Something Lehmann soon discovered - a surprise to him as much as anyone else - was that the more analytical and science-oriented elements of the game did not contradict his idea of common sense, just as long as they were communicated effectively.

The first session Lehmann had with Australia, in Taunton, there was an immediate sense of released tension, of pressure being lifted from the team. About halfway through training an immense and collective belly laugh rose up from the nets. The laughter would be repeated occasionally during the match

"A lot of people probably don't know that I'm a bit of a nuffy with sports science and all that sort of stuff as well as cricket, and you only get to know that once you get to know me," Lehmann said. "Fitness is a big part of it and they're all really fit now, they don't do what we used to do when we played. So from that point of view they've certainly improved. I certainly wouldn't survive in this era in the same shape - I am 43, though! But at the end of the day, skill counts. It's a skill-based game."

The blend of old and new, all wrapped up in Lehmann's personable yet demanding-at-the-right-times manner, had its first run through at Deccan Chargers in the IPL in 2009. A tournament moved to South Africa at the last possible moment had an equally dramatic effect on Lehmann's career. Trying the job as a taster, he soon found himself closely allied to the captain, Adam Gilchrist, as the team rose from last the previous year to first. Gilchrist's impressions of Lehmann the coach were strong, and Shane Warne was also a convert. By the time Lehmann took up the Queensland post full-time in 2011, Warne was speaking of him as the next Australian coach.

"It's very flattering when that happens, and for me it's a case of when you get that support from those guys you listen to it, you learn from it and hope it will happen one day," Lehmann said of Warne's recommendation. "And they're really an important part of what we're about, those past players, so they'll be involved in everything we do moving forward and around the place, and our change rooms are open all the time and we'd be mad not to learn from those guys. As a coach I'd be mad to say I have all the answers - they'll often come up with better answers than I have."

This desire to empower others, engendered partly by Lehmann's ACA background, extends further than the platitudes offered with some regularity about the place of former players as a source of advice to the current generation. And it does not simply refer to past greats, either. Senior performers within Lehmann's teams will be pushed to mentor their younger compatriots, and encouraged to think like their own coaches at training, as Ryan Harris can attest.

"He's been really good with me in Brisbane because I'm quite keen to go into coaching one day and he's given me opportunities with the Heat and the Bulls," he said. "He's let me run Bulls sessions when he's been away, all that sort of stuff I'm grateful for, because it's the sort of stuff you don't get as an aspiring coach coming up if you're not in the system.

"I always thought he'd be a good coach, and seeing him now you can understand because he coaches exactly the way he played. He thinks it's easy, the way he played, he thought it was easy, and he gives you that confidence. You're never not good enough, your ability is good enough to play the way you want to play. I never thought he'd be Australian coach and I never thought I'd be under him playing for Australia, but it is a great feeling."

Rod Marsh, the one-time adversary, is another example of Lehmann's desire for inclusiveness. As an Australia selector, Marsh has typically kept some distance from the team, not staying with them when on tour and apart from occasional instances preferring to observe and report. One of Lehmann's first stipulations as coach of Australia was to ensure Marsh stayed with the team, and to encourage his wider involvement in their training and planning. The ructions of 2007 have soundly healed.

"That relationship's developed already," Lehmann said. "We're the selectors on tour, so for us it's got to be a really close working relationship, as with Michael the captain, even though he's not a selector he will have a big say in what goes on because he's got to lead those men out on the park. Hopefully we have plenty of selection headaches because we're playing well. Rod will be around a lot and have a lot more to do as well. We'd be mad not to tap into the experience of someone like him."

Over two seasons with Queensland, the Bulls and their T20 scion, Brisbane Heat, won all the major domestic trophies on offer despite a team less talented than others. While Lehmann was widely lauded for developing a confident team who played for each other, he also became quite adept at rotating the fast bowlers at his disposal. Notions of Lehmann unilaterally scrapping the player management that has existed for the past two years under the team performance manager Pat Howard are somewhat misplaced.

"I'm here to play five Tests and if I can do that and I'm 100% capable of doing that after each game, I'm sure if I'm bowling well enough they'll let me do that, and if I'm not I may be rotated," Harris said when asked whether the new regime would differ. "I don't think that'll change too much. Boof's done it in Queensland as well with me and a couple of other bowlers. You're better off having guys that are 100% rather than a guy who's 90% and who might get through."

As Paul Marsh puts it: "He's definitely old school but I think he's also smart enough to embrace the new-school stuff. What he does do is put a lot of trust in people. If he trusts you from the start he just backs you. He'll happily hand over all the fitness stuff to the fitness guys because he'll trust them to do their job. When it's his time to have the team, he'll do what he needs to do."

All these qualities helped Lehmann forge a strong yet balanced team culture in Queensland, of the kind that could not help but be noticed by Howard from his office at Allan Border Field. There has long been scepticism within the Queensland set-up about some of CA's practices, not least those at the Centre of Excellence. But the results gained by the Bulls gave Howard, Sutherland and others plenty of evidence that should a new coach be required, Lehmann was the standout candidate. They were to reach that decision after a Champions Trophy campaign that left little doubt the players' relationship with Arthur had curdled.

"There was a lot of tenseness and even fear in the environment and I don't think that was just Mickey," Marsh said. "There was a lot of pressure coming from head office, everyone in Australian cricket was feeling the pressure. Darren's come straight in and he's a very relaxed character, he trusts people to go about doing their jobs, he's not going to put much pressure on them, and he's talked about many times already that it's a game of cricket not life."

This much was clear from the first session Lehmann took with the tourists, at Taunton, ahead of their match against Somerset. There was an immediate sense of released tension, of pressure being lifted from the team. About halfway through training an immense and collective belly laugh rose up from the nets. The laughter would be repeated occasionally during the match, which the Australians won at a happy clip after declaring with audacity.

"We've got a young squad with a couple of senior players we need to play well for a while yet, so we have to make sure the young guys are developing and learning, so when those older players leave us we've got some strength behind us," Lehmann said. "We want to keep it simple for them, basically because I think cricket's a simple game over-complicated by coaches sometimes. You want to have different ideas and chew the ideas out as a group, but come up with solutions and get the direction you want to get to."

When they found the destination tougher to reach at Worcester on a soporific surface, Lehmann lightened the mood by donning Peter Siddle's baggy green, a spare shirt and pants to deliver the drinks on day four. It was the same impish spirit Sutherland had glimpsed with Victoria, 20 years ago. Later, Lehmann quipped of his journey to the middle: "I was most worried about the pants." It is early on, but the fit seems just right.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here