March 2, 2016

Diva, Australia's unsung back-room hero

Australia's recent batting surge, and subsequent rise to No. 1, owes much to the contribution of their departing batting coach, Michael Di Venuto

Michael Di Venuto played a big part in bringing out the best in the top six after a poor Ashes in 2015 © Getty Images

Australia's celebrations for winning the second Test in New Zealand, and with it the ICC's No. 1 Test ranking, also served as a farewell for the batting coach Michael Di Venuto. A low-key figure, he was a vital part of the Australian team set-up over the past three years and a big influence on the positive direction of our Test match batting. Surrey have recruited a good one.

In my time working alongside "Diva" in the team he never looked for accolades or attention, but the work he has done both mentally and technically with the likes of Steven Smith and David Warner has been priceless. Since joining the side on a pretty grim tour of India in 2013, he's helped them to progress from good cricketers to just about the top of the tree, and they now have Joe Burns, Usman Khawaja and Adam Voges all peeling off runs also.

I have a couple of strong memories of how Michael was able to shape things in a positive way during the 2013-14 Ashes campaign. Steven had been knocked over cheaply in Brisbane and Adelaide, and as a young player it isn't hard to start panicking about where things are going. Michael took on the job of reassuring Steven that there was nothing he needed to change, using the phrase "not out of form, just out of runs", and counselling him just to make sure he cashed in when the chance came. Steven relaxed, and he has not stopped making hundreds since.

Australia put on their game faces and played the brand of cricket in New Zealand that we have been raised on for generations

In terms of my own batting in that series, Michael and I spoke a lot about the attitude I needed to take to the middle, which was to change the momentum of the game from No. 7. He's very good at building strong, honest relationships with the players on his watch, and there's no sense of one method fitting all.

While he can help with the technical side, his major contribution is to help a batsman work out his best way to score in a given situation or environment. That message was consistent even during the 2015 Ashes, and while Birmingham and Nottingham cannot be erased, their lessons are clear in the way the top six are batting now.

The businesslike mentality of Australia's batsmen was mirrored in the field against New Zealand, and the players were able to walk the line between respecting and celebrating Brendon McCullum's career while also playing very hard and well in the middle. They put on their game faces and played the brand of cricket that we have been raised on for generations.

In Australia, for any sport, we're brought up to understand the rules and respect the game and the legacy left to us. Australian cricket teams have played more or less the same way for many years - to play to win and be uncompromising about that. Look back to captains like Allan Border, Mark Taylor, Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and see how consistently the team has played to that style.

When the ball wasn't swinging or seaming as much as they wanted, New Zealand struggled to find the right back-up plan © AFP

What we saw in New Zealand was a continuation of that style, in a highly emotional series for the home side. I had no doubt that Australia were going to win the series, largely because although New Zealand had come a long way under Brendon there was still a mental hurdle for them. The Australian side made no apologies for playing the game hard in that series, but there was plenty of respect shown for Brendon, which he acknowledged at the end of his last match.

Despite the mental edge I mention, it was still a considerable achievement by the Australians to win the series when they were facing up to conditions made to order for the hosts. There was a very obvious intent by New Zealand to prepare grassy wickets, and through a combination of the coin tosses, the weather, and some excellent batting by the likes of Khawaja, Burns, Smith and Voges, this backfired.

Australia is the biggest series for any New Zealand cricketer, but the added emphasis placed on seaming surfaces, including the coach, Mike Hesson, asking for a thicker coverage in Christchurch than we saw in Wellington, created pressure. It was clear to me how much that fell onto Tim Southee and Trent Boult to dominate, and in the end they weren't able to produce.

I was a little surprised to find that when the ball wasn't swinging or seaming as much as they wanted, New Zealand struggled to find the right back-up plan, whether it was to shut down the scoreboard, find reverse swing or simply bowl one side of the wicket. Neil Wagner had some success with a short-pitched attack in Christchurch, but it looked to be a plan formed out of desperation.

Boult and Southee will look back on this series - and last year's in Australia - with plenty of disappointment, because they were unable to back up their lofty ICC rankings with winning performances against what is now the top-ranked side. This becomes an even bigger source of irritation when you consider the injuries and retirements within Australia's bowling attack, which tested the depth available.

As captain, Steven has made no secret of his desire to improve the team's overseas record, and the way the batsmen have matured over the last few months points very positively in that direction. While a win in New Zealand does not atone for what happened in England last year, every player has made strides. They can thank the understated guiding hand of Diva for helping to bring that about.

Former wicketkeeper Brad Haddin played 66 Tests for Australia

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