Buchanan appointment the beginning of the end
You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. John Wright's face appeared equal parts incredulity and apprehension last March, when told New Zealand Cricket was seeking a new director of cricket. Wright had been casually informed by New Zealand's three-person 2011 World Cup media contingent in the palatial lobby of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel on Mumbai's waterfront.
The fact two-time World Cup winning coach John Buchanan was appointed several weeks later is less relevant than the wider scope of the role: Wright would have a new direct boss and the autonomy he so desperately sought as head coach would inevitably be compromised. Perhaps Buchanan's appointment was the beginning of the end. Wright's decision to step down as coach of the New Zealand team after the upcoming West Indies tour - a stint of just over 19 months - has been a tale of two coaches, two contracts and two cricket philosophies. Wright might have beaten Buchanan 2-1 as the respective coaches of India and Australia in 2001 during one of the greatest Test series in history but Buchanan has wrestled one back.
Wright wanted the NZC board and chief executive David White to reduce Buchanan's powers. He didn't get it. As someone who has achieved plenty as a player and coach before taking on the New Zealand role, Wright consequently decided there was more to life, especially given the expectation he would sign until the end of the 2015 World Cup. If the 57-year-old had stayed in the role he faced numerous intense tours over the next three years. It's understood Wright did not demand a salary increase and was happy to concede more administrative responsibility to manager Mike Sandle but, in return, wanted absolute power over the coaching and selection of the team.
The "positive tension" oxymoron White previously spoke about between Wright and Buchanan was at the core of the problem. Wright is a pragmatist, Buchanan is an analyst. Both have been successful international coaches before joining NZC. Yet less Buchanan influence around the selection table became a non-negotiable for Wright.
It placed NZC in a difficult position. It could accept Wright's position and avoid the awkwardness of a public hero stepping aside prematurely. The downside (in the board's eyes) would be reducing Buchanan's control, or, given the pair might struggle to work together, paying Buchanan off. In tough economic times Wright was more expendable, given his contract finished after the West Indies tour. Likewise, if Wright wanted to adjust his staffing situation, which included three Australians - Kim Littlejohn (selection manager), Trent Woodhill (assistant coach) and Damien Wright (bowling coach) - it would potentially require more 'money-for-nothing' pay-outs. NZC's hand was forced.
An endorsement of Wright's tenure was not helped at board level by perceived inadequacies in his communication skills. The board was initially believed to have given White carte blanche to secure Wright's signature. However, its outlook became less generous over time. Concerns were raised that, regardless of inspirational dressing room talks, Wright could not afford to cut corners in the modern cricketing environment and needed to communicate more clearly with players and management outside the shed. One example had Wright adamant players should not have to fill out a substantial 2011-12 season review document. Wright preferred an old-school "sit down with a beer at the bar" approach to counselling players.
Wright was also disappointed NZC failed to appoint former Otago coach Mike Hesson - now in charge of Kenya - to either the selection manager or team manager roles eventually secured by former Bowls Australia high performance manager Littlejohn and ex-Blues rugby manager Sandle respectively.
Sadly Wright's decision means New Zealand cricket fans got only a fleeting glimpse of what might have been possible. Unless something spectacular occurs in the West Indies his tenure will forever be marked with a tentative "showed promise". Under Wright, New Zealand secured the country's first semi-finals spot in a World Cup on the subcontinent (after 11 straight ODI losses in that part of the world at the start of the tournament). They followed that with their first Test win in 18 years against Australia and added further Test wins, home and away, against Zimbabwe. No silverware was earned against South Africa but - the second Test aside - there were signs the team could at least compete for sustained periods. Wright also proved a masterful selector at times, based on form (Mark Gillespie, Dean Brownlie and Kruger van Wyk) and intuition (Doug Bracewell and BJ Watling).
After four years with NZC in various capacities, Wright can presumably return to short-term contracts, perhaps with English and Indian teams, while spending further time on his Canterbury farm.
The non-renewal of Wright's contract means the coaching position remains a poisoned chalice. Since John Bracewell resigned in 2008 the reins have been held in various capacities by Andy Moles, Mark Greatbatch, Roger Mortimer and Wright. The team won't slide back to square one but Wright's exit means they have lost valuable kudos in the public perception stakes. The former skipper is forever etched in the nation's memory through cricketing achievements, including his famed prolonged and painful exits from the batting crease. When Wright was dismissed the cricketing nation grieved with him, as they do now.
Few obvious replacements spring to mind. Chennai Super Kings coach and former New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming, Kenya's Hesson, Northern Districts coach Grant Bradburn, Wellington and former Bangladesh coach Jamie Siddons and even Lancashire and former England coach Peter Moores have been touted as possible successors, provided they can get out of their current contracts.
As New Zealand's most successful Test leader and with an IPL title as a coach, Fleming would be the preferred choice. Convincing him to step into the full-time role and away from his young family, multitude of business interests and Chennai coaching cameo would require serious levels of persuasion, patriotism and cash.
Hesson seems suitable but, given he was overlooked for the team manager and selection manager roles, he might not be top of the recruitment list. He also needs to be bought out of his Kenya contract.
Bradburn ideally needs to serve a couple more seasons in charge of Northern Districts, despite securing his second Plunket Shield title in three years this season. Bradburn is a consummate professional with Test experience and a proven capability for bringing through fledgling talent.
Siddons has international coaching experience but the creation of a fully Australian management panel (Sandle excepted) seems a risky public relations exercise in the current fragile environment. Moores would be a wildcard, although his name has been bandied in local cricket circles after his stint with England ended prematurely courtesy of a disagreement with then-captain Kevin Pietersen.
Andrew Alderson is cricket writer at New Zealand's Herald on Sunday