The Ashes 2010-11 December 31, 2010

Australia fall short on coaching front too

Basic skill issues have not being identified and fixed by the Australia's bulging batch of professional support staff

This Ashes series has exposed the huge gulf between the expertise of the England and Australia coaching staffs. Andy Flower's meticulous campaign has his men purring while Tim Nielsen's home side has spent most of the summer praying for a handful of guys to cover up a glut of mistakes.

The stark reality is Australia have been out-batted, out-bowled, out-fielded and out-thought for most of the campaign. Playing strength is obviously the main reason for the result, but the combatants are groomed by the head coaches and their bulging batch of assistants.

Flower, a hugely respected former Zimbabwe batsman, appears like a Godfather over the England side, working out his strategies and speaking simply and sternly. Nielsen is more like a mate to the Australians than a task master, a friend on the training paddock and a sounding board, rather than a master tactician or disciplinarian.

Since being defeated in the 2009 Ashes, the Australians have beaten West Indies, a questionable Pakistan outfit at home, and New Zealand away. In the past six months there has been a drawn campaign with Pakistan, a 2-0 loss to India and now this fumbling Ashes show. Australia's summer began with a seven-match losing streak across all competitions and so far the only international successes have been a dead-rubber ODI win over Sri Lanka and the dead-cat bounce in Perth.

Changing personnel and under-performing leaders have contributed heavily to the results, but the coaching staff has been unable to provide much measurable support. Under Nielsen there is the bowling mentor Troy Cooley, the batting assistant Justin Langer, the fielding coach Mike Young and the analyst Dene Hills. Stuart Karppinen, the fitness and conditioning coach, also has a first-class bowling background.

In this series Australia have only three batsmen averaging more than 25 and one of those is the No.7 Brad Haddin. The elite run-makers have failed mostly due to sub-standard techniques against fine opponents, and ignoring basic rules like not following the ball on seaming pitches. It was particularly costly at the MCG, and would have been fatal if it wasn't for the brutal reply of Mitchell Johnson at the WACA.

The bowlers have been unable to hold a teasing line for long periods, which is essential against accumulators like Strauss, Cook and Trott. Their only sustained success is starving Paul Collingwood, a small trophy. Ryan Harris, who is out with a stress fracture, and Peter Siddle are averaging in the 20s while Johnson (35.09), Hilfenhaus (73.50), Shane Watson (87.00) and Doug Bollinger (130.00) have been much less effective during the entire campaign.

England's attack has been able to mix discipline with potency and its back-up men have starred when required. Chris Tremlett and Tim Bresnan fitted in perfectly when called, while Bollinger was simply unfit when promoted for Adelaide. The punishment didn't last long and he is back for Sydney.

In his public discussions Nielsen talks a lot without saying much. He likes players "to execute their skills" and perform in the "critical moments". There are "big challenges" in which the guys need to "maintain their focus"

Costly chances have been dropped, such as the misses by Haddin and Michael Hussey in Adelaide, which followed the stunning efforts of England in the opening hours of the game. The tourists are in such good shape that they were also able to drop two catches early on the first morning at the MCG and still dismiss Australia for 98. The local ground fielding has been sloppy and the hosts have no run-outs compared with England's three. Watson has been involved in two of those, but both times Jonathan Trott's throws were sharp enough to take advantage of the lapses.

Haddin, who has done a lot more keeping than his counterpart, has 43 byes for the series next to Prior's 14. Nielsen is a former wicketkeeper so he spends hours with Haddin, who still struggles with his footwork. While he can take spectacular diving takes down the leg side, he is not a natural gloveman and misses more simple offerings. He didn't even go for an edge in Perth that went between him and Watson at first slip. There are also times when Haddin doesn't bother trying to intercept wide leg-side deliveries, even when he should be expecting them from Johnson. In the fifth Test he is the vice-captain.

If these basic skill issues stand out for spectators, then how are they not being identified and fixed by the professional coaches? Outside the team Nielsen is nicknamed "Teflon Tim" because none of the criticism of the side sticks to him.

Nielsen has been in the job since replacing John Buchanan in 2007, when Australia were the best in every format but Twenty20, and keeps gaining new contracts despite not having any major trophies since beating South Africa early in 2009. (Australia won the Champions Trophy later that year but it has become a minor tournament.) Before the summer his deal was extended to after the 2013 Ashes series. Nielsen has never been part of a side that has won the urn, overseeing the 2009 and 2010-11 campaigns in which the same mistakes have occurred under pressure.

After the Melbourne defeat, which ensured England retained the trophy, he was pressed on whether he was doing a good job as coach. "I'm probably the wrong person to ask in some regards," he said. "It's hard for me to sit here and say I'm not doing a good job -- I believe I am. I believe I'm doing everything in my ability with my staff and the playing group to perform at the highest level that we can."

In his public discussions Nielsen, 42, talks a lot without saying much. He likes players "to execute their skills" and perform in the "critical moments". There are "big challenges" in which the guys need to "maintain their focus".

Hard questions are usually laughed off, but this time he admitted to feeling the strain. "No doubt," he said. "When you're losing Ashes series you always feel under pressure. When you're losing Test matches, whoever your opposition may be, you feel under pressure."

He said he questioned himself "quite strongly" after the innings defeat in Adelaide. "Did our preparation give us the best chance of starting well and being in the game?" He did not provide himself with an answer.

Yet there is still a large element of denial about the strength of England and the weaknesses of his own side. "It was only seven days ago we were on top of the world and everything was going along swimmingly," Nielsen said. The last time Australia were No.1 was during the 2009 Ashes. They are currently fourth and have sung the team victory song only once in their past seven matches in whites.

"We understand that we've got some talented cricketers in our team but we didn't click as well as we would have liked in Melbourne," he said. There was no clicking either during the long days in Adelaide, Brisbane, Bangalore, Mohali and Leeds. In Perth there was the swing of Johnson and Harris, and the fine batting of Hussey to hang on to.

Those close to the team insist Nielsen brings huge value to the squad. James Sutherland, Cricket Australia's chief executive, is a strong supporter, believing in his technical knowledge and man-management abilities. Greg Chappell, the selector, took Nielsen on as an assistant at South Australia in 1999. When Chappell has been watching training over the past month he seems desperate to want to take over. There are experts everywhere but the success has disappeared. For so long the innovators, Australia are now battling to catch up.

Cooley was viewed as the greatest bowling coach in the world after 2005, but he might instead be one of the luckiest. His reputation was made while working with a wonderful attack that mastered the secrets of reverse-swing, something Cooley has never managed consistently with any Australian line-up.

After spending two weeks in the nets with Johnson, Cooley was able to make him purr for three days in Perth, where the breeze appeared more like the magic tonic than any technical tips. The bowling philosophies of David Saker, the ex-Victoria assistant who is now with England, impress gnarled former fast men and he has designed specialist strategies for each ground.

The next job for Cooley is the head coach of the Centre of Excellence, where staff have previously wondered about the praise he has gained for employing the same methods they all learned on the way through the training systems. Langer, a firm friend of Ricky Ponting, was catapulted into the batting role and has a simple philosophy for the run-makers.

"Focus on seeing the ball out of the bowler's hand and winning every contest," he told ESPNcricinfo in November. "If you do that enough the result looks after itself." People at all levels of Australia's set-up have taken their eyes off the ball.

Young, a former Australia baseball coach, was first employed under Buchanan but remains on a part-time contract despite the increasingly error-prone fielding displays. Fresh players, such as Phillip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, are not naturally athletic and need moulding quickly. Steven Finn, who is 21 and 6ft 7in, bent low for a stunning caught-and-bowled at the Gabba and then outlined how he practised the low takes at every session because that's what he needed to do to be an elite fielder.

Hills wasn't allowed to take up his job as the video analyst until the second Test in Adelaide because he had spent a couple of seasons working with Flower on England's performance programme. There were initial fears from England that he would pass on secrets. They needn't have worried.

In their current state, the Australian players are having too much trouble surviving to be able to enact detailed plans. England, who have retained the Ashes, enter the final Test of the series with a 2-1 advantage and the rubber could still be drawn. But the difference between the outfits is huge, both in the middle and in the nets.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Benjamin on January 5, 2011, 22:55 GMT

    @Trickstar you are spot on with both posts. Cricket at all levels in Australia is in serious trouble. Other sporting codes offering more positions and equally good money are becoming the first choice of junior sports players. From grade cricket all the way through to first class needs reviewing including all administrators at CA + selectors.

    On paper AUS is a better team statistically than ENG. Yet they have completely smashed us being a more diciplined, incredibly drilled unit. Other than Collingwood every player is contibuting - even he helps with stunning catches. In the Aussie side 3 players have contributed all summer - Watson, Haddin, Hussey you cant win like that.

    It's almost like they're not putting in the work behind the scenes. I know when simpson was coach he worked them hard. He would then make them practice feilding for 2 extra hours killing them, sometimes breaking fingers. They became the bench mark on field for 20 years. Where has that gone??

  • paul on January 3, 2011, 12:14 GMT

    @mamahajan89 If you think nobody critisized the England team in the 90's as well as their coaching team, you haven't a clue,they were the most critisized team ever they got it from all quarters because they wre poorly coached and constantly under performed.You talk rubbish all way through, how have the English had luck ,even when they bowled it wasn't swinging viciously that got wickets ,it was bowling the right line and lengths and getting the batsmen to play,infact it never swung viciously all test match full stop. The Aussies bowled under similar conditions, but bowled too short and too many pies. You just sound bitter and a excuse maker, especially with comments like 'one good catch and fortunate runout does not make england a great fielding side',you really can't have watched even one minute of the Ashes if you think that because everyone else who has watched it in both camps have said that England's fielding and catching is the best in the world at the moment.Keep on dreaming.

  • paul on January 3, 2011, 12:00 GMT

    @badgingarra What are you on about, the bloke who wrote this is Australian himself, don't get your knickers in a twist because one of your fellow countrymen can see what is happening in Australian cricket.

  • Paul on January 2, 2011, 22:29 GMT

    James Sutherland, Andrew Hilditch and Tim Nielsen must be accountable for the lack of succession planning and presence of ignorance in not learning from our darkest periods from 1984 to 1988. How can Sutherland and Michael Brown extend Tim Nielsen's contract in a similar vein to former Essendon CEO Peter Jackson extending former Essendon AFL coach Matthew Knights' contract? We need a new Head Coach who can show some tough love to our young cricketers and display the tactical acumen to assist Ricky Ponting in his ability to mould our next generation of test cricketers into champions. We need a Steve Rixon or Mickey Arthur who can guide Usman Khawaja, Stephen Smith, Alex Keath, Aaron Finch, Josh Hazlewood, Mitchell Starc and James Pattinson into our next 10 to 15 year test match players.

  • Philip on January 1, 2011, 21:56 GMT

    I fail to understand how anyone can think a coach "working on finer points" with a mature player is not called "teaching". My Yorkshire Pood ancestors would have laughed at that idea, along with other apparently modern thoughts that snacking between meals might not constitute "eating", nor one for the road - "drinking". There is an old Highland saying which, translated into English, means "Learn young, learn beautifully." Players of previous generations didn't need adult coaches as such. They had a quick chat with another player and worked it out for themselves. Maybe people were brighter then?

  • debjyoti on January 1, 2011, 20:19 GMT

    kudos to andyflower.....he,for a long time moulded a bunch of club cricketers into professionals.... his never say die approach and immaculate work ethic has again shown us that in most professions sincereity helps more rewards than flashes of brilliance....

  • Khawaja on January 1, 2011, 15:14 GMT

    i think hyclass is right that CA makes mistakes for money minting ads...australia should just hope that the team was playing badly because of rickys bad captaincy and bad batsmanship...or perhaos clarke and company were forcing him out as he was refusing to go on his own...experience is just as good as your recent form...previous aussies knew when to they probably have other things on their mind...Nielson does seem tobe a poor coach and probably has not worked out an overall strategy although how a good batsman like langer can be so casual is worrying as all batsmen donot play badly due to the same reason...some have developed a mental block or phsycological fright, other foot movements are going astray...some maybe using teh wrong bat or are unsure how to play particular deliveries...not looking at the ball properly and only playing instinctively is a relatively rare fault...langer should look at the last few dismissals of each batsmen and advize if he has the expertise

  • Murray on January 1, 2011, 12:11 GMT

    Warren what about John Buchanan, he only played about 2 games for Queensland yet is considered one of the great coaches of the modern era. Many experts will tell you that former players don't always make good coaches. I would imagine that it is also very difficult to coach players that are earning 10 times more money than what you are on. I believe the dilemma is partly a mental thing - soft players with weak mental strength, and partly due to overall selections. They have picked flashy players that look good on weet bix commercials and have invested millions in guys like Clarke and Johnson that if they were to be sacked would result in a financial disaster. Heads of the selectors and CA officials would also roll, so it is a catch 22 situation. Therefore I don't see that too many changes will be made to the team, which would suggest that the worst is still to come. One can only hope that they pick their act up and work harder to improve and actually play somewhere near potential.

  • Ilyas on January 1, 2011, 4:56 GMT

    aus, as they say, "ain't seen nothing yet"!! Their worst days are still to come with greg chappell as their coach from now..all of us remember how India cricket went to new lows when he was coach after John Wright brought some semblance of success to the team. I think it is just a matter of time before aus have to ask Buchannan to come back as coach, or find a good, young ex player(like India has done with Gary Kirsten) from another country..anyone is better than greg !!However, with ricky hopefully out of the team forever(he will NEVER overtake Sachin in runs and 100's now),once aus find a better successor than clarke, aus may just about be able to deal with a minnow or two(Zimbabwe, Afghanistan) but should not expect Bangladesh to roll over, as I feel today even they will just about beat aus, and after a few months of greg, surely beat them.

  • Peter on January 1, 2011, 4:23 GMT

    Don't get too excited there boss, with Australia's current dilemma. It's been twenty four long year for the poms to win out in Australia, that's half my life so far. It won't take Australia 24 years to get back to being right up the top again, with or without Nielsen ! Mark my words, we'll be back and for good measure we'll remember these little cotributions. We always have, and we always will.

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