Australia's revival bears Lehmann's mark
Push Alastair Cook's men close in England, develop intelligence on their players, return to Australia to win the urn on home soil. That was the plan formulated by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke earlier this year. It is now coming to fruition, just with one slight change of personnel. Instead of being in the dressing room as Australia tightened their grip on England the WACA, Arthur was in a radio commentary box, watching Clarke and Darren Lehmann from afar.
So much has happened with this Australian team that it is hard to believe it was less than six months ago that Arthur was summoned to a meeting in Bristol with Pat Howard and James Sutherland and summarily terminated as coach. It was a swift and decisive move from Cricket Australia's bosses, who believed the atmosphere in the camp had deteriorated to such an extent that change had to be made, even if the Ashes in England was less than three weeks away.
That series was lost 3-0, but now Australia are reaping the benefits of change. It is impossible to say how the results would have panned out had Arthur remained. What can be said without doubt is that Lehmann has instilled in the squad a sense of calm, and a sense of fun. It is intangible, but visible in the way the players interact in the nets, their relaxed smiles while dealing with the media, and the way they have played.
Of course, it's easy to be relaxed when you're winning. The question, perhaps impossible to answer, is whether the Australians are relaxed because they're winning, or winning because they're relaxed. Michael Vaughan, who played under captain Lehmann at Yorkshire, said Lehmann was capable of delivering a verbal rollicking when required, but his most important trait was the capacity to calm the nerves of his players.
"His ability to make people view cricket as just a game is his strength," Vaughan wrote in the Telegraph last week. "He makes a player, even during pressurised situations, feel as if he is playing for his club side on a Saturday afternoon."
It is a common theme amongst those who have played under Lehmann. Adam Gilchrist, a player in coach Lehmann's Deccan Chargers side, was in Perth ahead of the third Test. He said that while Mitchell Johnson's bowling was clearly the difference between the two sides on the field so far in this series, he sensed an off-field change in the Australian camp as well.
"I continue to go back to Darren Lehmann and the seeds that he would have planted as soon as he assumed that role," Gilchrist said. "His fingerprints are all over the atmosphere around that team. I know from personal experience he's a guy who creates the right atmosphere for people to feel like they can then do their best.
"I think Michael Clarke is one of the great beneficiaries of having Darren Lehmann around. I can't put words in his mouth but I would imagine if you ask him at the end he would speak along similar lines. He just de-stresses situations and players and leaders, so I think Pup has really relished working with him, and that's allowed a lot more of his inner personality to come out."
Another of the great beneficiaries of Lehmann's approach is Johnson, whose previous incarnations in Test cricket have combined on-field ups and downs with off-field anxieties. Johnson is now a husband and father and has gained a sense of perspective about what is important in life. That cricket-life balance is a key part of the Lehmann mantra, and while any number of factors have contributed to Johnson's resurgence, the new coach was one of them.
"He's been a big part," Johnson said of Lehmann's ability to keep him grounded. "He understands the players. He's been in the situation before as a player. He knows what's going on and he has got a calming influence. But he'll also tell you if you're being an idiot or doing something that you shouldn't be doing.
"He is a straight shooter, which is what you want, but he understands the players and gets to know each player, which is pretty important as a coach. He knows how people tick and he's definitely found that with me. We have got a lot of trust, and trust is another big part of it."
There appeared to be a breakdown of trust during Australia's tour of India earlier in the year, when Johnson and three other members of the squad were suspended for a Test for failing to complete an off-field task Arthur had asked of them. Chris Rogers, who was not part of that touring party, said the players always knew where they stood under Lehmann.
"He's been exceptional," Rogers said. "I think it's the real calmness he's brought; he's given us a great direction in how he wants us to play but also how he wants us to act on and off the field. I think as a player if you can relax and express yourself and not be worried about what's going on in the change room, it's the best feeling in cricket. I've no doubt he's brought unbelievable attributes to this side."
One is the aggressive approach he encourages against spin. "There are no fielders in the car park," Lehmann likes to say, a mantra based on the way he batted himself. Australia's batsmen have tested that theory, hitting 26 sixes off England's spinners so far in the series - 20 of which have come against Graeme Swann's offspin. Swann's economy rate of 3.94 in the first three Tests is comfortably his worst in any Test series, and in turn heaped pressure on England's seamers. Several players, George Bailey among them, gained confidence in this method by taking down R Ashwin in the ODIs in India that preceded the Ashes.
International coaching has been a learning process for Lehmann, who was fined by the ICC during the tour of England for calling Stuart Broad a cheat during an interview for an Australian radio station. And as a selector, he was one of the men responsible for the constantly changing team during that series. The net effect, though, was settling on a preferred line-up for the return series in Australia.
Regaining the Ashes will mean the 3-0 loss in England will be largely forgotten. It was, after all, a learning experience, an intelligence-gathering mission. That was how Clarke and Arthur viewed it. They had very different views of proceedings at the WACA, where the ultra-aggressive approach of Shane Watson and Bailey on the fourth morning was indicative of the Lehmann style.
"Our destiny as a captain-coach relationship was going to be defined by the Ashes in Australia," Arthur said in a radio interview on day four in Perth.
Instead, it is the Clarke-Lehmann legacy that has been ensured. Arthur may wonder if he could have delivered the same results. Nobody can answer that question. In any case, he has moved on. And under Lehmann, Australian cricket has moved onwards and upwards.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here