Decade Review 2009

From the fringes to the engine room

Over this decade the role of the coach assumed more importance and complexity than it ever had before. Opinion, though, has remained divided on the utility of the position

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Adam Gilchrist and John Buchanan celebrate with the World Cup, Australia v Sri Lanka, World Cup final, Barbados, April 28, 2007
John Buchanan made Australian coaches fashionable © Getty Images

The rise in the importance and influence of coaches over the past decade has created wedges between the old and new, the scientific and the natural, and the haves and have-nots. But is the reliance on coaches a great swindle or are they essential equipment for any ambitious international team? It depends on the camp.

In the old school sit the former players such as Ian Chappell and Shane Warne (himself an IPL coach), who believe the best players need no daily nurturing and only occasional re-pointing in the right direction. However, they are in the minority, with domestic and international sides relying on well-credentialled coaches and national boards opening themselves up to ridicule with their choices. New Zealand suffered with their appointment of Andy Moles, a modest first-class batsman from England, and currently don't have a head coach working with their side. Daniel Vettori is juggling all the balls of responsibility and it didn't worry the side too much in recent one-day and Test campaigns against Pakistan.

Coaches have been around since the game began but their role did not expand into official ranks until the latter stages of the 20th century. Often they were senior players, or men called managers or assistants, as Ken Barrington was to England in the early 1980s and Peter Philpott on the 1981 Ashes tour to the United Kingdom. Bob Simpson was appointed Australia's first official full-time coach in 1986, and a decade later, with the country on top of the world after dethroning West Indies, other nations had already realised the benefits of a formal advisor. For tips and expertise, they looked to the pace-setting Australia and a sudden acceleration in desire came after the appointment of John Buchanan, a university lecturer and small-time first-class player. He started with 15 Test wins in a row and Buchanan-ites proliferated.

Everything he sprouted - and spouted - grew, in public at least, and even though he failed to replicate his success at Kolkata he retains guru status through much of the cricket world. Others, including Warne and Chappell, see Buchanan as someone with the most fortunate timing in the game, a man who confuses a simple game, and one who benefited from a batch of world-beaters who would have dominated anyway.

During Buchanan's era an Australia coaching badge could virtually seal a job anywhere in the world. Only one person could coach the national team, so up-and-coming and on-the-way-down coaches travelled to work in unfamiliar environments, cultures and regimes. Some, including Tom Moody and Trevor Bayliss, did well in Sri Lanka, but most struggled, with Bennett King, John Dyson (both West Indies), Greg Chappell (India) and Geoff Lawson (Pakistan) among those who clashed and crashed with their hosts.

In other parts of the world too, the trend of overseas appointments took shape. Duncan Fletcher, a former Zimbabwe captain with strong links in England, was chosen to help Nasser Hussain, and his outside views helped turn the side into Ashes winners in 2005. The cycle was repeated in 2009 after Andy Flower followed a similar path, being elevated from Zimbabwean hero to the man behind the conquering of Australia in his first English summer as head coach.

John Wright, a dour opening batsman from New Zealand, helped India develop a tough attitude that ended their reputation as on-tour easybeats, while Gary Kirsten, who displayed similar playing qualities for South Africa, has just seen his side take the No. 1 Test ranking. Another itinerant was England's Bob Woolmer, who accepted the most volatile job in the world by moving to Pakistan in 2004. Open to learning but firm in belief, Woolmer fit in, although he couldn't lift the side and died on the night of their World Cup departure. His players mourned him like a family member.

Down in South Africa they have had the most stable coaching structure of the second half of the decade - Arthur working with the captain, Graeme Smith, in a relationship that has been as strong as a farmer's handshake. Arthur, a thorough analyst and hard worker, has shown that it is possible for a solid first-class player to survive the elevation to successful international coach

With Buchanan and South Africa's Mickey Arthur, Fletcher, Wright and Kirsten were and are the most successful coaches of the decade. Buchanan and Arthur were in charge of long reins of success that held their sides at the top of the world, while Fletcher, Wright and Kirsten challenged the best without having the same quality of players throughout their order. And the achievements were not one-off explosions but results that showed a pattern of quality. So what were the special attributes?

The winners
At the beginning of the decade, after Buchanan had replaced the previously untried coach Geoff Marsh, Australia went to New Zealand for three Tests and six one-day internationals with only two support staff. Buchanan's assistant was the long-term manager Steve Bernard, in a set-up that now looks as quaint as the players bonding on that tour over their lectures about fly fishing, Bon Jovi and Cyclone Tracy.

Buchanan was behind the explosion in technology that provided evidence of flaws rather than vague descriptions from men standing at the back of the practice nets. Science entered the game and then dominated it, leaving no thought or trigger movement unreconstructed. Laptops became compulsory for the top teams so they could watch the previous day's highs and lows when they checked their email. Buchanan rated the "enhancement and usage of computer-assisted analysis" as his best innovation, and it has spread into most serious regimes.

Technique wasn't Buchanan's strength and he struggled to explain reverse swing during the 2005 Ashes series, when he was more concerned with the side's strategic goals. Through it all he was in charge for 90 Tests (including the Super Test in 2005), with his team winning 69 and losing 10. During his World Cup campaigns in 2003 and 2007, his side was never beaten. These achievements make him look like a miracle worker, but his methods weren't lauded by the natural players.

Warne belittles Buchanan whenever coaching comes up in conversation and was at his most acerbic in 2007 when he called him a "goose" with "verbal diarrhoea". It was Buchanan's boot camp that led to a knee injury for Stuart MacGill, starting his slide towards retirement, and MacGill was another detractor along with Damien Martyn. "All the teams he's coached, early on it was good," Martyn said in the lead-up to this year's Ashes. "Later on what you find is he says he's a good man manager but I don't think he is."

Similar feelings of discontent emerged at the conclusion of Fletcher's time in charge, which also came down at the 2007 World Cup. He didn't leave with a trophy and the general feeling was he stayed too long, having become too inflexible for a new group of players. At the start, as he developed his side, first with Hussain and then with Michael Vaughan, his stern, cross-armed approach was what England needed to harden up.

Fletcher had a keen technical radar and knew the type of player he wanted - and that's what he focussed on during seven years in charge. Being an outsider, he was able to rush through change and introduced central contracts for his treasured performers. Life outside his clique wasn't easy and those on the county circuit often felt they was no chance of being invited in. To those with Fletcher's affection he was a key man in their careers, especially those who were involved in 2005. "He was a hero just as much as any of those players who lifted the urn," Andrew Strauss wrote in Wisden.

The Fletcher-Hussain liaison, built on old-school values, technical expertise and small-business management, was the platform for that success, even though it was Vaughan who lifted the trophy. However, 18 months later Fletcher was powerless to stop a 0-5 defeat during a series led by Andrew Flintoff, and his power and influence soon dripped away. Less than two years on from his exit he is seen as a coach who masterminded the Ashes, not the one who departed teary-eyed from the Caribbean.

Wright retains huge levels of admiration in India and Kirsten is gaining it. India is a country and a side that needs a foreign coach and has had success with two out of three of their major appointments. The local expertise is limited, despite the rise of Level 3 coaching programmes, and there is also the struggle with homegrown coaches being closely aligned with various factions of the BCCI. Having a detached overseas mentor free of regional allegiance and oblivious to the politics allows the players to trust the coach. A mentor without the belief from his main men won't stay for long.

Wright achieved that over four years at the start of the decade, working closely with Sourav Ganguly as they eyeballed Australia at home and away. Since 2007, Kirsten has taken them forward from the disruptions of the Chappell era, and in December their win over Sri Lanka made them the world champions in the Test arena.

Down in South Africa they have had the most stable coaching structure of the second half of the decade - Arthur working with the captain, Graeme Smith, in a relationship that has been as strong as a farmer's handshake. Together the pair takes on most of the planning and only when Mike Procter arrived earlier in the year to be the convenor selectors did some of their power drain. By then the Proteas were No. 1 in the Test world and Arthur, a thorough analyst and hard worker, had shown that it was possible for a solid first-class player to survive the elevation to successful international coach. Not many of them make it.

England v India , 2nd npower Test, Trent Bridge Nottingham , August 8 - 12 2002
John Wright helped India shed their reputation of being easybeats away from home © Reuters

The losers
Peter Moores was the highest-profile casualty over the past year, losing his job and the most lucrative salary of any coach across the globe. He was a strange appointment to follow Fletcher, bringing enthusiasm and domestic success but no proof of being able to run a stable of high-profile athletes. While he had the skills and the resumé, he couldn't manage or massage the egos of Kevin Pietersen and his A-list, and was sacked after 18 months. The Andys, Moles and Flower, are both products of the ECB system and suffered similar demotions that were sparked by discontent in the dressing room. It's hard to learn about that in classrooms.

Those who don't have a strong international career start with a disadvantage when it comes to respect. If you have been a Test star you gain instant credibility in a room full of cricket people, and the personal history will allow a more relaxed time to settle in. Moles and Moores, who didn't stay long in their dreams jobs, were relatively recent county professionals who never progressed past first-class level. Tim Nielsen, the current Australia coach, has comparable traits: lots of motivation and tireless ball-throwing, but no international nous. What he does have is the support of the captain, Ricky Ponting, but consistent defeats can change those dynamics.

West Indies coaches know what that is like, with John Dyson and Bennett King having unhappy stints in the Caribbean. They went over wanting to iron out the perceived slackness in those squads and turn them into streamlined outfits. It didn't work. The players quickly became disgruntled and the tenures became unhappy. While the interlopers worked in India, it seems West Indies need a local who can massage the desires of players and administrators from the various nations. Knowing that the cricketers are the most ready to strike, a coach with any dictatorial tendencies can cause a revolt. David Williams, the tiny interim coach, is not the ruffling type.

Ramnaresh Sarwan called the schoolmasterly King "one of the worst coaches" after the Australian stepped down in 2007. The replacement, Dyson, will be best remembered as the guy who muddled his Duckworth-Lewis calculations in March this year and called his batsmen in two runs short of victory against England. Both King and Dyson, who also looked after Sri Lanka, know the game and its methods, but didn't sum up the climate thoroughly enough to succeed. They are now back home working well in the Australian domestic system.

The same thing happened to Chappell, the former Australia captain, who now guides Australia's academy. In India, Chappell started his two years by forcing out the leader, Ganguly, an issue that rarely cooled to a simmer and shadowed Chappell when he returned there with Australia as an assistant the following year. Chappell was a great player but as a coach he misread the mood, confusing some players with his complicated strategies and alienating others with his comments in and around the team.

"I have no doubt there is too much information," he said of coaching in 2004. "Players should try and feel and express themselves. These things might be the things to focus on instead of where you put your left foot." Chappell's philosophy didn't translate in practice in India, where his biggest mistake was not wanting to - or being able to - understand the pulse of the players.

Those who don't have a strong international career start with a disadvantage when it comes to respect. If you have been a Test star, you gain instant credibility in a room full of cricket people, and the personal history will allow a more relaxed time to settle in

Bonds are hard to achieve in Pakistan, who had 11 coaches in eight years before Woolmer was a surprise signing. Woolmer didn't speak Urdu or know the rituals, but he was able to fit in because he recast himself as a father figure, acting as a mentor for a group of often troubled men. He mainly operated as a batting coach and let Inzamam-ul-Haq run the team, scaling back from his duties with South Africa in the 1990s, when he was more involved with strategy and team selection. Despite the support from the players, Woolmer couldn't breed a consistent performance. Pakistan were ousted from the 2007 World Cup in Jamaica in the first round hours before Woolmer died. The stresses of the job probably cost him his life.

The ministry of coaching
The coach's role has grown into the most convoluted in the game. What started out as a position for hitting catches, organising a quick chat before the game and having a say in team selection has multiplied into a position with more layers than a royal sponge cake. In 2009 they are expected to run complex training sessions tailored to each discipline, advise the decision-makers on their charges' mental, physical and form issues, spot weakness, build team spirit, suggest tactics and batting orders, analyse videos and do a lot more things outsiders can't pretend to know.

They must muster their support staff and delegate, act as diplomat, politician, counsellor and disciplinarian, as well as strengthen their position so they can survive the inevitable disgruntlement from players, supporters and media during slumps. All this while spending most of the year away from home and being paid considerably less than the senior batsmen and bowlers. For all that, they are puppeteers who can't win or lose games themselves, unless they are Dyson with a sheet of calculations.

As the decade wore on, though, they were given a lot more help. If England needed any extra match practice during the 2006-07 Ashes series they could have manufactured a full team out of their support staff; Fletcher travelled with 10 helpers. Not that it could stop the second clean sweep in Ashes history. Australia had 10 suits, including a security advisor and a psychologist, in their team photo at Lord's in July 2009. All the accessories didn't make them look any better at the end of the second Test, or when they returned to The Oval a month later for the 2-1 defeat. By the end of the decade the other teams had caught up on and off the field and Australia had dropped as low as fourth in the Test rankings despite all their strategic systems.

Coaching becomes over-complicated at times, drifting too far to the ideological than the practical, but it is necessary in developing successful teams and showing players their flaws and potential. While it has its sceptics, elite coaching is an essential part of the game even if the wrong people are often handed mismatched reins for the assignment.

Peter English is the Australasia editor of Cricinfo


Comments: 10 
Posted by Jason on (January 2, 2010, 2:24 GMT)

One just has to look around the world at any professional sport to see the problems facing many of the coaches in this article are very common to coaching in general. In fact if you add to the equation that coaching is relatively new to international cricket then some coaches have done really well. The other factor that cannot be overestimated is simply the huge diversity of cultures operating within the cricketing world. From what I can gather Dyson, Chappell and Lawson were victims of being fish out of water. Woolmer, despite all the drama and lack of results may have been on to something. I honestly believe 10 years from now the international cricket scene may have adapted far better to coaches BUT it will also be a controversial and some times soul destroying position - that is simply the nature of being a professional coach anywhere!

Posted by Blair on (January 1, 2010, 18:55 GMT)

Steve Rixon had a big impact on the New Zealand team in the late 90's. Players like Cairns, Fleming and Parore really came into their own in this era. Steve Rixon actually said that he would be interested in the position now. The Black Caps could do a lot worse.

Posted by Sam on (January 1, 2010, 11:07 GMT)

A coach is not expected to teach technique. His job is to ensure the team delivers to potential. If anyone in a country's existing cricket set-up : administrators, players, support staff etc. can do that, then there's no need for a formal coach. I'm possibly oversimplifying, but wanted to demystify the topic.

Getting a coach does not guarantee success. If a team's coach and captain are evaluated by the win ratio, what's the difference in their role? National boards must define the role of the coach in great detail before scouting for one. A coach's role should be different from the objective (win more matches/more overseas matches/retain rankings/win world cup etc). Boards should specify what they expect from the coach to reach those objectives (consistency, self-belief, raise it's standards).

Lastly, a good coach works towards his redundancy. So it's not surprising that Fletcher and Buchanan were not needed by their teams after a while - 8 years in both cases. Both great coaches.

Posted by ganesan on (January 1, 2010, 9:15 GMT)

With the advent of computers the coach's roll has become all the more important in developing the side and an player. In this article there mention of Tom Moody thats all , I am disappointed because after a period of lull when whatmore left , moody took the mantle and moulded the SL team just like whatmore did, but to mention that he didnt transform SL to become competitive overseas , just like wright and kristen did for India. The current coach of SL has to sort this out. Overall it was an good one on the other teams., but according to me only 3 coaches are blessed they are of Australia,SA & India because of the players they have got with them and the respective captains who command respect from their wards , hence ensuring that every thing go according to their plans. Thats why all three of them are very successful today.

Posted by Iain on (January 1, 2010, 1:15 GMT)

Interesting Article. There's plenty to digest there, and I think your comments on Duncan Fletcher were pretty much spot on. After the 2005 Ashes England suffered from and unsettled side and captain (note: the team that played 4/5ths of the series never played again) - and a coach who pretty much demanded stability, so he fell due mostly because he couldn't field a decent side ,and from reports couldn't control the captain (Freddie). Something rotten at the heart of Denmark there after the glory there . I did notice you didn't mention Dav Whatmore in all of this , his Bangladesh side developed beyond recognition under his leadership, from no hope in hell ever winning anything to a team that could surprise (albeit if only in ODIs). The Coaching role is the equivilent of Football Manager - a bloke to set the tome , style and tactics of the team.He will only succeed if he has the backing of the board and players. Even then other factors may get in the way.

Posted by Paul on (December 31, 2009, 22:18 GMT)

And Tom Moody? Why does an Australian who becomes Sri Lanka's most successful coach, and subsequently finds himself in demand throughout the world not rate more than a throw-away line in this article? A lazily-researched piece of writing.

Posted by Bishal on (December 31, 2009, 19:32 GMT)

Interesting aticle although you could have picked up on the coachless Indian team from 2 years ago and the success they had without a hackneyed coach to bother them.

Posted by Deon on (December 31, 2009, 11:39 GMT)

Cricinfo recently published a picture of Gary Kirsten hitting tennis balls with a tennis racket to Sachin Tendulkar in preparation for the ODI series against Australia. Now a picture is worth a thousands words. And there are just so many things wrong with this picture. An analogy would be the CEO of Wall Mart checking out customers using an abacus instead of an electronic till. There certainly is a lot of room for improvement left in cricket in terms of management and coaching. It needs to learn from baseball and football and become more professional and more scientific. It can afford to do so.

Posted by Ross on (December 31, 2009, 11:26 GMT)

Woolmer was also very pioneering in using technical inquiry and science during his time coaching South Africa. Despite Hansie's fall from grace, they were an awesome combination together.

Posted by P Subramani on (December 31, 2009, 5:24 GMT)

The coaching job is really like management of the team. Akin to business management which is really speaking only systematic common sense. A collectiev drill to pave the way for correct or rather the most correct decisions to be taken. I am referring to someone like John Buchnan. He cannot have really contributed greatly to the technique or flair or grit of say a Steve Waugh or a Ricky Ponting as he may have been able to devise a likely strategy. And yet, John Buchnan has been given credit because it is indeed due to him for the afore-mentioned reason. The luck factor is also crucial. When the coach is Gary Kirsten however, it must be said that in his playing days he was known to be highly methodical, gritty,technically flawless and disciplined sort. I believe these qualities are the ones which the Indians have benefitted most from as one hears from the Gambhirs and the Sehwags in our team. I believe that the coach for any team has to suit the requirement of the player culture.

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