Steve Rixon, the former Australia wicketkeeper, has over a successful coaching career specialised in dealing with cricket's more spirited characters - among them Chris Cairns, Michael Slater and Stuart MacGill. Currently with the Indian Cricket League, where he coaches cricket rebels of a different kind, Rixon spoke to Cricinfo about dealing with difficult players.
Let's start with Chris Cairns, Stephen Fleming and New Zealand. Cairns was known to have problems with coaches. How did you turn things around?
Look, Chris had an attitude problem - they called him BA [for 'bad attitude']. He was an excellent player - so that wasn't ever an issue. But how do you convert that potential into something real? I knew how important he could be. Martin Crowe's knees had given way and I needed a senior statesman.
In the end I realised that it didn't matter if I pushed him a bit. Because at the end of the day we either get him on board or end up with a guy who would pop in ever so often, get three wickets or a nice fifty. So I pushed him harder than I would push other players, with the idea that if he broke and said, 'Jam it, I don't want to play cricket under you,' I would have said, 'Fair enough.' But if we get him, we get a real product. It took a little while. At certain stages he must have thought I was a poor person, but to this day we are very close.
His other coaches must also have pushed him pretty hard?
No they didn't. I just needed for him to make a commitment - not to me but to himself. I asked him, 'What do you want to achieve?' He said, 'I want to be the best I can be'. I told him, 'You are not anywhere close to that. How are we going to change it?' And he went, 'I don't know. You've got all the answers, you tell me'. And I said, 'You could start with your sharp mouth. Just let that go and start looking at all these players who think the world of you and are just waiting for you to be the best player you can possibly be and be a leader in the side.'
I told him, 'You come back to me when you are ready to take that leadership and ownership. Then we'll collectively set our programme out to make you whatever you need to be.' And he said, 'I want to be the best allrounder in the world according to the ratings. I'm telling you right now. I want to change, and I will take on the responsibility. You just show me how I am going to do it.' We went through it step by step: practice sessions, the attitude outside the park, the way he presented himself at team meetings, when he hopped on a bus in a bad mood... the little things like that. He was just brilliant.
When did the change materialise in concrete terms?
When we went to England for that final series, in 1999. We got beaten in the first game, when we lost seven wickets for 50 in a session. Only session we lost in the whole game. But the thing that got me was how we threw that game away after having been so much in control.
For the first time, I was shocked. I thought, 'Hang on, this wasn't part of the script.' And all the way in the bus I'm thinking, 'What am I going to do?' And I decided when we get out of the bus, we'll go straight to our team room, sit everyone down and ask them to tell me what they are going to do to make a difference and get a better result next time.
So I do it. I get pretty standard answers from people, but Cairnsy leapt off his chair and said, 'In that Lord's dressing room there are two boards and I will be on one of them at the end of this game. The only thing I can't tell you is whether I will be up there with a hundred or a five-for. But I am telling every one of you right here, right now that I will be on that board.' I thought, 'Wow.' That was the little spark that we needed to generate our next move. Everyone was so flat [till Cairns spoke] and then suddenly, poof, the energy was up.
And as it turned out, he did: he was on that board. Another kid, Matt Horne, came to the party and had a hundred as well. We never looked like missing a beat from there.
Why do you think some players rebel like they do?
They get a little bit carried away. Things are being served up pretty easily to the modern-day cricketer. You get free this, free that. You get good cash to play the game, you get the best facilities in the world. When these things are served up easily, it can at times go wrong.
Let's say, for instance, in India - you've got a laidback lifestyle here. To turn that around is the big thing. In Australia, because you don't get many opportunities to get a crack at the big one, you've got to be on song all the time or you just miss the boat.
In England, those players [at Surrey, who Rixon coached] knew they could just turn in the odd good performance and hang on. A great example was in New Zealand, Craig Spearman. He got a 300 in a game and I told someone, 'I bet you, in his next six innings he doesn't get 20.' And there you go, I had a hundred quid! The whole thing is about satisfaction - 300 means that's my average creeping up to 50 and I can have a bit of a breather for a while. It's just a comfort zone they get into.
New Zealand have another player who allegedly has attitude problems, Jesse Ryder.
He has lived a party life. You can change all that. You give a little bit, but he needs to give some back as well. If he is not giving it, you get a bit harder on him. I see some talent in him. I would be finding a way of making sure that his weight is controlled and he gets into the best possible shape to do some fielding, for a start. If you feed them the right information and say the right thing at the right time, you just might get your result. It can be done.
You threw a young Stephen Fleming into the captaincy. How did that happen? How much input did you have into it, and where do you draw the line? How did he take it?
Fleming was ostracised for some misdemeanours in West Indies, and there I was saying he was the best bloke for captaincy, and that was a bit of a shock for everyone. But we made a fantastic turnaround.
We would have our own meeting before the team meeting. I would talk to Flem in detail and he would go to the meeting and say that. He told me, 'I feel like a puppet.' I said, 'Flem, you're just learning how it all works. Somewhere - I reckon in the next 12 months - you're going to get past me, and at that point you're going to take over and run the ship. I will be happy for that day to come but we've got to play it this way at this time.'
And I remember one day on the England tour, telling him, 'Did you feel the crossover?' and he knew immediately exactly what I was talking about it. It was a nice little moment.
It was said that you had to change New Zealand's cricket culture. What was going on there?
Their philosophy was, 'Let's make sure we don't get beaten, and then start to look at how we are going to win.' We Australians enter the park, day one, and think, 'How are we going to win this?' New Zealand had the fear of losing. That was the difference in mindset. I understood the culture in the end, but I never accepted it.
If Cairnsy is going to prod around the pad to [Shane] Warne, he is going to get out. I told him, 'Mate, I know he is going to get you out. Why don't you be more proactive? I want you to whack him back over his head. If you get out doing it, I can live with that. If you bang him over the top a couple of times, which you are capable of, he might start bowling a bit differently. You might win the battle'. After I took the pressure off him, to his credit he went on to do it well. It spreads to the others, you see. Craig McMillan and [Daniel] Vettori were like two kids in the schoolyard. It was infectious.
But isn't trying to impose an alien culture fraught with risk?
I had John Graham as my manager in New Zealand. He said, 'I like where you want to go but I am contesting how you are going about it. You are forgetting one thing: this is New Zealand, this is how we are. Maybe just ease your way in, show you're accepting a bit of New Zealand culture. Give it back a bit to the players through your interest in how things work, how they feel, what they have done in the past, etc'. And so I did it.
They were negative with the way they lived their life. When you won, you couldn't go out there and show some emotion. This once, we beat Zimbabwe, which we should have, but we were in all sorts of trouble. We needed 32 in the last two overs and Chris Harris got us home.
This guy called Bird facilitated all our meetings. I told him, 'Something special has happened here tonight, and I want everyone to come down to the bar.' He said, 'I don't think it's a good idea.' I had to tell him I wasn't kidding. 'I didn't say everyone has to come and get drunk. Just have a Coke - I don't care. We should be thanking Harry for getting us into the tournament.' He walked off disgruntled but came back the next morning and said, 'I don't often say this, but boy, I was so far wrong. I saw everyone smiling, everyone talking together and I saw something building.'
Did it work for you, being an outsider with no baggage?
I was the perfect person to come in and do the job at that time. They needed an outsider to take some hard decisions. They needed to have someone to have foresight into where the country could go, build the nucleus of the team for the future.
There was the captain who had to be dropped. Danny Morrison had to be dropped. The attrition rate was high. What I was prepared to do was give the [Mark] Greatbatches, the [Dipak] Patels, Justin Vaughans - the older brigade that was still there -one final go. I knew they would either cut it under the new regime or miss the boat completely, and most of them missed it.
All of a sudden we had an [Nathan] Astle, a Fleming and a Vettori - who was a guy I had only seen once. It was a massive satisfaction to me. We would not have seen the best of [Adam] Parore, Cairns, or even Dion Nash, who became such an integral part of the victory in England. I knew it was right, since nearly every player, even now, when they do well, has at some stage called me and said, 'Stumpo, I was just thinking about you.' If we meet, we have a ball. It's like a family. I have not experienced anything like that. I feel more welcome in New Zealand than in Australia.
Which brings me to this: Queenslanders do have some issues with you! In an interview after you lost out to John Buchanan on the Australia coaching job, you said, 'I thought my time had come.' An acquaintance of mine from Queensland said, 'Oh, now he is talking about it as if he has a god-given right to coach Australia. We all knew it was going to be Buchanan.'
(Laughs) The Queenslanders... we always have had a love-hate relationship. You know why? Because we always used to beat them (laughs). They used to hate us!
But seriously, yeah. I came back from New Zealand thinking that I'd coached NSW, coached New Zealand, and I thought I was ready for the Australia job. They had approached me. I couldn't imagine how I was not going to be picked. I sat down that night [after being rejected] and got angrier by the minute. I woke up the next morning and the anger was still there.
Then the little fella on my shoulder tapped me and said, 'Hey, this is not right. You don't own nothing. This game owes you nothing and you don't owe it anything.' I got on to John [Buchanan], to Malcolm Speed, who I had had sharp words with earlier as he was the one who had notified me. I told him, 'I do appreciate your ringing me yesterday. I was seriously angry and disappointed. I should never have been in that situation. I want to thank you for ringing me back and letting me know why I wasn't given the job. I don't agree with it but that doesn't matter.' I changed like that. That was the best thing that happened to me.
What was your relationship with Steve Waugh like?
We both were the same. That was the problem! If Stephen made a decision, I would like to know why - not so much on the park, as that's his area, but more about other times. As a coach, I don't want to be the bloke who just rings up and organises taxis. I like to get in there and get my hands dirty. I like to talk cricket, I like to have an input into how we play the game, and I reckon I have enough experience to warrant that. I don't know what he thinks of me but I don't have any problem with him.
You had tough characters like Michael Slater in the New South Wales team, who you had some problems with...
Well, I had problem with Slater coming back into the New South Wales side. He was going through difficult times with bipolar disorder and he was very erratic. He was getting arrogant about stuff. In the end I thought, 'F*** it, I don't need to take this.' I remember he went, 'What do you mean I have to go back to grade cricket to score runs. Don't you f***ing know my record?' I said, 'Yeah, you got 14 Test hundreds. It's great if you're playing for Australia, but you're averaging 13 in the last two years for New South Wales. I am not interested in what you have done for Australia. All that is telling me is that you're not getting things right when you are playing here.'
He started grumbling and saying, 'I don't have to go through this.' I told him, 'You are not being rational and you're not even listening to me here. Go back to grade cricket and get some runs'. He stormed out. Anyway, he goes to grade cricket, gets some runs and comes back. Things started to get better temporarily before changing. The captain told him, 'Slats, you're batting at No. 5.' 'What? I don't bat at No. 5'.
He got a scrappy 170-odd, which kept him running a bit longer. But he never got it right. He just kept getting angrier all the time. He did play a very good innings in the final, which got us home. But by then he was just high maintenance.
All the blokes I had coming in from the Test team were high maintenance. Without them we were a team. When Slats came back, or a volatile [Michael] Bevan, or a tired [Glenn] McGrath or a lethargic [Nathan] Bracken, or even a Stephen and Mark Waugh, they were not switched on for the game. That's when I became a hard coach. I don't have a problem in telling high-profile sportsmen to f*** off. That's how you need to be at times.
You guys are role models. I'm not asking you to become a mentor. I just want you to come back and want to be the best that you can possibly be for the sake of every one else in the team. And they did.
And there was Stuart MacGill.
I remember a game. We won the toss and got bowled out for 190. We needed to win to be in the final. At tea on day one, they are 1 for 120-odd. [Matthew] Hayden is not out, and Stuey is yelling at people in the grandstand! When they got into the dressing room, Stephen [Waugh] walked in, mumbling to himself, shaking his head and not doing anything constructive - because he never had had too many problems like that.
I told Stephen that I wanted to talk to the team alone before they went out. I walked in there and just lashed out at MacGill. 'Who the f*** do you think you are? You are the one bloke who can get us back into the game and you are f***ing talking to the crowd and making a complete a***hole out of yourself. If you are talking to the crowd, how the hell are you going to get someone out? Think about getting Matty Hayden out. Don't worry about the bloke in the crowd who is giving you a hard time because your bum is big or whatever.'
He was really seething, and at the end of the day they were 8 for 202. MacGill had a six-for that evening. We only played three days and won comprehensively. He just had to get switched on to get back. I don't do that often. It was a one-off time when I had to do something because we needed to get back on track.
Are you still looking at the Australia job?
Ah, I don't think so, not at this stage. I think I have better chance now because I don't think I am ready (laughs). When I wanted it, I didn't get it. So maybe I might get it when I think I'm not ready. I could do the job, no problems at all. They have made up their mind about succession plan - the way they want to go with the line of coaches. Personally, for the time being, I would like to be here in India till the death of the ICL. If they are going on in five years' time, I will still be here.
Would you be tempted by an IPL offer?
Actually, I was offered an IPL job the day I signed up for the ICL. Sachin [Tendulkar] called me to be the coach of Mumbai, but I told him I had just signed for ICL and I don't go back on deals. That was that.