Walking behind the scoreboard on day three of the Pallekele Test, Pat Howard crossed paths with a pair of Australian cricket followers. The tale on the other side of the board was looking increasingly sickly for Australia. One spectator said loudly to the other, "A lot of high-performance work needed here…" Without breaking stride, Howard retorted, "very funny", and continued on his way.
If the result at Pallekele was instructive as to where the Test team must improve, then the above exchange was as telling about the way Howard is still perceived by many in and around Australian cricket. October will make five years for him in the job as Cricket Australia's executive general manager - team performance, a role sculpted specifically through the review chaired in 2011 by Don Argus.
This has been a most turbulent period, and Howard's tenure has been marked by conflict and change. He has needed plenty of resilience in seeking to implement many of Argus' recommendations. Through that time, Howard's instinct has been to do much as he did in response to the "high performance" jibe - keep striving forward, if offering the occasional backhander along the way.
In August 2011, at the time the Argus review findings were announced, Howard was chief of operations for Cromwell Property Group in Brisbane, having left a high-performance role with the Australian Rugby Union in 2008.
"I was assistant coach of a rugby team at Queensland University helping out a mate, and by chance John Buchanan's son was in that team," Howard tells ESPNcricinfo. "I was chatting to him and away it went. Five years is a long time ago, my kids were a lot younger then, I can say that."
"I'm very much a link between the playing group and CA, between the strategy and the team. I'm well aware I want to win as much as anyone"
Through rugby, Howard had experience in just about every role around the game, from representing the Wallabies and coaching Leicester, to serving on the board of the players' association. Being based in Brisbane meant he could work out of CA's Centre of Excellence - later expanded and renamed the National Cricket Centre - and in being the first post-Argus appointment, he had a say in the choices of John Inverarity as selection chairman and Mickey Arthur as coach. Quickly it became apparent that while Howard was willing to learn about the game, he was an equally hawkish advocate of change.
"I have to really justify every decision, and that was the really hard bit about it," Howard says. "I got a reputation as a bit of a data guy there for a while, but that was all about trying to justify decisions and justify points. The first couple of years you have to deal with differences if you want to make change, and that can upset people at times.
"Without question at times I probably went too hard for change, but to a certain extent you're always going to have positive and negative views on things. Hindsight is brilliant, you never have it beforehand, but we've made some good decisions, we've made some decisions where you think, could I have handled it better, could I have given people more time to digest it, sometimes less time to digest it and just go through with it. That's aiming for perfection. Overall I think we're pretty happy but not satisfied."
Howard's level of energy is hard to match. One colleague remarks that it is difficult to work out when he sleeps, given the varied hours of the day and night that Howard emails tend to buzz their way into CA inboxes. Customarily visible in the early days of any cricket tour, he will help out in drills occasionally, and one morning at Pallekele could be seen juggling cricket balls in a nod to a childhood job, working sideshow alley.
The juggling balls have not always gone to hand, in private or public. The years of 2012-13 were marked by numerous spot fires, whether getting into shouting matches with Channel Nine commentators over the decision to rest David Warner from ODI matches following the home Tests, or in alienating Shane Watson by declaring he was prohibited from using the external physio Victor Popov. Howard also found himself negotiating the players payment MOU with the Australian Cricketers' Association, an arrangement that irked many, as Howard had been styled as the national team's man in the executive rather than the bad cop at the collective bargaining table.
"It was really challenging, but a role I'd done before," Howard says. "In many roles your manager has to decide where your remuneration is but also be really positive about where you're going to grow. I'm very much a link between the playing group and CA, between the strategy and the team. I'm well aware I want to win as much as anyone and make sure the team has the resources to win. How do we give ourselves the best chance of winning?"
The first half of 2013 placed Howard squarely in the spotlight as what Argus had defined as "the single point of accountability for the performance of the Australian team". When the team management on that year's India tour, primarily the coach Arthur, the manager Gavin Dovey, and the captain Michael Clarke chose to summarily suspend Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja and James Pattinson in response to mounting disciplinary problems on tour, Howard found himself having to defend a decision of which he had not been initially part.
At a press conference in Brisbane on March 12, Howard's bluntness got the better of him. Responding to a question about Watson, the vice-captain, he replied: "I know Shane reasonably well, I think he acts in the best interests of the team sometimes." That comment drew a furious response from Watson and many in Australian cricket, including the following missive from Alan Jones on radio show 2GB: "You've got this other nobody Pat Howard, who knows nothing, saying he's not a team man."
Howard's level of energy is hard to match. One colleague remarks that it is difficult to work out when he sleeps, given the varied hours of the day and night that his emails tend to buzz their way into CA inboxes
In keeping with his reputation for endless energy, Howard had been a hard-driving manager for Arthur, pressuring the coach for success and heightening his already prevalent outsider's anxiety. Arthur felt compelled from several directions to act in India, and was then advised when Howard arrived for the final Test of the series in Delhi that "this better work". The reason, of course, was that Howard's own job would be placed at risk should further issues arise. When they did during the Champions Trophy in England, Howard and the chief executive James Sutherland began secret deliberations around replacing Arthur with Darren Lehmann. It was the tensest of times.
"These decisions don't come lightly. There was a fair bit of work done there and we understood this," Howard says. "Mickey's with Pakistan now and he's obviously a very good coach, but that environment wasn't working well. We made a change. We knew how good Darren was [with Queensland], we put him in the Australia A tour, he was with Rod [Marsh], so we knew that combination was going to be there and ready to go. I think we'd all admit that worked well and it's credit to Darren in terms of how he's come along."
Sutherland made rare appearances around the team either side of Arthur's firing and Lehmann's appointment. "That was a really difficult time for everyone," he says. "It wasn't personal; we've got the highest regard for Mickey Arthur as a person and we wanted to be as sensitive about it as we possibly could, but at the same time we felt it was the right time of change and we needed to make a change. It was a difficult time and history will ultimately be the judge as to whether that decision was vindicated, but you have to make decisions from time to time and we did."
Less edifying than the sacking itself was its aftermath. Howard handed Arthur only three months' worth of severance pay, a decision the affable South African disputed after speaking to friends back home in Perth. That led to a statement of claim being lodged with Australia's industrial arbiter, and the airing of dirty laundry in the days before the Lord's Test match, namely the allegation that Clarke had referred to Watson as a "cancer" on the team. Arthur finished up with a fair settlement, and has rebounded admirably to mentor Pakistan. The terms of CA contracts and their internal oversight were understandably reviewed and changed to avoid a repeat.
Nevertheless, Lehmann's appointment proved to be a circuit breaker, not only in terms of the team's fortunes but also the definition of Howard's role. Having chosen a coach with very strong opinions, Howard was content to take a backward step from the team, and to support whatever Lehmann and the captain, Michael Clarke, needed. That changed dynamic helped in an improving display across the Ashes tour, and ultimately the raucous 5-0 sweep of England at home. Where Howard had started 2013 highly visible, he ended it much more in the background, working on the underpinnings of national teams rather than dictating as much at what he calls "the front end".
Various measures at lower levels have included an overhaul of the Sheffield Shield points system, the addition of a CA XI to the Matador Cup, and moving that tournament into a carnival-style event at the start of the season. There has also been the increasingly strategic use of substitute players in the Shield to allow CA to manage the workloads of fast bowlers in particular, and injury incidences have declined steadily.
Earlier this year a Shield fixture was played in New Zealand for the first time, in the absence of a tour match before Australia's Test series win. Howard was also an advocate for the reduction in the number of grassy strips being prepared for first-class matches in order to help batsmen build bigger innings. That diktat, and the installing of spin-friendly wickets at the NCC, are yet to reap Asian dividends.
"For everything you implement, three go well and two go poorly," Howard says. "I am happy to change things that haven't gone well. I'm absolutely free to admit there are things we've tried that haven't worked. But at the same stage there are things we've tried where we're not quite sure of the end product yet. The Sheffield Shield points change, I wasn't sure it was going to deliver what we were after, but we've seen a lot more spin bowling played, seen a lot of young players score centuries, and the balance between bat and ball, both anecdotally and by the stats, has been better.
"There are things you try and say, 'Gee, I hope this works well', and for all the planning you do sometimes once you've had enough information you have to try it, and then adjust. That's what we've done with the Shield points - we've put it in, it's worked pretty well, then we'll just tinker around the edges to get it even better."
The sense that Lehmann was now running the show took something of a hit in 2015, when the Ashes were given up with a pair of horrendous batting displays in Birmingham and Nottingham. Subsequent to that result, it is said that Howard took back a measure of control over proceedings, as reflected by how the support staff around Lehmann has been turned over in large measure. Howard is adamant he doesn't mind working with others of strong opinions, highlighted by the hiring of David Saker as Lehmann's new assistant.
"We're not after yes-men," Howard says. "I remind Darren we had some challenges in this period [before hiring him], and David's the same. A challenging environment helps cricket grow. So we want to stay ahead in Test cricket, and that means people challenging you. David with England won in India, he's come in for a year of Shield and has been a head coach, so we know he can step up into that role when required and he will.
"We thought Justin Langer went very, very well in the West Indies [for the triangular ODI series] with a new group. We want to keep investing in coaching and coaching depth to strengthen the whole system. Rod and I have fantastic conversations and challenges. "You can imagine how different our views are sometimes. The same with Darren, the same with David Saker, and I'd have to say the state coaches. We have them up in May all around the table. I was in the room, so was Rod, so was Darren, and we want that challenging environment where we're all trying to improve.
"For everything you implement, three go well and two go poorly. I am happy to change things that haven't gone well. I'm absolutely free to admit there are things we've tried that haven't worked"
"Introducing people like Saker, people like Darren, that stream of professional conflict is a way of challenging how we do things. Sometimes you come out of those meetings thinking, 'You know what, we're doing the right thing, let's keep going', or 'Why don't we try this.' That to me is a really good way to do things. Not throw the baby out with the bath water all the time, but continue to grow and try things as you progress."
Howard is presently under contract until 2017, but is yet to receive the same two-year extension granted to Lehmann. Whether it is healthy to keep Howard on for any longer than his current term is a matter for conjecture, as is the question of whether, having had a change agent in place for half a decade, it is now time for CA to choose someone else with greater cricket pedigree to re-examine the fundamentals that have gone so badly awry in Sri Lanka, the UAE and India.
"[We've been] No. 1 in two of the three formats, there's been a World Cup, Ashes at home was comprehensive but the two Ashes away weren't good enough," Howard says. "What's most disappointing for some people is, most of us believe we had the capability to win there. Playing well in the subcontinent and improving in those conditions is obviously a huge thing for us.
"As we've seen, playing in different countries is hard, and we've got to adjust and adapt, and just because you see something on a video doesn't mean you're going to be able to translate that on the ground straight away. But over time, with as much lead-in as you can, multiple Tests as well, how people learn. We've got that India tour again coming up and we're seeing we've got to continue to improve. It's hard, and we know we've got to continue to grow."
While Australian cricket is much better aligned in 2016 than it was in 2011, Howard's presence will always be a source of scepticism so long as results divert from the strongest possible. No matter how long he stays, he will always be seen by some in the disparaging terms Jones offered a little more than three years ago. How justified they are remains a matter for debate; more certain is the fact that Howard will keep arguing his corner.