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Couch Talk

'I'm disappointed some people never understood my methods'

John Buchanan talks about his contrasting coaching experiences with various sides, and the controversial multiple-captain theory

Subash Jayaraman: How would you define the role of a coach in modern cricket?
John Buchanan: When I look at the role of a sports coach, or the role of a coach in business in general, it is as a leader of the team. When we think of coach or manager in soccer or footy codes or in American sports, I think cricket is one of those sports where, still, the player and the captain really dominate the decision-making process. That process is complicated by the structure of selectors who have a role in not only the selection of players but also the long-term planning of the team, and moulding the vision for the team. My view is that the coach should have prominence in the team structure. I am not sure that it will necessarily get to or should get to the stage where the coach is all-powerful. There have to be some checks and balances.
When I was with New Zealand Cricket [as director of cricket] I began to put in place something similar. We had a high-performance director and the head coach, and I gave him the total responsibility of running the team and total accountability for the results achieved. However, there were a couple of checks and balances placed around that. I put in place an international selection manager, who along with the head coach and sometimes the captain, decided on the selection of the team.
I do seek that the coach really should have increased responsibilities and therefore accountabilities in the production of a national cricket team. The three formats these days dictate that that should be the case.
SJ: Do you see a time when the responsibilities are equally shared between the coach and the captain?
JB: Possibly. There are three formats of the game. When we look at cricket compared to other sports, it is a long-duration sport as against short-duration sport. If we take hockey or netball, basketball, soccer, there is a captain who is named to lead the side onto the field and there they will make some immediate decisions. If they are awarded a penalty, what happens? They might be given choices by the referees, as to who would take the penalty, as in the case of rugby. The captain would have to make some immediate decisions in short-duration sports. But in the main most of those decisions are made by the coach. The coach has the game plan, he is watching the game, and if he wishes to change the dynamic of the game by putting in substitutes, he can by taking players off the field.
But in long-duration sports, there are breaks every ball, as in the case of cricket. Before the next ball, do I need to make a change to what is going on? So a captain's role is really different in cricket than in decision-making in short-duration sports.
The T20 format provides a real opportunity for a coach to have more impact on the game. And that may increase over time with different roles in different scenarios - like if you are allowed substitutes, there is scope in T20 cricket for that to occur. The coach is sitting pretty well adjacent to the field, knows the game plan, watching the game from off the field. He has a role in terms of providing information as quickly as he can for the captain to act upon.
SJ: Do you see the level of micro-managing, like in baseball, coming to cricket, especially in the T20 format, where a single delivery could have an irreversible impact on the game? Bob Woolmer tried that with Hansie Cronje, with a earpiece.
JB: In terms of the baseball analogy, with the team manager in the dugout - they constantly communicate with their assistant coaches and have the ability to stop play when they need to. But they generally understand the game and the players understand the data. They understand what a batter's strengths are, they understand the opposition's pitchers and what their roles are in the game. They have a wonderful signal system. I tried that in an IPL team - to develop a signal system, much like a baseball team. In baseball it is the catcher who communicates to the pitcher exactly what type of pitch is required of the pitcher, and if the pitcher doesn't like that, he calls the play off and they have a discussion and they set up the next play. We were attempting something similar from the wicketkeeper to outfielders, who can communicate to the bowler for set plays or change the plays. That brings everyone in the game.
When you talk about micro-management, it is one of the things that I think modern coaching - which has been in some sports 20-30 years, but in cricket in the last few years - has probably began to stifle some of the flair and some of the individualistic approaches to the game. There are reasons. One is the advent of coaching, and then there is the increase in the revenue in the game and the increase in contracts and rewards to the players and the teams. It places greater emphasis on trying to predict the outcomes of the game. That is why there are more strategies and game plans, and individual flair needs to be housed now within the strategy. That has to do with the increase in rewards. I think it is both a plus and a negative for the game.
What we see now with the broadcasters who are able to talk to players on the field, which is pretty interesting given the outrage against betting on games, providing benefit to those off the field rather than on it. I don't find that an interesting concept. Bob Woolmer tried that by miking up Hansie Cronje some time ago. I looked at the end of that myself. I had gone through the channels and basically was told it was a no-no, but now that the broadcasters are actually miking players on the field, I think there is scope with technology that it could be taken more on the field where a captain or certain players can be linked, and the strategies can be fed directly.
"In baseball it is the catcher who communicates to the pitcher exactly what type of pitch is required of the pitcher. We were attempting something similar with the wicketkeeper"
SJ: Sports like soccer or basketball allow for flair players to exist and thrive, and yet they are within the philosophy of coaching. But in cricket, people sometimes say, "This guy is such a naturally gifted player, why are you messing with him?" How have you handled that?
JB: I have watched international games in Europe or in the NBA. Some of their skills are amazing. However, they still exist within the team environment. One of the most interesting books I have read, Sacred Hoops by Phil Jackson - this was the story of Michael Jordan, when Jackson coached Chicago Bulls, and his transition from a personal player to a team player, and realising that he could achieve more by being a part of the team and utilising the players around him. It didn't affect Jordan in terms of his ability, but it was [about saying] there is a framework within which we can work. I think that is really the nub of the argument.
We had incredibly gifted players, with the likes of [Shane] Warne, the Waugh brothers, [Glenn] McGrath, [Matthew] Hayden, [Andrew] Symonds and [Ricky] Ponting. It was always that the team structure was pre-eminent. It was still important to ensure that each individual was given attention so he could play his own way. We had a captain who ran the game that day, a communication system between coach, captain and the team, which would, as the game wore along, impact on what was happening. Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting delivered the messages to the group and I would then operate within that framework.
SJ: When you took over Australia, you had had success with Queensland but you didn't have a Test pedigree. How easy or hard was it for the players to buy into your philosophies?
JB: Initially there was quite a deal of uncertainty and hesitancy to go along with this guy who played one season of first-class cricket for Queensland. The issue was possibly more so when I took over Queensland in 1994-95, because I hadn't really been involved with cricket apart from coaching in club cricket for a couple of years. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity, and senior players like [Ian] Healy and [Allan] Border and [Carl] Rackemann gave me the opportunity to see what I could do. Queensland hadn't won the Sheffield Shield in 69 years of trying, and from their point of view it was something new - a person who didn't have the cricket pedigree that most former coaches had, and brought along new ideas of training and new ideas of looking at the game by using technology. It was my job to show them that what I was bringing to the game was of advantage to the team.
After coaching Queensland for five years, and a stint with Middlesex, my pedigree as a coach was evident. When I took up the job with Australia, of course I didn't have the Test-playing background or experiences that those in the room had. But what I brought to the group was the ability to coach and manage the group and continue to challenge and provide an environment to challenge each individual irrespective of how well they were doing. There was always something to achieve.
SJ: You were accused of complicating a simple game. Even now, Ian Chappell and Shane Warne question your methods. You were trying to do something completely different that was not done in cricket before. What was it that you were trying to achieve?
JB: When I took on the Queensland role with incredible players in the dressing room, like in any business, incredible knowledge and experience needs to be used. I was never there to replace knowledge or ignore the experience or quell intuition. What I saw lacking in cricket teams was that coaching was not precise, it was a feeling based on intuition or experience about what we should do.
Again, if we go through the day's plays, you remember some highlights, some lowlights, that's about it, and the set-up for the next time was not precise. So, in my mind I attended to the team like a business or an organisation, where if we didn't have an idea of where we are going to be at the end of the day or game or season, or more importantly probably two or three years down the track, how do we know what to do today and how to head in that direction? How do we know that the various skills are actually putting us in a good position not only for today? A coach needs to live in the present and also look into the future.
"When I go to cricket grounds, look at coaches plying the trade, look at the BBL, or IPL, I still think I would love to be involved in that again"
The likes of Chappell and Warne couldn't come to terms with why I couldn't keep it simple and just deal with what was given. Indeed, they are correct - in as far as when a player walks on to the field, they don't want complicated things going on in their mind. The layout was set for us, needing to have a picture of the future. I guess that was what I was bringing to the table - a little different from the standard.
SJ: Did it make you feel angry or resentful to have your achievements undermined by such big names constantly?
JB: Not necessarily angry, but it is disappointing that some people in the game who are well recognised probably haven't really understood the methodology. If there is something that somebody is going to disagree with or hasn't come to terms with, I will at least try and understand what is it that they are doing and why they are doing so, so that I have a better opinion of the methodologies. It is just more disappointing that some people, probably out of ignorance or through inability to dig a little bit deeper, make statements like that.
SJ: Darren Lehmann says cricket is a results business. Are results reliable indicators of the quality of a coach's work?
JB: In a sporting contest there are winners and losers, and at the end of the day one of your key measures as a coach or as business leader is showing improvements. You have to show results. That is one part of the equation.
It is also about developing leadership and getting the processes right. The background environment has got to be challenging and stimulating. Those sorts of things become part of my process. If teams are not winning in a short period of time, then the owners of franchises or cricket boards [tend to] sack the coach. So I do understand that results are important, but for me, I place process above results. If I get the process right, I strongly believe that the results will show for themselves.
SJ: For the work that you did with the Australian team, you are the greatest coach ever. But if you look at your results with Kolkata Knight Riders, perhaps you are not. So what is a fair evaluation of what a coach is doing?
JB: The important thing from a coach's point of view is that you don't compromise with your methodology. You really have to understand your own coaching philosophy, your own brand, and then how you deliver that when you need, consistently. So it is about walk the walk, talk the talk. Process is very important, as is team culture, good feedback and good communication. That is what I had to live by, and I live by now. In the end, if that doesn't produce results, I would expect that there will be questions asked, like they were at Middlesex and KKR. As a head coach, there is a huge amount of politics going on and a huge amount of backroom work. People, as we know, are always up in arms and punch you at any given opportunity.
What becomes important in terms of a long-term approach is that the board or franchise owner or management work very closely with the head coach so that they completely understand what he or she is trying to do. When times are not going well, you will sometimes see the board or franchise owner are still quite supportive because they understand what the coach is trying to achieve.
In the case of KKR, we had an average first year where we finished in the middle of the table, and in the second year in South Africa we struggled to win a game. But my conflict at that stage - and I can understand where the KKR owners were coming from - was that I didn't believe in a couple of senior players like Sourav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting. I didn't believe their skill sets were now applicable for this new game of T20. They were still great players, but in this new format I believed they didn't have the leadership that we were looking for. I talked to Sourav, Ponting and the owners.
"The likes of Chappell and the Warne couldn't come to terms with why I couldn't keep it simple and just deal with what was given"
But in my mind I am talking to the KKR owners who had a picture of this franchise and where they want it to go, which was what got me excited about being a part of this franchise in the first place. While you've still got to walk in the present, you've got to make sure that steps are taken towards the future. Taking the leadership abilities of those guys in the T20 format only, I didn't think they were the right people. They had a role in the side but not in a playing sense. But that was not a great hit with the owners, and obviously not with Sourav and Ricky. That put me at odds with the management of the organisation. There is only one winner there.
SJ: What was the logic behind the theory of multiple captains?
JB: It is a complicated story. The concept is similar to what Ric Charlesworth did with the Australian women's hockey team and then with the men's hockey team. The concept behind that was very much a part of my leadership culture. While there might be a nominated captain for the day - because a captain has to be named at the toss and make some decisions through the course of the game. Alternately, we wanted all the players to make good decisions so that the game benefits. In that sense, everyone is a leader and everyone can be a captain, though in the formal sense you can only have one on the field.
I didn't believe Sourav was the captain we needed because I thought we needed someone who understood the T20 concept quickly and responded to it easily, and that is why we looked at McCullum and Hodge to help us with the process. At the same time, behind the scenes, we still had Ponting, [Chris] Gayle, Ganguly, McCullum, Hodge as our senior leadership team. They were the ones I would sit down with and try and map out games. That input was there, those guys were trying to work out their signal systems - so a lot was going on. It was about everybody trying to buy into that process. That is probably where it went wrong. I had a conversation with Sourav and he didn't accept the fact that he shouldn't be the captain and he shouldn't be in the side. I can understand where he was coming from. My view was that the game was past him, and as a franchise we needed to be taking steps into the future. Those sort of things contributed to the results regardless of where I finished up.
SJ: Finally, you are applying your teachings from sport to help companies and corporations. Is there still a side of John Buchanan that looks forward to being a coach of an international team or a franchise team?
JB: I suppose I do. Once a coach, always a coach. I suppose when I go to cricket grounds, look at coaches plying the trade, look at the BBL, or IPL, I still think I would love to be involved in that again. I certainly know that I couldn't be involved as a full-time head coach, 260 days away from home. I suppose it took me back to why I retired from cricket in the first place - in 2005 we lost an Ashes series while they were trying to get rid of the coach. It had come down to the board to justify why you should still be retained as coach.
There were three questions that I had to answer myself. One, can I still make a difference to this group? As I said before, you have to have a picture of where you want to go. My symbol was always the climbing of Mt Everest. So, could I take this group to peak of Mt Everest?
Second was if I still had the energy and enthusiasm if I decided to do that. Because it is a long period of time - you live cricket 24 hours a day and seven days a week for 365 days a year, and you are dealing with a lot of internal factors as well as external factors. Criticisms are coming and going all the time. So I need to have the energy and enthusiasm to carry me through it.
The last one was if I had lost some respect from the players through the course of that Ashes loss. I had to answer those honestly myself, and they were all in the affirmative.
Yes, I can make a difference. Yes, I still had the energy. Yes, I had the majority of the support of the players. I went to the board and said, "Here is the plan for the next 20 months, that is till the end of the World Cup in the West Indies in 2007. This is the picture, and this is how we are going to do it. Give me the opportunity." And I knew that by the time I got there after the final ball was bowled at Barbados in 2007, if I ask those three questions to myself again, certainly there would have been a "No" for at least one of those. It could have been a "no" for "Could I have made a difference?" Nor do I think I had the energy. If one of those was a "no" and I still continued in the job, I would have lost the respect of the players, and that is something that I cherish and didn't want to do. That is where I finished and that is how I still feel.