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Couch Talk

'I press players to play their own way'

Michael Hussey talks about his coaching philosophy, the dynamics of T20 batting, and why he didn't let Mick Jagger into the Australian dressing room

You have a new book out - Winning Edge: Behind the Scenes of Elite Cricket. What did you want to accomplish with it?
As a player in the top level there are a lot of things about the game that you are not taught. You sink or swim and you have to learn on the job. You have to learn how to deal with the media, the extra pressure of the international game, travelling to different parts of the world, different cultures, dealing with different coaches, different formats of the game. The game is hard enough at the top level, let alone having to deal with all these distractions. The motivation was to make young players aware and give them ideas on how to deal with external distractions.
You are part of the Australia support staff at the World T20. How do you maintain the balance between doing your job and still allowing the players to be responsible for their own game?
As I am learning to be a coach, that is what my philosophy is - to impress on the player that he has to work by himself in certain situations and play through certain stages of his career on his own. There are a lot of questions he is going to ask, people will throw him balls and help work on his skills. At the end of the day, you should take responsibility for your own game. You should figure out how you play best, and then I will impress something on the players that I am involved with.
Is that the theory behind why you got rid of all the support staff at Sydney Thunder, you and Paddy Upton?
Yes. We didn't want a lot of support staff around, and we wanted the players to take responsibility for their own games and their own preparation. Even if a young guy had some problems with their batting, Paddy's idea was to get Jacques Kallis, Usman Khawaja and Shane Watson together, and I am sure we had the expertise in the room to help solve the problems that the young guys have with the bat.
Bowling coaches lay out plans for executing various deliveries in an over. What does a batting plan look like in T20 cricket?
There are plans for different players, conditions, pitches; you have to chop and change frequently. I try and press on the players to play in their way. The most important thing is to make sure each player knows what his role in the team is. Then get him in the right spot - batting at the right positions, batting in the right situation in the game, batting according to the situation in certain conditions. If you can get the right players in the right spots, they can just go out and play their natural game, play on their instinct and hopefully come out on top.
Could you explain your approach as a top-order batsman? You may not get to face more than 50 balls in any given game…
I tried to keep it pretty simple. It depended on where I was batting in the order. In the Australian team I was often batting at six or seven. I might be playing only a handful of balls. For me it was focusing on a couple of areas to hit a four or six. If the ball is in the area, I will go for it, if not I will just try to get bat on ball and run as hard as I could.
When I batted at the top of the order, my plans were pretty simple here too. I try to be positive in the first couple of overs and then try to get some boundaries between overs three and six, and then try to take it as much as I could after that, having a couple of boundaries in your bag here and there.
"T20 has attracted so many more people to fall in love with the game of cricket, especially in a country like Australia where there is so much competition for sports"
I think it was Ed Cowan who wrote a piece about a metric that you had come up with, where the total of the average and strike rate must be 160 or more, especially for a top-order batsman. Was that your own work or from a team analyst?
No, I certainly can't take credit for that. The first I heard about it was from Scott Styris, when I was with him at Chennai Super Kings. We didn't really have a measure for a player being good or not. The mantra, by adding their average and strike rate indicated good players at the top of the order, where you expect the average to be a little bit higher but their strike rate a little bit lower. Down the order, you expect the average to be a little bit lower but the strike rate higher. We figured 160 to be the mark. If you are around it, you are generally among the top players.
How has the use of analytics changed or improved in cricket?
It has changed a lot. When we first started playing T20 cricket in Australia, it was pretty much hit and giggle. Today, there is a multitude of statistics that you have access to, probably too many. But the idea is to make sure you ask the right questions of the analysts and try to get the information that you really need. That might be different for certain teams and certain conditions. For me, it was studying a particular match-up. There might be a batsman who got out to left-armers more often than not, who might have struggled against offspin. You try and find out what their go-to shots are, and try to bowl away from that or set a field according to that.
As a captain, how much responsibility falls on you to handle everything? Or do you leave it to the players to know and execute the plans?
I tried to take responsibility for that as much as I could. I also leave a little bit for the bowler as well - he might have a few plans and I generally backed that plan. I could always offer some suggestions, if required, because I have done my homework.
Nowadays players are involved in one T20 league or the other for about four months a year. International cricket can become secondary. How do you see it among the up-and-coming youngsters in Australia and around the world?
I know that for most of the current players, Test cricket is still the pinnacle. That is what you want the most as a player. But with the pattern of T20 cricket for tomorrow, the next generation may see the game differently. I don't have a personal vote for that. But what I would say is that T20 cricket has been good for the game. It has attracted so many more people to fall in love with the game of cricket, especially in a country like Australia, where there is so much competition for sports, for young athletes to play in different sports. T20 cricket has proved a really attractive vehicle to introduce the game to many new people and get the youngsters to fall in love with the game, and hopefully we can introduce them to the 50-over game and Test matches after that. It has improved the skills of the players. I think that can spill to the 50-over and Test formats, where we are seeing a lot more attacking cricket and exciting cricket.
You have played under many captains. Was there any particular one whom you felt most at ease with as a team-mate and player?
It is difficult for me to answer. Tom Moody was a very strict disciplinarian and very hard on youngsters but fair as well and he really made you earn your place in the team. Ricky Ponting led by example, as did Michael Clarke. They tried to back you as much as they could and had faith in you. MS Dhoni shows a lot of faith in his players as well, and he is a very calm character too, and tries to take the pressure off the players, helps them relax and lets them enjoy the game. Especially in a country like India where it is so intense.
Some captains are very calm, whereas some - you can tell exactly what they are feeling. How do the players react to those different styles?
Everyone is different and people react differently. Ricky [Ponting] was such a competitive guy and wanted to win so badly. He backed his players. You wanted to go to war with him. He was a very inspirational captain. Sometimes the emotions get a bit heated, and that is a part of the game as well, and that shows how much he is passionate about the game.
MS [Dhoni] is a very inspirational character as well. He might not show his emotions in a lot of ways, but I have also seen him pretty fired up at times.
You said in your book that playing under Michael Clarke, you were worried about your spot in the side. How did you deal with that?
It was a difficult time in the Australian team. We had a lot of new faces. It takes time to build the trust and relationship with most of the team. It takes time for the culture to build as well. It is natural when you lose a player with whom you have been playing together for ten years and you knew each other like brothers. It cuts into each other's player relationships. I really felt we grew well as a team.
"Today there is a multitude of statistics that you have access to, probably too many. But the idea is to make sure you ask the right questions of the analysts"
Players now spend four to five months on the road, playing for various franchises and then for their national teams. How does that change the team dynamic, and the player's mindset?
I think that goes hand in hand to a degree. Certainly the guys in Australian cricket or international cricket in general spend eight to ten months together. There is pressure on you to perform. But you are desperate to want to be a part of that team and that family. That pushes you to perform at your best as well. That is how I felt. I wanted to perform for my country, but because I loved being around my team and my team-mates, I was desperate to stay there.
You once told Mick Jagger not to come into the Australian dressing room. What was that all about?
We were midway through a 2007 World Cup match against Sri Lanka in Grenada. It was a big game, Sri Lanka were a very good team. We were in a pressure situation and Ricky Ponting must have been batting in the middle, with Adam Gilchrist. I don't know where Matthew Hayden was. The manager looked at me and said, "I think you are the next most senior player in the team. Mick Jagger wants to come into the dressing room." I said, "Manager, we are in the middle of a World Cup game. I don't think he should come in here now. I would love to have him after the game and meet the players. But probably not now." The manager had to send the news back to Mick Jagger, and once he told the boys after the game, they couldn't believe it.
You say in your book that you said no to both Mahela Jayawardene and VVS Laxman when they asked if you would be interested in coaching their respective countries. Do you see yourself becoming a national head coach?
Certainly not in the short term. I think I do have a passion for coaching, being involved with the team, emotionally involved too. One of the main reasons I retired was because I was spending too much time away from home. I have got a young family at home, and if I become the head coach of an international team where I am away for eight to ten months, it is not sustainable for me at the moment. It is definitely a possibility in the future [once the kids are grown up].