Buchanan: 'I have never been a fan of DRS'

In Mumbai currently for business reasons, former Australia head coach John Buchanan takes time off to give his insights into the present state of the game, Twenty20 cricket, the Decision Review System, and more.

"I don't think the technology [for DRS] is as accurate as it is made to be," says former Australian cricket coach John Buchanan.   -  Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

John Buchanan was the coach of the Australian team from 1999 to 2007, a period when Australia won three World Cups, a Champions Trophy, two Ashes series and also put it across India in India after 36 years.

After retiring as coach, Buchanan worked as consultant with the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), High Performance Director with New Zealand Cricket and was coach of the Indian Premier League (IPL) team Kolkata Knight Riders.

In Mumbai currently for business reasons, Buchanan took time off to give his insights into the present state of the game, Twenty20 cricket, the Decision Review System, and more.

Excerpts:

Q. Life after ceasing to be coach of the Australian team in 2007?

A. Of course, it has been very good. I guess I made a decision in September 2005 to finish in 2007. I was given the opportunity by the Cricket Board (Cricket Australia) knowing that I would have had enough in eight years, it was time to do other things. And part of that was to set up my business ‘Buchanan Success Coaching’ (a business designed to enhance corporate success through the winning lessons from sport).

That’s kept me occupied for the last 10 years. It’s about building the business and getting involved in a range of partnerships which is why I am here.

Q. How difficult was it to stay away from a very successful team and were you, at any point of time in the interim, keen to get back to coaching?

A. Yes, I was weaned off to some degree. I had two stints in the Indian Premier League (IPL), firstly with the Kolkata Knight Riders. Then I did two and half years with New Zealand Cricket as High Performance Director.

But in my mind it was certainly the right decision I took in 2005. No regrets there at all. Now I am thoroughly enjoying bringing the lessons of sport into the world of business.

Q. How much has the game changed since you left Australian cricket?

A. There are two significant things I suppose; one is Twenty20 cricket and that was just starting when I was about to finish with Australia. We played sort of a semi-series in New Zealand. And then, of course, the social media; it has changed the world, changed the world of sports and the world of cricket.

Some people were good exponents of text messages in my time. But the whole dynamics of social media has really been a new phase with new innovations and this has obviously changed cricket.

The young cricketers these days look at opportunities to be brought up through Twenty20, rather than the long game. Now it’s the short game to the long game. Virtually everybody has his own social media channel, YouTube channel and that definitely promotes the game and it promotes individuals within the game. It’s a fact that it can quite interest the team culture.

Q. Skills-wise, how much has the game changed?

A. In the time that I was there with the Australian team, we were always trying to change the skills of the game; if it was the technical skills… then batting-wise how to score off no balls, more risk taking and this probably meant trying some new shots and certainly how to enhance better running between the wickets.

Physically we tried to change the game, everybody wanted to be far better athletes and sustain high performance. Our mental skills included trying to demonstrate the mental toughness required in any sport at the highest level. Tactically, Australia was more advanced than the other teams… [with the knowhow of] how to plan and deliver them against teams.

Most teams have computers and data now. So, there is less competitive advantage for most teams and I think the new medium will be qualitative predictive analytics and assessment of the game. It means data will be used in real-time, I suppose. I think Twenty20 has definitely changed the batsmen to approach the long form of cricket with more risk-taking shots. They now show a propensity to get bat on ball. And definitely, I guess, the technology of the bat that everybody talks about has changed the game.

So there has been a range of changes.

Q. Have batsmen become fearless because of Twenty20?

A. Twenty20 batting is about being given the licence to take as much risk as possible, even though it might mean losing your wicket. That’s an accepted — almost an accepted — pathway for the batsman. That approach has certainly filtered its way into the one-day game and also into Test cricket, I think.

So, one of the issues for batting at least is, how do they apply their mental skills and the decision making around risk-taking as the game gets longer. I think there is hesitation going on, of players coming to grips with the licence to lose the wicket or the acceptance of losing the wicket on the basis of actually trying to take the game on, and trying to balance that with being able to present that sort of more aggressive approach over a longer period of time. A lot of players around the world are still learning how to do that.

Q. Chris Gayle, AB de Villiers, David Warner, Brendon McCullum have been very special…

A. They would have been so even without Twenty20. Gayle had demonstrated that in the long form of the game, anyway. I think players like Matthew Hayden and Adam Gilchrist had also demonstrated that in the one-day format. So, it was happening and it’s just been accelerated a little bit by the advent of Twenty20.

Q. The batsmen have found ways to score, but the bowlers, it appears, have not been able to match them with requisite bowling skills…

A. One of the key factors here is to deliver on any particular skill…throwing skill, batting and bowling, fielding and catching skills…it requires constant training. In baseball, a lot of training goes on to hit zones with the batters. So [batsmen] in cricket spend a lot of time hitting balls…practicing key shots…ball after ball…ball after ball…the trouble with bowlers is that they just cannot physically do that because if they spend all energy at the time of training they will be a physical wreck before they could play.

So, the difficulty for them is that they get all their skill-training in a game, whereas the batsmen and fielders get all that outside of a game and then apply that in a game. So, it’s for this reason that the bowlers lag somewhat from the batting group…it’s just a physical thing to actually get the muscle memory in place to cope with what is required in a game.

Otherwise, the bowlers have so many skills these days, so many varieties and they have to make good decisions themselves about what they have to deliver. My view is that they probably make good decisions, but they just cannot be accurate enough to land the ball where they need to, and therefore they are punished by batsmen who are really trained and prepared for any error, small error, by the bowlers.

Q. Has the cricket world seen the best of Twenty20, in the context of skills? Is there scope for more innovation?

A. I think the real innovation must come from the administrators. I think it’s the game that lends itself to more innovations around, for instance the number of players allowed to compete in a game. We just saw in Australia recently when a batsman was struck on the head and he was removed from the game. And another player, who was not in the original 12, was allowed to enter the game.

So, my view is that a team should play, as in a football game, with may be 15 players…or rolling substitutions (as in field hockey). A substitution can happen at any time…just the same as baseball and football…what you are trying to do is take control of the game at any moment of time. If you think that you are losing trail of the game because certain individuals are in the game when they actually should be out or vice versa, then it becomes the right of the coach to bring those changes.

That can happen only if the administrators can bring in the change. The coach must have the right because the Twenty20 game is far more dynamic than the other formats and hence the situation requires someone far removed from the game to make changes and make an impact on the game.

Q. Is Twenty20 a threat to traditional cricket?

A. No. But I do think it’s very much in the hands of the administrators to really take some good decisions about where and how it all fits together. So, if your popularising the game, what all of us should be doing in the first place is just not focus only on people playing the game at the top-end, it should also be at people coming into the game ...children and their parents who support them. They just want to hit the ball, run, have fun and get involved in a range of activity. So, that’s really backyard cricket. So, that’s where Twenty20 is re-branding backyard cricket.

Therefore we need to encourage young children coming into the game through activity and Twenty20 will enable it. I think the traditional long form of the game will just not attract children, will not attract parents to be involved in long mornings, afternoons in the heat. Twenty20 is critical to attracting people into the game.

Q. Has Big Bash taken Australian cricket forward?

A. I think so. It has great ratings and the gate attendance is very high, which is good. But that’s where I come back to the administrators. The downside is that the Big Bash almost actually competes with the long form of the game (Test cricket or Sheffield Shield cricket) which happens to be going on at the same time. So, that’s very confusing now. Twenty20 should not be competing with the long form. I think there is room for all three or all four.

I think we have the fourth form which is the second long form of the game, simply because of the pink ball as against a red ball. It’s played under lights which affects the conditions. It’s played with black sightscreens and one of the biggest things is the physical demands on players. It’s about recalibrating your whole physical system and also the umpires have to deal with day-night cricket over a longer period. Actually, it’s a one-off game and you have to transition back to red ball cricket.

The administrators are always looking for ways and means to enhance the product they have. I think they have created a fourth form of the game which is fine, but I think they need to acknowledge that they have to fit it all together so that the best product is delivered to the masses. Obviously broadcasters and entertainment will go with it.

Q. Is pink ball cricket all set to make a big impact everywhere? Gary Kirsten said it will be well received in Cape Town…

A. My preference is always for the real long form of the game, the history of the game…although there have been changes like covered and uncovered wickets, bodyline and the numbers of overs to be bowled in a day. But the fundamentals of the game have not changed...it’s still turf wicket, red ball, white clothes and white sightscreen. The turf wicket has changed a bit with drop in pitches, but nonetheless it’s really important to understand some of the traditions of your sports or business.

You need to retain some traditions and may be you can move on from traditions. But, to me, this is one critical tradition that needs to be retained and that’s Test match cricket (played in day time)….red ball, white clothes and white sightscreen.

Q. Finally, India has agreed to trial the Decision Review System (DRS)…

A. I guess with India moving that way, probably the last obstacle in DRS is fully accepted. I have never been a fan of it because I don’t think that technology is as accurate as it is made to be. And if technology has to be totally accurate, it seems to me that you actually have to track the ball everywhere…it’s not just about the 20 metres we are looking at, we are looking at decisions being taken around the ground.

The second thing that I don’t agree with is about players questioning the umpires’ decisions. So, I don’t like to see players, captains having the right of appeal against an umpire’s decision. If there is a notion that an umpire may get something wrong and we may have some technology to support his decision, then I think it’s totally between the umpires to decide whether or not a decision is to be reviewed or not. Players should never be involved in the decision-making process.

Q. So India (BCCI) was probably right then…would you say so?

A. If it’s for the reasons that I mentioned, I would have agreed with India. I just don’t see that the technology can be the same that’s used for tennis, in a smaller stadium, rectangular screen, and wherein the cameras are so close and in stadiums where there is absolutely no movement of the camera.

I go back to baseball and some of the major American sports where far more money is involved in the decision-making for either individuals or teams; technology is not used here. The homeplay umpire who stands over the top of the catcher and watches the ball from a pitcher coming towards him and is judging height as well as width, makes a call on it …there is no technology involved in terms of that decision-making process. They use technology as a means of education.

Technology must have 100 per cent accuracy. It’s impossible unless you want to invest so much money to bring in more cameras, high-speed cameras because the speed which broadcasters operate for cricket is still too slow for the number of frames required to make the decisions accurate. And, if you did that, my second argument would be that it should be consistent around the world. It cannot be, because neither can every ground deal with that nor does any country want that. It’s a huge expense on the game. So, there are a lot of inconsistencies in that approach, but nonetheless, since technology is there, they can use it the way they have been using it.

Q. Shane Warne has said Test cricket is boring and Mark Taylor says, make Test cricket a four-day game…

A. I think there are always a million ideas that will be tossed around. Obviously former players who have played the game have some views, the coaches have their views, the administrators have their views and the broadcasters will have their views.

But in the end people have to think about the fundamental traditions of the sport, where all formats fit together. One has to get a clear picture before they even start thinking about tampering with rules and regulations. I don’t think it will happen at this stage.

I think anything can be boring. I can get bored in a Twenty20 game simply because there may not be a contest there, I might not be interested in the people who are playing, one team might be on top of another…or I might be tired.

There is no question that Test cricket takes time, but that’s what makes it unique. That’s what will set it apart from other sports in history. Timeless Test matches have been played. So, again the administrators are critical in the whole process. I think it’s a case for less or more. We see Australia versus India in Australia once in four years. Then you might see a five-Test series, but that is spread over a long tour. I will be inclined to go back to the [past] and play less Test cricket which would free up time for the other formats and therefore make Test cricket more appealing.

Q. Having said that would Australia accept a three-Test Ashes series?

A. Everybody has a whole range of opinions on that. I think the big series [such as] Australia-England should always be played over five Test matches. There can be smaller series of three or two Tests.

For example, Australia versus Zimbabwe, Australia versus Afghanistan...smaller…less is the way to go. We don’t want in and out people, we have to make Test cricket special and it needs to be not easily accessible as it can be at the moment. And that could make way for providing a less boring product that we are getting far more used to and provide more space for Twenty20 and one-day cricket where the revenue is generated.

Then I think the people will look for the other form of the game… the long form and be satisfied with a couple of games.

Q. Has the bilateral ODI series lost its charm?

A. Possibly. Again it’s all part of the overall picture of how you schedule things and how you fit it all together. I think it’s illogical to me to abandon one-day cricket because it has a history of probably forty-plus years. People have to understand that we used to learn the game in the long form (Test cricket) and transferred it to the short form and the one-day game was the first means to understand how to do that.

But people are going to come into the game now through Twenty20, it’s essentially a batting game. But if we retain cricket, I think we should have a transition point and the transition point is one-day cricket. Twenty20 provides all the innovations. For example the thing about bats…allow Twenty20 cricket with whatever bat-size you want to play with.

But one-day cricket should follow the norms. It provides the transition to Test cricket.

Q. So what can be done to get people interested in Test cricket?

A. I would like to leave Test cricket alone as much as possible. Take it as an anachronism, because that’s what it is… anachronism in terms of speed of the game and length of the game …leave it as it is.

It’s a unique product. It’s not designed to service everyone, leave it to service people who want to sit and appreciate something totally different and allow ODI and Twenty20 cricket to service the needs of people who are trying to get rid of boring cricket. Leave the long form of the game in respect of the traditions of the game that’s been played for 140 years; that’s what is key to Test cricket.

Q. Players have become free agents for Twenty20 cricket, like Kieron Pollard…

A. When you talk to most young cricketers coming into the game, and people like Pollard, they still respect the game in so far as they would like to play Test cricket.

There is still that history. Now, whether they can play Test cricket or not, because of their skills, that’s another question. Probably they have the skills, it’s more about the application of the skills…it’s more their question. So we are going back to their technical skills…can they apply those in the long form of the game. If they cannot, they should be able to play in a format in which they are comfortable with and produce good entertaining cricket.

Q. So first-class cricket will thrive as ever?

A. Yes. Not only first-class cricket…there is club cricket. Below them you have the juniors...men and women playing the game. So, that’s why it is important for the administrators to understand that it’s just not the thin layer at the top which everybody goes to watch and which is the most visible aspect of the game.

But if you don’t have all the layers properly serviced and structured underneath then the top layers will not be able to produce the product, be it the long form or Twenty20 that can satisfy an expectant audience and expectant television audience.

Q. Eight years as Australia coach…what was it like? Three World Cups, one Champions Trophy, beating India in India and all that, and coaching around 40 elite Australian cricketers?

A. It was a special period. There were incredibly good players. And, I suppose, beyond the incredibly good players, we had two greats of the game, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath…they will be known as greats for ever. Then, there were players who were exceptionally good…Ricky Ponting, Mathew Hayden, Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist…they were all verging as greats…some people call them greats.

There should not be any doubt that Warne and McGrath were greats of the game threaded through that period. Then below them there were Andrew Symonds, Brett Lee, Darren Lehmann, Jason Gillespie, Justin Langer…there were so many good players. It was a special period of time in Australian cricket. Part of that period was that we had a very good support group all the time. We had very good people, coaches, trainers, physios, managers etc. They were really important. It helped the players plan and deliver their skills.

Q. The Test match in Calcutta in 2001…do you still think about that match?

A. One of the important lessons in life and in business is that your strengths are always your weaknesses. Our strength was the way we played; we tried to play as aggressively as we could.

We tried to take the front running where we could. We probably tried not to be somewhat predictable in our decision making. I often say, looking at that first innings scoreboard…we had a lead of 274 runs. You had ten or probably five minutes between the innings to make a decision (to enforce the follow on or not). There was no one in that dressing room who thought for one moment that there was another option.

When I look back at my coaching, I realised that it was a point in time I was learning how to coach and because of this fact, it seemed to me that it should have been one of my tasks, right at that moment when everybody walked off the field (after India’s innings), saying, look there is another option and that was, ‘the only way India could get back in the Test match is if we give them an opportunity to make runs and we have to bat last’.

If I was wise and smart enough and experienced enough to say that, I would have still taken the same decision. But the point was, in those moments, from a coaching perspective, you needed to be able to withdraw yourself from the emotions and feelings of what was going on in the field, to remove yourself from that strength of yours and question your strengths at that moment and see whether or not it was actually your weakness and try and make a decision.

But none of us thought about that and in the end we still had the opportunity to save the game; but then we had won 16 Tests in a row and did not know how to actually bat to save the game.

It was foreign to us; we always batted to win games. There was an incredibly different feeling in the dressing room that time. We did not have the strategy and the skills to do that.