John Buchanan analyses 2003-04 rivalry with India, Steve Waugh's leadership

Former Australia coach John Buchanan delves into the 2003-04 Tests, Sachin Tendulkar's 241 in Sydney, and reveals how the plotting of India's downfall actually began.

"His cameos, especially his Boxing Day 195, still get talked about... There were few players better to watch than Virender Sehwag in full flight," John Buchanan said (File Photo).

John Buchanan’s eight-year stint as head coach ushered in a golden era that brought Australia three World Cup titles and a record 16 consecutive Test victories, including a landmark Test series win in India in 2004.

In a chat with Sportstar, Buchanan delves into  2003-04, Tendulkar’s 241 in Sydney, and reveals how the plotting of India's downfall actually began.

Excerpts

Sourav Ganguly began the 2003-04 Test series with an aggressive hundred at the Gabba. The Australian fielders applauded him as he walked back to the dressing room. Did you and the team expect Ganguly to come out all guns blazing like that and did it set the tone for the remainder of the series?

The Gabba has always been a very happy hunting ground for Australia to start a Test series. Australia was in a good position to post a large first-innings total till Zaheer [Khan] and [Ajit] Agarkar bowled very well with an old ball to keep the total to 323.

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In India’s first innings, Australia was again putting itself in control of the game till Ganguly and VVS Laxman counterattacked to take a lead. This was a pivotal moment in the series as Ganguly showed to Australia, but more importantly to his teammates, that playing in Australia, and at the Gabba, was not the fortress it has been so described!

In Sydney in 2004, in the first innings, Sachin Tendulkar didn’t play a single cover drive and remained undefeated on 241. Were you and the team aware of Tendulkar’s plan, and as the inning wore on, what were the different strategies discussed to get the better of him?

Unsure which came first. Our view of the story was that Tendulkar understood Australian fast bowlers believed one of his few weaknesses, especially early on the faster, bouncier wickets, was his tendency to drive at wider balls – much in the same manner that certain teams have attacked Virat Kohli in recent times.

Knowing the Australian attack would patiently probe this line, Tendulkar showed immense control and patience to avoid this shot. It was a game of patience that innings for which Tendulkar won the honours.

India would’ve won the Test at Sydney but for a brilliant knock by Simon Katich on the final day. What are your recollections from day five of the Sydney Test?

The Test match was remarkable for the high scoring of both teams and individuals on both sides. It was also Steve Waugh’s final Test Match. Throughout this series, every ground wanted to be part of the final series celebrations of Stephen Rodger Waugh. And Sydney being his home ground, the crowd was pulsating every day to witness something special from Stephen.

John Buchanan (extreme left) oversees and Australian cricket team net session during his time as head coach.   -  S. Subramanium

 

And it almost came to pass as he and Simon Katich put together a 100-plus partnership that took the Australian dressing room into a mindset of chasing an improbable win, chasing 443 in the fourth innings. Everyone in the ground was on the edge of their seats as Stephen moved towards a fairytale finish – 100 and a historic win to win the series. Unfortunately, out for 80, the ground was deflated. It was left for Simon Katich and Jason Gillespie to see out time to draw the game and the series.

What was your first impression of Virender Sehwag?

His cameos, especially his Boxing Day Test 195, still get talked about... There were few players better to watch than Virender in full flight. His timing and shot-making were always a joy. He was one of those few players who could take a game away from his opposition very quickly.

He fitted beautifully into Sourav’s plans of taking the attack to the Australians. He always seemed fearless to either type of bowler he was facing or in his audacious shot-making. More than a handy off-spinner, Virender was always someone we would spend some time analysing and planning his dismissal.

The batting, bowling and fielding of Steve Waugh’s teams have all had the aim of causing mental disintegration: a moment of uncertainty that leads to self-doubt that leads to defeat. As coach of that team, what was your contribution to that strategy and did you entirely approve of it?

The term needs contextualising. Our job as a cricket team is to win matches. To win matches, there are two basic requirements: deliver your collective skills as well as possible, and expose the weaknesses of the opposition team as much as possible.

Besides the team skills which are an intangible mix of culture, leadership and the right people, the on-ground skills fall into four categories: technical (batting, bowling, fielding/keeping); physical (how does a player physically cope with the demands of Test cricket for his role); mental (how long can a player switch on and switch off his single focus to one ball at a time, and not be distracted by what is happening around him); tactical (how well does the player understand the conditions, the opposition and matching up his skills with what a situation of the game requires).

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Each area is fair game to attack, provided it is done within the rules and the spirit of the game. I believe, for the most part, we did our job very well at delivering on our skills, and exposing opposition weaknesses.

You were the coach in 2000-01 too when Australia toured India. Were there any particular takeaways or learnings that the team built on before Australia’s tour of India in 2004?

This was my first tour of India. Apart from it being an incredible cultural experience, it was a huge learning curve on playing in India. However, two main learnings were of significant help to us when returning in 2004. Firstly, I wanted to understand how Indians played spin and so I talked with Erapalli Prasanna and Bishen Bedi, amongst others.

Here I learnt that as a batsman in Indian conditions, the spin either needs to be smothered (i.e. sweep like Matthew Hayden, or get to in on full or half-volley); or if it cannot be smothered, then get back and “let it do all its work” before playing. In 2001, Australian batsmen were getting caught in between forward and back to Harbhajan Singh and Anil Kumble.

The second lesson which formed the basis of our bowling strategy was to “take boundaries away” from Indian batsmen. In doing so, we were able to contain the crowd noise and who increasingly became impatient with their own. With our quick bowlers, we devised a line of attack that was straighter, using catching men on the leg side and two in the deep for a hook or pull.

If a player began to get away from us, then we had a Plan B, which reduced a closer catching position in deference to a boundary-save position. To make this work, the bowlers executed brilliantly and Adam Gilchrist captained the side superbly to plan.