A funny game

Buchanan's (with Adam Gilchrist) coaching methods are more oriented towards life training and the evolution of the persona.-K.R. DEEPAK Buchanan's (with Adam Gilchrist) coaching methods are more oriented towards life training and the evolution of the persona.

Buchanan has added new dimensions to cricket coaching: a skill which he regards as holistic, based on the premise that, if a coach can educe a well-rounded and complete person, the process of that education will also result in that person's development into a competent cricketer, writes Frank Tyson.

Can anyone please explain to me the uncertainties, mysteries and doubts of cricket? How is it that an England team can win a home Ashes series 2-1 in September 2005 yet suffer a 5-0 whitewash against virtually the same Australian side just over a year later?

Perhaps the answer lies in the grave with Warwick Armstrong — `the Big Ship" and the last antipodean skipper to achieve the feat against "Johnny Won't Hit Today" Douglas and his Great War survivors in 1920. But whereas Douglas' Englishmen won the odd game against Sheffield teams such as South Australia, Flintoff's men played the full length of the summer of 2006/07 without recording a single success against Australia, or indeed, a first-class opponent. There were even times when the tourists were outplayed by sides that fell short of Pura Cup standard! How can this dramatic slump be explained?

Injury and bad luck played their part in England's discomfiture. The visitors could ill afford the loss of Trescothick, Giles, Vaughan and Flintoff to injury at crucial junctures of their Ashes campaign. But it has to be admitted that England itself played a major role in its own downfall — with injudicious spin selections based on personal preferences — and a congested lead-up to the series with a crowded programme against Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and the pugnacious Sri Lankans: a fixture list which almost invited an Ashes burn-out. These errors were reflected in the statistic of a mere 25 percent success rate in England's 22 international matches played over the years 2006-2007. By contrast, Ponting's Australia won 20 Ashes-revenge-motivated victories in their 29 fixtures played over the same period of time.

This win ratio owed much to "The Quiet Australian" — the Aussie coach "Buck" Buchanan, a former Queensland medium-pace bowler with the slender accreditation of just two first-class games to his name, but a formidable reputation as a back-room boffin.

Buck is a man of few words, but the Australian cricketers listen when he speaks. When a photo session is called, Buck is inevitably on the back row, hiding beneath the brim of his enormous white Stetson and has to be dragged to the fore.

But overcoming his modesty, Buchanan has added new dimensions to cricket coaching: a skill which he regards as holistic, based on the premise that, if a coach can educe a well-rounded and complete person, the process of that education will also result in that person's development into a competent cricketer.

The philosophy is not new. Vince Lombardi, the legendary coach of the American football team, the Green Bay Packers, used it with telling effect. In so doing he not only created a fine football side, but also trained a band of young men who were sporting role models, and in many instances went on to make a name for themselves in the business world.

Do I detect any parallels between these developments and the recent retirements of Shane Warne, Damien Martyn and Justin Langer? I must admit that it appears to me that Buchanan's coaching methods are more oriented towards life training and the evolution of the persona — rather than the simple production of cricketers.

This intent was obvious in Australia's `pre-Ashes' training camp last spring, when the home team's programme included an Army-style week-long "Boot Camp" conducted far from the creature comforts of Test hotels and dressing rooms in the mountainous hinterland of Queensland's Gold and Sunshine Coasts. It took the players out of their usual comfort zone and exposed them to roughing it in the Australian bush. Their "tucker" was minimal and usually served cold. They slept on their "swag" on the hard ground, carried the bare necessities of life in a pack. Transport came in the shape of a jeep, which they pushed rather than drove. Of necessity, they had to rely on their team-mates to extricate them from difficult situations; consequently they "bonded", assuming responsibilities and leadership roles previously regarded as the prerogative of the elder statesmen of the Test XI.

As a result they acquired greater self-esteem, self confidence, trust, mental toughness, drive, leadership qualities and emotional control: all attributes which would serve them well when they had to step up to the plate to fill the gaps left by the "greats" when they retired.

The Buchanan programme was conducted in military fashion and equipped the Aussie squad to actually enjoy the prospect of meeting tough opponents and hard competition. They readied themselves to mix it with the fastest of bowlers and the most aggressive of batsmen. They were trained never to quit, to welcome suggestions from team-mates and coaches alike as to how they might improve their game; they became adept at handling the unexpected, to bounce back after being beaten and to avoid being put off their game by bad breaks and `rough' decisions. They learned how to cooperate without question with the man alongside, to get a job done in the easiest manner possible. They `bonded'. Those who missed the team bus, walked — so that even the mavericks in the team came to appreciate the value of punctuality.

These lessons in `the bush' explain in part the disciplined accuracy of McGrath's nagging line; Warne's hostility towards batsmen, Ponting's aggression with the bat, the Australian unwillingness to take a backward step and the team's ability to lose a session's play yet bounce back into the game the next two hours.

Buck's psychology was everywhere in the actions of the Aussie side. On a couple of occasions when `the Quiet Australian' gave voice, he declared the intentions of his side to `target' a couple of the England players: skipper Vaughan, for what he deemed to be his premature return to the one-day arena, and Kevin Pietersen, for not being `a team player'. And look what happened to England's South African star in his next game against Australia at the MCG!

This game of cricket is not only a funny game — it is a tough one!