Cool customer of a coach

An erect fellow who does not easily bend, John Buchanan has been accused of resting players when they should play, playing players who should rest, and over-training everyone, which is an absurdity considering it presumes the senior players in the Australian team bow to the coach's every syllable, writes Rohit Brijnath.

While the severely optimistic and brave among us may be inclined to send wreaths to Australian cricket, ordering a bouquet at least would not be out of order. We have much to thank them for. If not for their unanticipated implosion, the lead-up to this World Cup would have been duller than a post-match press conference. After all, rarely prior to such a major sporting event has there been such an absence of buzz.

One more word about Irfan Pathan's fitness and we shall slip into self-induced comas. Another mention of Michael Vaughan's knee and the English captaincy and we'll need a strait jacket. Any more talk about Shoaib and drug tests and homicide will become excusable.

The man who thoughtfully provided us something more delicious to munch on is John Buchanan, the Australian coach, who has the walk of a philosophising giraffe. An erect fellow who does not easily bend, Buchanan has been accused of resting players when they should play, playing players who should rest, and over-training everyone, which is an absurdity considering it presumes the senior players in the Australian team bow to the coach's every syllable.

Mostly, though, right through the Cup Buchanan will be interrogated about the statement he made during the Commonwealth Bank tri-series when Australia was in dominant form. "Our ability to deliver yorkers, length balls, bouncers, variety balls, has not been placed under constant scrutiny by an opposition batting line-up. The batting efforts of our opposition are not assisting the development of our bowlers' one-day skills," is what he said.

Predictably, his team then disintegrated. Predictably, his statement was also labelled as arrogant.

"On the contrary", Buchanan told Sportstar in a voice that suggests early morning gargling with sand: "it was important that before we go to the World Cup that we are tested, (to check) whether we have leaks, and it showed we do have, in our defensive strategies — bowling and fielding."

Good coaches have PhDs in disingenuity and are quick to master cliches, but Buchanan insists his statement was no bonzai barb aimed at England's weak heart, no artful dissing of the competition.

He insists no team is sure if it is ready, or right, unless it is thrust under the microscope (by the opposition usually) and examined under pressure, and in this case it turned out to be revealing.

Buchanan is a trifle coy about agreeing with the view that his team has gone back to the rest rather than the rest catching up, but admits that the gap between the teams is no longer grand canyonish. "Probably the two consistent teams (in the recent past) have been South Africa and Australia. The other teams have had some periods of doing well. We now seem to be much closer to the rest of the pack. It makes the World Cup far more interesting."

What may be costly for Australia is the small rent in its aura, a stripping away of some of the mental edge it held over opponents. When matches turn tense, Australia's shoulders have stayed loose and absent of anxiety while the opposition has wilted. That equation has somewhat altered and Buchanan accedes that "in the last 14 days (our psychological edge) has dispelled a bit."

He warns off course that this abrupt turning of the tide is only a few weeks old, it is not a regular pattern observed over months, and says "if we were losing on a regular basis then it's a different matter." He is suggesting that as quickly as Australia misplaced the barbed wire of its aura it can reconstruct it. "Our job over the early rounds is to try and restore it (the edge)."

The edge can be re-found by winning early matches emphatically and sending powerful signals of their intent. Every match Australia wins in March will help blur the memory of humiliations in February, making them in the process, says the coach, "just as hard to beat as before."

Still, this cool customer of a coach, always ready with an explanation, these losses they bite him, and every now and then it shows in his answers. There is, for instance, a slight reluctance to praise England, which may be interpreted as either a lack of generosity or a frank recitation of the facts.

For instance, he says, Australia must return to its basics, and explains his side was in a position to win both tri-series finals and that its failure to do so was not "necessarily due to England's play." The English, he says, "played with a minimal risk and to their limitations." The basics that Australia drifted from included, for instance, a sudden inability to construct partnerships, best exemplified by the team's collapse from 1/170 in 30 overs in the first final to 252 all out.

These little sores in the Australian game will embolden opponents, but few will underestimate them. As Buchnanan contends: "There's pretty smart leadership in all the real contenders. I wouldn't have thought they'd underestimate us. But I hope they do."