He pushes a perfect team even further

John Buchanan's favourite quote is: "The task of a leader is to get his people from where they are to where they have not been."-AP

John Buchanan's pockets are always littered with ideas, many regarding the notion of team. Rohit Brijnath in conversation with the man whose winning record as coach can stand with anyone's in any sport.

In a simple bowling machine, modified for travel to the West Indies, packed in cases convenient to lift, lies a tiny understanding of the professionalism of Australian cricket. In this search of becoming the perfect team, to the work ethic of Australia's players, and the ingenuity of its coach, must be added the resourcefulness of a system.

Still, John Buchanan, whose winning record as coach can stand with anyone's in any sport, prefaces his story by saying: "I'm not saying that our system's perfect." Just so that you know, and the system, that there's room for improvement.

Anyway, having been to the West Indies before, Buchanan explains that "one of the things I understand about the West Indies is that when they say they are going to do something, they have every intention of doing it, but it may not necessary happen or it may not necessary happen at the time you want it, or there will be something that works against it happening."

"Coming into this tournament everybody said, right, every venue's got a bowling machine, don't worry about it. Well, one of the things I was adamant about was that we needed to take our own bowling machine to the West Indies because it very much is part of our training needs, and it is one of the things we can then control."

And so they took one. And, of course, it turned out that some places in the West Indies had a machine, some didn't, some didn't have the right power, some didn't have power leads. But Australia was never inconvenienced, their routine not broken. And it was more than this. Buchanan says they modified the machine so it could be packed easily into the right weights so that carrying it was not an issue. It is an attention to detail that is illuminating.

Because he mentioned it after the final, Buchanan has been hounded recently by the phrases "perfect game" and "perfect team". He has not found the first, but certainly discovered the second, a team he enjoys coaching because constantly it seeks improvement. Prod him further for an example and Buchanan takes the name of his captain.

"Ricky Ponting," explains the coach, "was trying to develop a shot over covers to left-arm spinners so... he could have a new shot", a shot which the opposition hadn't really thought of or had been able to combat. "Or against New Zealand, he (Ponting) felt bowlers would bowl pretty wide and full of him, so needed to work out a shot for him that would enable him to control the game.

"Shane Watson did the same thing in his No. 7 batting position which hasn't been a favourite position for him, but again he developed a couple of shots that worked for him and he ended up obviously pretty successful in what he was doing."

In a small example of what he does, Buchanan explains what occurred after the Ashes. With five Tests won, he looked at the numbers, and in a bid to challenge his team in the one-dayers, told them they could improve across many areas by 5 to 10 per cent.

"Batting wise I looked at our scoring shot percentages, which is the number of balls we score from in an innings and roughly we average 150 to 180 balls an innings, so that means we're not scoring from 120 to 150 balls. And I said to the players I think it's realistic we can actually improve that by 5 to 10 per cent.

"The flip side to that is our bowling, we're in the vicinity of 50 to 55 per cent dot balls in an innings", and so again they tried to increase that by 5 to 10 per cent. In fielding it was the same. Buchanan looked at the opportunities created, the catches, throws at stumps, dives, and the numbers told him the team was successful about one in four times. So they tried to get it close to one in three.

Teamwork comes naturally to Australians, their pride in representing their country apparent. If there is an anxiety within the team, it is of letting the side down. Gilchrist after the final, Symonds through the tournament, and Michael Hussey at the end of the World Cup, all touched on the same topic, says Buchanan. "Which is you're not playing to your ability, or beyond your ability, you feel that you're actually not making a contribution to the team".

Buchanan is interesting because his pockets are always littered with ideas, many regarding the notion of team. For instance, when the Australians arrived in St. Vincent in the West Indies, he believed two things had to be done immediately. First, the tour needed to be given some sort of framework, so he coined an ungainly acronym for his team, which he called SPOCE.

Explaining it, he says: "S was for smart... being smart in everything we did; P for planning and preparation; O was, I think, a key strategic move in terms of just dealing with One game (at a time) rather than projecting ahead and looking at parts of the tournament we thought were going to be tough or easy; C was our camp values and standards... ; and E was about enjoyment, fun and celebrating our wins and our successes."

Secondly, Buchanan had a sense that things were not quite right, perhaps little things weren't jelling together, weren't making the Australians as strong a unit as they should be. So he took the team to a fort in St. Vincent, which was followed by a barbecue later.

Three things happened there. First, Buchanan spoke about the "whole concept of fort, what's the purpose of a fort. The purpose of a fort is to keep things out that you don't want in, but also keep things in that you value and treasure". The exercise was about getting players to enunciate, he says, "what was important to them that they wanted to keep out... and what they valued and wanted to keep in".

Then, the team shirts for the tour were presented and, finally, a series of awards that continued on through the tournament were initiated. Awards that were related not only to performance but also to contributions made off the field. "I'm pretty sure", Buchanan says, "that night the first award I gave (was) to Shane Watson... because how hard he worked to get himself back into the team, with the physio, with the massage, with his workloads, (he) really worked hard to do that."

The interview is winding down. Buchanan is generous with both time and thoughts, but one final, irresistible question needs to be thrown at him.

Are you surprised India is not better than it is in cricket?

"Yes", he says.