The new order

Ian Chappell solidly backed some senior Australian players, but not the coach.-VIVEK BENDRE

THE poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson put into the mouth of King Arthur the words "the old order changeth, yielding place to new." As it was in mythical times, so it is now, particularly in the world of cricket. Under the old order, staffing a Test tour used to be a simple task. When I toured Australia in 1954-55 with the MCC, the total complement of our party was 21 — 18 players, Manager Geoffrey Howard, Assistant Manager and Baggage man, George Duckworth, and Physiotherapist, Harold Dalton. Since then, however, the old order has been irrevocably transformed. Nowadays a Test team would not dream of leaving their shores without an accompanying or available support staff of a Movement Officer, a brace of Injury Management Medics, a Media Liaison Officer, a Fitness Adviser, a Consultant Psychologist, a Nutritionist, a Coach, a Video analyst and Biomechanician and a couple of assistant coaches.

Australian coach John Buchanan set the pace with his recruitment of expert sport scientists to begin and maintain Australia's world-wide winning ways; but now it appears that he has exceeded his enlistment remit — at least in the eyes of the skill-minded traditionalists, who adhere to the belief, quite rightly, that cricket is first and foremost, a question of expertise with bat and ball. True, such skills are enhanced by fitness, mental strength and a mastery of technique; but a fit, psychologically sound and technically correct sportsman is nothing if he cannot play cricket; and I believe that it was the neglect of the practical aspect of the game which led to the loss of the Ashes in 2005.

In their wash-ups of the recent series, former captain Kim Hughes and ex-Test players turned media-men, Dennis Lillee, Dean Jones, and Greg Matthews, bemoaned the lack of specialist batting and bowling coaches in the ranks of Australia's support squad. Their absence enabled the new-look England side, spearheaded by `Freddie' Flintoff, to identify and exploit the weaknesses in the batting methods of Gilchrist, Langer and Hayden and the soft bowling underbelly of Gillespie and Kasprowicz. Their opinions were endorsed by the past-Aussie captain, Ian Chappell, who sheeted home the loss of the Ashes to Buchanan whom he apparently expected to correct the Aussie players' technical faults and remedy Ricky Ponting's flawed tactics — such as his decision to bowl first at Edgbaston. When the issue was one of making cricket decisions, Chappell came down solidly on the side of players like Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath — men with a wealth of Test experience behind them — and not the Aussie coach. He dismissed Buchanan as a mere organiser of practice and a mediocre Queensland medium-pacer with sketchy playing credentials. The irony of Chappell's comments lay in the fact that Buchanan never portrayed himself as anything but what the former skipper judged him to be: the carrot of Aussie cricket — the organiser of victory. When the fifth Test ended, and the Ashes were lost, Ponting's leadership came in for general condemnation. Only then did he reveal that most of the major team decisions were made by consultation and consensus — and not by his — and by inference — Buchanan's, authoritarian decree. Perhaps it might have been better had he taken both the responsibility and blame for the events of the rubber.

One has to feel sorry for both Buchanan and Ponting. Both were excoriated for events which were out of their control. The margins of Australia's losses were wafer-thin and the tourists experienced abysmal luck; they were on the wrong end of quite a few unfortunate umpiring decisions and lost some of their key players — such as McGrath — to injury at the most inopportune times.

Despite recruiting expert sport scientists, coach John Buchanan (left) and physio Erroll Alcott had no control over injuries to key players like Glenn McGrath.-AP

But most of all, I feel that the tourists were ill-served by the stay-at-home administrators: the men who determined the composition of Ponting's support squad and put the issue of specialist coaches on the back burner. In the final analysis, Buchanan's coaching lieutenants eventuated as Jamie Siddons, Dean Hill and the ever faithful computer expert — plus the odd appearance at the nets, in civvies, of chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns and Allan Border. Siddons and Hill were both experienced Pura Cup players for Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania, appointed on the eve of the tour to share six-monthly shifts as assistant coaches to Buchanan and coaching responsibilities at the National Academy in Brisbane. Their coaching credentials were skimpy; neither had lengthy experience as a coach; they were not qualified; nor were they Test veterans or skill mentors whose opinions would be respected.

Meanwhile sitting on the side-lines, in the commentary or press box, were the retired fast bowler Dennis Lillee, and ex-Test batsmen Dean Jones, and Kim Hughes: invaluable knowledge and experience lying fallow. Lillee had, until 2004, supervised the Pace Australia courses for promising fast bowlers in the various Australian states; but because of his unwillingness to commit himself completely to the programme and a disagreement over commensurate payment, Cricket Australia had, as the Americans say, `let him go'. Tragic! But no more tragic than the unwillingness of the Aussie Board to match the media payments to former Test stars and lure them into its support cadre.

At the outset of the recent Ashes series England had not held the Ashes for eighteen years. But those years were not wasted. They contained a steep learning curve for its coach Duncan Fletcher and his cricketing charges. To play for England they had to embrace the new-look cricketing structure and apply the sports science principles of fitness, mental preparation, self-belief and sound techniques continually dinned in their ears and promulgated by experienced coaches such as Fletcher himself, Rod Marsh, Matthew Maynard, Troy Cooley and Tim Boon. The England selectors did not make the same mistakes as their Australian counterparts; they did not entrust the development of their Test team to organisers and inexperience. They looked for qualified coaches with a background of international nous. Marsh's stewardship of the Australian Academy in Adelaide spoke for itself. Fletcher's coaching CV was one of first-class successes in the Western Cape and Zimbabwe. Matthew Maynard could point to a batting competency which gained him four Test caps; His coaching skills earned him jobs in Glamorgan, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Otago and took him four levels up the ECB qualification ladder. By a strange quirk of fate, Troy Cooley owed much of his status as a bowling coach to his training in Tasmania under the Australian National Coaching Accreditation Scheme; Tim Boon was that incongruous combination of sportsman and video-analysis whiz kid.

There are several important messages for Indian cricket in the events of the Ashes series of 2005. Firstly it must avail itself of all the modern sophisticated methods and expert staffing essential to the organisation, preparation, training and running of a 21st century Test team. It cannot afford a repetition of the chaotic beginning to the recent Zimbabwe tour. However, it should not take its eye off the fact that cricket is essentially a skill game, which at the international level should be supervised by men with the experience of either playing or coaching the game on the highest plane. By all means use the advantages provided by fitness, psychology, exercise physiology and every aspect of the sports sciences. But beware the doctrinaire — and the neglect of the pragmatic. The school of hard knocks is a wonderful university and there is such a thing as being too clever, too slick. I think Australia discovered this truth in 2005.