Cricket: Infusion of Wright spirit

Overseas and over here: Kent turn to amiable New Zealander to stiffen challenge.
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Upon John Wright's retirement three years ago no less an authority than Wisden declared that he had the most beautiful manners of his generation. This was no doubt an entirely accurate assessment because the New Zealander is both winningly courteous and a man of enviably sunny disposition.

It also made him sound something of a soft touch, a notion that should be dispelled immediately. Beneath that charming exterior lies a hardened competitor. Down the years opponents must have been quite befuddled as this calm, measured man with the ready smile ground them down.

"There is no doubt that you have to let the opposition know they're in a match," he said at Canterbury last week in a calm, measured, smiling sort of way. "It is vital to be competitive at all times. You must focus every single day and I only want players who want to play on every single occasion and who are constantly interested in improving."

Wright, 42, is the new coach of Kent, once the most complete, feared county on the circuit but for almost 20 years perpetual also-rans. One piece of silverware since 1978, five losing Lord's finals and an extremely patchy Championship record define a team who have singularly failed to maximise their potential. Even in 1995 the gloss was rather taken off their winning the Axa Equity title on run rate when they contrived to finish bottom of the Championship for the first time.

The man chosen to rectify this long series of oversights is probably as close as you get to a stunning appointment in county cricket. He had a distinguished playing career embracing a decade with Derbyshire, 82 Tests which brought more than 5,000 runs and 12 centuries. He was New Zealand captain 14 times. But he has never coached.

Eight weeks ago he was sitting in his office in Auckland, where he worked as a sales manager, when he took a phone call from England. He assumed his opinion was required on New Zealand's performance against England in the Test series. The caller, Graham Cowdrey, the Kent batsman, actually wanted to let him know that a belated vacancy had arisen since the Australian Darryl Foster had decided not to return.

Wright expressed immediate interest. He discussed the matter with his wife, decided that the opportunity was too good to miss, sent off a formal application complete with his vision and the method he intended to use to achieve it. Kent were so impressed by this impressive man that they never bothered to interview anybody else.

"I always wanted one day to get into coaching but it had to be the right opportunity. This was it. They've obviously taken a punt on me. I haven't got to know the whole squad fully yet but what I've seen I'm happy with. I've already let them know what is required."

What is required by Wright and what Kent may have lacked occasionally in the past two decades is mental toughness, the quality which, in any form of cricket, separates teams. Wright had it in spades and conveys the impression that he knows how to bestow it on his charges. When he batted in Test matches, by his own admission, spectators could go to the toilet, make a cup of tea, then return to their seat and find that nothing had changed. Whatever the manners, he could also be seriously bloody-minded.

"There are technical and psychological aspects to coaching. I think I know a bit about batting and I won't be afraid to ask for help in other areas of the game. But getting each player to fulfil his potential and helping to show him how to do that is critical." This might sound like jargon, but Wright expressed the sentiment with such controlled passion, gazing on to the lovely St Lawrence ground as he did so, that it was no bother at all to take it in.

Wright first arrived in England to play for Kent second team in 1976 when the first team were cocks of the walk. He scored masses of runs in a side which included Chris Tavare and Paul Downton but since the first team had Asif Iqbal, John Shepherd and Bernard Julien there was obviously no place for a young Kiwi, so off he went to the Midlands.

It would be plain daft to suggest that Kent are as strong now as they were then or even have the potential to be so. But, crucially, they are armed with an attack possessing a cutting edge, have been as adventurous in their choice of an overseas player, the Zimbabwean leg-spinner Paul Strang, as they have been with their coach, and possess big-hitting batsmen who will not be summoned for Test duty.

"I'm excited by the prospect but we're a few days from competitive cricket and there's a lot of hard work to do on honing our attitude and edge," he said, very politely.