Cricket: Kiwi lesson for Fletcher

Jon Culley finds the new man can learn much from Steve Rixon
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AS ENGLAND prepare to entrust the well-being of the national side to a non-English coach, their next opponents, New Zealand, can reflect on three years of being guided by an alien hand. Steve Rixon, the Australian to whom the Kiwis turned, sees parallels in England's situation with the challenge he took on in 1996, and believes the appointment of Duncan Fletcher can see England reap the benefits of looking overseas.

Rixon, 45, the wicketkeeper with the handlebar moustache who played 13 Tests in the late 1970s, is coming to the end of his tenure and judgement will be reserved until after the series against England. If New Zealand travel home victorious - having also reached the last four of the World Cup - opinions will be undivided. In any event, he reckons that the perspective he brought leaves them in good shape.

"If Duncan Fletcher has the right qualities, England can enjoy the benefits of taking on a coach from outside their own shores," Rixon said. "The advantage is that he comes in with no hidden agenda. He can call a spade a spade without fear or trepidation that the past will come to haunt him. He has no baggage to take on board.

"On the other hand, he will need to be somone who can make hard decisions and will need to be thick-skinned to cope with a lot of things. As a new coach, it is one thing to talk a good talk but you have to show quite quickly that you can walk a good walk.

"The disadvantage I had in the early stages was in not understanding the new culture I had entered. New Zealanders are actually quite different from Australians and to some Kiwis I was a guy from the other side of the Tasman who they would probably tend to dislike.

"I was fortunate in that I had a very solid Kiwi citizen in John Graham, our manager, who helped me in a lot of ways to understand the way the Kiwis think, about the past in their sport and their expectations and about the knocking of high- profile sportsmen.

"The English situation is a good comparison to make. I've listened to a lot of what the English press have said about their team and it reminds of the attitudes I encountered. The New Zealand press tended to be very negative about cricket. Because we have been doing a little better they have been more supportive lately but it is easy when you are on top of things. But it is when things aren't quite right that you need support and the England side are not getting it."

Nixon coached New South Wales to three Sheffield Shield titles and considered offers from Yorkshire, Zimbabwe and South Africa's Eastern Province before accepting the invitation from New Zealand. "I'd like to think I have changed some attitudes," he said. "People sometimes look upon Australians as arrogant but I prefer to call it self-confidence. It was important to teach the guys how to win. Expectations are higher now and an environment conducive to development has been created.

"We have also put a lot of investment into youth cricket and into getting the structures right. Without question there are similiarities with England in that respect also. You cannot just hope that people with flair come out of the ranks, it has to be promoted along the way. So the sort of cricket you are playing has to allow for flair to be promoted, otherwise it is never going to come through on the international stage."

After the World Cup saw them pilloried for blandness, the use of the word flair in connection with the New Zealand team might prompt some to scoff, but Rixon rejects the notion. "The English have been unkind in their remarks about our dibbly-dobbly bowlers but I think it is a little unjust when you look at the likes of Chris Cairns and Geoff Allott. OK, we may have the Larsens and the Harrises but in the context of the style of one-day cricket we play, their role is important. Test cricket is a different matter."

Beating England is the matter that most concerns him. "For the last 18 months we have been working towards the World Cup and the Test series. It is such an important one for me on a personal level because I am beginning to see the picture I had in mind fall into place and to win would mean going out on a very strong note."

What Rixon has not done during his period in charge, whatever his achievements below the surface, is raise New Zealand's profile. Reaching the last four in the World Cup went some way towards changing that. Defeating England would be a bigger step forward still.