Bracewell and Kiwis add up to a challenge

First Test countdown: Tough task for England against a coach and team who always overachieve
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The Independent Online

New Zealand have made an unceasing mission out of being greater than the sum of their parts. The torch lighting the way on this journey has now been handed to John Bracewell. He is not the type to let the flame be extinguished.

New Zealand have made an unceasing mission out of being greater than the sum of their parts. The torch lighting the way on this journey has now been handed to John Bracewell. He is not the type to let the flame be extinguished.

To nobody's surprise, Bracewell was made coach of the Black Caps last year. It was a role for which he had almost consciously devised his own apprenticeship structure: disciplined player (perhaps greater than the sum of his parts), disciplinarian coach, first with Auckland and then, with unprecedented success, Gloucestershire.

The New Zealand board interviewed other candidates for the job but it was Bracewell's time. He spent years insisting that he was not ready for the international stage. He knew when he was. In April last year he mentioned that he would be interested in coaching a national team, three months later the Kiwi job came up. He might have been prepared to go elsewhere but this was what he craved.

Bracewell brings plenty to the team as a technical coach who dissects technique and designs game plans but brings plenty more in his determination to understand and influence them as men as well as cricketers. His relationship with the highly-rated captain, Stephen Fleming, could help to take New Zealand several steps further.

"Probably the most important impression was my first impression and that was actually how much they wanted to be coached," Bracewell said. "They had a real desire to take their game forward and were prepared to look at new ideas. I think they realised that in certain areas they were a little naïve.

"They had a team full of enormous game winners but not people who could control a game. That's something we've worked on, trying to control it, staying calm and cool under pressure, absorbing pressure, enjoying pressure. It's the message you send not only verbally but in the way you say it, your body language, you've got to give them confidence. They have exceptional cricketing intelligence as well as experience which they weren't always tapping into. They weren't genuine shareholders in the decision making."

Bracewell can occasionally give the impression that he has just eaten the entire output of Dale Carnegie but his own experience taught him his most important lesson. Two years ago at Gloucestershire he had to withstand a dressing-room mutiny, caused superficially by resistance to his methods, more meaningfully because a couple of players had their own ambitions.

"It was what I call my coup season," he said. "It was the best learning I've had in man management, being able to deal with people, with stress and trying to keep the team ticking over. It's perverse but I don't think I would have gained half the knowledge and expertise without that adversity."

The club backed Bracewell - "you can't have a draw in a coup" - and he repaid the faith by guiding the team to their sixth one-day cup last summer, the C & G Trophy, before embarking for New Zealand. He has learned the virtues of patience and tolerance.

"I think these players have found me more relaxed than they were expecting. And I'm more relaxed because I'm a lot more self-confident. I've been pleased with how relaxed I've been, about how little self-doubt I've had and that I've been able to approach players with far more cricketing experience than me and not be overshadowed by them."

Since Bracewell played 41 Tests and 51 one-dayers and scored a hundred in the Test that clinched for New Zealand their historic first series win in England 18 years ago, you might suppose he should be overshadowed by nobody. But that is a measure of how deeply he thinks about player relationships. The psychology of the game enthrals him. Graeme Smith, the young, abrasive South Africa captain, had several words on and off the field last winter in New Zealand. The Kiwis targeted him in return because "we decided their most vulnerable player was their most emotional one and that was their captain". He agreed that Smith acted as he did because he is still only 23. "Our captain realised that because he was a captain at that age himself."

He remembered his first session as New Zealand coach. Chris Cairns came up and asked him to keep an eye on an aspect of the game with which he was having a problem. "That was a very clever piece of man-management from him," said Bracewell.

He is comfortable with Fleming ("we think along simlar lines"). He is happy with the selection ("for the first time in New Zealand history the guys were chosen to fit in the strategy we have chosen as opposed to picking the best players and fitting a strategy round them").

He recognises there is some way to go ("we need at least six good bench players before we can challenge for No 1"). He feels they are developing a killer instinct ("in the one-dayers against South Africa we got on a roll and rode it to the beach"). What it all adds up to for England is that New Zealand are a handful.

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