Comment: Why don't Australia greats like Shane Warne coach the current crop?
Pity that wisdom of some wonderful players is not being passed on
Tuesday 30 July 2013
Is greatness contagious? That is one of the last remaining hopes of the flailing Australian touring party, as they trust that the mere presence of Shane Warne, around the camp, talking to Ashton Agar, imparting secrets, will somehow get them close to the quality of former Australian teams in England.
As well as being outbatted, outbowled and outfielded so far, it is fair to say that the Australians have been outcoached. Their most dominant spell in the series so far, Agar's 98 at Trent Bridge, was the raw outpouring of a teenager, while England have – that mad morning aside – been far more disciplined, thoughtful and technically skilled.
Disruption is natural, of course, when coaches change and replacing Mickey Arthur with Darren Lehmann on the eve of the series was never going to be smooth. But for all the talk about the man at the top, the coaches beneath him are just as important, and in that area Australia are paying heavily for their apparent negligence.
There is, for the first time in a generation, an expertise deficit at the top of the Australian team. That is obvious to anyone who has watched them struggle first in India then in England in Test cricket this year. The first explanation is the retirements of two giants of the game, Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey, last Christmas.
But they were not the only two to leave the Australian set-up. The bowling coach Craig McDermott and batting coach Justin Langer – with 176 Test caps between them – both quit their posts in late 2012. McDermott now runs a fast-bowling clinic and Langer coaches Western Australia.
In their place are Ali de Winter and Michael Di Venuto, respectable domestic cricketers in their time but with nowhere near the accumulated nous of the two who have gone.
"To have strong-minded Test players in those positions is really important," the Australian cricket writer Malcolm Conn told The Independent. "They were outstanding. McDermott remade Peter Siddle. He wasn't in the side two years ago and McDermott rebuilt him into one of the most reliable fast bowlers in the world. There is no question those two are a huge loss, when you see the contributions they made to Australian cricket, and the blokes that replaced them, they just don't have the same impact, as good as they may be in their particular disciplines."
The downturn of the Australian side, particularly under pressure, since McDermott and Langer left last year is marked. Working alongside De Winter and Di Venuto is the peculiarly versatile Steve Rixon, a former wicketkeeper who coaches that discipline and fielding but also spin bowling. While England are well-stocked with specialist coaches Australia seem either to be under-resourced or just unable to deploy their resources in the most effective way.
"For reasons that are hard to understand, Rixon is still spin-bowling coach," Conn said. "Given Australia's lack of spinning depth, it would be nice to have someone who could be around on a more regular basis to help the spinners. They've got a batting coach and a fast-bowling coach. But how many former players would be capable of doing the job? I'm not sure who you'd appoint."
Which is why Warne has been increasingly present on this tour, giving Agar advice on field setting and bowling. This is something that captain Michael Clarke and Lehmann are particularly keen on, often insisting that the door of the dressing room is always open to all former Australian players, a policy Clarke set soon after becoming captain two years ago. Legends of recent teams often show up, but as a Cricket Australia spokesman said, "there is no real plan as such".
Warne has been particularly present, even in Chennai for the Test in February, while Steve Waugh, Adam Gilchrist and Glenn McGrath have also come in to offer advice during this series. McGrath presented Agar with his cap at Trent Bridge and suggested how Australia might best use the slope at Lord's. Ricky Ponting was invited too but was playing for Surrey.
But there is a difference between talking and coaching, and Australia might put too much trust in the hope that the former can be a substitute for the latter. Warne was a genius but genius cannot be transmitted through conversation. Warne has often made his contempt for coaches clear, following Ian Chappell's adage that they were just for taking you to and from the ground.
"International players know how to play, you don't need a coach getting too technical. You can forget that you just need to bowl the ball," said Warne in 2006. But the most talented can afford to think in such simple terms. The current Australia team, based on the first two Tests, might be in need of some more guidance.
The problem, then, for Cricket Australia, is how it makes best use of former greats. England have Graham Gooch, Graham Thorpe and Ashley Giles in coaching roles.
But since Langer and McDermott left, Australia have almost no formal way of conveying years of expertise, experience and success from their veteran players to their youngsters who need it most; just a vague hope in the powers of occasional osmosis.
Where are they now? Legends' new roles
Of the Australia team that completed the 5-0 thrashing of England at Sydney in the 2006-07 series only Michael Clarke is still playing:
Matthew Hayden Has done various media work since retirement in 2009
Justin Langer Was Australia batting coach from 2009 to 2012 before taking over Western Australia
Ricky Ponting Recently retired from all cricket after season with Surrey
Michael Hussey Channel 9 commentator
Andrew Symonds Works on Network 10
Adam Gilchrist Independent columnist and Network 10 commentator
Shane Warne Sky Sports and Channel 9 commentator. Occasional adviser to Australia team
Stuart Clark Was general manager at Sydney Sixes in the Big Bash League but stepped down in 2012
Glenn McGrath Channel Nine commentator and charity worker
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