John Buchanan: 'Half the players are in great shape for the fourth Test'

And the other half? Australia's coach is in typically forthright mood as he prepares his team for the next crucial encounter of a riveting Ashes series this week
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Buchanan talks a lot about mindsets. As we sit on the balcony at Northamptonshire County Cricket Club watching Matthew Hayden wreak the kind of devastation on the Northamptonshire bowling that he has conspicuously failed to do with Andrew Flintoff, Simon Jones, Steve Harmison and co, the coach says that his primary job in the few days before Trent Bridge is to get "our mindset" right.

"Half the players are in great [mental] shape," he says. "[Shane] Warne, [Glenn] McGrath, [Michael] Clarke, [Justin] Langer, [Brett] Lee. It's a case of getting a couple more to cross the line. If we do, then we'll play the fourth Test the way we would like to."

As so often with Buchanan, what he doesn't quite say is more significant than what he does say. If five players are mentally prepared for Trent Bridge, and "a couple more" might be, that leaves at least four who aren't likely to be. Our interview takes place on Saturday at Northampton and having pondered his words overnight Buchanan comes back to me. "Having now completed our Scotland trip and the two-day game at Northants," he says, "I am very confident that the mindset of the whole squad is where it should be for the lead-up to the fourth Test."

So that's cleared that up then. He denies, perhaps a little disingenuously, that he and his players will be preparing for the next Test with a greater sense of urgency than before. "I hope not," he says. "If it takes on greater importance it means we're not dealing with it properly. But we've got to make sure our thinking and decision-making are correct. That has been lacking so far and some credit is due to England for that. We all have weaknesses and if somebody keeps letting you know about those weaknesses then that's where your attention is always drawn."

I tell him that I was 20 yards away from the Australian balcony shortly before 7pm at Old Trafford last Monday, and watched with interest the jubilation among the players when Lee and McGrath survived Harmison's last over. It must be unprecedented, I venture, at least in the nearly six years that he has been Australia's coach, for such euphoria to erupt over a draw?

A wry smile. "Yeah, it's unusual for us to celebrate a draw, and it's unusual for us to play [for] a draw. But the previous Test we finished on the wrong side of the ledger, so it was a hangover from that. Also, questions had been asked about Ricky Ponting's captaincy, and about his batting, yet his innings was the backbone of the resistance. So for him to do what he did, that was part of the emotion as well."

It is said that captain and coach are not exactly firm buddies, so I wonder what the improbably tall Queenslander thinks about the questions that persist over the little Tasmanian's captaincy, if not his batting. Are they fair?

"Look, everyone likes to analyse the losing side. The reasons are simple. We haven't scored enough runs in the first innings, and after that we've been playing catch-up cricket. The captain can't be responsible for the performance of his players, but he's accountable, which is a different thing. He's only responsible for his own decision-making, and I think it's been pretty good."

Trying to slip a yorker underneath Buchanan's impeccably straight bat, I raise Peter Roebuck's article a few days ago in these very pages, in which he implied that the Australians must now play hardball, and make a fuss about the tendency of England players to leave the field so often, which in truth happened so much in Manchester that it seemed as if the team might be collectively suffering from gastro-enteritis. Roebuck did not elaborate on why the Englishmen might trot off the field so often, but I suppose there could be two strategic reasons: one, to have a rest, or a massage, or an invigorating shower; two, to allow the 12th man, invariably chosen for his fielding skills, into the arena at a crucial time. Does Buchanan agree with Roebuck that he should make an issue of it?

"The umpires and the match referees administer the game," he replies impassively. "We, like England, expect them to administer the game, the rules and the spirit of the game."

Which isn't quite answering my question. "Look, we raised that issue through the one-day series and at the outset of this tournament. It's nothing new to us, and they [the officials] are aware of that. We leave it to them. England run their dressing-room the way they want to, and so do we. The less we are seen publicly to criticise the decision-making, the better for cricket."

Admirably put, although I wonder if the key word isn't "publicly"? Meanwhile, what of Roebuck's other point, which, if I understood it correctly, was that if it were Pakistani bowlers getting the ball to reverse-swing as prodigiously and early as Flintoff and Jones have, then questions might be asked about, whisper it, fingernails and bottle-tops?

"Again, if the umpires felt that there was something untoward happening then they have every right to intervene."

Do you think there might be something untoward happening?

"Well, they're able to get it to go very well, but that can be a product of a whole range of things. If we were negotiating our first innings better then reverse swing wouldn't be an issue. If our minds were right then they could still do it but it wouldn't create the damage in our batting line-up that it has. The bottom line is that England have consistently delivered their plans, and nagged away at our perceived weaknesses better than any team for some time."

There is more than a hint of battleground strategy in the way Buchanan talks about this series, and it occurs to me that he and his opposite number Duncan Fletcher might, albeit fancifully, be compared with those desert antagonists Rommel and Montgomery. I think Buchanan quite enjoys the military analogy. "I don't know about Montgomery and Rommel, but I am always trying to understand the opposition, and that goes for the opposition coach too."

Has he spent any time with Fletcher? "I find it very difficult to spend time with the opposition coach when we are head to head in a contest," he says. "Hopefully, there will be an opportunity at the end to reflect on it."

Can he think of specific moments when he has got the better of Fletcher, or vice versa?

"Silly things, like when we go to warm up. We noticed through the one-day series where England like to warm up [on the outfield], so we tried to indicate that they didn't own that ground." By getting there first? "Yes. In the one-day game at Lord's we tried to get under their skin in that way, and they've replied in kind."

None the less, there are some keen friendships between some of the players, notably Warne and Kevin Pietersen, who are team-mates at Hampshire. Clearly, Buchanan does not encourage fraternising?

"I'm not a big one for it, no. It's nice to have a bit of a chat, but certain individuals can be too friendly. In recent years teams have been inside our dressing-room and that has given them a closer understanding of what the Australian psyche is all about.

"Before, when we dominated them, there was a reticence to come in. But New Zealand began it and England have followed suit." And Buchanan thinks that it somehow diminishes the Aussie mystique? "Yeah, so I don't encourage it."

Ironically, given how preciously he guards his own methods, Buchanan went to Manchester hoping to exchange ideas with a man he admires unreservedly: Sir Alex Ferguson. On the Tuesday before the Test match he and his coaching staff, and Glenn McGrath, were duly invited along to Manchester United's Carrington training ground.

"I found him to be a very approachable person," says Buchanan of Ferguson. "We had a good look at their set-up, and I talked to him about the left foot and right foot. As he explained, most soccer players have a preference for one side, but by the time the kids there get to contracting stage, the skill [to use both feet] is embedded. For us the same applies to being able to use both hands. I want to know how to embed those skills at an early age. We also talked a lot about invididual players and what they bring to a team. He pointed out a young blond-haired bloke and talked about his character as well as his ability."

Buchanan did not, I'll wager, bend Ferguson's ear with much talk about one of his own coaching innovations: a vocabulary exercise. He smiles when I ask him about it.

"If Ricky Ponting leaves this tour knowing two words that he didn't know before he came then that's a good thing, right? As you know only too well, words are a powerful weapon, and he has to speak and write regularly.

"So if he can expand his vocabulary, or Michael Clarke can, or a new bloke altogether... There were a few words I found, and we looked at the meaning of those words, and creating them into a sentence, or verse, or a lyric or whatever. Basically, I was trying to get them to do something they were not used to doing, and in front of a group which makes it even more of a challenge. But in the end it had a short life. It was probably too big a jump. But the notion was there." And what were the words? "Gallimaufry, meaning an assortment of; maelstrom; nefarious..."

I suspect my breath might remain bated if I wait to hear Ponting, in a press conference, referring to the gallimaufry of nefarious means used by England to wrest back the Ashes. It is hard, too, to imagine such down-to-earth characters as Warne composing a "maelstrom" poem. But Buchanan is nothing if not thoughtful, and if some of his ideas seem slightly on the nutty side, it is important to remember that Australia are still the best team in the world and he can still claim to be the world's outstanding cricket coach. Moreover, plenty of his ideas are based on pure common sense.

Indeed, that's why Buchanan's tenure as Middlesex coach, in 1998, was so brief. He loathed the way in which capped county players wore sweaters showing their seniority, but his insistence on a culture of egalitariansm was strongly resisted, notably by the club captain Mark Ramprakash.

Ramprakash prevailed, and Buchanan departed. He then coached Queensland, the Australian state side, before succeeding Geoff Marsh in the top job. Whether he will continue if Australia lose the Ashes remains to be seen. Such a spectre has not, he says, so much as flickered across his mind.

"If any of us are thinking about the result of the series then we're way ahead of ourselves," he says. "Our sole job is the fourth Test at Trent Bridge."

May battle commence.

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