John Buchanan: 'I have seen legends being made'
No one has a greater appreciation of the remarkable qualities of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer than the Australia coach. Here he offers an exclusive insider's insight into what turned the trio into heroes
Saturday 06 January 2007
As I sit gazing out at one of the great spectacles of the world, the Sydney Harbour, decorated impressively by the Bridge, the Opera House and a striking blue expanse of water, I cannot help but think, a little ethnocentrically, what a lucky country this is. Australia is blessed with so many natural and man-made features that it forever causes one to stop and take notice.
And perched high on the ledge of natural wonders of Terra Australis are its sporting legends and heroes. Over the past 90 Tests, I have had the great privilege, the honour, the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being associated with two of the great players of world cricket. Two men who with the passing of time, will grow larger in Australian folklore. Standing tall beside them (and I am certain he will be pleased to read that line) is another legend in my book, although his deeds will not necessarily be recorded that way.
The duo who have dominated world cricket for almost a decade-and-a-half are, of course, Shane Keith Warne (cap number 350) and Glenn McGrath (358). The man standing tall next to them is Justin Langer (354).
Ricky Ponting, Australia's captain, summed it up at a recent press conference when he was asked to list the greatest highlights he could remember as a player or a captain of "SK" and "Pigeon" McGrath. He said there were too many to remember and that he could not place one higher than the other.
But what he could confirm was that they were always the go-to men when something special was required: if a match needed to be won, or needed a performance to change its momentum, or simply required something special. Both these men were always there, and rarely, if ever, let captain, team or country down.
There have been many superlatives and stories written about Warnie, the Spin King, the Sheikh of Tweak, but to me three things about his career stand out. First, of course, he has changed the craft of leg-spinning. Second, he has an incredible ability to compartmentalise his cricket. And third, he has shown extraordinary durability.
Greats in any walk of life are defined by their ability to achieve things beyond others. They do this by skill - technical, physical, mental and tactical. In the history of world cricket, I believe W G Grace, Douglas Jardine, Clive Lloyd and Kerry Packer have been the only leaders to have impacted on, influenced or controlled the game in such a way as to change it forever worldwide.
Warne is one of the few players at an individual level who has attained similar status. For budding leg-spinners aiming to graduate through the ranks of junior cricket, to club and then to representative honours, his brand of leg-spin has become the benchmark. The bowler must be able to attack and defend with the same delivery. He must possess all the tools and produce them at a moment's notice whenever required by the team.
But while Warnie has clearly placed spin bowling on the world stage, along with Muttiah Muralitharan, he has also set a standard, an expectation of what a leg-spinner should be which is outside the grasp of all those who will try. Terry Jenner, Shane's coaching mentor, offered the best description when he said that it is not about where the ball lands, but how it arrives there.
To do what he has done, Warne has to be ready to play, day in day out. I asked him one day what was his secret. As usual with Warnie, it was simply a commonsense approach. He endeavoured to arrive on the day of every game happy and fresh. That is to say, he dealt with other matters in his life the day and night before, clearing everything off his plate, no matter how long it took, so that when he arrived at the cricket ground, he could lock off all other compartments in his life, and just live in the cricket compartment.
This ability to compartmentalise is one of the key attributes of any great performer. It requires extreme mental control by a player to be able to absorb himself totally in the contest onfield, while being impervious to the rest of the world hovering about him.
Durability is the third trait that has made Shane what he is. Physically he has suffered a number of injuries. Emotionally he has been put through the wringer many more times. He has played under four captains without being given the chance to lead his country into battle. He has had three Australian team coaches who have all had different approaches. Yet throughout his long service, he has maintained and constantly sought ways to improve his unique skills. If he had chosen a path which many young talented players do, ignoring the myriad advice thrust their way, believing they know it all, or opted for the reverse, accept it all, and so become totally confused and lost, then there was little chance the world would have been exposed to the genius that was Shane Warne.
As coach, Warnie and I are different people - different backgrounds, different likes and dislikes. We occupy different worlds. What we share is a love of cricket, an enormous pride about representing your country, a " never satisfied" approach to personal performance, and an unquenchable thirst for the Australian cricket team to be the best in the world.
While these may be the general vision and goals we share, there is no doubt we approach them very differently. Often this has been interpreted as an ongoing battle of wills between coach and player. For the majority of the time, I have always viewed our differences as a healthy part in the development of the cricket team.
It is vital to have different personalities in a team. It is simply about how, as coach, each person and each situation is managed. Inevitably there is conflict between personalities. It is about finding ways to make this conflict work for the individual and the team - healthy conflict - as opposed to unresolved conflict that becomes a cancer within the team environment.
Which brings me to Pigeon, the other great man who retired from Test cricket yesterday. Here is a man of such experience, such knowledge, a man revered by all his team-mates. I cannot recall a situation where I have seen or heard Glenn in direct conflict or confrontation with someone in the Australian cricket team family. He prefers to remain silent, attempt to interpret or arbitrate what has been done or said in order to gain resolution, and if none of the above work, he then then tries to allay any concerns by simply putting it down to the minds or deeds of "young fellas" or "it's only so and so..." If Shane Warne is the genius of spin bowling, then Glenn McGrath is the template of fast bowling. He is the mechanical model for all others to attempt to emulate.
Again like all greats, he keeps the game simple. He has checked, re-checked, double checked, triple checked his game on the international stage many times over. And it is the same conclusion - same rhythm in his run-up, gather, arms high, pull down and get through the crease. From here it is top of off-stump, remain patient, and force the batsmen into error. He is an understated colossus. He is a country boy at heart with an amazing competitive spirit. He is a family man who prefers to spend his time with Jane and the kids, away from the public life that most celebrities of his ilk experience.
Pidge is almost a coach's dream athlete. He knows his game exceptionally well. He knows how to prepare himself. He knows when his action or his body does not quite feel right. He knows instinctively what is required of him and how he will use his skills to deliver the game plan.
He also has an incredible memory for detail which serves him well during the pressure-cooker atmosphere of Test and one-day international cricket. He doesn't complain, whether he is asked to bowl into the wind, bowl when totally fatigued, bowl with injury, or bowl on a featherbed with an old ball. Pidge will find a way because that's what he does - he leads the Australian attack. He prefers to be "old school" to some degree, which means cricket is about playing, and that is where your individual game is refined and developed. Training has its place, but the game is the real deal. But McGrath, like Warne, could not have survived as long as he has without continually seeking to improve himself. It may not be noticeable in any statistics, but he has spent a lot of time over the past three or four years on his batting (his 61 against New Zealand in Brisbane two years ago being evidence of his efforts). He has spent time with Mike Young on his fielding, he has spent additional time on his fitness to allow him to be the resilient, reliable, run-in all day bowler that became a trademarks.
I said almost the coach's dream. There are times when his mischievousness does test the patience of the coaching staff. Whether that be at a team meeting, or a team drill, or a function, his love of the lighter side of life gets the better of him, and we all pay for it...
There are insufficient superlatives for McGrath but, come his final day of Test cricket, that has not been of concern to him. It has been all about playing the game he loves, playing at the highest level of competition, and enjoying the friendship and the camaraderie of all those whom he has played with and against.
They say good things come in small packages, and it is not all about quantity. Rather it is all about quality.
Langer is quality through and through - it courses voluminously through his veins. He is a man of character, a flannelled warrior who would be the first man you picked to have beside you in the trenches. He leads our team song, not because he is one of the few people who can stand on the table and not bump his head on the many low-ceilinged dressing-rooms, but because he doesn't set a ceiling to his game.
"Alfie" Langer is a perfectionist. Even through his last Test he was still talking about his technique, working on his catching and throwing. He has been one player seemingly pursued by the constant threat of being dropped for his entire career. Yet he has withstood the incessant criticisms. He has achieved what few players can boast: 100-plus Tests, 23 Test centuries, formed one of the most successful opening batting combinations in the game's history with his great friend, Matthew Hayden.
His favourite word is respect - respect of the game and its traditions, respect for teammates, especially those who have served their country with distinction over a period of time, and finally respect for yourself. Never let yourself down or let your standards to slip. Alfie is the true fabric of this Australian team.
I first coached Justin in his first season at Middlesex. One of our first training sessions was at Uxbridge and it snowed. Two players remained on the park with the coach - Justin Langer and Gus Fraser. Justin wanted some batting practice, so Gus obliged, with all other team-mates crowded into the warmth of a nearby dressing-room.
Justin will always have a special place in my heart as a person who has always got up one more time than he was knocked down.
A final word on one other retiree, Damien Martyn. His retirement came suddenly and without the fanfare of the three musketeers in Sydney. However, his contribution to the results of the Australian team have been outstanding in the latter part of his career. At his best, there was no more elegant a player in world cricket.
He simply caressed the ball to the boundary with the grace of an artist stroking his brush across a green canvas. He enjoyed his cricket when it could be played with his friends away from the glare of publicity. He craved anonymity, but this has always been in conflict with the public profile Damien generated by performance or lack of it.
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