Mastermind: Special subject winning

John Buchanan has added brainpower to Australia's aggression. Stephen Fay finds it makes a heady mix
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The Independent Online

Last week John Buchanan sent one of his notes to Australia's touring cricketers. He is famous for his notes. On the tour to New Zealand a Buchanan note was slipped under the doors of the wrong hotel rooms, and his frank advice about the weaknesses of their opponents exposed the ruthless streak in this Australian team. Had the notes gone astray in the Brentwood Posthouse last week, the tone would have been less jarring, more about the right perspective.

After Australia had won 16 straight Tests then lost a series to India, Buchanan analysed the team's batting failures, explaining why some players scored runs and others did not; he advised them not to undervalue opponents, and, by emphasising their strengths as well as the weaknesses, he warned against over-optimistic assumptions about the England team.

Buchanan pointed out that a couple of England batsmen will play good innings at Edgbaston, and a bowler will come good, but told his team not to be distracted by it, or by sledging or a mischievous piece or two in the London papers. ("It's amazing what one person can do.") The message is to ignore it: "Our main task is to stay on task," he says.

Buchanan emphasises the quality of England's record in the past year, but probes their weaknesses. "The recent series suggest that they're not confident with their batting, so they'll be looking for a seventh batsman, which dictates an all-rounder somewhere." He is talking about Craig White, not Alec Stewart.

The captaincy intrigues him too: "Placing an awful lot of importance on having Nasser Hussain in the side is both healthy and unhealthy. If Steve Waugh wasn't available, Adam Gilchrist would take over. That might be a slight hiccup, but it would not be a major disruption. I get the suspicion that's not quite the case with the English side."

The analysis is sound enough, but it serves the additional purpose of sowing seeds of doubt among the opposition. The Australians pride themselves at playing mind games. "Teams play as well as we allow them to play," he says. Last Saturday Pakistan were not allowed to play, like England before them. The prohibition is more difficult to enforce over five days, but Buchanan and Waugh will be looking to find a way.

John Buchanan is a classic example of the new breed of cricket coach, proactive, close to the team, a master of the jargon and the technology. Easily recognised at the nets by the huge, heavy bag he carries with him, he is a tall, slim figure in his late forties. He wears a moustache and spectacles; his hair is short and greying. When we met he was casually dressed in a sweatshirt, shorts and trainers; normally he would be in a team tracksuit. He played only a handful of games for Queensland, and when he summered in England he played for Oldham and Cambridgeshire, but you do not need a Test cricketer's credentials any longer to be a good coach. The first thing a coach needs now is to understand why he is there.

To explain it, Buchanan contrasts his job with a football coach: "Cricket coaches are nothing like as domineering or authoritarian, but short-duration games demand that. In football, it's the coach who dictates tactics because the captain is so intensely involved in the game. In cricket the captain makes the changes during the game, so we have to work closely with him, and see to the support services that the captain is too busy to provide."

His videos are used to eradicate weaknesses in his own team and to identify them in opponents. He tries to maximise the input of each member. Just like an industrial manager, he describes this as increasing productivity. His notes are one method.

Team meetings are another, and ideas that emerge are then considered by an executive committee led by Waugh, flanked by Gilchrist, Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath. Buchanan acts as a sort of secretariat.

Some players may prefer to be on the golf course (Ricky Ponting) or in the betting shop (Mark Waugh), but Buchanan tries to instil the virtues of democratic management. It is not always easy. "A lot grew up as young sportsmen who didn't like the classroom. It's like reinventing something that wasn't one of their strengths."

Buchanan took over from Geoff Marsh after Australia had won the first game in their record-breaking streak. Not that success has been an insurance against criticism. Before the tour, Buchanan was removed from the selection panel. Waugh and Gilchrist now report directly to Trevor Hohns, the chairman of selectors, by phone to Australia. Of course, Buchanan discusses team selection with Waugh and Gilchrist before they make their call, but he has to put a brave face on a demotion: "It means I have one less meeting to go to," he says.

But his uncompromising method does make enemies. Two old sweats, Mike Gatting and Ian Gould, disliked his regime at Middlesex, and Buchanan was driven out. Middlesex were probably more badly scarred than Buchanan, who says: "I don't particularly want to go through it again, but it was a great learning experience." He seems to mean it.

Everything is taken at face value, including defeat in India. The team, underestimating the opposition, were taken by surprise by the batting of V V S Laxman and the bowling of Harbhajan Singh. But they were in the habit of winning, and had begun to behave as if it was inevitable.

In the Second Test, India were 274 behind on first innings. Waugh's predecessor, Mark Taylor, might well have batted a second time. So might Allan Border. Waugh asked India to follow on. "That's where he's different. He's far more aggressive and tries to take the initiative, but I'd say that if we were in the same situation, we'd probably do it again." (India scored 657 for 7 in their second innings and won by 171 runs.)

Buchanan says he detects no less confidence in the team because India won the series. That is the bad news. The good news is he knows how England can get Ponting out: "Just give him a good tip on a greyhound at a meeting that's not far away." Very funny.

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