Transcript: Couch Talk with John Buchanan

Couch Talk 164 (Play)

Guest: John Buchanan, Former Head Coach, Australia, Kolkata Knight Riders

Host: Subash Jayaraman

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Subash Jayaraman (SJ)– Hello and welcome to Couch Talk. Today’s guest is former Australian head coach – John Buchanan. He talks about the role of a coach in modern cricket, his coaching philosophies, and what he tried to do with the Australian team, his views on the criticism he received for his coaching methodologies and the concept of multiple captains, among other things.

Welcome to the show, coach! And, thanks for being on!

John Buchanan (JB)– Pleasure!

SJ– It is my pleasure.

How would you define the role of a coach in modern cricket? Do you believe – from your experience and from the experience of others from the coaching fraternity – that the coaches are doing or allowed to carry out the things that you think they ought to be doing?

JB– Very interesting question. When I look at the role of sports coach, or indeed the role of a coach in business in general, it is as a leader of the team. When we think of coach or manager in soccer or Footy codes or inAmerican sports, I think cricket is one of those sports where still the player and the captain really dominate the decision making process. In fact, that process is complicated by the structure of selectors who have a role in not only the selection of players but also the long term planning of the team, and mould the vision for the team. My view is that the coach should have prominence in the team structure. I am not sure that it will necessarily get to or should get to the stage where the coach is all powerful. There has to be some checks and balances.

When I was with New Zealand Cricket I began to put in place something similar. We had a high performance director and the head coach, and I gave him the total responsibility of running the team and the total accountability for the results achieved. However there were a couple of checks and balances placed around that. I put in place an international selection manager (who replaced the traditional coaches) who along with head coach and sometimes the captain(s) decided on the selection of the team. Selection should mostly be with the coach as they know what they want to do and where they want to go with the team at a particular time. but, my national selection manager had checks in terms of what the coach wants; and then himself along with the performance director with the coach and board director (me) overseeing the program and whether they need support or direction.

I do seek that the coach really should have increased responsibilities and therefore accountabilities in the production of a national cricket team. The three formats these days dictate that that should be the case as well.

SJ– In that sense, as you said, a lot of the decision making responsibilities lies on the captain in cricket unlike the majority of professional sports around the world. in what sense do you see that increase in coaches’ role, because ultimately everything lies with the captain, but do you see a time when it is equally shared between the coach and the captain?

JB– Possibly. Going back to what I was saying before, there are three formats of the game – when we look at cricket compared tot other sports – it is a long duration sport as against short duration sport. If we take hockey, or netball, basketball soccer – whatever that sport might be – there is a captain who is named to lead the side onto the field and when they are on the field they will make some immediate decisions when in the game. If they are awarded a penalty, what happens? They might be given choices by the referees, and what you need now in terms of how do you want to take the penalty, as in the case of rugby. There are some immediate decisions taken which in short duration sports the captains have to make. But, in the main, most of those decisions are made by the coach. The coach has the game plan, the coach is watching the game, the players – he or she – believes are important [to be on the field] and makes sure that occurs and if the coach wishes to change the dynamic of the game by putting in substitutes, then they can by taking players off the field.

But, in long duration sports, there are stops every ball in the case of cricket. The captain has an immediate decision to make. Before the next ball, do I need to make a change to what is going on? Many times, there aren’t any changes but are being reflected in the decisions of the captain in terms of the strategy and where the game is right now. So, the immediacy there is that the game stops every ball, and then every over, and then drinks and so on. So, a captain’s role is really different in cricket than in decision-making in short duration sports. That is why the captain has a significant role in decision-making on the field.

The T20 format provides a real opportunity for a coach to begin to have more impact on the game. And that may increase over time with different roles in different scenarios, in the format of the game – like if you are allowed substitutes – there is scope in T20 cricket for that to occur. It doesn’t now, but it could do in the future. But, importantly right now, the coach is sitting pretty well adjacent to the field, knows the game plan, watching the game from off the field, and has to do if there are certain plays or things that the data are showing that the captain may not be aware of. He has a role in terms of providing information as quickly as they can for the captain to act upon it. T20 format should bring the coach more and more into the game, and maybe the future of the game will have an impact because of that. But, as we move the game towards longer formats, the game stops many times and the captain needs to be the one making the decisions immediately on the field.

SJ– When you look at baseball, which is about the duration of a T20 match, and the manager of a baseball team and his assistant coaches have a whole bunch of folders with the data in them saying what the matchups are, what gives them the best chance to succeed in any given situation and they communicate it – probably even before the game starts – to the individual pitchers and what the fielding strategies ought to be, etc. Do you see that level of micro-managing, especially in T20 format, where a single delivery could have an irreversible impact on the game? Also, in terms of communication – do you see any progress in that sense? Bob Woolmer tried with Hansie Cronje with an earpiece. Do you see anything moving in that direction?

JB– First one, in terms of the baseball analogy with the team manager in the dugout – they constantly communicate with their assistant coaches and have the ability to stop play when they need to on occasions. But they generally understand the game and the players understand the data. They understand what a batter’s strengths are, they understand the oppositions’ pitcher and what their roles are in the game. They have a wonderful signal system that they use. I tried that in an IPL team to develop a signal system, much like a baseball team. In baseball it is the catcher who communicates to the pitcher exactly what type of the pitch is required of the pitcher, and if the pitcher doesn’t like that he calls the play off and they have a discussion and they set up the next play. We were attempting something similar from the keeper to outfielders who can communicate to the bowler for set plays or change the plays. The advantage is that everybody on the field knows the plays, hopefully not the batter, though. That brings everyone in the game.

when you talk about micro management, it is one of the things that I think modern coaching – which has been in the 20-30 years in some sports, but in cricket probably in the last few years – coaching has probably began to stifle some of the flair and some of the real individualistic approach to the game because they have been setting the game plans. There are reasons – one is, the advent of coaching which is relatively new in cricket, and then there is the increase in revenue in the game and the increase in contracts and rewards to the players and the rewards to the teams. It plays greater emphasis on trying to predict the outcomes of the game. So, that is why there are more strategies and game plans; and individual flairs which needs to be housed now within the strategy has become far more significant in cricket and has to do so as rewards increase. That, I think is both a plus and a negative for the game going into the future.

The second question. What we see now with the broadcasters who are able to talk to players on the field, which is pretty interesting given the outrage against betting on games providing benefit to those off the field rather than on the fied. i don’t find that an interesting concept, but let us put that to one side. There is, in principle, people from off the field are actually communicating with people on field. As you rightly mentioned, Bob Woolmer tried that by micing up Hansie Cronje some time ago. I looked at the end of that myself. I had gone through the channels and basically was told it was a no-no, but now that the broadcasters are actually micing players on the field, I think there is a scope with technology that it could be taken more on the field where a captain or certain players can be linked, and the coach’s point of view, the team’s point of view, the strategies can be fed directly. There is real scope in the future.

Having said that, I hope that this is be contained in the T20 format because I think T20 format is the one that lends itself to all the things that we have been talking about, whereas the ODI game is now the transition between the short and the long form as opposed to what it was before when it was converting the long form game into a shorter one. I think what we will see is a lot of innovation, and the things that we are talking about in the T20 format is lessened as we move through the transition game – the ODI game – and let’s look at Test cricket as an anachronism of time , but try to retain as many traditions within Test cricket . That is what I am trying to get into the picture.

SJ– Let’s talk a bit about your coaching career with Queensland, Australia, New Zealand, Middlesex, KKR etc. You talked about the natural flair players. For example, if you take a sport like soccer or basketball which really allows for the natural players to exist and thrive and still they are well within the philosophy of coaching. They are still playing in the team, it is not an individual sport. So, you have to buy into the concept of the coaches selling to the team. But, when it comes to cricket , somehow, people make a case that “this guy is such a naturally gifted player, why are you messing with him?” i am sure you have come across these situations in your career as well. how have you handled that?

JB– I think the important thing, just as you mentioned about basketball and soccer. There are incredibly gifted players in them, when I watch international games in Europe or in the NBA of the USA – some of the skills of those players are amazing and some of the things that they can do in the spur of the moment are incredibly intuitive and based on flair and imagination. However, they still exist within the team environment. One of the most interesting books I have read many moons ago,Sacred Hoops written by Phil Jackson – this was the story of Michael Jordan when Jackson coached the Chicago Bulls and over time his transition from an I-player to a We-player, from a personal player to a team player, and realising that he could achieve more by being a part of the team and utilizing the players around him he could buy himself in for the full benefit of the team. It didn’t affect Jordan in terms of his ability, but it was a concept that there is a bit of a framework within which we can work. I think that is really the nub of the argument.

We had incredibly gifted players, with the likes of (Shane) Warne, the Waugh boys, (Glenn) McGrath and (Matthew) Hayden, and (Andrew) Symonds and (Ricky) Ponting and someone always coming in. it was always that the team structure was preeminent. At the same stage, it was still so important to ensure that each individual was given as much attention as you could possibly provide so that they can prepare themselves to play in their own ways. Albeit, we had a game plan and we had a captain who ran the game that day, a communication system between coach, captain and the team which would, as the game wore along, impact on what was happening, and it would respond to the game situation. It would either be build the momentum or might be that we need a defensive mode till we get ourselves back on track. That was, as I said, if it is a long duration game, the captain is the one making and relaying the messages. Steve Waughs and Ricky Pontings delivered the messages to the group and I would then operate within that framework. Occasionally players would step outside, the game might go away, but mostly, the players understood and were the part of the games’ strategies and direction very much.

SJ– When you look at the head coaches on the international scene now, a lot of them are former internationals. Some of them would have at least reasonable amount of Test pedigree behind them. But, when you took over Australia, you had the pedigree of success from Queensland but you didn’t have that kind of Test pedigree. So, how easier or hard was it for the players to buy into your philosophies?

JB– Initially, there was quite a deal of uncertainty and quite a deal of hesitancy to go along with this guy who played one season of first class cricket for Queensland. The issue was possibly more so when I took over with Queensland in 1994-95 because I only played one season of cricket for Queensland 16 years before and hadn’t really been involved with cricket apart from coaching club cricket for a couple of years prior to the job coming up. I was fortunate to be given the opportunity to do the job. And then, secondly fortunate that senior players of the likes of (Ian) Healy and (Allan) Border and [Carl] Rackemann – those sort of guys gave me the opportunity to coach and see what I could do. Again, I was in Queensland at that time who hadn’t won Sheffield Shield Cup in 69 years of trying and from their point of view it was something new – person who didn’t have the cricket pedigree that most former coaches had – but came through the ranks of the idea of coaching and managing people, of providing direction, vision and strategies to get there and brought along new ideas of training, new ideas of looking at the game by using the technologies. I suppose there was a bit hesitancy and quite a degree of uncertainty. It was my job to show them that what I was bringing to the game was of advantage to each individual but also to the team.

After coaching Queensland for 5 years, and a stint with Middlesex, my pedigree as a coach was evident. When I took up the job with Australia, of course I didn’t have the Test playing background or experiences that those in the room had. But, what I brought to the group was the ability to coach and manage the group and continue to ­challenge and provide an environment to challenge each individual irrespective of how well they were doing. There was always something to achieve.

SJ– You mentioned Middlesex, the 1998 season. Back in that time you were accused of overcomplicating a simple game. Even now, Ian Chappell and Shane Warne take turns having a go at your methods. But, in how you approached coaching, rather than just throw downs and techniques and all that, you were trying to do something completely different that was not done in cricket before. I want to understand that approach and what was it that you were trying to achieve?

JB– I suppose one way to explain it would be that when I took on the Queensland role with incredible players in the dressing room, like any business, incredible knowledge and experience needs to be used. I was never there to replace knowledge or ignore the experience or quell the intuition of the game, that was really important. What I saw lacking in cricket teams was that it (coaching) was not precise, it was very much a feeling based on an intuition or experience about what it is that we should do now having done something. Again, if we go through the day’s plays, you remember some highlights and you remember some lowlights, that’s about it and the set up the next time was not precise. So, in my mind I suppose I attended to the team like a business or an organization, where if we didn’t have an idea of where we are going to be at the end of the day or game or season or more importantly probably two or three years down the track, if we didn’t have a picture of that, how do we know what to do today and how to head in that direction? How do we know that the physical skills or technical skills or mental skills or tactical skills are actually putting us in a good position not only for today – because obviously a coach needs to live in the present but also need to look into the future. As you mentioned, the likes of Chappells and the Warnes couldn’t come to terms with why I couldn’t keep it simple and just deal with what is given. Indeed, they are correct in as far as when a player walks on to the field to play, they don’t want complicated things going on in their mind, all they want to do is go out and use their skills and execute their skills for what is required in the moment, on the field. So, I was acutely aware of that but as the same stage I was aware that if that is all that we did, then all we would do is keep getting the same results. The layout was set for us, needing to have a picture of the future, needing to be able to have most of the team, most of the time, understanding what it was and therefore understand how we were actually going to get it. So, the strategies of getting there, from the strategies came the more specific and precise details about why we need to be physically doing what we are doing, why we need all the stars to prepare themselves and so on. I guess that is what I was bringing to the table – a little bit different from the standard.

SJ– There is a question from a listener Nishant – did it make you feel angry or resentful to have your achievements undermined by such big names constantly?

JB– Not necessarily angry, but it is disappointing that some people in the game who are well recognized by the game quite a bit, probably haven’t really understood the methodology, haven’t spent the time to understand the methodology, or don’t have the expertise to understand the methodologies. I find that disappointing more so than making me frustrated or angry. I just think that, like myself, if there is something that somebody is going to disagree with or hasn’t come to terms with I will at least try and understand what is it that they are doing and why they are doing so, so that I have a better opinion or a more informed opinion on my view of the methodologies. It is just more disappointing that some people probably out of ignorance or through inability to dig a little bit deeper make statements like that.

SJ– The current coach of the Australian team, Darren Lehmann, at every possible opportunity says cricket is a results business. My question to you is – are results reliable indicators of the quality a coach’s work?

JB– Sport is a condensing of what happens in the business world. Every week sporting teams go out and play and you cannot get away from results. Results are results. In a sporting contest, there are winners and losers, and at the end of the day one of your key measures as a coach or as business business leader is that the bottom line ihas got to be to be improving. You have to be showing results. Now, that is one part of the equation. For me, when I go back to what I was saying about having the vision, understanding the strategies, and given your strategies, what you do about it. it is about developing leadership, it is about developing leadership culture and about getting the assitsance and processes right. It is about the background environment which has got to be challenging and stimulating. Those sort of things become part of my process. The results of my process, measures I need to be able to check those of for me to know If I keep on doing those and getting them in place, then I will get the results. As a coach I understand that you really don’t get to coach in the future, everybody just moves on as we are seeing relatively constantly these days in high level sports. Owners of franchises or boards and organisations – if their teams are not winning in a short period of time, then the thing of the moment is to sack the coach. So, I do understand that the results are important, but for me, I place process above results. If I get the process right, I strongly believe that the results would show for themselves.

SJ– But, they use results to justify pretty much everything. if the results are going your way, then what you are doing is magic, else you are crap. But, by that scale, for the work that you did with the Australian team you are the greatest coach ever. Perhaps if you look at your results with KKR, perhaps you are not. So, how do you see a fair evaluation of what a coach is doing? If you are not within the system you don’t know what a coach is doing day in day out. For example, we don’t know what Duncan Fletcher is doing with the Indian team – they have gone on a long losing streak abroad. How do you evaluate that?

JB– This is a very difficult one. Going back to your question about the comments of the people, the methodology. The most important thing from the coach’s point of view is that you don’t compromise with your methodology. You really have to understand your own coaching philosophy, your own brand – if you like –and then how you deliver that when you need, consistently. So, it is about the “walk the walk, talk the talk”, and for me it is that kind of thing – process is very important, team culture is important, good feedback and good communication are important. That is what I had to live by, and I live by now. In the end if that doesn’t produce results, I would expect that there will be questions asked, like they were at Middlesex, like they were at KKR. I had a role, it is always seen as what happens behind the scenes. As a head coach, there is a huge amount of politics going on and huge amount of backroom work. People as we know are always up in arms and punch you at any given opportunity.

What becomes important in terms of long term approach is that the board of an organisation or a franchise owner or the management of the organization work very closely with the head coach so that they completely understand what he or she is trying to do. And so, in that way, there is some capacity for when times are not going well that you will see the board or franchise owner are still quite supportive because they understand what the coach is trying to achieve.

Now, in the case of KKR, for instance, we had an average first year where we finished in the middle of the table and in the second year in South Africa we struggled to win a game. but, my conflict at that stage, and I can understand where the KKR owners were coming from, was that I didn’t believe in a couple of senior players like Saurav Ganguly and Ricky Ponting. I didn’t believe their skill sets were now applicable for this new game of T20. They were still great players, but in this new format I believed they didn’t have the skill sets and the leadership that we were looking for. I talked to Saurav, I talked to Ricky Ponting and I spoke to the owners. The easiest thing for me was not to even embark on that approach, because that is almost suicidal. But, in my mind I am talking with KKR owners who had a picture of this franchise and where they want it to go, which is what got me excited about being a part of this franchise in the first place. While you still got to walk in the present, you got to make sure that steps are taken to the future. And so, with those couple of individuals, in my mind if we wanted to walk and take strides to the future then the playing abilities and the leadership abilities of those guys in the T20 format only – and not the rest of the life and in everything else they did- but this was solely around this new thing called T20 and a franchise in an IPL competition, I didn’t think they were the right people. They had a role in the side, but not in a playing sense. But, that was not a great hit with the owners, and obviously not with Sourav and Ricky. That put me at odds with the management of the organization. There is only one winner there.

SJ– You brought up KKR. You also tried the concept of multiple captains. What was the logic behind it? Cricket teams, if you look at international teams, there are averse to the idea of multiple captains even across formats, but you tried it withn one team. What was your idea behind it and what were you trying to achieve?

JB– It is a complicated story, that one, and I am sure the idea of multiple captains didn’t work out how it was delivered. The concept is similar to what Ric Charles did with the Australian women’s hockey team, and then with the men’s hockey team. The concept behind that was very much a part of my leadership culture. That is that basically while there might be a nominated the captain for the day – because a captain has to be named at the toss and make some decisions throughout the course of the game and is someone whom you talk to on the field when you have something that needs addressing. Alternately what we wanted is that we wanted all of them players to be making really good decisions so that the game benefits. In that sense, everyone is a leader and everyone can be a captain. In the formal sense you can only have one on the field. When we were in South Africa, there was the underlined concept. I had already gone to the point where I didn’t believe Sourav was the captain that we needed because i thought we needed someone who understood the T20 concept quickly and respond to it easily and that is why we looked at the likes of (Brendon) McCullums and (Brad) Hodges to help us with the process. At the same time, behind the scenes, we still had Ponting, (Chris) Gayle, Ganguly, McCullum, Hodge as our senior leadership team. Those were the ones that I would sit down with and we would try and map out games and how we were going. That input was there, but the notion on the field and again, those guys were trying to work out their signal systems – so a lot was going on. It is about everybody trying to buy into that process. That is probably where it went wrong. I had a conversation with Sourav and he didn’t accept the fact that he shouldn’t be the captain and he shouldn’t be in the side. I can understand where he was coming from, my view was that the game was past him and as a franchise we needed to be taking steps into the future. We really didn’t have quite the buy-in around the group, and that made it complicated. Those sort of things contributed to the results regardless of the where I finished up.

SJ– Finally, you are applying to teachings from sport to the business world, help companies and corporations. Is there still a side of John Buchanan that looks forward to being a coach of an international team or a franchise team?

JB– I suppose I do. Once a coach, always a coach. I suppose when I go to cricket grounds, look at coaches plying the trade, look at BBL, or IPL…I still think I would love to be involved in that again. I certainly know that I couldn’t be involved as a full time head coach, 260 days away. I suppose, to probably wrap up the podcast, it took me back to why I retired from cricket in the first place – in 2005 we lost an Ashes series and going back to our earlier conversation, those were the results – we lost an Ashes series while they were trying to get rid of the coach. It had come down to the board to justify why you should still be retained as the coach. There were three questions that i had to answer myself.

One, can I still make a difference to this group? As I said before, you have to have a picture of where you want to go. My symbol always the climbing of Mt. Everest. So, could I take this group to peak of Mt. Everest?

Second was, if I still had the energy and enthusiasm if I decide to do that? Because it is a long period of time, you live cricket 24 hours a day and 7 days a week for 365 days a year and you are dealing with a lot of internal factors as well as external factors. As you said, criticisms are coming and going all the time. So, I need to have the energy and enthusiasm to carry me through it.

The last one was if I had lost some respect of the players through the course of that Ashes loss. I had to answer those honestly myself, and they were all in the affirmative.

Yes, I can make a difference. Yes, I still had the energy. Yes, I had the majority of the support of the players. Basically, I went to the board and said “Here is the plan for the next 20 months, that is till the end of the World Cup in the West Indies in May 2007. Here is my plan, this is the picture, and this is how we are going to do it. give me the opportunity.” So, that is what happened – and I knew that by the time I got there after the final ball was bowled at Barbados, April 2007, if I ask those three questions to myself again, certainly there would have been a No for at least one of those. it could have been a NO for “If I could have made a difference?” nor do I think I had the energy. If one of those was a NO and I still continued the job, I would have lost the respect of the players, and that is something that I cherish and didn’t want to do. That is where I finished and that is how I still feel.

SJ– Alright!

On that note, thank you so much, John! It was an absolute pleasure talking to you!

JB– My pleasure!


Episode Transcribed by Bharathram Pattabiraman