Cricket: The Aussie with hard words for our top order

By Chris Barclay

Australian Mark O'Neill was unfortunate enough to be born on to cricket's struggle street - and arguably wasn't interested in a change of address when he opted to continue his coaching career out of Christchurch.

New Zealand batting coach Mark is the lesser known O'Neill, a classic case of a son cursed to have a famous father in Norm, an Australian great who scored 2779 test runs at 45.55.

Growing up in the shadow of one of the most highly-regarded batsmen of his generation far from dampened his enthusiasm for the sport. Quite the opposite: it fired his determination to contribute, both on and off the field.

"At the end of the day you wake up and you say to yourself 'why am I playing cricket?' I love cricket and that's the reason I'm still involved," said the man tasked with finessing the New Zealand squad's techniques while identifying and nurturing the next generation.

"If you don't like it you go and play golf. You don't put yourself through the crap I had to go through," the 48-year-old said.

"I was tagged that I was in the [state] side because of my old man's influence. Bullshit. My son went through exactly the same sort of stuff in Perth.

He was playing first grade at 16 ... he's not playing now because of the same sort of thing."

O'Neill, who joined New Zealand Cricket (NZC) six months ago, developed an interest in coaching at an unusually early age.

He was no mug with a bat - he was competent enough to log 76 first class matches (3729 at 35.17) for New South Wales and West Australia - but coaching has always been a passion since he was a 16-year-old helping out at the family cricket centre in Perth.

"I was coaching players when I was playing, I just love it," he said.

And Norm, no slouch as a coach himself, left that component of cricket to his son - deliberately keeping his distance from coaching.

"Norm never coached me because he was very aware him being Dad was hard enough to cope with anyway," O'Neill said. "My father never even watched me play a first-grade game. The only reason he watched me play at all is because he was commentating on the ABC.

"I watched him coach other father's sons in Perth, he could have continued on as a coach but he didn't because of my involvement. The hardest thing you can do in the world is to coach your son and if you do, and if you've got some cricketing background, uncharitable people are everywhere."

O'Neill's first class career ended after the summer of 1990-91 and he moved smoothly into the coaching ranks at both New South Wales and Western Australia before spotting an advertisement placed by NZC.

"I've coached a hell of a lot of international players but to be involved in a fully-fledged international team is what any coach aspires too," O'Neill said, before outlining his brief. "I'm to set up a network of batting coaches around the country that all speak the same language and use simple methods.

"From there we identify the best under-age talent, anybody considered a potential Black Cap. We then put in intensive training to ensure they realise that potential."

Understandably O'Neill was expecting some slumps along the way.

"It's going to be hard. There are a lot of people in New Zealand that have been taught the one way and that's it. It might be right and there's nothing wrong with it but if it's inhibiting the batsman's play and limiting their chances of playing to their ability ... I've got to sell it to them basically."

Opener Craig Cumming was a prime example after he fell cheaply in both innings against Bangladesh in Dunedin. By Wellington he saw off the new ball and grafted to 42 before he was, admittedly, trapped adjacent again by a spinner.

"There are a few flaws in technique but [the Black Caps] haven't been that hard to coach. They have the skill and ability, they just have to figure out how to use it.

"What generally happens is someone works on the end result. I like players to starting thinking 'Hang on. How does the sequence work? What part of the sequence is letting me down? Am I pushing off the back foot, bending the knee?'.

"You get the sequences right, get them in your mind and eventually it becomes automatic. A lot of people will say there's going to be over coaching. Rubbish."

Coaching New Zealanders is not a foreign concept for O'Neill, who had a fleeting involvement with the test squad in 2001. He poked his nose in before the Black Caps outplayed Australia for five days in Perth before some inept officiating from Zimbabwean umpire Ian Robinson forced them to settle for a draw.

How times have changed. That first innings scorecard at the WACA was both historic, and unfortunately, an aberration.

An unprecedented four New Zealanders reached three figures: Lou Vincent (on debut), Stephen Fleming, Nathan Astle and Adam Parore.

Since then centuries have been in short supply, likewise five-day tests.

Since O'Neill joined NZC on a two-year contract, New Zealand have played South Africa and Bangladesh twice; the Proteas were triumphant inside seven days. The Black Caps achieved some redress this month when routing the sub-continent minnows, well inside three days in Dunedin and Wellington.

O'Neill's first overseas trip was to the high veldt in November, the polar opposite to that minor involvement in Perth six years before. New Zealand were thrashed by 358 runs, then by an innings and 59 a week later. Fleming was the only batsman to pass 50 in the series.

Surely O'Neill might have been tempted to scan for a get-out clause after watching that sorry spectacle?

"No. A lot of people don't understand that was a very, very hard tour. These guys hadn't played test cricket for 11 months, it had all been one-day stuff and coincidentally the longest we batted was 56 overs.

"Does that ring a bell? 50. They were geared up for something totally different.

O'Neill realised long before he signed on that the structures in place here were nowhere near as sturdy as those across the Tasman.

"I've been to a few first-class matches and the cauldron is nothing like you're thrown into after you've gone through a grading system in Perth and Sydney.

"In Sydney there are 20 first grade teams, each club has five grades. To get to first grade you've got to be a friggin' good player and once you get there the competition is very, very fierce. Unfortunately it's not the same standard here.

"Competition is everything and the only way the New Zealand guys are going to get that is to play the world's best players.

"From a batting perspective I'd like to have a number of coaches in place all speaking the same language."

A language with nouns such as "patience" and "perseverance", and adjectives like "winning".

- NZPA

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