Cricket: Rebuilding the Wright way

By Andrew Alderson

John Wright says the Black Caps may not perform with distinction at this World Cup.

He knows fans won't like it but he says: "We can't sort out all our problems here. If we're going to get up to genuine world-class standard, we need to take a hard look at how we operate afterwards.

"We could still win, but we're towards the back of the pack at the moment. I firmly believe the current plans will translate into the middle at some stage. It's just a case of how quickly." He pauses. "At this stage I'd prefer it to be really quick," he laughs.

So what's he doing about it? What are the current plans?

One school of thought has painted Wright as a ditherer because he doesn't speak in glib sound bites. But there's grit, passion and considered thought behind his cause.

"You can't coach 'want'. If the players don't want it, there's no place for them," he says, acknowledging that this World Cup could be a foregone conclusion for the New Zealand team.

Batting is the area Wright has focused on since assuming the coaching duties in late December and which he says is still a work in progress.

"We've got great strikers, but you can't use those weapons effectively without wickets in hand.

You can't score 10 an over when you're worried about survival.

"That means if you hit a boundary, take a single; if you get eight runs in an over, don't look to get 12.

"Most of my time so far we've failed to back up our words. We had a bit of a chat after Australia to resolve that; then we put plans in place."

Those plans could be seen in action at net practice ahead of the win against Zimbabwe.

"Anyone who hit the ball over the net, well, that was the end of their net," Wright says. "Cricket's not about just hitting the ball a long way."

The Black Caps batsmen rotated the strike and set imaginary fields at that session. Two of the three nets were stacked with spinners to reflect the nature of the Zimbabwe attack, utilising Wright's army of contacts.

"Whether or not the players enjoy it is irrelevant," Wright says. "They have to learn to like it. These guys can hit anything but on Wednesday it at least felt like players were starting to work the ball around.

"We have to get more disciplined with our net sessions."

Ultimately, Wright wants a healthy top order that could give Brendon McCullum licence to play without fear.

"Brendon plays at the edge of the envelope and I'm not going to tell him how to get a hundred ... but he needs one soon. He's an interesting case. How far do you pull him in?

"It might ruin his game completely if he goes out and blocks it.

"Currently, he's got a Twenty20 tempo [strike rate of 97 in the last year] and a test tempo [strike rate of 60 in the last year] but it appears he's using his T20 tempo in 50-over cricket. His test tempo would be more beneficial at times."

WHEN WRIGHT had his benefit season with the English county Derbyshire in 1987, he had to organise a dinner.

The club recommended he invite the late football manager Brian Clough as guest speaker.

He had led Nottingham Forest to the European Cup in successive seasons (1979 and 1980) but, when Wright knocked on his door, he was peeling spuds at the sink.

Wright discovered Clough had spent many an hour watching cricket at Trent Bridge. They had a two-hour chat and he agreed to attend.

While Clough was a self-assured extrovert - he once said, "I wouldn't say I was the best manager in the business, but I was in the top one" - and Wright more the droll introvert, both were simple men with a burning drive to succeed.

They share something else - they were revered by fans for their earthy qualities.

Wright is still well known and popular in India for the job he did with an Indian team who were struggling when he inherited them in 2000. His slightly hunched 56-year-old figure can't amble across his hotel lobby without locals queuing to say hello and assist in whatever way they can.

Fortunately he can shut himself away when it counts. He still has the company of his guitar when he closes the door of his plush five-star Courtyard Marriott hotel suite at night ... oh, and there's his trusty 1B5 exercise book.

Far from being "Shake" - his nickname from his New Zealand playing days because he was allegedly so disorganised and unfocused he had to shake his gear bag to fit stuff in - his 1B5 is stuffed full of facts and bears testimony to the intricate detail with which Wright approaches his job and team.

The dog-eared pages are heavily inked in facts and figures monitoring progress. He refers to it constantly to illustrate points he makes. He is almost fanatical about statistical evidence that might give his team an edge - as long as it can be communicated in a simple fashion.

"Our aim is to be no more than three wickets down after 35 overs. On the analysis of the last 50 matches, New Zealand's done that only six to seven times. As a consequence, we have won less than 40 per cent of those matches."

Wright contracts a Bangalore firm to do his statistics. They provide him with everything from dot ball sequences to batting and bowling wagon wheel weaknesses.

"On the subcontinent, the ball goes quicker across the outfield so you need fine leg and third man to be finer.

"The same applies to fielders on the ring; you need to hit the rope as the ball is bowled. It's a jigsaw, but little things like that help.

"I also spoke to Sourav [former Indian captain Ganguly] ahead of the practice games. He said you've got good players but they need to play straighter, between midwicket and extra cover.

"Look at a guy like [Indian no 3] Gautam Gambhir - he's playing down the ground. On low, flat wickets that's what you want."

Wright is still in the process of persuading/cajoling/forcing his team to perform like he wants them to. It takes time and trying to effect wholesale change in the lead-up to, and during, a World Cup is not easy when pressure is eating away.

It reminds you of another famous Clough quote: "They say Rome wasn't built in a day - but I wasn't on that particular job."

Like Clough, Wright has a sense of humour; he's someone who can reach out beyond that 1B5 and take the public with him. Now he just needs his team to start winning, and regularly.

- Herald on Sunday

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