Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: NZC pie might taste bitter

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John Wright. Photo / APN
John Wright. Photo / APN

After John Wright's demise as national coach, you wonder how New Zealand Cricket would fare if assessed by their own pie chart, as wielded by national selection manager Kim Littlejohn.

Often derisively held up to illustrate the "mad scientist" dimension within NZC, headed by new age director of cricket John Buchanan and his trusty sidekick Littlejohn, the pie chart is being used to select our cricketers.

Only five per cent of the weighting is apparently devoted to "selectors' intuition" - which suggests our selection policy is that human selectors don't know shit from clay; a googly from a Google.

The most important selection criterion is "significant performance" (35 per cent), followed by "consistent performance" (25 per cent); "contribution to the team" (15 per cent), fitness (10 per cent) and selectors' intuition at 5 per cent.

By any reasonable measure, NZC's performance has not been significant - unless you count significantly bad - and it most certainly has not been consistent, with the hunt now on for the fifth national cricket coach in four years.

As for "contribution to the team", allowing Wright to think he had control over selection and coaching matters before surprising him with the appointment of Buchanan as his boss (who then hired another Australian, national bowls administrator Littlejohn) rates zero out of 15 for me.

So that's 75 per cent of their own selection criteria down the toilet before we start.

NZC have been about as clever as a concrete ice cream.

What Justin Vaughan, the former NZC CEO who brought Wright and Buchanan together, was thinking is beyond me.

Buchanan's cricket theories and practices fitted into an NZC, under Vaughan, marked by a tendency to over-complicate; to introduce whizz-bang corporate practices, processes and buzz words into a sporting body - something which often irritates old school types like Wright.

Buchanan is into data, theories, out-of-the-box thinking, empirical evidence, measurable outcomes, reports, reviews and psychological mind games. Tall and bookish, the scholarly Buchanan seems the opposite of the laid-back Wright.

Buchanan reportedly wanted players to fill out vast feedback forms; Wright favoured a beer and a chat.

Known as "Shake" in his playing days (if he wanted to find anything in his gear bag, he had to shake it), Wright's reputation as a disorganised, happy-go-lucky sort is as unfair as labelling Buchanan - as many have - as a kind of goofball cricketing alchemist. Wright's appearance - he has a rolling, almost shambling gait and aw shucks, down home, way of speaking - adds to a false impression which can obscure his intelligence.

After watching Wright for years, I realised he physically resembled a Yorkshire farmer I once saw on TV mating his giant Shire horse to a mare. After the stallion completed the job, the farmer and his friend kept on talking in their "ooh-arrr" accents until the farmer said: "Oi reckon he be finished now ... Oi'd say he just be oop thar admoiring the view."

But that overlooks the steel in Wright's DNA; the same stuff which served him well as a test opening batsman, the same sort of steel which he seemed to be instilling in the Black Caps; his likeable personality and proven ability as an international coach and motivator.

Sachin Tendulkar said this week it was Wright who ignited his dream of 100 centuries when he was coach of India.

Similarly it would be foolish to believe that Buchanan's reputation for off-the-wall, hang-on-a-moment-which-planet-are-we-on cricketing theories is all he is about.

When he was appointed, this newspaper ran a piece recalling that Buchanan's sometimes unorthodox methods included the "closed-eye technique", with players batting and catching with their eyes shut in scenes reminiscent of Star Wars. He encouraged players to give talks on subjects ranging from Hulk Hogan to the Bee Gees; his enthusiasm for ancient Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu created huge mirth in the English media - at least until his Australian team walked away with an Ashes series whitewash.

Buchanan presided over the most successful era in Australian cricket when they won a record 16 consecutive tests and 23 World Cup matches. Legendary players such as Shane Warne, Ian Chappell and Sunil Gavaskar are not fans (believing that a supremely talented team succeeded in spite of Buchanan's theories, not because of them and that they could have been coached just as well by the Wiggles).

However, his team won a test series in India for the first time in nearly 40 years and he coached Queensland to their first, long-awaited Sheffield Shield success. But he was shown the door by Middlesex after taking them to 17th in the English championship. and was also sacked by the IPL's Kolkata Knight Riders.

By setting these two on divergent paths, NZC painted themselves into a corner, nailed their feet to the floor, set the timer on the bomb and then put on dark glasses in the hope that it would all go away.

They forced themselves to choose between Buchanan's scientific vision for NZ cricket or Wright's more intuitive, commonsense approach.

That decision was maybe made easier as, when faced with ending Wright's contract or those of Buchanan and his small army of Australian assistants, the good of New Zealand cricket maybe came down to dollars and cents.

Sad stuff - particularly when you factor in the pubic relations dimension of this disaster.

It also spells the end of an autonomous coach with real power (unless Buchanan takes over, of course). The next one, whoever he is, will be someone prepared to bend the knee to Buchanan.

Wellington and former Bangladesh coach Jamie Siddons is one such possibility.

He's another Australian, along with assistant coach Trent Woodhill, bowling coach Damien Wright and Littlejohn.

Wright will be missed - but it's now up to the Aussies to get results; to confirm reputations and theories.

Otherwise NZC might find they have only what the Shire horse mare got ... and the vision they invested in may just be someone up there admiring the view.

- Herald on Sunday

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