England have a relaxed and likeable new coach – a man who prides himself on letting the players do their thing. Australia have been there before, and it’s worked. John Stern spoke to their head honcho, the man known as ‘Boof’ who’s gone from larrikin to leader, Darren Lehmann.
The voice on the end of the phone was supposed to be female yet it was unmistakeably male. As your correspondent floundered briefly, a quick name-check by the male voice at the other end confirmed this was not some trick of the Jamaican mobile phone network but simply that the Australia team media officer had given her phone to the team’s head coach before dashing off to another appointment. Darren Lehmann: defying expectations since 1987.
One of the enduring images of the 2013 Ashes was the sight of Lehmann sitting on the dressing-room balcony, earpiece dangling, displaying a toothy grin as he laughed along to the latest bons mots from Shane Warne in the Sky commentary box. The impression given was that Australia had replaced the over-serious technocrat Mickey Arthur with the good ‘ol boy, ‘Boof’ Lehmann.
Replacing their coach on the eve of the Ashes? They must be mad. Mad not to, was ultimately the thinking of Cricket Australia once they realised the depth of the problems within the team under Arthur’s charge. But the sceptical view, at least to many English observers, was that this might be a fun, short-term option but it hardly seemed like a long-term plan.
The ruthless, at times brutal, reconnection with the hirsute past of the Lillee-Marsh-Chappell era over the past two years has brought Australia success and respect, if not affection. Is any of that laid-back, non-analytical vibe still applicable? Lehmann laughs at – or perhaps along with – the question. “We like to keep that impression, put it that way,” he tells AOC. “These guys really like their training, it’s exceptional. We work really hard on our game on and off the field. We work hard in every aspect and we’re always trying to get better as people and players but also enjoy the time together because we’re a big family.”
It perhaps depends on your view of family but certainly the impression given by the regular drip of stories about the relationship between, say, Lehmann and Michael Clarke or Clarke and Shane Watson, is not one of a happy family. Winning helps though.
Despite Lehmann’s track record – his coaching academy is world-renowned and he led Queensland to the Sheffield Shield title – he would not always have seemed natural coaching material. He had been president of the players’ union, had a fairly unreconstructed view of modern fitness methods and, according to Dan Brettig’s fascinatingly forensic new book, Whitewash to Whitewash, was once snubbed to coach Australia under 19s because the board saw him as “not the sort of man we want to teach young Australian cricketers”.
Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire’s director of cricket, has known Lehmann since the Australian batsman arrived at Yorkshire in 1997 – Moxon’s last season as a player and for Lehmann the start of a decade-long association with Headingley. “He called me ‘the Old Man’ because I couldn’t run any more or bend down to pick up the ball,” Moxon recalls. “He gave me serious stick. He was no shrinking violet, that’s for sure, but he was a fantastic character. He made an instant impression on us all with his love for life and his love for the game. There was nothing negative about Darren in anything he did or said. It was all very positive and fun and that was maintained throughout his whole association with the club.”
Moxon believes that the ‘coaching gene’ was quickly evident. “Initially it did seem he was just very laid-back and enjoyed life but the depth of his knowledge and his ability to help people became very clear. So ultimately I’m not surprised at the success he’s had. The impression I get is that he has that great ability to create an environment that’s both relaxed but also really focused. The lads know the boundaries – he won’t let people get away with what they want.”
There’s a certain irony in Moxon’s last comment. Lehmann’s predecessor Mickey Arthur, having previously been perceived as dictatorial on Australia’s ill-fated tour of India, was ultimately sacked for not being tough enough on David Warner for punching Joe Root in Birmingham’s Walkabout bar at 2.30am during the 2013 Champions Trophy. The story is chronicled with rigorous detail in Whitewash to Whitewash. Cricket Australia, who had
been obsessively concerned with the team’s image, took the matter into their own hands, banned Warner, and then, of course, dismissed Arthur. The South African believes he was the fall guy for Cricket Australia’s overwrought, meddling management structure. His dismissal showed a move away from that structure, with performance manager Pat Howard at the heart of it, and offered Lehmann a clean slate.
When Howard phoned Ricky Ponting, who was playing for Surrey at the time, to tell him about Lehmann’s appointment, Ponting told him: “Please… let him coach his way, let him do it the way he wants to do it. Don’t get in his way at all.” Similarly, Paul Marsh, then president of the Australian Cricketers’ Association, told James Sutherland, CA’s chief executive: “You’ve got to let him do his own job, because that’s his strength.”
And what is the Lehmann way? What did he change in 2013? “We had to work on our things, more so than the opposition,” he says. “Now we look for a bit more insight into the opposition because we’re starting to get it right from our point of view. But we’re still really focused on making sure we’re doing our stuff well because we know if we do that well we’ll put the opposition under pressure.
“We’ve started to get some great players back involved. Looking at past players is really important, whether they’re on tour or not. We have our past players coming to most Test matches and it’s really important to hear their views. We’d be mad not to use those blokes. I know Shane Warne’s over there, Ponting’s going to be over there, you know Gilchrist will be over there at some stage. Hayden, Martyn, Steve Waugh, Mark Waugh, Rod Marsh, all those guys, we’d be mad not to use them and their experiences in England because they’ve had success over there.”
And success ‘over there’ – at least in terms of winning a series – is something that not a single member of Australia’s current squad can claim. “We know we haven’t won in England for 14 years – the press tell as that all the time so we know what’s going on,” says Lehmann. “So for us it’s about concentrating on those old adages of winning an hour, winning a session, getting in front in the game and putting pressure on the opposition.”
On the surface, the 2013 Ashes seemed a grim experience for all concerned in green and gold. But Lehmann insists there was a bigger picture to be viewed. “You have to have a vision,” he says. “And we had a vision as a group that we wanted to play our way, if you like, and I thought we probably had gone away from that a little bit. To the blokes’ credit and the captain’s credit, they’ve really taken that on board and play in a way that’s entertaining for the crowd. I think it’s going to be a great series and really entertaining for both countries. It’s a game to be enjoyed. We’re entertainers. But obviously the Ashes is big and it’s going to have some fire.”
There’s been plenty of fire in word and deed from the Aussies in the past couple of years, whether that’s Mitchell Johnson peppering England’s batsmen during the 2013/14 revenge whitewash, Clarke’s outburst to Jimmy Anderson or Brad Haddin’s bizarre take-down of the New Zealanders’ ‘niceness’ after Australia’s recent World Cup triumph. Lehmann, as one might expect, is not about to lose sleep over his players’ aggression: “Yeah, as long as we don’t cross the line. The ICC obviously look after that side of it and England were the same last time we played [in England] and were really aggressive that way. It’s just part and parcel of the game, you know. No quarter asked, no quarter given, basically.”
Speaking immediately after the 2013/14 Ashes, Chris Rogers, who had emerged somewhat surprisingly as the leading runscorer on either side during the 10 back-to-back Ashes Tests, took an interestingly detached view of the on-field snarling. “We definitely talked the talk before the series and that was as much in hope as anything,” he told AOC. “I don’t know but I think it was maybe an unconscious tactic to give ourselves some confidence. Maybe we were trying to give ourselves some belief that we could do something special and beat England. Maybe it came from Boof and from Clarke and maybe it was something they decided on. But it quickly filtered down and guys like Davey [Warner] took it on. In hindsight it worked very well.”
But what did Rogers really think of it? “I just laugh, really. It’s still just a game. I listen to what some of the other blokes are saying and can’t believe it. It can always come back and bite you on the arse and as an opening batsman there is no one more likely for it to backfire on. I find it amusing at times, I must admit.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of all of England’s matches against New Zealand, whatever the format, was the joyous spirit in which they were played. Haddin clearly wouldn’t have approved. And given the apparent enmity between certain members of the England and Australia teams, it seems implausible to think that the 2015 Ashes will be played in anything like the same spirit. As The Duckworth-Lewis Method sang: “Who’d be an umpire?”