Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Tim Nielsen resigns, righting a four year-old wrong

Tim Nielsen has resigned as coach of the Australian cricket team. About bloody time, too.

After co-conspirator Hilditch, Tim Nielsen will be the most unlamented sacking in Australian cricket history. It's not that he's a bad coach - you don't get to his position without being capable - it's just that as former coach John Buchanan's right-hand man, he wasn't a sufficient enough change of message from his predecessor.

Under his watch, Australian national fielding standards declined from "world's-best" to the equally hyphenable "also-ran". They also rotated bowlers - in form or out - and attempted to dominate almost every situation, apparently unaware that circumstances had changed. Throughout his reign, Australia was hardly ever in position to be the aggressor.

It was, and three years later still is, time for a change.

courtesy: guardian.co.uk
Nielsen's appointment was perhaps the most alarming symptom of the malaise that overtook Cricket Australia last decade. On John Buchanan's retirement, rather than step out of their comfort zone - which they still refuse to do now - and appoint the best person for the job, they rewarded the loyal company man.

Rewarding the foot soldier can have it's advantages, but not in this situation. Buchanan retired saying he had taken Australia as far as he could. When a successful coach retires after a lengthy tenure, often a change of message (or it's delivery) is required as players have become accustomed to their former coach's motivation strategies. This change is hardly likely to come from a 2IC.

A close-to-home example is easy to point out. In 1996 the old ACB replaced successful coach Bob Simpson, who had with Allan Border pulled Australian cricket up from the depths, with Geoff Marsh. Simpson had no wish to leave, but the board felt the players needed to hear a change of voice. It turns out their suspicions were correct.

Steve Waugh was instrumental in Buchanan's installation as Australia coach, knowing he had the requisite technical knowledge and breadth of vision to help even the most established Australian players. Nielsen lacked both the technical knowledge and panoramic point of view. As an assistant coach, it was often his role liaise between players and coach. When moving from such a position to head coach, the distance between coach and players needed for objectivity and evaluation decreases.

This is one of the reasons why Nielsen's assistants, Justin Langer and Steve Rixon, should almost immediately be discounted as possibilities for the open position. Rixon in particular has form, coaching successful NSW sides as far back as the late eighties, but the team needs differing methods and better communication. It would be a logical to assume Langer especially is too close to the players.

The best replacement for Nielsen may already be within the system. Western Australia coach Tom Moody's style is a combination of discipline and evenness which proved successful when helming Sri Lanka. Even when his powers had faded as a player, his leadership was integral in Australia winning the '99 World Cup; he has coaching and captaincy experience in England, the subcontinent and at home. Should he decide to apply, he would be the logical frontrunner.

The Argus report continues to leave a bloody trail of carnage through the offices of Australian cricket. Whether this is for better or worse, no-one can yet tell. But certainly, it is wise to rid the setup of unpopular and underperforming elements. All Cricket Australia needs to do now is ensure they appoint the best coach for the role.

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