6:15 AM ET
Daniel BrettigAssistant editor, ESPNcricinfo
- Assistant editor Daniel Brettig had been a journalist for eight years when he joined ESPNcricinfo, but his fascination with cricket dates back to the early 1990s, when his dad helped him sneak into the family lounge room to watch the end of day-night World Series matches well past bedtime. Unapologetically passionate about indie music and the South Australian Redbacks, Daniel’s chief cricketing achievement was to dismiss Wisden Almanack editor Lawrence Booth in the 2010 Ashes press match in Perth – a rare Australian victory that summer.
Following seven stormy years in which Pat Howard stood atop Cricket Australia’s team performance wing with all the energy but also friction of a perpetual change agent, the appointment of Ben Oliver as the head of national teams for the governing body has been accompanied by a move into far calmer and contemplative waters.
This coincides neatly enough with their respective characters: Howard a man very much of action, whether others liked that action or not, Oliver a far more measured and contemplative figure, for more than five years the quiet consigliere alongside Justin Langer’s Godfather-like leadership of Western Australia and the Perth Scorchers. As the brother of the laconic Castlemaine football product Stephen Oliver, he of several striking cameos for Carlton in the early 1990s, Ben Oliver played as an allrounder for Victoria and Tasmania, before injuries led him through jobs with Cricket Victoria, CA, and the ICC before the WACA.
As a product of so many cricketing backgrounds, he brings welcome empathy to a realm that had, since 2011, been known as much for debate as collaboration, with disconnection between the states and CA, its national teams and programs being a long-running issue. In stepping directly from WA to CA, Oliver has joined Langer and the new senior assistant coach Andrew McDonald in knowing both worlds, and it is no surprise to hear him speak repeatedly of the need for “connection”.
“That’s an important part of being able to connect Australian cricket and really unite and inspire the high performance system,” Oliver said of appointing McDonald. “Really pleased that’s fallen the way it has, I think Andrew will be an outstanding person within the team, he comes with great leadership experience and a really strong set of values
“He’s an excellent communicator, great passion for the game, exceptional work ethic and he’ll bring some really interesting experiences to the coaching group in support of Justin and the players. I think it’s important we keep finding ways to connect our domestic cricket with our Australian teams and that’s an example of how that’s coming to be.”
Asked what has struck him as uniquely difficult about the job, Oliver points quickly to the schedule. In the case of CA adopting an improved domestic program for 2019-20, marrying Sheffield Shield more closely to domestic limited-overs games while tightening the BBL, Oliver can see the sort of progress long wished for at international level.
“The schedule is a complex challenge, inherently within that there’s likely to be trade-offs from time to time,” he said. “That’s one thing we’ve got to keep working on and keep finding a path through. Pleasingly that’s landed very well this domestic season, Peter Roach and his team have done an excellent job in picking up on some of the recent feedback from state and territory associations, from players, from CA staff. So the domestic schedule this year is very positive.”
As Langer’s longtime offsider in WA, Oliver had to cope with the competing demands of state and BBL teams and the wider needs of the state association and CA. He is working assiduously at ensuring that the movement of players between one level and the next is smooth and also attentive to their needs.
In choosing McDonald, Oliver has worked to establish a core coaching group that will remain more or less consistent across formats, with the conditional and tournament based additions of other experts. Short stints by the likes of Steve Waugh, Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey will be a consistent thing depending on what Langer and McDonald need.
“One of the shifts is creating a coaching group around the men’s team that consists of some core leaders within that group who are really driving the team’s culture and the team strategy and that are consistent across the three formats,” Oliver said. “Then really complementing that with some other expertise from a specialist skill coach perspective or a mentor coach perspective.
“In terms of how it’s shaping up that’s a subtle shift. For the Test summer, I’m really excited about the fact we’ve got Graeme Hick in there, Troy Cooley in there and Sridharan Sriram supporting Justin and Andrew. A really strong group of coaches, but that’ll evolve as we work our way through different series and tournaments.”
In contrast, there has been no shift in the structure of the selection panel. While Langer and the chairman Trevor Hohns are soon to be joined by another selector, likely with more contemporary, T20 era experience, they will remain in classical operation, rather than slimming down to a more coach empowered model. The difference Oliver wants is more attitudinal than structural: connection again.
“There are a number of views on selection structures and that was certainly part of the initial considerations in terms of our next step,” he said. “Ultimately we feel as though a three-person panel will continue to serve our needs. The critical part here is making sure we get a really aligned but complementary set of skills on the panel and that we’re really connected to our state, territory BBL and WBBL network.”
Langer, it seems increasingly likely, will be given respite by having McDonald work as head coach at times, though Oliver hesitated to suggest a clearer succession plan was now in place. “No doubt that being head coach of the Australian cricket team across three formats is a challenging task, an incredible workload, and we’ve got to continue to find ways to support Justin in that as we need to do with our players and other staff who are working across all three formats,” he said. “There’s an element of that, and I’m very comfortable we’ve got Andrew in that role.
“In terms of the future, I think that’s something that will just evolve as we understand the schedule and the demands of the role and as the world around us continues to change, we’ll need to be agile and creative in the way we set up our coaching team.”
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And as for the so commonly discussed area of fast bowler management, Oliver said that he and his high performance colleague Drew Ginn were looking at taking on many views from around the game, in pursuit of what will ultimately look like a far more individually tailored management plan for each bowler, as opposed to the “broad-brush” theories so often thrown around.
“That’s a really healthy place to be, something that’s important for our game, for our teams, for the individual players to keep finding the best way to prepare our pace bowlers. Also to allow them to recover and prepare again,” he said. “So it is about balancing the different considerations that exist around management of pace bowlers, but if you were really to strip it right down, what we’re trying to achieve is the best preparation for our players for each match and series and year and keep building on that. I think we can often get caught up in the detail, but we’re very open about the fact we’re continuing to learn.”
Calm and considered, with a wealth of cricket behind him, it seems likely that any Oliver-led revolutions will be of the quieter kind.
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