John Buchanan knows he's on a sticky wicket

MATT RICHENS
Last updated 05:00 03/11/2012
John Buchanan
Fairfax NZ
JOHN BUCHANAN: "I know clearly what [the public's perception of me is], most people don't know me."

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New Zealand Cricket's director of cricket John Buchanan has been in the job 18 months with, at best, mixed results. Matt Richens caught up with the Australian who knows he must do better. 

John Buchanan realises he's not the most well-liked cricket man in New Zealand, but feels people have never given him a chance and don't know the real him.

The 59-year-old Queenslander, on the exterior at least, seems hardnosed, bordering on grumpy.

He's a serious man with a serious face, but he's not that worried what people think. He's more concerned about his No 1 priority - achieving his lofty goals in his New Zealand Cricket (NZC) gig as director of cricket.

"I know clearly what [the public's perception of me is], most people don't know me.

"Apart from the fact that I was coach of the Australian cricket team, they wouldn't know me, wouldn't know how I tick, and would have been guided by various media stories so that would be their perception."

Those media stories have not always been positive despite Buchanan leading arguably the best cricket team to play the game.

Shane Warne called him - among other things - "a goose and has no idea and lacks common sense". When Warne talks, people, especially Australian people, listen.

Buchanan hasn't been the type to air his dirty laundry and happily avoids the media spotlight. "I'm not necessarily a gregarious public person, though I can be when needed."

He's a family man; a private man with a "beautiful wife" and five children ranging in age from 18-29.

"That's where I like to be able to put my time," he said.

"I've never been the sort of person to want to spend four hours on a golf course. For me, that's time I could be spending with my family because I've spent so much time away from them with my career."

He lives in Sumner - though his rental has just been sold - while his family remain in Australia. He's just a normal family guy, but one who would much rather talk about cricket than himself.

So why isn't Buchanan universally loved on this side of the Tasman?

His signing was a major coup for NZC, according to then boss Justin Vaughan and Buchanan's own website, Buchanan Success Coaching, brags he's the most successful international cricket coach of all time.

Simply the fact he's Australian irks many who believe the Black Caps and the other high performance teams in New Zealand need Kiwis running the ship.

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He's stuck between NZC chief executive David White and coach Mike Hesson on the totem pole of power and as both often speak publicly, there is less need for Buchanan to talk.

NZC also seem almost scared to let him talk.

He popped up when he was appointed early last year and a couple of times since, but has dodged the spotlight pretty well in his 18 months in his job.

The Press - and other media organisations - asked to speak to Buchanan after Black Caps coach John Wright quit. NZC refused saying he had nothing to say and no need to defend himself. The public disagreed, and Buchanan's popularity took a further dive. NZC stood firm.

Even in September when Buchanan coached the New Zealand A side at Lincoln, he was off limits.

Buchanan himself was happy to talk and had even agreed to an interview, but that was scuppered by NZC's media team who said: "We'd rather all the focus was on the Black Caps during the Twenty20 World Cup."

The flagship team won just one of their five games at the tournament, against Bangladesh.

His media "ban" ended recently and Buchanan proved to be a pleasant character and one passionate about the success of NZC's high performance programme.

It's still unclear what NZC were afraid he'd say.

Buchanan brought in unknown Kim Littlejohn from a lawn bowls background, in Australia, to be his numbers man and national selection manager which, for many, was another black mark.

Littlejohn's background has been the source of questions, though his role is well aligned with Buchanan's analysis-driven master plan.

Buchanan was also seen as the antagonist when much-loved Wright opted not to re-sign his contract.

And, of course, the man himself would rather concentrate on what is a massive job. He's charged with lifting New Zealand's top teams, the Black Caps, the White Ferns, the under-19s and the New Zealand A side, to the top of world cricket.

For the record, he doesn't dislike Wright as many had wrongly assumed.

NZC have often pointed out the two Johns relationship was one based on mutual respect and there had been no ill feeling, but without allowing Buchanan to talk on the matter, their claims seemed nothing more than spin.

On Wright, Buchanan speaks of an old adversary, not a foe.

"We were up against each other as coaches for a fair period of time as well so there's always been a healthy mutual respect between both of us. Not necessarily how we went about things but what we did with our teams."

Buchanan and Wright both wanted the Black Caps to succeed but their plans were too different.

Buchanan is playing the long game. His is a numbers plan based around performance. A holistic plan encompassing everything cricket, judging New Zealand cricketers on the world's best players' numbers.

Plenty of paper work, plenty of assessment.

Wright's was more on instinct and hard work. In general Wright was seen as "old school" and wanted the right people with the right attitudes. His belief was that hard work and the best people were what was needed.

Both plans could have worked, just not together. With very little grey area or room for compromise, their working relationship became untenable.

But there are no hard feelings and in a roundabout way, Buchanan applauded Wright's decision to step aside.

"If you want to be a coach, you have to maintain your methodologies. You can't be half yourself and half someone else," he says.

"The methodologies that I thought were really needed in and around the group, in part, included a lot of the analysis. That's certainly not to say John didn't like numbers, he definitely did, but it's about what type of numbers we were looking at and what sort of stats we're looking at and what sorts of trends we were looking at."

Wright, too, has never got into any mudslinging and always spoke highly of Buchanan as a bloke.

He didn't agree with the way things were going, but if he's bitter, he hides it well.

Buchanan knew his ways weren't going to be for everyone and he knew being a "change agent" would ruffle feathers.

"I'm learning, but nonetheless, I'm still very clear on what needs to occur and will continue to head down that route."

Buchanan has now been in charge for 18 months and at the time of his appointment, he spoke of the desire to turn NZC into an organisation that others would want to emulate.

He still steadfastly believes that, but said his tenure so far had fallen short of what he'd hoped for.

"The New Zealand cricket team has always punched above its weight. But I want them to punch like that for 15 rounds and come away with the title."

He says beating Australia in Hobart in December last year was great but he wants the Black Caps to beat Australia - and other countries, home and away, consistently.

NZC are about to present their high performance plan to High Performance Sport New Zealand and while they'll need to wait to see the response, Buchanan believes the plan will be a "fundamental building block of New Zealand Cricket".

He's still 100 per cent sure success on the park will come.

"I probably feel that it isn't going as quickly as I would like, albeit that I said at the beginning it was going to be a slow process. But it's taking a little bit longer than I thought it would - at the moment."

If Buchanan's ambitious long-term plan to turn New Zealand Cricket into a world leader and their flagship team, the Black Caps, into world beaters, is a success, then he'll leap from hardly known and hardly liked to the most popular man in the organisation.

- Canterbury

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