Farewell, Mad Scientist

Last updated 21:56 06/12/2008

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John Bracewell can leave New Zealand Cricket with his head held high. However we might assess his five-year term as coach, whatever interpretations we might draw from the results, there is widespread agreement over at least one issue: he gave his absolute guts. No one could accuse him of apathy. No one could doubt his commitment.

Highlights during his epoch included the three-nil Chappell-Hadlee triumph earlier last year, the second test win against South Africa in 2004, the NatWest Series victory in England a few months later, and the isolated home wins against Sri Lanka and England. Daniel Vettori came of age under his watch; Jeetan Patel made noticeable progress. Chris Martin's career was rejuvenated.

That, however, is about where the good news ended. Bracewell may have brought many things to the New Zealand team, but consistency was not among them. Surprised? Don't be. If you were forced to compile a list of the country's most erratic sporting personalities, Bracewell's name would demand inclusion somewhere near the top; possibly just ahead of Beatrice Faumuina. Predictability wasn't a strong suit. Consistency was never a friend.

Everyone has their theories, granted, but it should be recorded that Bracewell dreamed up more than his fair share. Whether this was because of a self-confessed inquisitive nature (for he viewed himself as a keen "observer" of human behaviour) has yet to be adequately explained. Possibly the closest we'll ever get to an accurate insight was provided in an excellent article last year, written by the New Zealand Herald's Michele Hewitson.

This was the piece in which Bracewell revealed that, as a youngster, he attended five primary schools in the space of two years, reaching standard two before teachers realised he couldn't read. Unsurprisingly, the slow start sparked a couple of profound responses. He is now an avid reader, but still feels sensitive about his literary skills. To this day, reported Hewitson, he avoids writing messages for the team on whiteboards because "of the fear of making a spelling mistake".

This is not meant to be gratuitous, for the revelation is an important one. Bracewell, for all his good points, has always appeared vulnerable to fads and trends and particularly, untested theory. A huge appetite for information has been overwhelmed by a questionable ability to assess and discern. With complete power on his side for the first four years, he was allowed to become the cricketing equivalent of a mad scientist. Think of today's New Zealand team as his laboratory.

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Prefer a voice from closer to the dressing room? Nathan Astle, whose premature retirement from the game last year was unquestioningly prompted by Bracewell's amateur politics, explored a similar theme in his autobiography.

"John reads a lot of books about how to read people, how they tick, and I felt he reached a stage where he thought he could tell what was going on inside a guy's head (without actually speaking to them)," he said.

There was also the other complicating factor, almost certainly caused by similar influences. From the moment one-time Australian of the Year Ric Charlesworth was nabbed by NZC, there was a suggestion that Bracewell could sometimes be overawed by intelligence. He was certainly impressionable. The manner in which he bought so unquestioningly into Charlesworth's selection theories was symptomatic of that. In hindsight, it represented the greatest failing of his tenure.

But there were the other crazy experiments as well: the promotion of Kyle Mills to No3, the experiment with Daniel Vettori at No5, the disgraceful treatment meted out to Lou Vincent, who was dropped from the test side for expressing a "preference" for batting down the order. Never mind the nonsense of trialling Hamish Marshall as an opener, of using Brendon McCullum as the solution for any batting problem, and the rotation of key players before last year's world cup.

Doubtless, many will spring to Bracewell's defence over the record of the New Zealand team. We'll hear the usual refrains about coaches not being able to score centuries or take wickets, and how he shouldn't be held accountable for the side's plummeting fortunes. Truth is, Bracewell wasn't just any old coach. When he arrived as Denis Aberhart's replacement, he was ushered in as the most powerful man in the New Zealand game since Glenn Turner in 1995. Sole coach and executive selector.

It was only after the world cup failure in the West Indies last year that NZC acted to curb his powers and reintroduce an element of consensus into the selection process. By then, however, the damage had been done. Bracewell's regime had proved so destructive that when he departed last week, New Zealand supporters were left gaping at an inexperienced, wet-behind-the-ears, skeleton crew. Apart from a few notable exceptions, anyone with a life had already departed.

Others might point to the support Bracewell continues to enjoy within the team as proof of the quality of his stewardship. It's an interesting angle. Vettori, the only genuinely senior player to prosper during the latest term, continues to sing his praises. Jacob Oram claims he's never played under a finer coach. In fact, there hasn't been a dissenting voice within the squad. Why? Because anyone with a dissenting voice has already been shown the door.

The lasting impression of Bracewell is that he appeared far more comfortable with the immature and insecure than the established and self-assured. Maybe he related more closely to the former group's sense of need, or their desperation to understand. Whatever the case, he effectively left us a team moulded in his own image. Enthusiastic but palpably under-skilled. Full of ideas but very little pragmatism. Outwardly bold, but inwardly a shade neurotic.

What he could never be accused of, however, is not caring. Say what you like about his modus operandi but it would be hard to find anyone more devoted to the New Zealand cause. John Bracewell gave it his very best shot. It's true; he missed the target by some distance, but not for want of trying.

 

- Sunday Star Times

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