Sunday, April 13, 2008

Book Review: If Better is Possible: John Buchanan

I did not pick up John Buchanan’s book because I expected it to be a cricketing classic along the lines of The Art of Captaincy or Beyond a Boundary. I picked it up because I wanted to peek into the dressing room of the Australian team; I picked it up because I wanted some inside stories and trivia on some of those legends whom Buchanan strung together into arguably the greatest team ever to step on to the cricket ground; I picked it up because I thought Buchanan would throw light on some of the whispers that came out about his relationship with Shane Warne, Ricky Ponting and some of the other Aussie luminaries.

Talk about over-expectation. If Better is Possible is not even a book on cricket. Yes, you read that right: It is not even a book on cricket. IPL notwithstanding, it is common knowledge that Buchanan intends to focus on a non-cricketing career as a business consultant. If Better is Possible is his calling card for that profession. The cover page descriptor, The winning strategies from the coach of Australia’s most successful cricket team, is as revealing of the shaky language in the book as it is of the book’s subtle attempt at a crossover from cricket to business.

The book is a loose collection of Buchanan’s reflections on different aspects of coaching, and his attempts at tying those to business management. The constant jump from cricket to business is unsubtle, irritating, interfering and forced for the most part.

Buchanan’s career as Australia’s coach (1999 to 2007) has been fairly uninterrupted by failure. The two big blips they’ve had in this streak were the 2001 series in India and the 2005 Ashes. Here’s Buchanan’s take on these two.

First the 2001 series in India, specifically the Kolkata test.

The Aussies take a first innings lead of 274 and Steve Waugh decides to enforce the follow-on, because Australia, as is their wont, want to “be aggressive, dominate and bury the opposition.” Every one knows what happened, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid, and then Harbhajan Singh. So what does St. John have to say?

There were some factors outside our control which conspired against us, such as India changing their batting order which allowed VVS Laxman to open after being 50 odd not out in the first innings, some dubious umpiring decisions, a rampant and highly charged Eden Gardens stadium, incessant heat, and ultimately two players, Laxman and Rahul Dravid, who played possibly the best innings of their careers.

Sounds a bit like the Englishmen after yet another defeat, don’t you think? Well, to be fair, the Englishmen put one past Buchanan’s Aussies, didn’t they, in the 2005 Ashes? How does Buchanan explain that?

Jamie Siddons had just taken over as assistant coach from Tim Nielsen for the Ashes. And to facilitate Siddons to get to understand the players better, good old John decided on a strategy: to pull back from the players so I could spend more time being strategic about our preparation, our opposition and about finding tasks and experiences to expand the horizons of the players. One part of his strategy succeeded: Siddons got to know the players well. But it turned out to be a case of winning a battle but losing a war. As the great man confesses, “the situation demanded the opposite approach.” There is something about some sight being 20-20, isn’t there? Of course, there were other reasons as well, as always.

We began the series not fully prepared for a range of reasons – some in our control, some not.

When you lose, there are always factors outside your control, aren’t there?

To be entirely honest, Buchanan does throw light on one character who plays but a cameo in the book. Before you start salivating, the character in question is not an Australian, but an Englishman. Buchanan had just taken over as coach of Middlesex in 1998. Mark Ramprakash had also been made captain just that season, and John and Mark meet for the first time. And Mark says: “You don’t change the rules of the club. The players don’t change the rules of the club. If there are to be changes, I am the only one to make them!”

The Buchanan staples are all there – the emphasis on processes over results, the obsession with “taking the game to the next level”, the importance of rituals, the elevation of Justin Langer to the same level as Shane Warne and Glenn McGrath and such like. The staples of a bad writer are in full evidence as well – a zigzag disjointed narrative, repetition of incidents, incomplete examples, careless language, the cardinal sin of telling-not-showing…

That the most interesting statement in the entire book is not John’s own, but a quote from Glenn McGrath (on the eve of the final of the 2007 World Cup, Pigeon says, “the final is why we are here”) tells its own story. If Better is Possible is a book begging to not be written.


straight point said...

thanks geetha...

not only you saved some of my money but more importantly time too... :)

Gaurav Sethi said...

"If Better is Possible is a book begging to not be written."
take that! and that!
best of luck knight(mare)riders, john is here.

Geetha Krishnan said...

You're welcome, Straight Point.

Naked Cricket - yes, the book was not particularly great, but you can't argue with the fact that the man has proved to be a great coach for Australia. Will he work out for the Kolkata Knight Riders? We can only wait and watch.