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Transcript of the chat with Steve Rixon - Former Australian wicket-keeper and coach of the New Zealand cricket team held on May 18th, 2000 in Sydney, Australia.

John Polack, CricInfo: Well, a very warm welcome to this CricInfo interview. With us on this occasion we have an extremely respected figure in the world of cricket - former New South Wales and Australian wicketkeeper, former New Zealand coach and now returning New South Wales coach Steve Rixon. Steve, first of all: thanks very much for joining us.

Steve Rixon: My pleasure.

CricInfo: What we're actually going to do today, Steve, is put to you a selection of questions that have come to us from people in all corners of the cricketing world and beyond. In fact, we should begin by saying that the response has been absolutely overwhelming since we advertised this last week and a huge number of people have written in in particular to congratulate you on your tremendous success with New Zealand, particularly to commend you on account of the fact that you not only took the team toward a lot of fairly significant on-field triumphs like a World Cup semi-final, and big Test series wins in recent times against England but also the notion that you transformed the side into a very competitive and spirited one.

Two such emailers in fact were Tim and Craig Speakman, and they essentially wanted to know: What your general philosophy was when you started work with the team, what steps in essence you took to set about implementing that philosophy and what you feel were the most important areas in which you made a mark while developing the side?

Rixon: Yes, and good questions they are. I guess having a little bit of knowledge of New Zealand cricket was probably good, but the major one was that I knew that the way that they played the game was a little different to the way that I've played it with sides that I've coached in the past and played with that's with New South Wales and Australian sides. I've always felt that the Kiwis have been a little reserved in their approach to the game. Hence, one of the things that I was looking at doing was bringing a game of cricket to the world through the Kiwis which was a more attacking brand. In the past, they've probably played a style where they looked at how they could draw a game before they looked at how they could win it so I had to get a mentality change there.

To introduce a sense of self-belief was one of the key issues and something on which I needed to work really hard. Whereas in most sides you have to change a couple of things (attitude is certainly one, a new direction is certainly another), the one thing I didn't cater for as well was the culture. They do have a different culture the Kiwis; as I mentioned, the way they played the game is part of that culture. So that was something that I had to get my mind around and, once I compromised with that (I certainly didn't ever accept it) and they understood me a little bit better, we both ended up going in the right direction.

CricInfo: The next question comes to us from Pat Bindon and he asks if it's been possible in that entire period to identify a particular facet of your coaching which maybe represented the most difficult and challenging part of your work there? You obviously just talked about changing mentality and culture; would that be it?

Rixon: Yes, I guess so; that to me really was a starting point - to understand the culture. I had a manager in John Graham who certainly gave me some clues there. He's an ex-All Black captain himself so he certainly had a fair idea of the way New Zealanders thought about the way they played their sport and, certainly as an All Black, there was a high benchmark set for the rest of the sporting world over there. He certainly gave me an idea of how best to approach it and he was a big help to me. But really, once the culture was in place, the rest was as it has been in the past. When I took over with New South Wales, when they hadn't been in a Final for four or five years (in both one-dayers and also the longer version), we were able to take them to five consecutive Finals (in which we won three of each). At a grade club I had in Sutherland - who also had the same thing: it was an attitudinal change again. We went from eighteenth on the table to win a very first premiership. It was nice to go into New Zealand to have this sort of feel behind me and to know that it does work. So I was pleased with that.

CricInfo: Clearly, we've talked about - and touched on this - already, a lot of inroads were made in developing the players' collective sense of belief. Both Scott Pender and Tim Glover ask if: during the months in which you've been away from the job, you've felt any pangs of regret at all about leaving the position,or conversely if you feel that you achieved close to everything that you could in that time and that you're therefore pretty comfortable about having departed when you did?

Rixon: Very simply, I set myself (and I mark) my own books. So I set myself a target and the target was three years. I thought that, in three years: I am going to set up a culture, a new environment, a self-belief that is going to be something completely different than they've ever had before, a group of individuals that are self-sufficient. Hence if I couldn't do it in three years, I wasn't going to do it in four or five. That was point one. Point two was: if I couldn't do it in three years, I wasn't the right man for the job. So it was quite an easy decision and I feel very comfortable with what I've done there. There's a sense of belief in what has been set up and the way the guys have gone about their jobs. I know it was a lot easier for someone like David Trist to come in and get involved with a group of guys who have become very professional.

CricInfo: One of the things that's delighted a lot of people over recent years (and coinciding with your period there) has been the spectacularly good form, the spectacularly improved form, of Chris Cairns. Previously, he'd always threatened to become a really great player (and most people around the cricketing world in a lot of ways wanted him to become that kind of player) and he frustrated people in a sense because he just couldn't quite get to that next level. Richard Williams and Sam Ward ask what you think it is that has taken him to that next level and now made him arguably the best and most exciting all-rounder in the world today?

Rixon: Firstly, can I say that I believe that he IS the best all-rounder. That's come through a number of different reasons. Yes, he has frustrated a lot of people - including one Steve Rixon as coach! But there's one thing that either of us didn't do in the three year term: we never gave up on each other. At certain stages during that period, I'm sure that Chris, if he could have put his hand through my chest and ripped my heart out, he would have thought very closely about doing that. But we had a lot of respect for each other and we've worked very hard. The reason that he has become the greatest all-rounder is his own change of attitude towards the way he thinks about the game and the way he approaches the game; his training methods; the looking after of his body when injured and going through the right process of getting himself right.

He's certainly a much more disciplined person than I started with; there were some early problems we had there and we got those sorted out very quickly. We went from being maybe a little undisciplined as a unit to probably the most disciplined side in the world and that certainly helped in performance. And he had a coach that never ever gave him an inch and I think that is probably one of the reasons that he's right now quite grateful towards the way I went about it because I think that, in the past, a lot of guys would have said that Chris has good potential and he'll get better well, the one thing that I am absolutely delighted about is that he did get better and we now see what Chris Cairns CAN do and not what he was going to do. To me, I'm just rapt that I've had a little bit of a part in all that because we are now seeing the true Chris Cairns: he is a great all-rounder and no question he will get better.

CricInfo: And, when he took on Australia in the recent series for example and played some absolutely tremendous innings and took plenty of wickets, how did you personally feel sitting back in Australia and seeing that happen?

Rixon: I was delighted. I do have a sense of loyalty to a lot of those lads. I feel very strongly about the time I had in New Zealand. I made a lot of good friends; you don't always go there to make friends but with a little bit of success coming your way and a change of attitude and the side starting to perform a little better, I think everyone starts to feel happy about themselves. I saw it happening in England; he went to India, did some fantastic things in India; played very well against West Indies and, of course, it all culminated against the best in the world. When he performed so well against the best in the world, that made him a little bit special.

CricInfo: (We thank Stacey Crutch, Saad Pasha, Hayley Osterfield and Brendan Egan for the following question): In your New Zealand coaching career (and, in fact, in your cricket career as a whole), what are the moments and achievements that stand out for you most of all do you think? If you were to walk away from the sport tomorrow, what would be the most significant highlights that would live on in your mind about your whole experience in the game and conversely, would there be things that might be the cause of significant regret or disappointment at all?

Rixon: I could probably earmark quite a few because I've been around the game for twenty-six years now at the first class level and international level - which makes me sound quite old but I'm really not that old!

CricInfo: I can vouch for that!

Rixon: I have to say a lot of these probably don't appear to other people as being great highlights but when we actually played the very first Sheffield Shield Final, back in 1981-82 I think it was, (there hadn't been a Final played; it had always been 'first part the post wins'), we had been to Western Australia many many times and religiously were wiped off the map. And they were a very good cricket side. They had an outstanding attitude against us whenever we turned up and we had a very poor one against them. But this particular time, we watched the 'Rocky' movie prior to the game, there was just a different feel, and there were some big decisions made. Trevor Chappell came in for the very in-form Len Pascoe for example and everyone said, "whoa, that's unbelievable!". Trevor went on to be the Man of the Match. With six wickets in hand on the last day (and Kim Hughes and Rod Marsh still batting), only just over 100 to get, it wasn't looking too good for us. And I always remember the remark made by Kim Hughes as he walked off the ground; he said "boys, you've been here before, you haven't been good enough to beat us in the past and you're certainly not good enough to beat us again - you've blown the first Shield Final".

Everyone just sat in the rooms; Rick McCosker, being the captain, was a guy that never said a real lot but I said (to myself) if he doesn't say anything, I'm going to say something as we walk out. Rick, fortunately, did say something and he said it very logically - as against the passionate approach that I might have taken - and we went out and took 6/30 and we won that game of cricket. It was something very special and, if you ask anyone that was part of that game, you'll find there was something special about that match which set up the very first Sheffield Shield 'win'.

'Keeping to Jeff Thomson in Barbados was very special in as much as I don't think anyone can bowl much faster than that. Even though we've got a young lad now that's testing that, in Brett Lee

CricInfo: and Shoaib Akhtar too, obviously?

Rixon: Shoaib Akhtar is certainly up in the big league as well. But they still talk about Jeff Thomson's spell there, where he took three very tall poppies in Haynes, Greenidge and Richards out that evening. We got bowled out for 170-odd and we had them three for not many it was just express and that, to me, was a highlight.

The win at the SCG against West Indies (in 1984-85) when they were at the great heights of their 'career'. Allan Border was the captain, we won the game and we won it comprehensively. It was on a spinning deck and both Bennett and Holland being the major contributors.

CricInfo: And would I be right in saying there that (because it was a game out of which a few things came about your 'conversation' with Viv Richards) it was a game like the Shield Final of a few years before which you remember for those reasons as well maybe?

Yes, I certainly do. It's something of which I commonly get reminded. When you look at the great boxers of the world (you know Ali versus whomever), I saw a bout when Viv invited me out the back of the SCG which read "Smokin' Joe versus Stumper". Now if anyone looks at that and tries to say it might have been a one-sided fight, I thought it might have been too. So I didn't take up the offer! But it was certainly an offer given to me.

And also just the coaching in 1993-94 (with NSW) when we won the double. With a group of kids; no big names and they did the job and they did it convincingly, only through a very good unit.

And the win for the Kiwis in England I thought that was just very very special. Being down 1-0, to go on and win that I thought was just extraordinary.

CricInfo: We might turn more generally to the business of coaching now. Youssef Mourra suggests that the whole concept of coaching is something that even fifteen years ago not all that many followers of cricket would have even imagined was really needed, particularly for players talented enough to participate at international level. But of course today it has become absolutely integral for virtually every team which takes itself even remotely seriously as someone who has been close to the very top of the tree, what do you think are the two or three major responsibilities that it's most important for a coach to fulfil these days?

Rixon: To me, it's a 75-25 split. 'Mind' versus 'other' if you like. In the 'other', there's a lot of the modern technology, which helps everyone to understand their game and learn a lot quicker. With the computer age and access to the video machines that are available now, that's very important to the modern game.

But in the other side (the 75 per cent), there's a man management factor that I think probably overrides everything as a coach. If you don't actually understand your players, if you don't have a method of being able to relate to your players, the twenty-five per cent just pales into insignificance and you'll never get the best out of your individual cricketers. I look at someone like Chris Cairns as an example of that; once you got through to the mind, the rest was all new fun to him sitting there and watching himself with the new machinery that was available. It all got back to looking at his own game; self-analysing his own game. To me, man management is probably the biggest factor. And the understanding and the planning ahead (with a variety of different methods) is really the difference between the average coaches and the good coaches.

CricInfo: To what extent to do you tailor your drills and techniques specifically to individuals as opposed to enforcing them collectively? Are there things (something that a lot of people touch on is weight training for example) that you fashion very much to the individual because of their own physical characteristics and functions within the team or do things tend to be enforced more collectively?

Rixon: With weight training and that sort of thing, it's horses for courses. If you have a batsman versus a bowler, for example, there are different areas you have got to cater for. With batsmen, it's more sprint work and so forth that will help that side of their game. With the bowlers, it's more explosive power work that's required and endurance to make sure that they can actually go out there and bowl twenty-five overs every day. That's what the ask is; if you're a top-line bowler, you've got to be looking at it like that. There are individual programs allocated to every player probably in first class cricket around Australia. You've got to identify I guess - and with all of the people that can be involved in the game now - what's required (whether your flexibility needs work or whether you need more in the endurance area); once that's in place and you have your own program, then it's a case of being self-reliant and self-sufficient. You must go out there and fulfil that.

If you don't stay with your program, you're telling me you're really not interested in playing at this level of cricket. There is no excuse for guys going out there and not playing to their best; it's one step away from being part of the greatest cricket side in the world - and that's the Australian cricket side right at this point in time. From the point of view of being involved with New South Wales we've often said that we believe NSW, at its strength, that it is the greatest county/province/state side in the world and that is something special and something of which to be proud. I'd like to think that everyone has that in the back of their minds and, when they go through their programs, that's a very core part of it.

CricInfo: Raghu Kurnool wants to know if you have any firm opinions yourself as to why it is that the best coaches these days tend to not always necessarily be the men who were among the elite players of their era? We've seen cricketing icons like Kapil Dev and Viv Richards struggle in the job in recent times for example whereas figures such as Dav Whatmore and Bob Woolmer (who played international cricket obviously but not necessarily to the same standard) have been extremely successful.

Rixon: I do have quite an opinion on that; especially in New Zealand where I've seen two of the greatest players that have ever graced the turf in Crowe and Hadlee. I don't think either of those two would make particularly good team coaches. Certainly individual coaches, no problems at all. But when you've reached such a high a level such as a Viv Richards or Kapil Dev plus many more - like 'Both' (Ian Botham, who is obviously quite a freak in his own right) - they're all very much an individual and they've never had to go to the working class man's level. And when I say that, I mean the guy that has to work every step of the way to make it to the next level and do well at the next level. Now I'm a working class man; I always have been and the other two that you mention have both been in the same league.

If you have to work hard for it, you then understand how to get to that stage and you can obviously explain it to the next person who is asking that question. The guys that are naturally gifted, there is very little alteration to their game that has to be made. Therefore they never go to that level of having to understand why this bloke can't do this and how you get that problem solved. Now a lot of people can identify problems but a lot of people can't solve them because they have never been there to get to that solving method. I believe that those naturally gifted players often have a disadvantage in actually coaching team sport; because they never had to do the working class man's hard yards of understanding why.

CricInfo: Do you think necessarily that that means that a player of that ilk is naturally precluded though from being a great coach?

Rixon: No, not at all. No, don't get me wrong there. I just say, as a general rule, for the greats of the world (and there are not a lot of greats out there), they find it hard to understand how an average person can't make that adjustment. But it's also in the way you sell it to that individual that makes him understand it.

CricInfo: We've touched on this as well already but you're now in the process of moving back to another very challenging position in New South Wales at the helm of a State team which maybe doesn't enjoy the depth that it once did and which has been cast in the unfamiliar position over recent years of being a wooden spooner - something that has been very rare in its history. How keenly are you looking forward to the job and, as Sean Smith, Megan Lucas and Terry Walsh all ask, what are the areas that are going to assume the most immediate priority for you?

Rixon: I've had a full year off coaching since New Zealand and I didn't go and watch any grade cricket, I didn't go and watch any state cricket and I certainly didn't watch any international cricket outside of a bit on TV. The reason being that I needed to know whether I wanted to be involved in the future and, if so, where I was going to go. In that time, I was offered a couple of county jobs (which would have been quite lucrative) but they certainly didn't have the demand and the challenge that I required. As the season went on, I got involved with watching New Zealand play against Australia and I also watched the demise of New South Wales, which was very disheartening and saddening so I thought "well, that is a challenge that I would like to take on". Having said that and got myself into a frame of mind of saying I would like to, I'm now very frenzied about it; I'm looking forward to everything I do as something new which is going to lead our youngsters into a new direction and is going to make them feel like they are wanting desperately to be part of a winning combination again.

I have never ever seen a New South Wales guy that is used to getting beaten on a regular basis and I suggest that the kids that we've got at the moment are a very good cricket side and I feel that, given that we sort out a new direction for these guys and a new work ethic for the way they go about analysing their own games, introduce some new methods that I've found very beneficial to me over in New Zealand, and I do draw some analogies between the New Zealand side and this current New South Wales side. Put those into place and I think you just might see a change in the attutude toward our senior players and their responsibility to the state and the enthusiasm of our younger players learning off those senior players and their ambitions - and the bar - may be raised a little bit higher than in the past. To me, it's a very very exciting challenge, I thoroughly look forward to it and thoroughly expect success. If I made one statement about this (coming) season, I would rather go in and understate and overachieve.

CricInfo: These changes that you're talking about can we ask how radical they might be? David Bebb, for example, asks if you see yourself as the principal agent of radical change if that's what is needed in NSW cricket? How far-reaching might those changes be without wanting obviously to get too many secrets out of you?

Rixon: I don't believe that the side that has been given to me this year is anywhere near a bad side; I think they've played poor cricket but they're not a bad side. I started to jot down some names and batting positions and so forth and I saw a real core to the team. If you look at #1, #3, #5 and #7 as part of that, for example, I found it was a very good backbone and I draw the analogy to that current Australian side. If you remove Steve Waugh, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne, then you remove a backbone and that makes it very hard because everyone else is now striving to do that little bit extra. Often that creates a lot of nervousness and a lot of excess energy that doesn't lead to the best results. Now I see that we have a backbone in our side and the youngsters that are to fit the respective holes are very good cricketers; they now need to be led by the senior players. We've got a bowling attack that can get twenty wickets; that excites me. If you can get twenty wickets, you can win a game of cricket. Probably four or five years ago, we were regularly seeing the opposition of 4/450 or 3/580 or the most ridiculous things and that scared me. But not now. I see a side that can get wickets and I have no doubt that this is a balanced side.

CricInfo: Having followed the Blues a lot as you say last season when you were here, you'd probably be well aware that there were a lot of rumours doing the rounds that the whole issue of the appointment of the captain was a big issue or it was reported that way. From your point of view, is that a big issue; are people making too much of it; and where do you go from here on the subject?

Rixon: It's obviously an issue when you have four captains in one season. We're always going to be in a situation where we are disrupted by guys coming back from the Test side or one-day sides but we can't budget for those guys being involved for the season. We've got to budget for them not being around. If they are there, it's a bonus. But having said that, we do need to set our mind on a guy that is going to be a captain for a good percentage of the year. In talking to Steve Waugh, for example, he was the first to say that he did not know whether he would be about at all (and that he may play only one game or two games) and that in the best interests of the side, it would be best if he didn't take on the captaincy. He's quite happy with the idea; he thinks that we should have a captain in place. It is a priority at the moment to get the captain in place over the next week or two; a squad announced; and then we get on with life. It's an issue but it's not a major one.

CricInfo: We might make this one the last question (but unfortunately we can't really let you go without asking what your opinion in these fairly difficult times for cricket is about the whole match-fixing and betting drama that's engulfed the sport over the last month). Do you sense that the problem is as widespread as the recent revelations and innuendo have made it out to be and how confident are you generally in the game's ability to survive without having its reputation tarnished too greatly?

Rixon: I'm actually appalled at the amount that I'm hearing and that the more it gets bandied around, the more that people are coming out of hiding and saying "well actually yes, I was approached" at different stages. I think it has been around for a quite a while; it certainly wasn't evident from a playing perspective. Certainly from the years involved in coaching, I haven't noted anything of significance there. But maybe being a coach or a player, I might have been last to know unless I was one of the ones they were chasing. That hasn't happened. The game has been placed in a very awkward situation; it's in a position now where it needs to be sorted out. I think the ICC is going about it the best possible way by trying to get it solved. But with these undermining factors and the people that are involved in this sort of thing, they are very shrewd, I can only assume, and it is going to be very hard to get to the grass root level of the problem. The sooner they do, the better because people (quite rightfully so) are now looking at the game and saying "well, I wonder whether" and that's a terrible thing. In close games, people are starting to ask the question; the game is in disrepute if that's the case.

CricInfo: Steve: thank you again. We wish you every success with the Blues although I should temper that by saying that those of us who come from states other than New South Wales are a bit wary of offering you too much given how successful your last stint was! In any case, it's been a great privilege to talk to you and thanks for joining us.

Rixon: Thanks very much; it's been a very good opportunity to say hello to the public out there and I'd like to think we can maybe get together again.

Dav Whatmore
Trevor Chappell
Bob woolmer
Steve Rixon
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