Tim Nielsen

'It would've been hypocritical for me to cry and carry on'

The former Australia coach talks about losing his job, Australia's last two Ashes, Greg Chappell, and the captaincy of Ponting and Clarke

Interview by Daniel Brettig

Read part one of the interview here

Australia's cricketers came home from India in 2008 to a summer of defeat by South Africa at home, and beyond that lay an Ashes series speckled with what-ifs. In the second instalment of a two-part series, the former national coach Tim Nielsen describes those series, the external pressures and influences that had an impact on the team's performances, and his views on Greg Chappell, Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke.

"When I was coaching in that Indian summer [in 2008], you have the attitude of "Stuff keeps happening but I'll keep at it, nothing's too hard," but after a while it can wear you down" © Getty Images

After India [2007-08] you came home to defeat New Zealand, but South Africa would become the first touring team to win a Test series in Australia since 1993. Is this where you really felt the decline of Brett Lee and Stuart Clark?
Sarf [Stuart Clark] broke down before that Perth Test match with his elbow, and that was probably the beginning of the end for him, and that changed the whole balance of our attack. And because of Sarf not playing, Binga's workload again went up and he ended up breaking down in Melbourne. He had come off a pretty difficult personal time with his marriage and everything else, but he'd been such a tremendous fast bowler for us. In the West Indies [in 2008] he swung the new ball away and then he reversed it at 150kph with the old ball. Everybody said "They aren't much good", but Brett Lee made their team look a lot worse than they were. Him breaking down hurt us big-time, and not having Clark around as a mainstay of our attack made it difficult as well, because he could almost take on the role of a spinner at times. All of a sudden Mitchell got eight-for in Perth and knocked them over in the first innings, and then we only had them four-down in the second innings when they chased more than 400. The game certainly turned pretty quickly there.

In Melbourne you were in a dominant position entering day three, before Dale Steyn and JP Duminy turned the game with a remarkable partnership. Great teams can generally snuff out the tail.
It's something we'd done very well as an Australian team in the past - seven down [for the opposition] was all out. Even last year in the one dayer against Sri Lanka in Melbourne we saw that, those little things have some effect on your confidence, not just because you lost but because of the questions they ask of you. What are we doing wrong, you start to doubt. They had a bit of luck, they played really well, it was a good contest and they came out on top.

A win in the final Test, in Sydney gave you some Test match momentum for South Africa, where you must have enjoyed a really satisfying series victory with a young team?
It was an excellent series. A bit like them coming to Australia and winning - teams don't often go to South Africa and win. It's funny, you win a series, take a breath, have a quiet beer that night and then you're off, on to the next one. On reflection that was pretty special because we had a young bowling attack. We felt we were getting a group of players together.

Andrew McDonald did not play again despite being part of the South African success. Why was that?
He filled a role but it was in some regards conditional: the conditions in South Africa allowed us to not play a spinner, and we had Marcus North in the side. We were still desperate to play with three quicks and a spinner as a legitimate frontline attack, and to be honest we felt if there was going to be an allrounder playing in our side it was going to be Shane Watson. At that stage Shane was still coming to terms with his body and getting himself right, so it wasn't about chopping Andrew McDonald off but asking, "Is this the sort of formula that will get us back to being the best team?" The balance of three quicks plus a medium-pacer plus a part-time spinner we didn't feel was the right thing forever. It won us a series in conditions that suited, but I don't know if it would've had lasting impact.

In the 2009 Ashes you were one wicket away from victory in Cardiff but could not separate the final pair. Anything that may have been done differently?
Don't know. Gone over it a few times! It was just one of those freakish things - whatever we did we just couldn't get the final wicket to fall, and they fought their backsides off. We'd done so well up to that stage, [but] it just didn't happen. That was hard to cop, but what was harder was the disappointment and frustration that carried over into Lord's. Physically we were drained but emotionally we were drained as well. We lost the toss and bowled and we were under pressure almost immediately. We thought we'd cleared our minds [of Cardiff] and were ready to go, but I don't know if we were quite ready.

After Lord's there were injury dramas at Edgbaston, then a comprehensive victory at Leeds...
We fought well at Edgbaston, Brad Haddin broke his finger and [Graham] Manou came in late, so we coped with adversity there in a rainy match we got a draw out of, and then fronted up in Leeds and won convincingly.

We got to The Oval and we probably underestimated how dry the wicket actually was, but with Marcus North in the side, and the fact that we won the Test the week before with Stuart Clark contributing, we went in with the same team. People called on the fact we didn't pick a spinner, [but] Marcus North got wickets in the first innings and did as good a job as a spinner was going to do. We just didn't bat well enough in that Test match to make sure we stuck with England.

"If we didn't get it right at The Oval [2009], it wasn't because we were being silly about it. We thought it was the best team to win the Test. We didn't go in there trying to prove a point. Too much is made of it in some regards"

Much rumour has surrounded the reasons for Nathan Hauritz's omission for the Oval Test on a dry pitch. Was he 100% ready to play?
He was struggling a bit, struggling physically, and that all stacked up [with other factors]. The only time we took 20 wickets in a Test match in the series was at Headingley. Stuart Clark had been successful all round the world in all sorts of different conditions. We'd had success in South Africa [with] a team we thought would work in the conditions, and if we didn't get it right at The Oval, it wasn't because we were being silly about it. We thought it was the best team to win the Test. Admittedly it swung around a bit more in Leeds, but we didn't go in there trying to prove a point or anything else. Too much is made of it in some regards. No one says it was a great selection to have Watson open the batting, no one praises the selectors for that, but it is a terrible selection not to pick a spinner. Easy to throw stones when things don't work out. If you win you're a genius, and if you lose you're a dunce.

After the Ashes it seemed Australia's attitude was "We lost the series due to a couple of bad hours but we're on the right track", whereas England felt fortunate to win and redoubled their efforts to improve as a team.
I don't take too much out of that. We came home and people can say what they like about the competition of West Indies and Pakistan, we won every game of the summer, apart from a draw in Adelaide. You can only play against the opposition you're given. We kept trying to improve, we kept trying to identify the best mix of players for our team, talking to the selectors about how we felt the team was going. Shane Watson started to explode, and it was a hell of a decision to take [Phillip] Hughes out after what he'd done in South Africa and replace him with Watto. The way he opened in one-day cricket and the way he faced up to fast bowling were really aspects we'd been looking to get into the team for a while.

You went back to India in 2010 for two Tests, and lost a classic in Mohali. But you had to contend with the Champions League in the lead-up.
As a coach I was pretty dirty on that whole set-up because they changed the tour from being seven one-dayers to two Tests at late notice. We weren't allowed to take our players out of the Champions League, which I wanted to do. I understand CA's decision, but Doug Bollinger was playing four-over cricket right as the tour started, then broke down in the first Test. I've no doubt if [he was] fit and right and bowling full-time we'd have won that Test match in Mohali.

I can't imagine an AFL team would let their bloke go and do something like that [before a big game]. They look after their players as best they can for what's important; they don't compromise. That was one thing in my career as a coach I was a little bit upset about - that we didn't get 100% support from CA, and our team was compromised by that.

Andrew Hilditch has said that loss was damaging because a victory would have worked wonders for the confidence of the team.
We knew how important that series was. If we win in India, the momentum we carry back into Australia is massive. Just as difficult to cop was playing three one-dayers against Sri Lanka when we wanted our players preparing for the Brisbane Test [against England]. Those are things that made the job as coach of the Australian team bloody difficult at times. You just have to put your point of view forward, debate those issues, and in the end there are external circumstances that have to be dealt with that I can't control in my role.

You look at England last summer - they had two teams out here and three first-class games and were looked after. We were racing around playing one day cricket and squeezing our blokes into two Shield games as tightly as we could. It wasn't ideal, but Mohali was a tough loss, and we also fought pretty hard in Bangalore. We had our chances and didn't take them - one of the hallmarks of a developing side. Good sides identify those moments and have players good enough to stand up and do it. Whereas we were still learning to identify it quickly enough and then have a player stand up.

"Ricky Ponting's a brilliant cricket man. He has what I'd term a 'team ego' - everything he does is for the team and trying to get them performing better. I don't think I've got more respect for anyone in cricket than Ricky" © AFP

Did you ever hear CA express the view "They're professional players, they should be able to cope with that"?
I understood totally where they were coming from, the importance of Champions League being successful and for Twenty20 to go off, and now the BBL here. But my backside and our team's was on the line with our performances, so I debated it and fought as hard as I possibly could to get what we thought was right for the team, but once the decision was made we didn't complain about it. That's one area where the cricket coach can differ from other sports, where if the coach says "No, that's not going to happen", that's it, the coach has the final say. It was frustrating from my perspective, but also part of the challenge - how to be as good as we can be with the constraints we have.

How do you look at the Ashes now?
We got outplayed, but having said that, we pretty much dominated the first four days in Brisbane. We got outplayed in Adelaide and the game was almost over before it started for us. We went to Perth and played really well, when Johnson and Ryan Harris got nine wickets each. We just didn't bat well enough in the first innings in Melbourne, in tough conditions - the whole series came down to that. Dress it up as much as you like, that was the day.

In the 14th over, Bresnan's bowling to Hughes, and he's got about three balls to get to drinks, and he nicks it to gully, playing a big drive on the up. After drinks we go in at two-down and the first over after that Ponting is squared up and caught in slips and we're three-for, chasing our tail with two brand new batsmen in. They're the passages that cost you Test matches or make it really difficult to win. We wouldn't mind [having] that moment back again. We thought we prepared really well, but losing Katich to injury was a big loss. He came into Adelaide under a cloud with his Achilles, and because he meant so much to us we probably gave him a bit of extra leeway because of that, and it didn't help him.

A lot of the changes that have been implemented since were of the kind that Ponting, Hilditch and yourself had been recommending for some time. Why weren't those suggestions taken on earlier?
Like in any business or any situation, sometimes you need a crisis to actually force things to happen. There's having to be a prioritisation on the Australian cricket team, and therefore they're going to have to take funding from other areas to do that. All those things stack up to how we're going to chop the pie up best to have the best results for everyone. It is things we've talked about. It is good they're talking about them and excellent that they're implementing them, because we all want Australian cricket to be as strong as it can possibly be, because that means ultimately more money will flow back to the state teams and we can have better facilities and support for the young players coming through.

Apart from your own job, are you happy with the way the Argus review has re-shaped things?
It will offer greater support to the Australian team and it will mean a new level of professionalism around the team as well, with people 100% committed. I'm also pleased the Australian Test team will be the No. 1 priority. That's a huge thing. Maybe for a few years we'd become jack of all trades, master of none. We now can say our top priority is Test match cricket, and no doubt over a four-year stretch we'll build up to a World Cup, but if we have to rest players out of a one day series, then that's good, that's how it should be. I've said publicly before that it was a bit disappointing that we'd been discussing these things for a while and we didn't get the opportunity to implement them, and I feel as though I could've done them. I hope we get the right people in place.

How difficult was the Sri Lanka tour - trying to do the best job you could even as your job was being spilled?
It was really difficult but I also had a brand new captain. I was 100% committed to giving him everything he needed to be as successful as he could be. I remember Ricky starting his captaincy in Sri Lanka in Test matches, and I'm sure the success in that series went a long way towards him having the confidence and feeling good about himself and carrying forward. You lose that first series, so many questions would've been asked, and he would've asked questions of himself.

"Maybe for a few years we'd become jack of all trades, master of none. We now can say our top priority is Test match cricket, and no doubt over a four-year stretch we'll build up to a World Cup, but if we have to rest players out of a one-day series, then that's good, that's how it should be"

I didn't like that my job had been spilled and [I had been] asked to re-apply, but there'd been players in the past who'd been dropped and had to get on with it anyway. I'd asked players in that position in the past to carry themselves well, and it would've been hypocritical for me to kick cans around and cry and carry on. I made my decision at the end of the tour, but before that I had a captain and team, and I wouldn't allow myself not to do the best I could in the time I was there.

Was it satisfying, then, to sign off with a series win?
There'd only been one other team since Australia in 2004 to win [a Test] series in Sri Lanka. So that was really satisfying to win there with a new young spinner in the team and different things going on. I was happy that Michael was able to start his captaincy the way he did, and also that with so many people questioning the way it would be between Ricky and Michael, that took a fair bit of work, to make sure that was working and they felt comfortable. Ricky had to go home for the birth of his baby as well. Michael coped with that well. We just did what we do every day. James Sutherland said, "We've seen Tim stand up more than in the past", and I just said to him, "I'm just doing my job. It's just that there's been a big focus on me and us because of decisions made externally."

Greg Chappell is another man whose job has been altered significantly by the Argus review. He was your coaching mentor in South Australia but has been a polarising figure in some ways.
I've got the utmost respect for him. He's an excellent cricket figure. You say he polarises opinion. He doesn't take any bullshit. If he doesn't agree with you, he'll tell you. If he has an opinion, he voices it, and he doesn't necessarily care too much whether people agree or not with him. That can polarise opinion, because you're not necessarily massaging relationships all the time. In his role at CA, Greg was, and is, national talent manager, with a brief to progress young talent. Now that was always going to rattle some cages, because progressing and identifying talent, unless you use the scorebook, is using gut feel, having opinion and being able to voice that, and Greg did that in a forthright way. We're seeing [Patrick] Cummins now, Mitchell Marsh, these young players [coming] through. Don't get me wrong, he will probably miss every now and again as well, but that's talent ID or selection, you don't get everything right. He's a mentor for me and I'll miss working with him.

Does his present role as national talent manager suit his qualities?
I think you take away a lot of his teeth by him not being a selector. We're looking to progress young players and push them forward as quickly as we can. It's important that he has a voice on the selection panel, because he's watching them and talking to them, and it gives him the opportunity to pick young players in Test match teams with an eye towards the future, and that's the art of selection, not relying on guys to perform their backsides off for two years before they get picked.

Ricky Ponting was captain for all but one Test series of your time in the job. That relationship was a pivotal one.
Ricky Ponting's a brilliant cricket man, [with] a great understanding of the game and no ego. He has what I'd term a "team ego" - everything he does is for the team and trying to get them performing better. He understands that for his team to play well, Ponting making 150 is going to take them a lot of the way there. He loves making runs for himself, but he's trying to do it because he knows it's the best thing for his team.

I don't think I've got more respect for anyone in cricket than Ricky. The relationship and the ups and downs we had to go through over those four years tend to drag you pretty close. If there's anything I could've done last summer, it would've been to lighten the load on Ricky, and I spoke to him a couple of times about just worrying about [his] batting. He also carried a real opinion that "That's my job, I'm captain of Australia, I have to do this and that; if I don't do it, no one else can."

And what of Michael Clarke - how do you think his captaincy will develop after a strong start?
His biggest challenge will be to make sure he keeps his mind on his batting as well. There's so much going on with the team at the moment, so many distractions, and as a first-time captain of the Australian team full-time, he's going to have so much to do around the place. I just hope he can continue to bat as well as he is at the moment and not let those distractions get in the way. If he's playing well, a lot of the stuff looks after itself.

I know myself, when I was coaching in that Indian summer [in 2008], you have the attitude of "Stuff keeps happening but I'll keep at it, nothing's too hard," but after a while it can wear you down. So Michael needs to be aware that it can wear him down. He's still in that little enthusiastic period where he's first started. He has natural aptitude for the captaincy, and I think he can also end up one of Australia's most successful cricketers as a player if he concentrates on his game. All the successful Australian captains have led from the front as players, and that's the really critical thing for all of them. If he can do that, he'll be one of Australia's best.

Read part one of the interview here

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo