Why the 'Phil Jackson' of cricket sees baseball as more than just a game

Tim Brown
Yahoo Sports
A general view of play during the game between Team Australia and the Dodgers at Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday. (Getty Images)

australia dodgers

A general view of play during the game between Team Australia and the Dodgers at Sydney Cricket Ground on Thursday. (Getty Images)

SYDNEY, Australia – The man in Bay 1, Row Z, Seat 2 at Sydney Cricket Ground, where the Los Angeles Dodgers were at the moment getting trucked by a team of Australian ballplayers and delivery van drivers, once played a little baseball. That was up in Queensland, after a mediocre cricket career had been put out of its misery, and a local amateur baseball club needed a first baseman, and he was available. That lasted a couple years and was fun and all, but that was before the Queensland Bulls cricket team hired him to be its coach, and long before he left that job to become coach of the Australian national cricket team.

John Buchanan, known here as Buck, sat Thursday night among his countrymen and, like them, sorted through a game at once familiar and foreign. A woman vendor passed with a pile of jumbo Cracker Jack bags. She explained to a nearby couple it was sorta popcorn-ish only stickier, with nuts, and did not make the sale. Buchanan raised an eyebrow.

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"Is it like a lolly?" he asked.

For the better part of an hour, Buchanan had kindly and patiently walked an ignorant Yankee through cricket. Where they stand, why they stand there, what they're trying to do and why they're trying to do it. About seven words stuck. As a backdrop, Dodgers shuffled to the plate and back, and Buchanan remarked that baseball, from what he could see, was quite pitching dominant, and he made no judgment of that. Just that it seemed to be. I wondered where the two games met, somewhere within a vertical swing and a horizontal one, in a pitch that bounces or doesn't, in a game that lasts a work week and one that sometimes only seems to.

But what Buchanan thought about was the athletes inside the games, and the psyches inside the athletes, and the frailties inside the psyches. He watched an Australian pitcher throw a fastball to the backstop and wondered if the next pitch wouldn't be the most hittable of the at-bat, given the embarrassment of the wild pitch, and the pitcher's fresh eagerness to throw a strike in front of all these people, and maybe he'd take a little off that fastball in the name of precision. Alas, the next pitch was also wayward, but it wasn't an unreasonable presumption.

He loves that stuff and made a more than reasonable career out of it, actually. Read his history, talk through his history, and there's a Tony La Russa aspect to it, the way he first drew statistics from a computer screen and took them to the field (and to a skeptical audience), and a Phil Jackson bent, in the way he sought a player's mind on the way to finding his performance.

"I was reaching for the whole person," Buchanan said. "It wasn't the cricketer. The cricketer was inside the person."

Buchanan won two Sheffield Shields while in Queensland, which, at the time, was the equivalent of the Chicago Cubs winning a couple of World Series over the next few years. For that, he is in the Queensland Hall of Fame. Then he took Australia to 70 wins in 91 Tests, which is as good as it sounds.

What's interesting about Buchanan is that nobody ever really knew what to think of him, or at least granted that whatever they did think of him, the exact opposite might be true. Twenty years ago, he brought computer analysis to cricket. He hired an assistant coach's brother, who worked as a Microsoft programmer, to record and make sense of everything that happened after the ball left a bowler's hand. Buchanan would print the results and leave a copy near his players' lockers. Allan Border, the iconic cricketer, famously held the first of these printouts at arm's length, crumpled it in his hands and left it before Buchanan in a ball.

"So, yeah," Buchanan said, "it met with some resistance." And now?

"Well, everybody's got it," he said. "Everybody's got their own version of it now. In that sense, it's probably lost its competitive advantage. Now, it's in the interpretation."

Buchanan once left his players handwritten messages that quoted a Chinese warlord. He once loaded players into two mini buses to go see protected albatrosses. One turned back in mutiny. The other, driven by Buchanan, continued onward, only to discover the sanctuary had closed an hour before. He once took his team to visit a European World War I site where many Australians and New Zealanders perished, because this was important, because this was a part of who they were too, something bigger, and to find the cricketer first ,one had to find the man.

His coaching jobs ran their course, and now, at 60, he consults corporations and other entities on the thin line of leadership, and he wondered about baseball, so he found Gate G at the old SCG and found his seat behind home plate and got to thinking about this game he hardly knows.

Once, he'd become a coach without much of a resume, having never played for the national team.

"I didn't come out of the traditional stock," he said. "I didn't wear the baggy green."

And now the man they call Buck and used to call "the mad professor" brought fresh eyes to Row Z, and found the game intrigued him, because he knew there was more to it, more than he knew. Just as he believed he could not teach cricket to an outsider over a couple hours, and certainly not from a fold-down chair on a night the game was baseball, but tried anyway, he believed he would not learn baseball over a couple hours, but tried anyway.

He liked it. He liked what it stood for. Or what he assumed it must stand for. It's the tradition, he said. The history. How it survived all these years, and became stronger than ever.

"To me," he said, smiling slyly, "that means there's so many things that are done the way things have always been done, because they've always been done that way."

That, he said, is interesting. That is opportunity. And Buck thought that might be very interesting.

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