John Wright: A disciplinarian who sticks to the basics

John Wright © Getty Images

John Wright, born on July 5, 1954, is a former New Zealand opening batsman who went on to become a highly successful coach of international and domestic cricket teams. Jaideep Vaidya runs through the career of the Kiwi great.

Hailing from Darfield, a small township on the outskirts of Christchurch with a population just edging into four figures, John Wright has ensured that his hometown has got its name on the world map. The first Kiwi to score 5,000 runs in Test cricket, Wright was a stubborn, languid opening batsman who liked to take his time when it came to his batting: whether it was making minute of adjustments to the sightscreen or settling into his batting position after a rather extended pre-delivery routine. His first-ever innings in Test cricket was what seemed like a laborious 55 that came off 244 balls, bowled mostly by the trio of Bob Willis, Mike Hendrick and Chris Old. However, the innings played an important, if not crucial, part in determining the result of the match, which was a historic one for his team.

Wright’s 55 at Basin Reserve in 1978, which was his team’s top score in the first innings, and Richard Hadlee‘s 10-wicket haul helped New Zealand score a 72-run win over Geoff Boycott‘s England. What made the win so special was that it had come for the first-time ever, after 48 years and in the 48th Test match between the two countries. The Wisden Almanack report of the match had these lines about Wright’s innings: “Surviving a strong appeal for a catch at the wicket against Willis off the first ball of the game, Wright settled into a groove of brave and skilled defiance which had an important bearing on the result. Nothing disturbed him. He waited 47 minutes for his first run, and ended the opening day of five hours 40 minutes — there were two interruptions for rain and bad light — with unbeaten on 55. What New Zealand’s fate might have been but for Wright was not difficult to imagine. Though he was out next day without adding to his score, Wright had laid the foundation for his side’s victory.”

It was a memorable debut for Wright, who went on frustrate more bowlers around the world in his 15-year playing career. If it was Willis and Co in 1978 in the beginning, it was Craig McDermott and Merv Hughes at the fag end of Wright’s career, who had to put up with his overtly watchful and defensive batting. And Wright enjoyed doing it. He loved getting under the skin of the opposition and tickling the bear, even if was as big as Merv Hughes. “I liked to play at my own pace, and the fact that it enraged opposition bowlers and captains was a bonus,” he wrote, in John Wright’s Indian Summers. It is paradoxical statistic that Wright is only one of four players in the history of the game who have scored eight runs off a single delivery.

John Wright

John Wright was a gritty left-handed opening batsman and the first Kiwi to cross 5,000 Test runs © Getty Images

For all his tenaciousness, Wright grew on to be a gritty batsman who scored hundreds against all opponents he played against. He played an integral part in New Zealand’s success through the 1980s, when they won a series home and away against Australia for the first time. He notched 12 Test centuries in 85 matches at an average under 40, with a highest of 185 against India at Christchurch. In One-Day Internationals (ODIs), he was less successful: 149 matches resulted in just one century. Wright retired in 1993 after a mediocre series against Australia and took up a career in sales. However, he soon realised that it was just far too difficult to keep cricket away from his life.

Second innings

In the February of 1997, in the middle of a management meeting, Wright received a phone call from good friend Graham Cowdrey, son of the great Colin Cowdrey, informing him that a coaching job is about to open up at Kent County Cricket Club. Wright had played for Kent’s second team in 1976, before going on to play for Derbyshire. He gladly grabbed the opportunity and became head coach. Three years later, in 2000, Rahul Dravid played for Kent. After a couple of failed attempts to try and become coach of the England and New Zealand cricket teams, Wright soon discovered through Dravid that some of the senior Indian players were pressing their board to hire a foreign coach. The conversation, along with another one with Lancashire’s Sourav Ganguly, turned out to be the first step in what was to be a defining phase in Wright’s life.

Soon enough, Wright got a call from the then secretary of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), Jaywant Lele, requesting him to fly to Chennai for an interview. Wright was the underdog among names like Geoff Marsh and Greg Chappell. “I was an outsider, but at least I had the chance to look them in the eye and make my case.” As it turned out, Wright had made a good enough case for him to be named the first foreign coach of the Indian cricket team, which he was to discover via the BBC’s Ceefax on November 2, 2000.

Wright was entering unchartered, rather treacherous, territory. The dust from the match-fixing scandal had barely settled when Wright, belongings et al, flew out to New Delhi. “I wasn’t sure what lay ahead and it looked like the Indians didn’t either. The photos of the new coach that appeared in the papers were at least 10 years old. Some Indian cricket followers must have looked at them and wondered if the BCCI had taken leave of its senses: they could have had anyone, but they’d gone for a little-known, wet-behind-the-ears foreigner.”

The unreal world

India was of course a whole new ball game from Kent. Wright soon realised that he would have to start right from the roots. One of the first things he implemented was to get rid of the unhealthy routine of having tea and biscuits prior to a practice session. This was followed by disallowing the players from taping their fingers before fielding practice. As much as the Indians had carved a niche for themselves around the world for their batting, their fielding unit in the nineties was a shambolic one, for the lack of a better word. The reason was evident from the coach’s initial observations: “When it came to batting practice, the challenge was getting them to stop; with physical fitness, it was getting them started.”

Wright laid down the “non-negotiables” to the team: punctuality, honesty and intensity. “The rules were simple and clear; they applied to everyone from the global superstar to the teenaged debutant, and could be understood and adhered to by a graduate or a dropout.” He encouraged the lads to be honest, open and upfront. “I wasn’t backward in letting them know what I thought of their performances, and I had no problem with them doing the same to me.”

It wasn’t just the players on whom Wright cracked the whip, but anyone and anything he thought could possibly stand in the way of his team and its goals. He held the team space sacred, especially in the middle of a match. Before Wright, the Indian dressing room was an open entry to people with connections. Wright, who had never seen anything of the sort anywhere else in the world, tried his best to change it. “I evicted all sorts: BCCI bigwigs, chief inspectors of police, hotel banquet managers, army officers, people with titles that sounded mighty impressive and possible were. I never stopped to think how important they might be”, even if they were one of the biggest beer barons in the country. This, from a man thought to be too soft to be coach of the Indian cricket team. As Mumbai Indians’ Aditya Tare, who worked under Wright for the 2013 season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) put it, “He [Wright] is soft-spoken, but not soft.”

There were a lot of things that didn’t go Wright’s way or were denied to him, like a dedicated physical trainer (for the initial years of his tenure), a stable team manager, selectors and even board president. But Wright took it all in his stride and worked with what little he had. With physio Andrew Leipus’s help, Wright took up the role of coach-cum-trainer and turned India from a bunch of sloppy, unfit cricketers who dived over the ball rather than at it, to one that showed promising signs of change.

Wright knew that he needed to have his captain’s backing. “My relationship with Sourav [Ganguly] was obviously going to be critical. I thought I could help him tactically, but I began with the basics, suggesting that he get a new watch as it was important the captain was on time. I talked about setting an example and the importance of body language and how those sorts of things were more pertinent to leadership on and off the field than what you said. We came from different backgrounds but had plenty in common. We were both ambitious and desperately keen to succeed in our respective roles; to do that we’d need each other’s help. And our destinies are linked: we’d sink or swim together.”

John Wright

John Wright (left) with his captain Sourav Ganguly (right) and Sachin Tendulkar © Getty Images

Together, Wright and Ganguly transformed the shape of the Indian cricket team from a one-man ship that only stayed afloat in friendly, homely waters to one that genuinely challenged and even started winning abroad. Youngsters like Harbhajan Singh, Virender Sehwag, Yuvraj Singh and Mohammad Kaif were blooded and groomed under their tutelage. Slowly, the Indian cricket fraternity began to see the winds of change. And it all began with the epic home series against Australia in 2001, where the team scripted a remarkable comeback from being one Test and two days down, to winning 2-1. It broke Australia’s winning streak of 16 matches on the go and was a big step forward, both for the Indian team and for Wright, who was no longer a punching bag for the ex-players, who had shunned the idea of a foreign coach.

India broke many a record and achieved many firsts under Wright: right from achieving their first Test win outside the sub-continent in 15 years (Zimbabwe, 2001), to ending a run of 10 successive defeats in an One-Day International (ODI) final (NatWest Trophy in England, 2002), to a first Test win in England (2002) and Australia (2003-04), to reaching their first World Cup final in 20 years (South Africa, 2003) and the ultimate one — becoming the first Indian team to win a Test series in Pakistan (2004). Wright decided to call it quits after Pakistan’s return tour in 2005, as he could not stand the separation from his young family back in New Zealand any longer. However, as was his exit from his playing career, Wright’s swan-song with Team India wasn’t to be a glorious one as they drew in Tests and lost the ODI series.

It wasn’t a fairytale ending, but Wright had done enough with the team in four and a half years to leave a permanent mark in the fans’ hearts. “People would stop me in the street and thank me for being ‘our’ coach. It was humbling, but also guilt-inducing, because many of those who thanked me for doing a well-paid job that I loved led lives of day-to-day struggle. The gratitude and support I received from ordinary Indians was the most positive force I’ve ever encountered, in that it simultaneously lifted me and kept my feet on the ground. More than anything else, that was what kept me going through the hard, lonely times.”

What followed

Wright coached the ICC World XI in a Test and ODI in 2005, before returning back home to his family. He would take up small roles with New Zealand Cricket in the years to follow, before his country’s board asked him to take up the top job leading up to the 2011 World Cup. In December, 2010, Wright was named coach of the New Zealand cricket team. He took the Black Caps to the semi-finals of the World Cup, co-hosted by his beloved India, and resigned a year later. In 2013, he was to be announced head coach of the Mumbai Indians for the IPL. In his very first season, Wright helped Mumbai clinch their maiden title in six attempts.

Wright’s name will go down the annals of history as a dedicated and disciplined performer, whether as a player or as a coach. Just like he refrained from being too flashy during his days as an opening batsmen, Wright, the coach, is someone who sticks to the basics and dotes on discipline. He is a very good motivator, as Tendulkar was to later reveal after reaching 100 international tons. “I remember a long time ago, in the 2003 World Cup, John Wright had told me ‘you should become the first player to score 100 international hundreds’. We used to have many chats and in one of them he said this,” said the Little Master.

As things stand, Wright’s loyalties and dedication lies with the Mumbai Indians for a couple of months of the year. Needless to say, the team is reaping the benefits. “John is a genuine man with a big heart and great sense of understanding,” said Tare. “As a coach, I’d say he’s a strict disciplinarian, very positive and always giving you the confidence and a positive pep talk. He is a great coach to work with.”

In Pics: John Wright’s cricketing career

(Jaideep Vaidya is a correspondent at CricketCountry. A diehard Manchester United fan and sports buff, you can follow him on Twitter and Facebook)