Fierce Focus

Published: 2011
Pages: 304
Author: Chappell, Greg with Knox, Malcolm
Publisher: Hardie Grant
Rating: 4 stars

Fierce Focus

As a batsman alone, Greg Chappell would be one of the most significant figures in Australian post-WW2 cricket. His record – averaging over 53 in 87 Tests (and that is excluding his fine performances in World Series Cricket) regularly invites suggestions that apart from Sir Donald Bradman he is Australia’s greatest ever batsman.

But apart from his batting excellence Chappell has had many significant roles within cricket. Captain for two lengthy stints in the 1970s and 1980s, a pivotal figure in World Series Cricket, Australian selector and board member during the 1980s and again a selector last season, he is currently Australia’s national talent manager. Added on top of all this he was coach of India for a controversial stint in the 2000s.

Therefore, his first ever autobiography – titled Fierce Focus – promised to be full of interest, especially as Chappell has been someone who has been considered and forthright in his views over the years. Overall, this book lives up to that promise.

The story is told in chronological order, with the exception of a prologue where Greg has a final meeting in 1999 with the only person definitively considered a superior batsman for Australia – Sir Donald Bradman. Chappell’s account provides an interesting insight into Bradman’s character, and sets the standard for the rest of the autobiography.

Descriptions of childhood in cricketing autobiographies are usually bland affairs because generally they are not sufficiently skilfully written to make the inevitable cliches interesting. But Chappell’s is more of interest than usual because of his brothers Ian and Trevor (both represented Australia as well, although Trevor only briefly) and the relationships he had with them. Chappell’s father Martin is also illustrated as relentless in his drumming into his children of the importance and understanding of sport – he seems to have seen it as more important than standard education for his children. And he was proven right!

Chappell’s rise through the ranks with South Australia (and a stint in County cricket in England) to national honours is then covered. What comes through in these passages is that the secret of his success was not just his natural talent, but that at key intervals in his career he was prepared to honestly and objectively assess himself and what improvements needed to be made. Particularly noteworthy is during the 1971/72 season when his batting was stagnating and he received harsh criticism from a newspaper journalist about his batting style. For Chappell this provided an epiphany into how he needed to mentally prepare as a batsman. The way Chappell describes this process is fascinating.

The section on his international career and World Series Cricket covers not only his personal and team triumphs but also the controversies he was involved in like the aluminium bat and, of course, the underarm incident. These are interesting enough, although diluted by the fact they have been described by others (including Chappell himself) in other formats repeatedly over the years, so little new is revealed.

More interesting are events that seem to not have been made public until now. For example, in the opening Test of the 1975/76 home series against the West Indies Chappell reveals that the pitch had been altered after the first day to make it a much easier batting surface which significantly suited Australia. If not for the fact that WI captain Clive Lloyd decided to let the matter pass, a major controversy could have erupted.

Also interesting in the international section is his observations on the teammates he played with. There are astute observations on the likes of Bob Massie, Jeff Thompson and Kim Hughes and why they didn’t achieve more than they did during their careers.

On occasion his observations on teammates do not really stand up to scrutiny. An example is Dennis Lillee, someone whom he clearly admires as much as any of the teammates he played with. On his infamous clash with Javed Minandad in the early 1980s, Chappell is too generous in defending Lillee and absolving himself of any responsibility when it is hard to escape the belief that Lillee was mainly to blame for it.

Also somewhat dubious is Chappell’s account of the constant interchanging of the captaincy between himself and Kim Hughes during the early 1980s, to the benefit of no one in Australian cricket. Chappell argues that he would have been happy to give up the captaincy, but that every time Hughes got the role he was not successful in it. While true, Hughes was saddled with the more difficult tasks of captaining on away tours to Pakistan and England, while Chappell by and large got to captain at home, meaning the cards were stacked against Hughes, something Chappell should have made mention of.

Most revealing in Chappell’s account of his international career is how the status of his home life impacted on his cricket. His frustration at not being able to be present at the birth of his son lead to the wrong mindset for his unusually poor 1975 Ashes tour. His wife’s increasing unhappiness at him being away for multiple months while she was raising their young children clashing with his desire to continue is the prime reason why he was only an intermittent tourist in the early 1980s. It was only in the last couple of years of his career that the couple reach an acceptance and understanding over what role his cricket played in their lives.

The chapter on his period as Australian selector is interesting but too brief, especially considering that he was a selector during such a challenging time in Australian cricket. Only the process behind selecting Ian Healy is gone through in detail and it would have been interesting to know about why not only certain players were brought in, but why others fell out of favour (e.g. Tim Zoehrer, Greg Matthews, Wayne Phillips).

Disappointingly, his time as coach of South Australia is only given a few paragraphs. Despite being in the role for five years, he had little to show for it as SA did not win any trophies and – even more damningly – hardly any new players advanced from the side towards national honours. To avoid any introspection about this period is rather weak.

Arguably the most interesting section is Chappell’s controversial and unsuccessful tenure as coach of India. It is probably the high point of the book because of topicality, particularly with many of the players he discusses currently touring Australia. He goes into great detail into the machinations of the role and the challenges it involved, particularly his relationship with Sourav Ganguly. While Chappell has only positive things to say about Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, he is less than kind to many other regulars in the Indian side.

The book ends on his current role with Australian cricket where he makes some astute observations on why Australian cricket declined in recent years.

The overall impression one gets of Chappell is a perceptive individual who thinks deeply about the game of cricket and has many interesting and advanced theories on how the game should be run and played. However, it is easy to understand why he has failed in coaching as ‘man management’, diplomacy and understanding the needs of others is not his strong suit (something he admits in the book).

This is one of the better cricket autobiographies to come out in recent years.

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