Pat Howard feels success could be just around the corner for this Australian team.
Brisbane: After growing up surrounded by rugby and rollercoasters, the man hired to oversee the reconstruction of Australia's cricket team knows plenty about tackling big, moving obstacles and hair-raising rides.
So the Test squad's two big performance dips in his first month in the job are what Pat Howard considers merely as ups and downs in stage one of the restoration, frightening as they may have seemed to a generation of fans more familiar with Australia dominating cricket.
Ahead of a four-Test series against No. 2-ranked India, which the locals are treating with great trepidation following an upset loss to New Zealand this week, Howard is confident that recent setbacks have a silver lining.
He points to three man-of-the-match performances by newly capped players in the last three Tests as a signal that success could be just around the corner.
That said, he's conscious that facing an Indian team featuring Sachin Tendulkar will be a huge step up in grade for youngsters such as James Pattinson, who has taken two five-wicket hauls in his first two Tests, and David Warner, who carried his bat for an unbeaten 123 in his second Test match.
"Yes it is," Howard said in an interview with The Associated Press, "and if this was their first Test, it would have been a real issue."
It's less cause for concern now, and more of "an opportunity for them to grow. Two steps forward, one step back."
Howard is composed, he's articulate, he's not afraid of breaking new ground and he's never deluded himself into thinking he'd cut it as a Test cricketer, although he clearly loves the game. It's just that rugby was in his DNA.
He was a third-generation Wallaby, having played international rugby for Australia just as his father and maternal grandfather did, and has been a successful coach in Europe and Australia. He's a qualified pharmacist but, most recently, spent three years in a high-powered business role before leaping back into sport for the first time since quitting as Australian rugby's high performance manager in 2008.
In his earliest days, before going away to board for high school, Howard spent time on the road with his parents, who owned carnival rides and operated in the annual show circuit in Australia.
"I grew up in sideshow alley," Howard told the broadsheet Sydney Morning Herald when he was first appointed to the cricket role. "My great-grandfather, my grandmother and my father ... we're all show people. I used to be one of those kids tearing off tickets outside the ghost house. We'd put it up and pull it down and run it."
It could explain his instinct to break things down to bare components, repair what needs it, and then rebuild.
The 38-year-old father of four was a seemingly left-field choice as the general manager for team performance at Cricket Australia — a role created in the wake of a wide-ranging review of the way the national summer sport is run in Australia following an Ashes series defeat to England.
But he understands the pressures that come with representing your country, he knows what it's like to be dropped and recalled for national duties. He knows what it's like to operate as a player, coach, selector and high-performance manager.
"People talk about the rugby to cricket transition — rugby to cricket is far more similar than rugby to property and funds management," he said. "The steepness of my curve hasn't been as sharp as my last move."
Howard's job is to manage the structure around the players — the new coach, the newly-composed selection panel and Australian captain Michael Clarke answer to him.
His new office in Brisbane is thousands of kilometers away from Cricket Australia headquarters in Melbourne. It's in a building overlooking Allan Border Field, named for the Test captain who led Australia back toward the top of the game following its mid-1980s slump after the retirements of greats such as Dennis Lillee and the divisions caused by World Series Cricket and the rebel tours to South Africa.
Border, revered in Australia for his tenacity, was involved in the review that accepted sweeping changes after the Test team slipped to No. 5 in the rankings. That led to the creation of Howard's role, the appointment of former South Africa coach Mickey Arthur as the national team's first foreign coach and a restructured, five-person selection committee that includes national captain and coach.
In South Africa last month, Clarke's lineup was described as the worst Australian Test team in decades after collapsing to be all out for 47 in a humbling eight-wicket defeat in Cape Town. But they rallied to win the next Test and draw the series with a narrow win at Johannesburg, with 18-year-old Pat Cummins taking six second-innings wickets and hitting the winning runs in a man-of-the-match debut.
With Cummins among the five players injured in that series and unavailable for two home Tests against New Zealand, selectors gave bowlers Pattinson and Mitchell Starc and big-hitting Warner their debuts. The result was a nine-wicket win in the first Test, and things were looking positive.
But yet another batting collapse presented New Zealand with its first Test win on Australian soil since 1985 — and triggered alarm in Australia.
Arthur and Howard responded with a back-to-basics approach, saying any batsman who hadn't already been selected for a tour match against India next week would have to attend a boot camp in Melbourne only days before the Test series starts Dec. 26. That includes Clarke and ex-skipper Ricky Ponting, who has played 158 Tests and will be 37 when he enters camp.
The team to play India in the Boxing Day Test will be announced after that. With form and injuries to account for, there's destined to be changes.
Howard thinks that's progress, saying even the greatest players didn't all have uninterrupted careers.
Gambling on the likes of Warner, Cummins and Pattinson has given them exposure at the Test level, opportunities which were much rarer when the likes of Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist and Hayden helped Australia dominate for a decade.
"Selectors have taken that first opportunity of bringing people in, but still need to build that solid core as well," he said, rejecting speculation about Australia being in crisis. "All I know is that Cape Town to Wanderers, teams can turn around."
He says that gutsy win over South Africa at Wanderers last month and the fact Australia still tops the ODI rankings are things that fans can "latch onto."
"In all forms of game I see positives," he said. "It's not all rosy, obviously, and we've got to a lot of work to do. But we have to start building for the future, to be on top of all forms of the game.
"The nature of the ranking system means it's a gradual process," he added, looking at a series-by-series advance. "It's not supposed to be the big-bang theory."