Behind the scenes: How the Heat recruited for BBL|09
We take you inside the meeting rooms and hear from the key figures involved in Brisbane's planning ahead of this summer's Big Bash campaign
March 7, 2019
Darren Lehmann walks into the middle of a media throng at Allan Border Field in Brisbane. He smiles warmly and shakes hands with a couple of familiar journalists. It is 18 days since the conclusion of BBL|08 though not yet 12 months removed from the Cape Town ball-tampering scandal that precipitated Lehmann's resignation as Australia coach.
The Queensland Cricket offices and the expanse of AB Field is comforting territory for the man who has just been unveiled as Brisbane Heat's new men's head coach. It is the base from which he led the Heat to their only title – in BBL|02 – to cement an instant legacy with the KFC Big Bash's lone Queensland franchise.
"I started my coaching career in Queensland, and then Brisbane Heat, so to come back to where it all started is quite exciting," Lehmann says, still smiling.
Yet while the presence of Lehmann might invoke nostalgic ideas, his arrival more pointedly marks the beginning of a new era at the Heat. The departure of former coach Daniel Vettori after four largely disappointing seasons, and the retirement of legendary batsman Brendon McCullum, means reinvention is not only desired but mandatory.
The numbers for Heat fans make humbling reading; that BBL|02 final success remains their most recent knockout win, with their only finals appearance since coming in a Super Over defeat to the Sixers in BBL|06. It makes them the only team not to have played multiple finals matches through that period.
Chief among Lehmann's key touch points during the press conference is the need for the team to "play smarter".
A week later, allrounder Ben Cutting reiterates the idea when speaking with cricket.com.au.
"We always talk about entertaining and taking the game on, but you can't always do that in every game and every situation," Cutting says.
"So we need to take the quality of players that we've got and refine our skills a little bit, to suit the plans we come up with under 'Boof' (Lehmann)."
Lehmann is to spend the next couple of months working on these plans with his key offsider, assistant coach James Hopes.
A pivotal factor in all of it is recruitment.
Lehmann sits opposite Heat general manager Andrew McShea in a meeting room with a glass wall that runs along the corridor. The floor is green AstroTurf, and between them is a blue table-tennis table upon which they drop their keys and wallets. Lifesize cutouts of Chris Lynn, Mitch Swepson and Kirby Short stand in three corners of the room, part of a newly-refurbished office situated in the back of the Matthew Hayden Stand overlooking AB Field.
Both men are sporting well-kept ‘winter’ beards, and the conversation flits from the ongoing World Cup to the evening's State of Origin opener to the fixture for BBL|09, the latter of which is a main focus of this scheduled meeting.
A complete draft schedule was sent to all clubs the previous night by Cricket Australia, with feedback requested across the next 24 hours. McShea and Lehmann spend the next 30 minutes going through the dates and venues on a 60-inch TV screen mounted to the front wall of the meeting room. The pair work through potential logistics such as flights, training times and days off, and make calls to:
- Stay on the road when there are only two-day gaps between games
- Have a quick dressing-room drink and team chat post-match to work out appetite/need for training sessions in days that follow
- Be flexible in terms of players taking separate flights in/out of cities
- Get the players to form a social committee to organise at least one squad activity
Throughout the discussion, the need for recovery between matches during what is a jam-packed scheduled is reiterated. Overall, Lehmann and McShea conclude they're very happy with the fixture, though they're also aware it is a first iteration.
Midway through the meeting, assistant coach James Hopes and team manager Damien Clark arrive and the conversation immediately shifts to recruitment.
"I would like an experienced No.4, I think that's what we miss," Lehmann tells the other three men, and it quickly becomes clear he sees such a role being filled by an international signing. "I'm thinking of a left-hander at No.4. Preferably it would've been AB (de Villiers) at four, but (Eoin) Morgan, (David) Miller – they're the first two; gun fielders, good blokes. Then third off the rank you're looking at (JP) Duminy."
The Heat had considered themselves front-runners for the prized signature of South African superstar AB de Villiers, who had in April expressed his interest in playing in the tournament. But a month later, news emerged de Villiers and his management had cooled on the idea when an all-out bidding war began among a host of Big Bash clubs.
"We had him across the line, we think – pretty close – then they opened it up, then he just pulled the pin on the whole thing, so that makes it a bit hard," Lehmann opines, kick-starting this exchange between he and Hopes, who tosses a white stress ball between his hands.
Hopes: You're looking for a steadying kind of influence at No.4?
Lehmann: Well not really. I want a left-hander. If you get off to a flyer you don't need the steadying influence, you just want someone that reads the game well enough. That's why I'm saying if you get a Morgan or an AB or a Miller, they've played enough, they can just control the game. You know, if you're two for shit, (Ben) Cutting and (Max) Bryant are out, (Chris) Lynn and Miller come in, Miller says, 'This is a 200 wicket, we've got to keep going', or, 'This is only a 140 wicket, let's get that total'.
Hopes: Then we go hard again at five and six?
Hopes: Where's that put 'Burnsy' (Joe Burns) in the mix?
Lehmann: Well we've got (Matt) Renshaw and Burns. And (Jimmy) Peirson.
Hopes: Renshaw can go hard.
The players discussed range from the speculative (Andre Russell) to the innovative (Lehmann wonders if the BCCI might be willing to break with their long-held rule of preventing players from taking part in the Big Bash in order to give Indian young gun Rishabh Pant a better ICC T20 World Cup preparation; he also suggests David Warner as a possible local signing, adding the Heat would be "silly not to talk to him – I'll give him a call").
McShea explains in an interview directly after the meeting that this formative recruitment discussion is about casting a wide net, working out attractive options and assessing availability and suitability in terms of squad balance from there.
He also points out that where the Heat, and other clubs, got by in previous seasons on two international recruits, the proliferation of T20 tournaments around the world means that is unlikely to continue being the case.
"At the moment where the League is at, you're probably looking at a competition that sees (international) players come and be replaced," he says. "That's as opposed to maybe the last four or five years of the Big Bash, where we've had the luxury of guys like Brendon McCullum and Mujeeb (Ur Rahman) for us last summer, where you get them from the start and they're there all the way through.
"I think in the next little bit that's probably going to be challenging for the majority (of teams)."
Back in the meeting room, Lehmann puts English players atop his target list due to affordability and likely availability, and Hopes zeroes in further, suggesting the English batsmen most likely to make an impact are openers.
McShea later reveals discussions taking place with Adelaide Strikers about the potential recruitment of the BBL's all-time leading wicket-taker, Ben Laughlin, via a possible trade deal.
"There's an opportunity that's come to us through Ben being a Queenslander, who's pretty keen to come home," he explains. "That's a delicate one because he's such an important resource for the Strikers; if I was in their shoes, he's not someone you'd want to let go.
"Darren's been having some discussions with him just to see where he's at, and we've had discussions with the Strikers. It might not happen. If it did, it would actually provide a really important piece of our puzzle that's probably been missing – our death bowling.
"We'd love to have him. We'll keep working with the Strikers and see if it's possible, and if it isn't, that's OK as well."
It emerges through the meeting that the Heat's fast-bowling stocks have been dealt a blow, with impressive young paceman Brendan Doggett signing with Sydney Thunder. Lehmann is philosophical about the loss.
"You can't keep them all," he says. "We put an offer on the table, he got a better offer from the Thunder, that's part and parcel of the game and we wish him all the best."
All parties present agree their fast-bowling focus can be domestic, while it appears likely the return of Afghan spinner Mujeeb looks to be just about a done deal.
Lehmann is bound for the UK on a Heat scouting mission from August 8. He will have his eyes on several players in the UK domestic T20 competition, with his focus on securing a marquee middle-order batsman and an English top-order batsman. The 48-year-old is becoming increasingly interested in the prospect of signing England limited-overs captain Morgan, potentially on a multi-year deal, with the likelihood of recruiting de Villiers now considered remote.
"I'm going over to watch a few games of that," Lehmann says. "It's sort of a journey where I want to see a lot of these blokes: How do they play? Do they fit the Gabba? Do they fit our side?
"Morgan I think is exceptional. AB, it would be lovely to be able to sign him. Miller, although he didn't have a great World Cup, I think he's world class. Those sort of upper-echelon of players are the ones you're looking for."
At another recruitment meeting in the same office at Heat headquarters, the same four men sit with a fifth – physical performance manager Paul Chapman – and the conversation quickly centres upon what Hopes has identified as a pressing issue.
Hopes: I think we're thin in the fast-bowling department.
Lehmann: We are, yeah. I don't expect 'Patto' (James Pattinson) to play at all. Even if he does, the three games he can play are at the back end. I don't think he'll go to India (for ODI series) – that's the only bonus. If he's up and flying, he'll play the Test matches and they'll probably shut him down. So we might get him for a couple of games at the back end. The other player we're waiting on is Ben Laughlin. He wants to come home, which is fine for us in certain games. I wouldn't lock him in for every game, but he solves a problem …
Hopes: Down south he solves a problem.
Lehmann: He solves a lot of problems, he's almost like a second spinner. So we're keen to get that deal done. If that works … we just need to make a decision on the other domestic player, with what we need. With (Mark) Steketee, I see him, if he's playing he's gotta open the bowling and swing it. Bowl decent length, like a four-day bowler – just bowl his four overs straight up. I don't see him bowling at the back end too much. That a fair call, Hopesy?
Hopes: He can bowl at the back-end but Ben Laughlin fixes that problem away from the Gabba. No-one really fixes it at the Gabba, unless you're Jofra Archer.
Lehmann: You're left with Steketee, and 'Presto' (Jack Prestwidge).
Hopes: We've got (Matt) Kuhnemann and Mujeeb who can take the new ball so we've got spin options who can bowl up front. It might just be spin to win.
Lehmann: I'm only looking at playing two quicks.
Hopes: Two quicks, a couple of allrounders, couple of spinners.
Lehmann: That's the set-up that I like. So we only need two quicks fit, really.
Hopes: Yeah, but we want to have a third one.
Lehmann: That's right. If Laughlin doesn't come, then we'll sign a quick.
Chapman discusses the Premier Cricket preparation of left-arm quick Josh Lalor. The high-performance coach wants the Sydney-based veteran to link up with other non-Sheffield Shield-playing members of the squad from December 5, some 12 days out from the Heat's opener at the Gabba on December 17. That group also includes captain Chris Lynn, opening bat Max Bryant, allrounder Ben Cutting, youngster Jack Prestwidge and spinner Matt Kuhnemann. Lehmann makes the broader point that he wants all players returning to their states at the conclusion of the tournament in good physical condition ("Check some boxes, please 'Chappo'"), adding that the bigger picture of Australian cricket should be a consideration.
Meanwhile, McShea reveals that Afghanistan's left-arm wrist-spinner Zahir Khan has come onto the Heat's radar courtesy of his player agent, who also manages Mujeeb. The 20-year-old already boasts experience in the UK, Bangladesh and internationally, and solves the Heat's problem of being without Mujeeb (who is set to play in the Bangladesh Premier League) at the front-end of the tournament.
"I think having that relationship (with his manager) and him understanding what we're looking for in a mystery spinner is big," McShea explains. "He's a left-armer who bowls a heap of different deliveries and there's been a pretty big recommendation in terms of being a good cultural fit for us as well, which is supported by the fact that he's actually best mates with Mujeeb, who we're really fond of."
The Heat have also accepted an offer from the Thunder for middle-order batsman Alex Ross, whose exit means the squad is down a domestic batsman and fast bowler (Doggett) from BBL|08.
With that however, comes opportunity. Given the Heat's fast-bowling stocks have been identified as a weak spot, there is room to double down on domestic quicks. The potential trade of Laughlin is viewed as ideal, while Queensland-contracted Cameron Gannon looms as another.
"With a guy like James Pattinson, who can really lead that attack, we're unsure of his availability," McShea muses. "But then we've got Josh Lalor who's been fantastic, Laughlin potentially, Mark Steketee has been sensational for us."
The key takeaway from the meeting comes from Lehmann, who informs his colleagues that he has emailed de Villiers as a means of keeping the lines of communication open with the Proteas legend. While the UK visit is with an eye to forming Plans B, C and D should that deal not materialise, a glimmer of hope remains regarding Plan A.
Heat fans rejoice as news of the Heat's acquisition of de Villiers is made public, and Lehmann exhales with satisfaction. It has been a six-month project, on and off, and the result is the signature of one of the finest T20 batters the game has seen.
"We were lucky enough that we did a lot of work behind the scenes early doors, before every team wanted a piece of AB de Villiers," Lehmann says. "He'd shut the door and said no, but I remember sending him an email saying, 'We'd love you to reconsider – not only for the cricket side of things but enjoying Brisbane and everything Queensland has to offer'.
"He could get his family out here and be part of the Heat family – that's what we want.
"That email, hopefully it played its little part in him changing his mind and starting negotiations again, and thankfully it worked out.
"I was in England, actually watching one of his games and I found out he'd agreed to terms which was fantastic.
"When you're doing that, you go, 'Wow, that's pretty special to have a guy of his calibre coming to the Brisbane Heat'."
A week later, more good news is rolled out to the club's faithful; Lehmann's scouting mission has been particularly fruitful, with Tom Banton – who enjoyed a breakout domestic T20 tournament in the UK – signing on to share an international spot with de Villiers. The young opener will begin the tournament with the Heat, and he and Afghan spinner Zahir will be available for games one through eight, before being replaced by de Villiers and Mujeeb respectively.
"Tom will be at the top of the order for us," Lehmann says. "He'll open the batting as he did with Somerset, so that means (Cutting) will probably float in this tournament … he will go back to opening when Tom departs and AB comes in.
"He's been likened a bit to Kevin Pietersen the way he bats. He's a good young man, I've spoken to him a few times, and he's one of those guys I think the team and the Heat fans and family will love, because he just comes with that flair and he's a really humble young man."
With their international signings locked away, the Heat brains trust turns its attention to filling the two domestic spots remaining on the roster. Before the month is out, they get another major break; Laughlin, who lives with his family in Noosa on Queensland's Sunshine Coast, has come to terms with the Heat on a two-year deal.
"Death bowling is probably what we've lacked over the years so it's exciting to bring someone like Ben into the bowling attack we've already got," McShea says. "We were in a fortunate position in that Ben wanted to return to Queensland to play and we were the beneficiaries of that.
"The Strikers were fantastic to deal with, so there's a lot of respect to them for being so collaborative in making it happen."
The final piece of the puzzle is put in place when they decide to shore up their fast-bowling stocks with 30-year-old Gannon, who was the BBL's leading wicket-taker six summers ago while at the Heat before moving on for brief stints at both Melbourne franchises then returning to Brisbane in 2017-18. The right-armer has started the Shield season with a bang and McShea believes the signing rounds out a well-balanced attack and squad overall.
"It completes what's been a great off-season," says the Heat general manager. "Bringing a guy like Cameron Gannon in just adds that sense of calm. He's been with us a couple of times before and he's a very bankable kind of option.
"There's a really strong attack there, and depending on where we're playing, who we're playing against, and who's available for us, there are plenty of options for Darren and the support staff to go with."
Cricket Australia high performance coach Ryan Harris has been added to the Heat coaching staff for the first half of the tournament, while WBBL pair Julia Price and Gavin Fitness were also secured to add experience and knowhow to Lehmann's support crew.
"Julia needed to do some ICC personal development, so that worked out really well," Lehmann said. "We're really excited to have her and she's keen to see the differences between the women's and men's games – and that's what makes her such a good coach; she thinks outside the box. We're looking forward to her input.
"We also need to give (Ryan Harris) some senior roles to keep developing his coaching. CA were really accommodating there which was pleasing, and he's improving as a coach all the time.
"He also knows the players really well, both the Heat boys and who we're playing against. So it's a big win for us.
"Gav (Fitness) comes from a keeping and fielding background so he'll be pushing the boys through their paces. He's a bit of a local legend here in Brisbane, having coached at Toombul and with the women's Heat side as well with (head coach) Ashley Noffke, so he's got a lot of coaching experience."
In reviewing the previous six months, McShea is delighted with where the club has landed in terms of recruitment.
"If you'd told us in May or June this was where we'd be, we'd have been over the moon," McShea says. "It's been fantastic to have Darren back. He's the brains behind the great off-season that we've had, and there's no doubt we wouldn't be in the position that we are, with the type of players we've signed, without him at the helm.
"It's exciting to have someone of his experience around a pretty young group. When things get tense over the next few months, he'll be that voice of calm that helps them get through. It's great to have him around as well, being a Brisbane local now, he's very engaged and walking the hallways of the office."
And plotting ways to make it title number two at the Heat.