Battle scars: Lehmann's second lease on life
Two months on from a triple heart bypass, the Brisbane Heat coach reflects on the toughest two years of his life, and considers his future with a new perspective
Darren Lehmann has been taking long walks around the edges of Newmarket, hitting the pavement for an hour or more each day. He is lifting light weights, drinking less, and making smarter choices with his diet. He's off the smokes, too.
He heads down through Spencer Park and along Breakfast Creek, travelling largely unbothered in his pocket of the city despite his renown as former international cricketer and current Brisbane Heat coach.
It is a new routine, and one borne out of necessity when, on his 50th birthday and during the February week that followed, the imminence of a triple heart bypass had him contemplating whether he might live to see 51.
"You're fearful because you just don't know what's going to happen in the end," he tells cricket.com.au.
"You get to the stage where you go, 'Am I gonna wake up?'"
The night before his 50th birthday, Lehmann had enjoyed a pizza and a couple of beers with his eldest son, Jake, who was on the Gold Coast playing for a Cricket Australia XI against England Lions.
"It was nothing out of the ordinary," remembers Jake. "Just a quiet night."
Darren was staying at Sea World Resort, and when he woke in the early hours of February 4, he knew immediately something was amiss.
"I was having cold sweats, and it felt like someone was pushing down on top of my chest," he says. "So we rang the medical officer of where I was staying and they got the ambulance straight there."
For Lehmann, the 10-kilometre drive to Gold Coast Private Hospital was the most frightening aspect of the life-changing eight days that followed.
"Not knowing what was wrong … it's always the not knowing (that's hardest); once you know, it's okay – you start to get some answers, start to get some confidence from the surgeons and the nurses."
An angiogram revealed three blockages in blood vessels in the heart. In the days that followed, Lehmann was transported to Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane, where cardiologist Dr Peter Tesar successfully performed the required surgery.
The ensuing rehabilitation has drawn a line under what Lehmann considers perhaps the most challenging two-year period of his life. For a man who has been forced to confront death, divorce and disgrace, it is no small acknowledgement.
"But there's an upside to it," he says. "I've had a lot of learnings from it. You move forward."
Lehmann knows now there is no adequate preparation for the role of head coach of Australia's men's cricket team. He had been in that bubble before as a player, and taken the coaching reins of Queensland and the Brisbane Heat, but the intensity of this spotlight was something else altogether.
"You have an idea (what the Australian set-up involves) because you were a player, but as a player, it's very individual," he says.
"As a coach, it's totally the other way – you become aware of all the other things (involved) when you're looking after players and staff.
"It's still fun; the playing and the coaching and the planning side of it is always fun.
"It's everything else – dealing with the politics of the game … and the travel, and being away from your family – that's what makes it tough."
Lehmann was wide-eyed when he took the job just weeks before the 2013 Ashes in the UK, and his reputation in many corners as a loveable larrikin had stayed with him in his transition from player to coach. He knew the fact he hadn't picked the squad would afford him some latitude in the eyes of the public should Australia lose that series – which they did, 3-0 – and in the summer that followed, he enjoyed a golden period, as the hosts whitewashed England, then beat South Africa away and claimed the No.1 Test ranking soon after.
It was 12 months on from the 'Homeworkgate' scandal in India, where Australia had been beaten 4-0. Another 12 months on, they won Australia's fifth ODI World Cup.
But in between, the tragic death of Phillip Hughes hit Lehmann and his players hard, and despite the on-field success that summer, the coach described the period as "six months of hell".
Added to that, the time on the road, media scrutiny, board politics and an expectant public all remained challenging constants.
"He's someone who doesn't really switch off from his role," Jake says of his father. "He watched every game, whether it was state cricket, Australian cricket.
"Even the series he took off, he still watched every game, and was thinking about it, communicating with people and players.
"I don't think people realise how long and strenuous each year actually is, in terms of travel and playing and preparation."
Greg Blewett was fielding coach through much of Lehmann's tenure and noticed the toll the job slowly began to take on his former state teammate. Blewett remembers watching him during matches, his head buried in a laptop as he addressed the myriad off-field concerns that came with his post.
"I felt like saying, 'Mate, chill out and watch some cricket'," he says. "He'd tap away, look up, watch a delivery, then back into the laptop.
"He's very invested in whatever he does, very hard-working. It's a pretty big shock to the system in terms of what the (head coach) role actually encompasses.
"In the media, and to a large extent in front of the players, he came across as 'Boof the larrikin', but the few of us who spent time with him behind the scenes realised he wasn't getting a lot of sleep, and it was bloody full-on.
"Having said that, he absolutely loved it … (but) just little things would get to him, and I think that was a fatigue thing; he'd always get up really early and go sit on a bike, and even then he'd still be looking at emails and messages.
"And when you're tired and stressed out, little things start to irk you a bit more than they probably should."
Lehmann spoke with current coach Justin Langer just recently about some of this. Langer has talked publicly about the impact the job had on him inside the first 12 months of his tenure. Lehmann, too, has been vocal about the taxing nature of a position that can entail 10 months of the year on the road.
"I think you naturally have stresses in the job from the pressures you're under," he says. "I know Justin has had times where he's really struggled with that, and that's been a learning curve for him to get through, and he's starting to do that well.
"But it's a life span – how long can you keep doing it before it does change you?
"I said to (Langer) the other day, that in a weird way, this is a really good enforced break for him right now … I think it will be good for his coaching and good for him as a person.
"He's been in the job two years and he's having a break now, which is actually not bad – I didn't get that."
It is a little more than two years now since the Cape Town scandal, which serves as the other bookend to the most difficult two years of Lehmann's life. He was cleared by Cricket Australia of any kind of involvement in the incident, but his tearful resignation remains one part of what was an emotional epilogue.
If there is a silver lining – aside from the learning curve Lehmann talks about – it is that it pushed him towards the exit door before he had been willing to take those steps himself. He looks back now and considers five years in the job to be "plenty", but it is not difficult to imagine that, despite the challenges, his love for the job would have tempted him to stay on through the World Cup and Ashes of 2019, and risk complete burnout in the process.
Instead, he was forced to face a harsh new reality, swiftly finding himself a spectator as Langer's team looked to regain the faith of a nation.
"That knocked him around massively – all of a sudden it was over and it was like he didn't get a chance for any closure on that chapter of his life," Blewett says.
"It all happens really quickly; all of a sudden, Justin Langer's in the job, they start playing again, and it's probably like, 'Shit, that's still my team, but someone else is in charge'.
"It definitely knocked him around. I could see it in him. We were both working in the media and I'd see him at the games, and even just the way he was carrying himself – the shoulders were slumped a bit and there wasn't that strut that he normally has. Just little things like that I noticed, having spent a lot of time with him – you could just tell it had affected him."
Though he was cleared of having had any prior knowledge, Lehmann issued a public apology following the ball-tampering incident and used that opportunity to remind people to consider the mental health of the trio of players involved. It went largely unnoticed in the furore of the moment but it was a telling example of the player welfare-first philosophy that underpinned his coaching, which had also come to the fore during the aftermath of Hughes' death.
Even now, Lehmann details that period of turmoil in South Africa only as a "tough tour" before turning his attention to the relationships he had forged.
"I love the blokes – the players and all the staff I worked with … and when you leave, it's sad," he says. "Life goes on, but you remember the great times, the great people.
"Hopefully I played my small part in those cricketers becoming better people. I still talk to them now, make sure they're OK, their families … that's the main thing."
It seems those relationships are intrinsically important to Lehmann. He has been loved and loathed at different times by the media and the public across the past 30 years but away from the headlines, in the world that is real to him, it has only been the former.
"Media can say what they want to say, and people can say what they want to say online," offers Jake, "but I know my old man for who he actually is – a great, loving person who wants success for everyone.
"He loves his family and friends and is always putting them first, and if you ask any player who has played under him, his philosophy has always been that family comes first. That's the stuff that I know about him."
That viewpoint in fact compounded the pain for Lehmann in the aftermath of the scandal. Jake remembers phoning to check in on his two youngest siblings – twins Amy and Ethan – during that time, when everyone had opinions on what had transpired, and on their father.
"They were going to school and people were saying what they wanted to say, and they haven't really dealt with people talking about your family in such a way," Jake says. "So it took a toll on them, for sure.
"I was probably able to handle it a little bit better because I understand how the media works, but definitely at times my younger brother and sisters were under the pump, and I think that's what Dad didn't like the most … he didn't care about them saying that about him but he just didn't want me or Amy or Ethan to think differently of him. That's what hurt him a lot."
Lehmann knows that mud can stick but experience has helped him move towards a place of acceptance. He knows he has his detractors, but he is past the point of trying to change opinions.
"A lot of people know me differently personally than what people think out there in the media, and that's OK," he says.
"You just deal with it. People who know you, know you."
Eight weeks on from his heart surgery, Lehmann is getting busy living. On the inside of each forearm, and down his chest, are three long scars. As he eases his way towards full health, they are physical markers of his recovery. Beyond that, they will be permanent reminders of the life-saving operation.
Lehmann's wife, Andrea, is a nurse. He says she has "held the family together" during what has been a worrying time. Her love and support have alleviated his own stress and allowed him to focus on his rehabilitation.
"I'm feeling better now, but still quite sore in the chest at times," he says. "You hope everything's healing, and you have good days and really bad days, and you pick and choose how you deal with them.
"You speak through it with different people, and my family is always there."
Despite his best intentions, the reverse hasn't always been true. Lehmann doesn't talk in terms of regrets but he knows his career took from him time with his family that he cannot retrieve. Much of his 20 years playing professional cricket was an endless summer. He built a first-class stats sheet remarkably like Tendulkar's and became a legend in South Australia and Yorkshire along the way. He won two World Cups and conquered Murali in his own backyard like few others ever managed. He cherished what he had because he loved the relationships he built as well as the game itself. But in some senses, he still counts the cost.
"Not being there for your kids – that's the toughest thing," he says.
"They've gone through their schooling without a father.
"All my kids, really; I've been away the whole time. You try and have that close relationship, but you're detached, because you're travelling 300 days a year.
"And when you're home, you're there, but really you're thinking about other things as a player and then a coach because you've still got those pressures – what's coming up, what selections, what contracts.
"All those things come into it, and family are always the ones that suffer a little bit."
Long absences notwithstanding, Lehmann is happy he has been able to maintain "close relationships" with his four kids, and for Jake, there are no uneasy reflections on lost time. It is something he has tried to reassure his dad about only across the past couple of years as they have grown as close as they've ever been.
"I probably haven't done that enough," Jake says. "I don't have any regrets, I don't think of it like he missed any of my schooling or anything. That was just the norm – I just enjoyed the other things we got to do instead of worrying about him missing things."
Jake remembers the sights and sounds of the 2004 Boxing Day Test against Pakistan – the last of his dad's 27-match career in Baggy Green – and he can still picture himself out the back of the Adelaide Oval for his old man's one-day and Sheffield Shield farewells three years later.
Now, both men have called Callum Ferguson and Mark Cosgrove teammates at South Australia, and that human link has afforded Jake another insight into Darren's legacy.
"What he's done for South Australian cricket, and even for Australian cricket now, is far beyond what a lot of people give to the game," he says. "And also what he's given to other people in teams he's played in or coached is something he should be really proud of.
"Growing up, he always tried to put family first, but at times the job description of Australian coach or player, or just professional cricketer, doesn't allow you to do that.
"Family have to make a lot of sacrifices, but at the same time he's allowed me and my little brothers and sisters, and Andrea, to travel the world – we've got to do heaps of different things along the way and live a very privileged lifestyle.
"He's always tried to get us involved and around, and that's who he is – he always wants to make sure people are happy."
While Lehmann was in hospital in February, twins Ethan and Amy turned 18. Jake had stayed in town and as the three siblings celebrated at a pub in Newmarket, their dad called through.
"It was pretty cool – even though he was in hospital, he was still Facetiming us," Jake says. "That's just the type of person he is."
It was something he wasn't willing to miss.
When all of this is over, and the world's travel restrictions are lifted, Lehmann wants to hit the road. He insists it is not too cliché to suggest his health scare has given him a fresh outlook on life.
"It definitely has," he says. "You realise that all the pressure you put yourself and others under over a period of time, it's not all worth it.
"It's actually just a case of enjoying cricket – or life – for what it is.
"So it's given me a chance to think again, to not stress too much anymore, to just help people as much as I can, and what happens, happens."
One upshot of this new perspective has been the creation of a bucket list of sorts. Sitting atop that list is a trip around Australia.
"Put a boat on the back and do a lap," he says. "I'll probably start with Queensland, point to point – up to the Far North.
"And can you believe it? All those years playing cricket in South Australia and I've never done the Great Ocean Road. So I want to do that.
"The Ghan – Adelaide up to Darwin – that's something I want to do as well. I've never been to Broome, so I want to do the west coast…"
He trails off. He was on Moreton Island just recently and as he continued his recovery, he used the time to consider these coming months and years. For once, his mind ventured beyond cricket. The idea of temporarily disassociating from the game, and escaping into Australia's natural beauty, appealed. He has some mates ready to jump aboard, and Andrea, who has seen more of this country than her husband, will fly in for special guest appearances at destinations of her choosing.
The first step to living the life you want is leaving behind the life you don’t want. Letting go of the past is your first step towards happiness. You are here for a special reason. Stop being a prisoner of your past. Become the architect of your present. Learn from your regrets, but do not punish yourself with them. Live beyond your scars and focus on building the life that you truly deserve. Let today be the first day of your new life. A post shared by Darren Lehmann (@darren_lehmann) on
Last week, Lehmann posted an affirmation on his social media accounts. It is perhaps another aspect of his new self, and it was noteworthy because it centred upon the concepts of past, present and future.
"Letting go of the past is your first step towards happiness," the post reads. "Learn from your regrets, but do not punish yourself with them. Live beyond your scars…"
Above the words is a photo of Lehmann. He sits on a camping chair on a beach, wearing a Rip Curl t-shirt, an Akubra and a warm, tight-lipped grin. His smiling eyes, framed by crow's-feet, look directly at the camera. He looks a man at peace with what has gone before, and at ease with what awaits him.
"It's been a second lease on life," he says of his time since the surgery. "I don't get angry anymore, or frustrated.
"You just see things for what they are. There's a lot of people out there in more unfortunate scenarios than me."
Of course, the litmus test for this newfound philosophy will come with the resumption of cricket, and Lehmann's return to coaching, be it in The Hundred or the KFC Big Bash . Inevitably, there will be a time when the pressures and stresses of that world will again weigh down upon him.
Now, perhaps more than ever, he is equipped to handle it.