December 22, 2016

The coach who plays guitar

John Wright talks about his other life, as a musician and songwriter, and his first album

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'Music and sport seem to go together' - John Wright

Not all Christmases are happy ones when you are a sportsperson. John Wright, who has spent most of the last 15 years coaching international teams, remembers one when he was in Melbourne in 2003 with India for the Boxing Day Test. India were 1-0 ahead in the series but that didn't reflect in Wright's mood.

"You eat by yourself sometimes, since you are the coach, and I think I had my Christmas dinner on the sidewalk," he reminisces. In Dhaka, exactly a year later, they were about to play Bangladesh. "I remember looking out the hotel window and I saw only one Christmas tree sitting by the swimming pool."

To add to Wright's blues, India lost both matches. If not the defeats themselves, the solitude was moving enough for him to write some lyrics. "You miss home, you miss kids and the song just appears, then you try to find some words."

That song was eventually titled "Christmas Away Blues", one of 11 that appear on a country album, Red Skies, that Wright released last week. The songs have been written over 16-odd years, and are about cricket, the earthquakes in New Zealand, a coal-mining accident on the country's South Island six years ago, and other, more personal, subjects.

Wright's passion for music has evolved over the decades. As a career path, though, he gave up music for cricket. "After a number of years I worked out that I wasn't going to be a Jimi Hendrix or Mark Knopfler," he says.

The game, too, may have evolved over time but touring the world to play it still means being away from family for long periods, living in the silence of hotel rooms for months, and trying to make your team-mates your family. "When you are a sportsman, you are on the road a lot and it's quite lonely for everybody," he says. "The tours can be long, so the guitar was always great because it was something interesting to do and was sort of a companion. It was during my time with India in 2001 or 2002 that I thought I'd write songs. Even if they are really bad songs, they are my songs."

While the lyrics of almost all the tracks on Red Skies are Wright's, the music was arranged by two of his old friends, professional musicians Liam Ryan and Dean Hetherington. The three, who live in different cities, would exchange notes, then unite in Ryan's studio and record Wright's vocals before laying the music down. Hetherington plays guitar on the album.

Wright took guitar lessons at the age of ten, but says he never got "much good" out of those because cricket and rugby were his priorities. Still, at boarding school, he "loved" singing in the choir for five years.

"Then I went to the university in the '70s, so Beatles, Rolling Stones, all that sort of stuff.

"Music and cricket have always been a big part of my life. I think it's a big part of a lot of sportsmen because it's relaxing and for everyone involved, if you are playing or umpiring or refereeing or even commentating, you've got to have some way to relax, and music does that."

"I asked Sachin about the guitar he got [from Mark Knopfler] and if it was a Fender, a Telecaster or a Strat, and he said it was red!"

Much in the way he was perceived to be aloof when he was coach of India or New Zealand, Wright was a recluse when it came to music too. He would spend time with his guitar alone in his hotel room, putting chords together and writing lyrics about people or events that left an impression on him.

"I was singing in the bathroom or where the acoustics are good, and it's like doing a crossword. You try and find some chords, try and see where they go and then try and fit the words to the chords and the rhythm. So music is like a breakaway. Particularly coaching India, I used to feel the pressure and that's one way of having a break."

Wright says songs are personal possessions; each one has individual and emotional connections. One of the more sensitive songs on the album is "Pike", named after the Pike River Mine disaster, a coal-mining accident, that killed 29 people in Greymouth in 2010. Wright has vivid memories of the day it happened and of the news bulletins he watched.

"I could never work out how 29 people could go to work and not come home. I watched their memorial service and I thought, 'I should be there.' It's a big thing in New Zealand, it's a big disaster for those families, and I wrote that song that night actually. That song came out of watching that service that really touched me. It's a very sad thing and everyone felt that loss.

"[The song] was used right at the back-end of a documentary called The Women of Pike River, but only the last little bit."

We'll remember you boys
Our fathers our sons
For you are the men we stand for
The pike 29
Who we lost down the mine
United our people as one

Other, more widely reported, recent New Zealand disasters have been earthquakes. There was one in Canterbury, Wright's home state, in 2010, another in 2011 that caused widespread destruction in Christchurch, and one in Kaikoura last month. "Bumps", the second song on the album, references the quakes in the title, but Wright says it is about fear in a broader sense too. He wrote it in Mumbai while scouting youngsters for his IPL franchise, Mumbai Indians.

"I was thinking along the lines of things that scare you, things that I'm really scared of. As a kid, I didn't like walking in the dark or on the farm, with big black trees, who's following me, those sorts of things. That song is about earthquakes and also other things like when you get older - you've got to get health checks and scans… global warming, there are a number of things in life that you can get scared about."

The band, as pictured on the cover of Red Skies © Torch Music

One of the livelier tracks, with a reggae swing, is "Kingston". Wright remembers his first trip to the West Indies, in 1985. The first match was an ODI in Antigua. The hosts opened with Joel Garner and Michael Holding after setting a target of 232 in 46 overs. Wright batted at No. 1 and was bowled by Holding for a 14-ball duck. With no tempo in his batting, it was not the best day to write an upbeat song, which Wright left for much later, when he visited the islands nearly two decades on, as coach.

"I hope the song reflects that Caribbean flavour, which I think is unique and extrovert. I love playing in Antigua, the music there and the reggae. They have a great history of great music in the West Indies.

"I love the place. The Red Stripe Beer, the jerk chicken and things like that. That song came up when I was doing commentary during the World Cup and around the Indian team, I wrote it a bit here and there, though. I went there many times and I've enjoyed the visits - except that the cricket can be tough, you can get some hammerings."

Racing the roundabout from Shickity shack
Big Hercules and his off spin track
Back it up back it up, is what he said
I've got English Harbour, it's a dark fine rum
Red-eyed mornings in the glaring sun
My head keeps aching and the clock has passed midday

****

Wright found Sachin Tendulkar's enthusiasm infectious when he coached India for five years in the early 2000s. Even now, their common interests go beyond the Mumbai Indians dressing room to their love for Knopfler's music and songwriting. In 2005, Tendulkar even invited Wright to meet Knopfler backstage at a concert in Mumbai, but Wright couldn't make it. He missed meeting his "hero", who presented Tendulkar with an autographed guitar and received a signed bat in return.

"I asked Sachin about the guitar he got and if it was a Fender, a Telecaster or a Strat, and he said it was red!

I mean, imagine getting a guitar from Knopfler."

When Wright started writing lyrics as a hobby or to pass the time about a decade and a half ago, little did he think they would come together in an album named after the big, beautiful morning skies of New Zealand.

Songs, he says, are a bit like friends - some you like, some you throw away. From his list of friends, Wright chose two to help him put together the songs he never discarded.

"It's just a hobby, it's something I've done with two mates. We've put it together over a couple of years and it's been a fun project. I'll carry on, and I'm sure that I'm probably the only one listening to it!"

John Wright's album Red Skies is available on iTunes and Spotify

Vishal Dikshit is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • vanzanfan on December 23, 2016, 3:36 GMT

    It really is a terrific album. I downloaded it from itunes. I hope people buy it and listen to it. Sort of rhythm & blues and country. Very enjoyable !

  • johnthekiwi on December 22, 2016, 16:35 GMT

    Knew him a little when I was in high school as an occasional counties region player and ad hoc coach. Top man. Absolutely a top bloke.

  • Behind_the_bowlers_arm on December 22, 2016, 9:32 GMT

    Perhaps he could write the Chappell Hadlee Blues after the recent ODI's. Plenty of rhymes for 'Smashed to bits' that I could suggest.

  • cricfan91185178 on December 22, 2016, 6:33 GMT

    Should still be nz coach..Hesson is out of his depth.

  • Jose...P on December 22, 2016, 6:15 GMT

    What struck a chord

    On my heart's strings, like a gong,

    Whether right or wrong,

    is:

    "Even if they are really bad songs,

    they are my songs."

    John Wright,

    You are really right.

    -

    Music & poetry are not antiques,

    To be consigned to the attic,

    Or to the basement.

    While the antics of some players give us amusement.

    Still loneliness can strike a cord

    When there is some lack of accord

    More so, if you are old & sick.

    Which sets the flow of your own music,

    As John says, even if it is bad music,

    After all it is my music.

    -

    Yes, John Wright,

    You are really right!

  • AjaxtheRed on December 22, 2016, 4:17 GMT

    John Wright is such an underrated coach. Great person who loves cricket. Cheers John!

  • Brahams on December 22, 2016, 1:24 GMT

    Wonderful man, wonderful career, wonderful passion!

  • kayarr on December 21, 2016, 22:47 GMT

    Impressive. Great to have another passion and being fairly skilled at it. I know Brett Lee does some of this wonder where they stack up versus the pros.

  • kickassPakistan on December 21, 2016, 21:27 GMT

    Can't agree more on his choice with Knopfler. Good choice! Along with Hendrix,Page,Blackmore and Gilmore.Mark Knopfler completes the line up of the truly greats of our times.Not only players of the highest order but also incredible composers.

    Would be interesting to hear Mr Wrights music and would like to know where i can access or download his music.

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