'I needed to be more positive'
In 1997, Shane Warne released his first book, My Own Story. Legend has it he fought tooth and nail with the publisher to ensure "Own" was included in the title. In it, Warne chose two names that would feature less prominently in any post-1999 publications. One was Steve Waugh, the other Matthew "Herb" Elliott.
Of his fellow Victorian, Warne observed: "He has a simple, correct technique, time to see the ball and play his shots and an appetite for big hundreds. He'll make at least 5000 Test runs for Australia. Fingers crossed."
Warne's judgement was inked into the manuscript before the completion of that year's Ashes tour, on which another bold prediction was made. Elliott's 199 at Headingley was his second hundred of the series in challenging conditions, leading Ian Chappell to intone in commentary that the left-hander would make a Test 200 "very soon". Elliott never did, playing only ten more Tests over seven years.
Twenty years later Elliott sits in a Melbourne café and ponders Warne's prediction, before laughing. "Goes to show he's a poor judge, isn't he, Warney! Nice words but I only fell about 4000 short..."
It is in the gap between the prediction and the reality that Elliott's value to Australian cricket now lies. Recently employed as a coach at the National Cricket Centre after nearly a decade at arm's length from the game, he is intent upon using the lessons of his career to help others make as much of their talent as possible. He believes it should start with the ability to keep setting new goals at whatever level a player reaches.
"My goal was just to play for Australia. I think when you get there, it's really important just to reassess a little bit on what you want to achieve and what you want to do," Elliott says. "Getting there is an achievement, but it shouldn't be the end goal. Playing for a period of time and testing your game out in lots of different conditions against lots of different players, I think that's the ultimate challenge.
"Maybe I was a bit naïve... getting there wasn't enough for me, but I was just happy being in that dressing room, and I didn't adopt that mentality I had playing for the Vics, that I really want to be a senior player here and set some standards. I was just happy to be there."
Happy and unhappy, as it happens. A fateful collision with Mark Waugh, at the SCG in his second Test, left Elliott with a wrenched knee and a legacy of pain and restricted movement. He rushed back to take part in the 1997 tour of South Africa, then barely made it onto the plane for the Ashes. While the joint settled down in England and he played the series of his life, by the time he got home, Elliott was not much fun to be around, and the runs dried up thereafter.
"Physically I'd started to have some problems with my knees, and that really weighed me down a bit," he says. "When you're playing and you're sore all the time, you become a bit of a pain in the arse to be around, and I probably was a pain to be around because it just wears you down, not only physically but mentally.
"At one stage I wasn't going to go [to England] because it was really playing up before we left. I got through the tour, came back, had both my knees arthroscoped at the same time after the tour, then probably came back way too quick into the Aussie summer, because you want to make sure you retain your place. That all happened quickly, and in the end I think I had about eight scopes on that right knee and it starts to compromise how you want to train.
"It wasn't the only factor but it was one of the ones why I started to wobble a bit and unfortunately not achieve the things I wanted to when I was playing. Cricket's one of those games where mentally you've got be as fresh as you can for as long as you can. Once you go mentally, it's a very difficult game because you spend so much time involved in it, playing, watching, training, so when you start to struggle a bit mentally in terms of feeling that fatigue, things start to go south pretty quickly."
Memories of Elliott in 1997 tend to focus on his considerable panache - one flat pull shot off Allan Donald at the Wanderers that sailed over the boundary at head height, a flurry of shots at Lord's for a first Test hundred, then many more at Leeds. But he was fortunate, too, dropped several times during the first hundred, then critically by Graham Thorpe early in the second. That luck was in shorter supply when he got home, and when he was recalled for the West Indies in 1999, where he was swiftly sorted out by Curtly Ambrose and Courtney Walsh.
That trip carried another lesson for Elliott, about battling his natural tendencies towards the defensive. "The sort of person I am, and was as a player. I needed to be more positive," he says. "When I started to come under pressure and felt I was only one game away from being dropped, I needed to come out and play a little more aggressively. I tended to play within myself a bit, and that's something I reflected on as an older person.
"It was really important for me to not focus on the outcome, and stay in the moment, and from there I'd tend to play more positively. But that was me, and it's easy to reflect now that when you're in the moment, I just withdrew a little bit."
At length, Elliott performed with great distinction for Victoria, and also made a handsome century in a Lord's limited-overs final for Yorkshire. His time with Bushrangers taught him about how teams need to evolve.
"It really had a lot to do with shaping how I coach teams and how I go about it," he says. "We had some big personalities involved in Victorian cricket when I first started, and even to be in the room was a big thing. We had Deano [Jones], Merv [Hughes], Paul Reiffel and Warne, and all these other guys who played. So some strong characters in that room, and one of the things that's interesting about Victorian teams is a footy culture thing.
"It's this notion that you've got to be best mates and all got to get along together for the team to function well, and I think it's a myth. We struggled with that at times, that we had to develop this closeness to be able to operate well as a team. I call it the footy culture, and to me you don't have to do that. The challenge is bringing those individuals together for a common cause, but also embracing some of their individual traits as well.
"I don't think we ever quite got that balance right, particularly early on. Over time different people came in and were able to influence how we started to operate. John Scholes had a huge role to play in terms of being able to do that. He was terrific at bringing a team together, and under John we started to have a lot more team success and started to push towards playing finals and being at the pointy end of seasons."
But by the time Elliott accepted an offer from South Australia, his knee was starting to make long innings exceedingly difficult, and after a brief sojourn to the Indian Cricket League, his playing days petered out. At that point there was no inclination to pursue a coaching career in the game.
Instead, he followed a pathway opened up by a construction and economics degree at the University of South Australia. With his wife, Megan, and their young family, he went from Adelaide to Bendigo to Melbourne, where he settled into a four-year stint as a civil estimator for the construction firm BMD.
It was a world away from batting, but in some ways echoed coaching and selection - Elliott had to make estimates on the costs and expected windfall of a given project, before handing his work over to the builders. "Hopefully," he says, "you've estimated enough money for it that you're able to turn a dollar from it."
Family, rather than career, drew Elliott slowly back towards cricket. His two oldest sons Zach and Sam, play for Fitzroy-Doncaster in Victorian Premier Cricket, while his youngest, Will, is weighing it all up. "He had to come to me this year and we had a heart to heart, and he said, 'You know what, Dad, cricket's not my thing, I don't love it', and he plays footy, basketball and other things," Elliott says. "We haven't given up on Will coming back to the game just yet, the older boys and I flag that for discussion every now and again and see what we're going to get."
When on annual leave from BMD, Elliott coached the Under-17 Victoria Country team at the national championships, ultimately leading to his applying for and taking the NCC job. The diversity of his own experience, as a cricketer, a civil estimator and a father, were all helpful factors in winning a role where he will be reunited with former team-mates like Ryan Harris and the national coach, Darren Lehmann.
Looking forward, Elliott is striving for balance, not only between cricket and life but also youth and experience - he notes how Harris evolved far later than he did. He also sees how a young cricketer has more time than he thinks to emerge as a quality player, but equally less than he might imagine to carve out his own niche after retirement.
"In the end we can't just want one thing from these guys," Elliott says. "We want to produce talented players who come out and entertain us and be super skilful, but that's only one part of the overall picture. I think it's unfair to say, 'Don't worry about the rest of it', because the reality is, only a couple of guys are going to come through and do that. I know for myself I got into that way too late, because you think you've got more time than you have. Time tends to slip away fairly quickly, and before you know it, you haven't addressed some of these things.
"These guys are certainly aware of that. The study and the effort they put in outside of playing and training is terrific. But it's difficult - if it was easy, everyone would be doing it, so they understand the challenges. There's an exciting group of young players about to emerge in Australian cricket, not only from this group but every year you see so much ability and talent around. The system is strong, we can always make it better, but we've got to be a little bit patient.
"In this era there is impatience. We want them ready at 18 or at 20, but they've got a lot more time than they think. We've got to be patient in terms of not rushing them too quickly because there's all sorts of things happening to them. You could have ten years, from 25 to 35, a wonderful international career. If that's our model then these guys are only babies."
Elliott is an advocate for diverse and difficult conditions around the world. "Something I think that's fantastic about cricket around the world at the moment is teams using their own conditions to advantage," he says. "It should be hard to win away. What a great challenge to be able to take it to them in conditions more familiar to the home team.
"For the game to survive, conditions need to be different and challenging. The first two Tests in India this year, every ball was a massive contest, people were hanging on, couldn't look away for what might happen. I hope the message out of that is, if there's a bit in the wicket - the worry is what that does commercially, if you don't get the game going five days, but I'd much rather see a game go for four and be a real contest between bat and ball than drag on for five.
"Commercial reality has affected that [in Australia]. They've got to pay for stuff, there are multipurpose venues with drop-ins, so having a centre wicket block is not ideal for them. Drop-in pitches are creating these very similar, beige conditions, in terms of what players are experiencing, so then when they are exposed to different things, naturally they're going to struggle because they haven't had that rounding. But that's up to us to identify those things and provide other opportunities, because that's not going to change."
After years of fighting his knee, meanwhile, Elliott is happy to relate that he has found balance in that respect also. "We've got a good relationship, my knee and I," he says. "If I don't do too much, it doesn't give me much grief. As long as I don't go running or doing anything stupid, we've got a good relationship." Similarly constructive relationships with Australia's young batsmen may mean that Elliott becomes responsible for players who actually do make it all the way to 5000 Test runs and beyond.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @danbrettig