LIKE most young Australians Andy Bichel grew up playing backyard cricket. The Bichel family Christmases in Laidley, an hour and a half’s drive from Brisbane in Queensland’s Lockyer Valley, were based around the game. For most of the rest of the year, Bichel’s backyard battles were with his older brother, who went on to play indoor cricket for his country.
“Our backyard battles were heavy and we had a nice green turf wicket in the back which pretty much was worn down because of the amount we played on it,” Bichel recalled when I spoke to him at the picturesque Allan Border Field in Brisbane.
“It was always a pitch that was doing something. He bowled leg spin as well (not that I can play leg spin well), so it was a good grounding for cricket.
“My uncles were all heavily involved in the game and I was also around their siblings. “Christmas for the Bichels involved plenty of cricket in the backyard under the mango tree.
“They were special times. “I was one of the younger ones in that group and in the early years I didn’t get much of a go. Whether it was an uncle or an auntie picking up the bat, they all could swing it, so it was a pretty cool environment to learn about the game of cricket – even to the extent that one of the uncles would slip their thong (that’s flip-flops for non-Australians) off and come at you to hit you on the behind if you played a bad shot”.
“My uncle Don played cricket for Queensland at a high level and you knew that the words he was saying were the right ones because of his experience.” Queensland country kids love their sport, with cricket and rugby league high on the priorities for many growing up.
Bichel was no different and he, like many of his compatriots, had a tough choice to make – to play league or cricket. For a young Bichel, that was made even tougher because of his love for the winter sport, but it was a call from England which sent him down the cricket path. “I was heavily into rugby league,” Bichel remembered.
“It was probably my passion. “I got a call from the Milton Cricket Club in Nottinghamshire, who were looking for an overseas player.
“I was playing for Queensland country at the time, so I had to postpone a rugby league season for the opportunity to go and play in England.
“That six months of league cricket was the best thing I ever did. “A season in the Bassetlaw League with Milton was where I ended up falling in love with the game and still has me coming to cricket today because I love it that much. “Those experiences did set me up for later in life.”
On his return to Laidley, Bichel was faced with another choice, to continue playing for Queensland Country or chase his dream at state and international level. He also needed a trade, in case his cricket dreams were shattered, he chose carpentry, but that too was put on the backburner, such was his drive (quite literally) to reach his cricketing goals.
Bichel made the decision to leave country cricket as he wanted to play at the highest levels.
“If I could get into the Queensland team, there was no doubt I could get into the Australian team,” he said.
“I had deferred my apprenticeship as a carpenter to go to England, so it took me about 6 1/2 years to finish that.
“Those who want to make the highest level at whatever they do have to make sacrifices.
“There were plenty of times driving an hour and a half either way, thinking about the big picture and that was playing for Australia.
“That contributed to my resilience. I did not have the greatest car, I broke down a few times, blew up some motors and ran out of fuel a couple of times.
“Just having to deal with that as a young guy was tough because we weren’t getting paid much and were living from one pay cheque to the next as far as cricket goes. “It was a good grounding for me, and it helped me when I was out in the heat of the battle playing for Queensland and Australia.” That resilience helped Bichel get into the Queensland team that changed the face of the game in the Sunshine State for good.
In March 1995, Allan Border led the side which defeated South Australia by an innings and 101 runs at the Gabba for Queensland’s first ever Sheffield Shield title. Bichel got two wickets in South Australia’s first innings before the home side piled on 664 in their first dig with 151 from Trevor Barsby, 146 from Martin Love, with Border scoring 98.
Bichel scored 38 himself and then took another two wickets in South Australia’s second innings as Queensland won easily.
“I remember it like it was yesterday, Bichel said.
“It was the game that changed cricket in Queensland, and it changed it for the better.
“It was gold to part of that first team to win the Shield for the first time.”
Andy Bichel and Dirk Tazelaar celebrating Queensland’s first Sheffield Shield in 1995
Bichel soon made his debut for Australia, playing his first Test and One-Day games against the West Indies in 1997. Six years later came his greatest day… at the World Cup in South Africa against England. England looked in control at 0-66 in the group game at Port Elizabeth before Bichel turned the game on its head with a spell of 7-20 of his 10 overs.
The target of 205 then looked a long way off as Australia stumbled to 8-135. But Bichel combined with Michael Bevan (74 not out) in an unbeaten ninth-wicket partnership of 63 as the Aussies won by two wickets with two balls to spare.
“Steve Waugh used to always say that all you are training for is to play the perfect game,” Bichel recalled about his match-winning display.
“I played that game against England and I am in the press conference and all I could think about was Steve Waugh… ‘shit I think this is my perfect game … 7-20 and 34 not out … I can’t get much better than that, OK I would like a hundred … but yeah that was my perfect game.”
Bichel said he thought he was just going to play in three games, against Holland, Namibia and Kenya, at the tournament as Australia’s pace trio of Jason Gillespie, Brett Lee and Glenn McGrath had nailed down the spots for the bigger matches. Gillespie then picked up an injury and Bichel took his place and grasped his opportunity with both hands.
He and Bevan also combined for a win over New Zealand and he played a big part in the semifinal win over Sri Lanka, running out Aravinda De Silva when well set.
The 2003 World Cup was Bichel’s finest hour, but he still had to work hard to earn his spot at Test level, mainly because of the that formidable pace trio and a certain leg spinner named Shane Warne. Bichel was 12th man for a record 19 times in Tests for Australia.
“That was the hardest part of playing for Australia was getting the opportunities,” he recalled.
“I played in a dominant era and there was always someone performing, so you did not get many windows.
“In 2003 it just kept presenting… whether it was with the bat or ball.”
Bichel said even though he might not have got as many Test caps as he wanted, he was glad to be part of one of the best teams in cricket history.
“To be part of 12 Test wins and 21 ODI wins in a row and play a role when I had to was great,” he said.
“I think I was the guy who was just able to come in and perform.”
Injuries also curtailed Bichel’s playing career, with a shoulder problem the final straw, forcing him to quit in 2009.
He said going into coaching was always his next career choice with former Australian coach John Buchanan taking him as bowling mentor at the Kolkata Knight Riders. His first season in the Indian Premier League was in South Africa due to a problem with security in India. The Knight Riders had a great team, including Chris Gayle, Sourav Ganguly, Brad Hodge and Brendon McCullum but those big-name players also struggled with Buchanan’s coaching style and Bichel admitted he had a horrible time in South Africa, thinking at one stage that coaching was not for him.
But a stint coaching in Papua New Guinea for two years helped him fall in love with coaching and he has not looked back since. He is now performance coach with Queensland under his old state teammate Wade Seccombe working mainly with the bowlers.
“It is immaculate at Allan Border Field and if you can’t coach here then you should probably give up because the facilities make it for you,” Bichel said.
“But to go to PNG and have no facilities and then coach a team that can perform at an ICC event and do well was the part where I really fell in love with coaching.
“Being back at Queensland I was ready for this challenge to be back in a first-class system and working at high-performance levels.
“It has been a nice, smooth journey for me. I am really enjoying working with the Queensland guys. We have a talented group.
“We want to win some stuff along the way but really we want players playing for Australia and our players all striving to be Test cricketers one day and providing Cricket Australia with players for the future.”
When I watched Bichel at work at Allan Border Field he was putting the likes of Marnus Labuschagne, Matthew Renshaw and Usman Khawaja through their paces with fielding drills, but said it was also important to nurture players in the elite development squad and under-19 team.
Bichel now back at Queensland as a performance coach
Cricket Australia was forced to shred its workforce earlier this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with some suggesting cricket around the world would struggle in the future.
Bichel reckons the game is going to be OK.
“In cricket you do social distance pretty easily, especially if you nick one off you get to social distance in the dressing room,” he said with a smile.
“But in all seriousness, you are in the outfield, you are outside. It should be a game that is played easily around the rules and regulations for biosecurity of COVID-19.
“Cricket Australia funds have fallen but there’s a real vibe for cricket for men and women and I think the future is still bright.”