Taboo broken as Australian coach empowered
Australian cricket has confronted one of its great taboos by handing selection duties to the national coach, an enormously powerful role not performed since Bob Simpson was removed from the national panel in 1994. At the time the incoming captain Mark Taylor felt that Simpson exerted too much of an influence over Australian cricket as a prominent coach and selector alongside the less conspicuous captaincy of Allan Border.
But now, as members of the Don Argus-led review into Australian cricket, Taylor and Border have recommended that the coach be part of a new panel of five that will also include the national captain, Michael Clarke. Among a raft of drastic changes to the structure of the national program, this one spoke loudest for how much times and attitudes had changed.
The incumbent coach, Tim Nielsen, and Clarke will immediately take on selection responsibility while on the current tour of Sri Lanka, but a new senior coach will be appointed in due course. Australia's vastly experienced fielding coach, Steve Rixon, and the Western Australia coach, Mickey Arthur, are both expected to express interest in the position.
"In my time in cricket administration it is probably the biggest chestnut, there's been a change of view on whether coaches and captains should be selectors many times," Cricket Australia's chairman Jack Clarke said. "I think the three captains on there probably would've had a certain view at one stage, interestingly they all came to the view to make that person accountable and the structures are all about accountability. To make those people accountable they need to be selectors, and the board accepted that."
Argus, who spoke as much of corporate dictums as cricketing ones, said the matter of communication between the selectors and the players had been so poor as to necessitate the formal inclusion of the coach and captain in the process.
"One of the things that came up was the communication between the players and the selectors and I'm sure you've heard that, and what we've done is to try to get adult conversations going around the panel of the selectors and the players," Argus said. "Normally communication solves most insecurities, and if we achieve that, that'll be a huge step forward."
The increased influence of the coach and captain closely mirrors the power wielded by the England captain Andrew Strauss and coach Andy Flower, architects of Australia's Ashes defeat last summer. The coach's broader role is also similar to the model now popular globally and at state level, though the Australian set-up has continually differed from this due to the strongly divergent views over Simpson's time in charge. Argus denied that the England model had been a major influence, preferring to conclude that it simply reflected the best and most functional model for high performance and accountability.
"I got an email overnight from a good friend of mine in England and he said 'now that we're No. 1, would you like some input into your report' and I said 'as a matter of fact I was thinking of putting in a recommendation that we get a Zimbabwean coach and four South Africans into the side'," Argus joked.
"The answer is no, it had no bearing on it. I had a look at that [England] as a passing phase, but if you have a look at the structure and you have a look at the corporate structures of high performance organisations around the world, you'll find some similarities."
Greg Chappell, the selector currently on duty in Sri Lanka, will be stripped of that role but is welcome to continue as the national talent manager, a position now far less powerful that one he had fashioned over the previous 12 months. It is unclear whether or not Chappell will elect to continue in his modified position.
Tensions between Chappell and the players bubbled under the surface during the summer, and Sutherland admitted that there were times he too was not welcome in the dressing room. Famed for wanting a free hand in whatever role he takes in cricket, Chappell must now adjust his methods and concentrate on talent identification, or move on.
"In terms of whether Greg is happy or not, that's something you can ask him," CA chief executive James Sutherland said. "I've spoken to him ahead of these recommendations being handed down. So he understands what the board has recommended and what it has adopted in that respect, and we will go on from there.
"He may well have some decisions to make himself about that, but that's really in his hands. It was a brief conversation, I had a lot of people to speak to today, I was delivering a message to give him an update, he hasn't seen the report, so he needs time to digest that.
"It was seen as important that there is a segregation of duty between the national selector and the national talent manager, such that the national talent manager was no longer a selector. Nothing to do with personality, purely a structural decision that best divests accountability."
Accountability was a major theme of the day, as CA sought to change a structure that had clearly lost its edge and effectiveness across years of success, leaving it quite unprepared to deal with the aftermath of that era.
"The lack of accountability and the objective of really performing was something that wasn't in the jargon that was coming through, and that's from what I'm used to outside, so that's an outsider's view," Argus said. "If the national team can concentrate on starting to get a winning culture going again that's a good start, and it doesn't need to be distracted by all the noise about selection and other stuff that they read, I'm sure that unsettles them. This gets the structure settled down and they can concentrate on what they do best. That's really what it'll be all about."
Clarke and Sutherland also emphasised that the search for the head coach, full-time chairman of selectors and general manager high performance would all be global ones, with no preference for local or internal candidates.
Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo