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March 12, 2013

Australia's troubled tour

The vagueness behind Australia's crisis

Michael Jeh
I think it was pretty dumb for the management to take such a controversial stance without fully thinking through the inevitable backlash  © Getty Images
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The danger with writing an opinion piece so early on in the life of an evolving story is that not all facts are known yet, nor might they ever be revealed. Hindsight will no doubt reveal inaccuracies and mistaken assumptions on my part; with that disadvantage, albeit with a little bit of "insider trading" knowledge, this is my stab at trying to make sense of this minor crisis in the context of global issues. Brydon Coverdale has already written an excellent piece which I broadly concur with but I must confess that when I first heard the rumours, my gut feeling was along the same lines of the ex-players who have (predictably) expressed their outrage. My gut feeling is that over the next few days, if Mickey Arthur, Michael Clarke and Cricket Australia handle the dissemination of information better than they've currently done, we'll see a shift in public sympathy away from the Forlorn Four.

Mind you, the jury of Public Opinion may yet delay their verdict until after the Mohali Test but that is the coward's way out in my opinion. Whichever position you support, it's a matter of principle rather than a cricketing "form" issue (although, not filling in some forms may ironically be one of the bones of contention). Waiting to see who scores runs, takes wickets or spits the dummy is a retrospective exercise that is based purely on cold, hard stats, the very thing that Arthur and Clarke are railing against with their brave (perhaps fatal) stance on team culture.

I haven't yet heard of an ex-cricketer who has expressed support for this decision (yet). As distinguished men who have played the game at that level and know what it's like to be in dressing-room cultures that are good, bad and indifferent, their voices are worth heeding. In their minds, this is an over-reaction. It should be all about the cricket, the sanctity of the dressing-room culture and most things can be sorted out over an honest beer or three. That's the way it used to be, perhaps not even all that long ago. Fair enough too if the conditions are still the same in 2013.

A female journalist on Sky Sports this morning was scathing in her criticism of management, alluding to cricket's nobility and history of sorting everything out in the dressing room or hotel bar, surrounded by a few cartons of beer. I suspect she is not necessarily in touch with the modern game. In the last decade or so, cricket dressing rooms at any level do not look this anymore. Players rarely sit around in sweaty jocks, polishing off cans of lager, recounting war stories. Youngsters rarely enjoy sitting down and listening to the old blokes passing on tips from the older blokes they originally heard it from. They're still engaged in conversations but it's rarely with each other. Facebook, Twitter and SMS messages are their currency. Some of them don't even shower - they rush home (hotel), get changed and then meet their friends at an external venue. So that romanticised picture of a dressing room strewn with kit and blokes lounging around talking cricket is a rarity except perhaps after a major victory or at the end of the season.

My gut feeling is that over the next few days, if Mickey Arthur, Michael Clarke and Cricket Australia handle the dissemination of information better than they've currently done, we'll see a shift in public sympathy away from the Forlorn Four

Those 'veterans' argue eloquently that presentations and form-filling have nothing to do with actually playing cricket. Fair point. Prosecuting that argument then will need an acceptance that the modern professional cricketer should be judged purely on cricketing talent. Fair enough. Be prepared to accept then that their salaries should be based purely on what they do on the field. They'll earn a lot less money of course because Cricket Australia won't be able to use them for sponsorship events, charity functions, television adverts, junior coaching clinics or product placements. It's naïve to think that we can return to that simplistic world where it's only about the on-field performances. The modern professional athlete needs to be much, much more than that.

Qantas recently had half the Australian team as part of their on-board safety video. Apart from it being a truly awful bit of television, it was clearly an important (and lucrative) part of Qantas' sponsorship deal with Cricket Australia which includes business-class travel one would presume. What if the players who were asked to turn up to the Qantas hangar to shoot the advert simply refused to comply with that instruction? Is that a breach of discipline? It's got very little to do with hitting a cover drive after all.

What if they refused to wear the team uniform to a function? Is that a serious breach of discipline? What does that have to do with bowling an outswinger at 140 kph?

What if players refuse to attend the compulsory education sessions on drugs, alcohol, respect for women, social media etc? Most of these workshops that I run are compulsory attendance for all squad members. Today's young cricketer just accepts that this is part of the deal. I'm sure they'd rather be anywhere but stuck in a boring education session but they fully understand what "compulsory attendance" means. Imagine trying to get someone from David Boon's generation to attend a workshop on responsible consumption of alcohol. Or Dennis Lillee/Rod Marsh listening to a lecture on gambling, especially against your own team! The game's changed since their era so it's not necessarily wise to use their thoughts on this issue as necessarily being gospel.

Much of the conjecture is because there are so many unknowns thus far. We need to hear more about what the repeated infractions were before we can judge this latest case in isolation. Clarke alluded to standards slipping on more than one occasion on this tour, perhaps even during the summer in Australia. I'm loath to take a position either way until we hear more about the history of this case. If you believe his version of events, it appears that they are concerned about a repeated sequence of behaviours that undermine the culture of the team. At what point do we restrict our conversations to pure on-field cricket issues? There's barely a job out there in the real world that expects employees to merely do their specified tasks without taking on other responsibilities, including paperwork. When you're on this sort of money, living the dream, is it unfair to expect employees to do tasks that may be performance-related but not directly connected to the physical actions of their job? The only jobs I've ever had which required me to do nothing but perform rote tasks were very poorly paid ones which compensated me for merely being a robot on a factory floor. Is this what we expect of our cricketers?

From the sounds of it, the requirements were not that onerous. The three bullet points could have taken a number of different delivery platforms (SMS, computer, hand-written note, email). What we don't yet know is whether the players were aware of the consequences of not fulfilling their obligations. Were they given an "extension" and for what reason? Anyone who has been to university will know that unless you have a good reason, extensions are not granted just because someone could not be bothered to hand something in. Similarly in the workplace, there are expectations placed on us every single day to do certain tasks and it's unacceptable to simply not do that task without any explanation.

Yes, I can hear the argument (again) that these guys are cricketers, not office workers. While I agree with that sentiment, we're back to that hoary old chestnut then about only being paid for what you do on the field. How do sponsors get value purely from on-field action? If sponsors don't perceive value, they don't write cheques to Cricket Australia. If there are no cheques in the bank, the cricketers don't get paid. Simple as that. It's a ridiculous argument to suggest that they should be judged one-dimensionally when the essence of their millionaire lifestyles is based entirely on the fact that they represent multi-dimensional value. Why else am I subjected to the Australian cricket team, in their whites and baggy greens, telling me how to get in the brace position if my aeroplane is about to crash? It's got nothing to do with cricket but I bet all the players who were told to wear their whites and turn up for an all-day film shoot turned up on time for 'work'.

Perhaps the reaction may have been a bit over-the-top (dropping them from the next Test) but we're not yet sure what other indiscretions preceded this straw that broke the camel's back. Do we admire Clarke for not mentioning those incidents and showing some loyalty? Or should he have come clean, at the risk of being accused of airing dirty linen, just so we all know what has led to this final breaking point? He's in a no-win situation. Likewise Mickey Arthur. Regardless of whether we agree with their management style or not, the bottom line is that they are the appointed managers of this group. How far do they tolerate insubordination before it gets to the point where it becomes untenable? Do we know what lines in the sand have already been crossed?

In that sense, I think it was pretty dumb for the management to take such a controversial stance without fully thinking through the inevitable backlash. Maybe they should have detailed the sequence of events leading up to this final indignity so we (the public) realised how far the indiscipline stretched back. Do we need to know that? Probably not, but given that we're all weighing in with opinions when we don't know all the facts, maybe we needed some of the background before we can make an informed decision. In terms of pure image management, if I was advising Clarke, I would have suggested that he front the cameras freshly-shaven and not wearing a cap with a beer logo when speaking so passionately about respect for the baggy green etc.

But that is now part of the deal - it's not just about what happens on the field. For Clarke right now, he must almost wish that he would be judged solely on the basis of being the best batsman in the world but he understands that the age of innocence is no more. For Watson, Pattinson et al, that lesson has been paid for with heavy coin and heavier hearts.

Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane

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Posted by sportofpain on (March 13, 2013, 12:22 GMT)

@jmcihinney: Didn't think of the punishment beforehand because they assumed everyone would do it - wow! If anything that shows lack of thought on the part of the leadership - initiate an action, assume wrongly that everyone will comply, don't know beforehand what the consequences should be for failure and then after the results come in decide arbitrarily that the players should be dropped. This is leadership? Sorry - not acceptable! MC & MA have messed this up BIG TIME!

Posted by   on (March 13, 2013, 6:43 GMT)

I really don't understand what all the fuss is about, it's not as IF Australia were winning 2-0 already with these players...so just what difference does it make ??? Surely you don't believe for a moment that if these players were allowed to play they could change the results and make it 2-2!?!

Posted by   on (March 13, 2013, 5:43 GMT)

Nitesh, as much as I would like to agree with you (not that I have to or don't have to, just my 0.02ç on the matter), the SA and England teams of today were built on a solid team culture that Graeme Smith (and a couple of coaches) and Strauss and Flower fostered. A team culture that has endured and ended up making winning a habit. I don't think both those aspects are disjoint. They are more symbiotic than one can imagine.

I don't think anyone would be proud (at least to themselves, if not outwardly or however it is projected outside) to be part of a team that wins, but does not have a culture in which you would love to call yourself a part of. Without a team culture, it becomes more of eleven superstars on the field, and why would it be called a team game at all?

Posted by heathrf1974 on (March 13, 2013, 3:08 GMT)

Shane Warne supports the decision.

Posted by Cobra0077 on (March 13, 2013, 3:00 GMT)

Totally disagree with this article. First of all it appears the head coach had assigned his pupil of doing his home work for him. Under the circumstances that Australia is facing, the best approach would have been for the coaches with help from the captain & vice captain to each individual players and see what kind of difficulty they are facing and what can be done for the better. First of it appears that the vice captain was not involved or asked to be involved in anything to do with the head coach and others involved in the tour. Second, If the vice captain was not aware of the consequences of not performing the task then how can one expect the players to know about it. For the above reasons I'm sure it was not communicated with the players. Thirdly, as per some players who know Watto well he is not to good at writing. Further Clarke should have been responsible to be the go between guy, but, it appears that he sees himself more as a coach and selector.

Posted by jmcilhinney on (March 13, 2013, 2:37 GMT)

@sportofpain on (March 12, 2013, 17:06 GMT), they probably didn't think of a punishment beforehand because they assumed that everyone would be responsible enough to complete the assigned task. As for telling them beforehand that they'd be dropped if they didn't comply, should a Test cricketer really need that threat hanging over them to complete so simple a task? If so then they can't really be considered a team player, can they?

Posted by   on (March 13, 2013, 2:15 GMT)

When you are on Alien territory, you hold tight to each other and not shift blames. Dissection of players performances (on and off the field) are done once the team returns home. Openly blaming a set of your players in the middle of a tour would only muddle the reputation of the team as a whole and the only loser out of this situation is going to be Australian cricket. Everybody is in for respecting the captain and the coaching staff, no doubt on that, but the captain has to be the bigger man and get rid of his ego and wait at least the tour is over and the team is back home. As a Pakistani, this is the most amusing situation I have seen in a while and yes this exceeds all the troubled/amusing/sad perks of Pakistani cricket and politics within.

Posted by   on (March 13, 2013, 0:02 GMT)

Great insight into the current Australin team. I agree with you something hasn't been right over the past year or so, and the performance on the field backs that up. Some of the performances has been flattering given the opposition. We have not performed well for some time. My view is when the team has champion players there is very little need for external intervention - they find ways of staying on track - ala Shane Warne. But once the team enters a rebuilding phase, discipline and good attitude is critical. As much as I am embarassd by the way the situation was handled, and there are probably lot of facts that are yet to emerge, I suspect that right course of action was taken. Shane Watson's behaviour or his reaction is not what I would expect from a leader. Pattinson handled himself much more graciously. Interesting we haven't heard from the other two, where there has been some disquiet in the past about their attitude.

Posted by mikey76 on (March 12, 2013, 19:58 GMT)

One has to wonder if this was a winning Australian team, one that was 2-0 up instead of 2-0 down, would this have happened at all? Would the four guys in a depressed downtrodden dressing room, perhaps resentful of management for not getting picked (Khawaja, Johnson) or of putting in fine performances without receiving any back up (Pattinson) would have just "downed tools" and refused to play Arthurs game. In a losing team things like this tend to happen, especially on tour. Beards get grown, catches get dropped, players attack each other verbally and captains refuse to speak to the press. Australia of 2013 are similar in many ways to England in the 90's under Atherton. A team battling mediocrity, and now coming apart at the seams.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Jeh
Born in Colombo, educated at Oxford and now living in Brisbane, Michael Jeh (Fox) is a cricket lover with a global perspective on the game. An Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, he is a Playing Member of the MCC and still plays grade cricket. Michael now works closely with elite athletes, and is passionate about youth intervention programmes. He still chases his boyhood dream of running a wildlife safari operation called Barefoot in Africa.

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