May 20, 2013

Leadership looks a distant dream for Warner

Picking a fight over an issue the Australian public doesn't really care about, that too with journalists of considerable repute, isn't going to help Warner in the long run

David Warner has shown he can be mature and avoid risk in his batting when he wants to, so what's his excuse here? © Getty Images

The way the David Warner Twitter controversy has panned out is so typical of the medium itself. Said today, irrelevant tomorrow, potentially remembered forever. For young athletes, especially those as instinctive and immature as Warner, a mobile phone or laptop computer should come with a time-delay switch or warning instructions - "Press 'send' only after long period of thought. The ramifications could be leadership-threatening."

For anyone who knows anything about the domestic cricket scene, the prospect of Warner being touted as a future captain of Australia was always going to elicit a gulp of apprehension. A close friend of mine who has played grade cricket for nigh on 30 years and is as fair-dinkum Aussie as they come had this to say yesterday when he drove past and interrupted my Sunday lawn-mowing chores: "If Warner is ever made captain of Australia, I'll renounce my citizenship immediately."

Interestingly enough, it was not Warner's explosive (and unpredictable) batting style that elicited this response. Affectionately called "Box", my mate is renowned throughout Brisbane grade cricket for regularly hitting the first ball of the game for six. If Warner was cloned off anyone, Box was the prototype for Warner-esque batting long before it became popular. The negative response was probably more to do with the notion that the highest sporting office in the land requires a man who is more often than not the best player in the team and almost always the elder statesman. Despite Warner's immense talents, it requires a leap of faith too far to imagine him growing into that role. Some perceptions are hard to shake, made harder by repeated indiscretions and the lack of signs that mistakes are being learned from.

In many ways, Warner's batting is a bit like his history with social media. It is instinctive, exciting and prone to spectacular crashes. A defensive mindset is a last resort for him. Some of that is just unique to the man himself and makes him the match-winner that he undoubtedly can be when the stars are aligned. Ironically one of his most defining knocks in Test cricket was not a match-winning knock but a brave, out-of-character innings in a losing cause against New Zealand in Hobart in 2012. But even that innings was not one of dour defence - it showcased the depth of his game and what he is capable of. It also showed that he can eschew "bad risk" and display maturity when he really wants to, which might undermine his defence in this latest Twitter episode - that he is essentially an instinctive beast who finds it impossible to rein in his natural instinct to get on the front foot, so to speak. He has proved that he can occasionally show good shot selection.

His is a classic case of a young man whose frontal-lobe development is still in the formative stage and is therefore prone to impulsive action before rational consequence-based thought. Throw in a medium (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) that is instant in its nature and that's a recipe for disaster. So many young people I work with in this area of education around the perils of social media just don't realise how dangerous it can be to have access to a technology that is instantaneous, married to a young, developing brain that is hard-wired to act first, think later. The intelligent ones have learned to recognise this beast for what it is, and they employ various methods to buy time until the "red mist" has passed and they can assess their social media post in a slightly clearer light. A good night's sleep is often the best way to buy time, assuming that Twitter doesn't (yet) have the concept of a drafts folder. I suppose it really wouldn't work with Twitter anyway because the whole point of it is to be instant and instinctive.

It is not the first time Warner has been burned by this medium. His unseemly tête-à-tête with Tasmanian and Australian fast bowler Brett Geeves a few years ago should have taught him some lessons about playing with fire. He escaped relatively scot-free on that occasion (as I suspect he will do this time too) and whilst this will be good for him in the short-term, one wonders if any lasting lessons will be learned from another slap on the wrist. A fine of a few thousand dollars will hardly hurt a millionaire. It certainly won't burn any memories into his still-developing brain.

As he showed in those last few Test match innings in India, he has now developed a dangerous habit of not knowing which balls to leave alone. Provocation aside, Robert Craddock's newspaper article was one that he should have left well alone, despite it being perceived as half-volley outside off-stump. Ishant Sharma and Bhuvneshwar Kumar are not the world's fastest bowlers but Warner's expansive drives still finished up in MS Dhoni's gleeful gloves. For one thing, Craddock and Malcolm Conn are senior journalists who have taken on people with far greater intellects than Warner. To charge down the pitch at them is just plain foolish. It's one way to get stumped and look daft in the process. As journalists, they often get the last say, they are used to thinking about things before committing it to paper, and ultimately they control what goes to print. Twitter can even get experienced men with no frontal-lobe issues to get caught up in the heat of the battle but at least Conn was too smart to get sucked into an expletive-laden tirade. That comes with age and experience.

More tellingly, Warner's lack of judgement when it came to "reading the pitch" will count against him when it comes time to put his hand up for a leadership role in the distant future. As much as I agree with Craddock's thesis, the IPL is not a hot issue here in Australia in the middle of football season with the Ashes more than a month away. Despite it being an insightful piece, its readership would have been limited by the fact that the IPL just doesn't register on most people's radar. As tempted as he was to respond to Craddock's article, Warner should have just shouldered arms and let it go through to the keeper. The story, the issue, the public interest in the IPL, is just not a big enough deal here in Australia to warrant risking your reputation. Good leaders tend to know which fights are worth fighting. It would be too time-consuming to put out every little fire that will fizzle out through lack of oxygen soon enough. Unless, of course, you breathe more oxygen into it, as Warner and Conn have done.

To be fair to both Craddock and Conn, as befits older men whose brains are that much more mature, they have sensibly hosed down the issue with placatory statements, thereby providing Warner with the opportunity to offer one of those standard apologies (presumably written by the Cricket Australia media department). In fact, judging by the atrocious spelling and grammar, even allowing for Twitter's disregard for such luxuries, it may indeed be best if Warner's subsequent forays into the written word be monitored by someone with more advanced maturity and a basic knowledge of the English language (which is presumably Warner's mother tongue). That may just explain the run-outs we saw last season involving Warner, Ed Cowan and Phil Hughes. Perhaps they didn't really "know" that "no means no".

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