June 24, 2013

Arthur the victim of a revolution?

Talk is, his disciplinarian style was a bit too much for some players to stomach

Did Mickey Arthur end up rubbing too many people the wrong way? © Getty Images

The danger in trying to cover a breaking story when it is actually in the process of breaking is that hindsight can later make a fool of you. Nonetheless, accustomed as I am to boldly venturing where angels fear to tread, I write this piece at 12 noon Australian time on Monday, 24 June, working on what little information I have, and a bit of inside knowledge that may later prove to be less than 100% accurate. It would be too easy (and safe) to wait until all the facts are known, but half the fun in writing an opinion piece is to spin the dice and see if those gut instincts are correct.

I refer, of course, to the story about Mickey Arthur being dumped as Australia coach, at the beginning of an Ashes campaign that is fast unravelling for Australia. Surely this could not have been a planned succession strategy, so one can only presume that something dramatic has occurred overnight to precipitate this tumultuous course of events. If I had to guess at a cause, I would lean towards Arthur losing the support of some key figures in the inner sanctum, most probably Michael Clarke or the CEO himself, James Sutherland. It might have come from sustained pressure from any number of players who felt disgruntled by Arthur's old-fashioned man-management style, but it's hard to believe that their disenchantment alone could led to a coup unless they have now converted management or the captain to join their ranks.

When the real reasons emerge, if they ever do, it will be interesting to see if Arthur reveals a sense of betrayal, considering senior management backed his strong disciplinary stance, only to cave in to "player power". Australian sport is not immune to those sorts of pressures and one cannot discount the force of dissent from within the ranks. The ACT Brumbies, a rugby franchise based in Canberra, famously dumped their coach after his relationship with the senior players became untenable. WA Cricket recently parted ways with their young coach, Lachlan Stevens, as decent a chap as ever there was, after his attempts to forge a culture of accountability and discipline did not sit easily with some senior players and management/board members who had the most to lose from having their boat rocked. The fact that the squad was beset with discipline issues around senior players like the Marsh brothers, Luke Pomersbach and Marcus North did not stop management from siding with players when push came to shove. So don't discount the power of the dressing room in unseating the general.

One gets the sense that Arthur's style of man management may not necessarily have suited a young Australian team that is yet to find its feet and a sense of identity. Word on the street is that his South African style of strong discipline and "do it my way" may not necessarily have gelled with a group of young players who have not experienced that sort of militaristic environment before.

I've spent a lot of time in South Africa and with South Africans and, at the risk of generalising, it is clear to me that they still operate in a fairly rigid hierarchy of manners, protocol and deference to authority. Perhaps it's a hangover from the days of compulsory military service, combined with a slightly old-fashioned colonial mentality in a harsh African land where you earn seniority the hard way. Personally I find that culture really easy to work with because you know where you stand, manners and courtesies are observed in very traditional ways, and respect is accorded to hierarchy without necessarily needing proof that it has to be earned. As a wildlife ranger, that sort of hierarchical pyramid is even more accentuated because seniority automatically occupies a higher place on the ladder, often for very good reasons, most of it involving life-and-death decisions that a relative novice like me would never think of questioning.

That is old Africa and this is new Australia, however. Perhaps it was a marriage that was ill conceived, considering the vast cultural divide. Yet Jake White, a successful South African rugby coach, is reputedly a popular figure at the ACT Brumbies, so it is too simplistic to blame it all on a mere cultural misfit. Gary Kirsten enjoyed considerable success with India, despite having to manage a dressing room full of superstar egos and fend off an administration that frequently dabbled in matters outside its domain. So I'm loath to blame it all on this all-too-convenient excuse of Arthur's South African style not gelling with an Australian dressing room. Both parties would surely be more professional than that. Wouldn't they (I ask, less convincingly)?

South Africans still operate in a fairly rigid hierarchy of manners, protocol and deference to authority. Perhaps it's a hangover from the days of compulsory military service, combined with a slightly old-fashioned colonial mentality in a harsh African land

If the rumours are true that Darren Lehmann is indeed the new coach, that is in some ways a return to the old ways, a triumph for the Shane Warne-Ian Chappell school of thinking that subscribes to the notion that at this rarefied level, the coach is the transport vehicle and the human in charge is more of a strategist and motivator.

Lehmann has long been famous for his relaxed approach to the art of coaching, preferring to create an atmosphere of trust and camaraderie around a carton of beer, and building upwards from that base. That is to take nothing away from his technical skills or acumen, but he is well known around the traps for allowing players to back their instincts, and for trusting their basic skills. After all, at this level, is anyone really going to make a difference to a batsman's technique? Surely that player has played enough cricket, knows his game well enough by now, to make little adjustments on his own without the need for a "coach" per se. They all have their own individual coaches they refer to anyway, in times of significant technical remodelling.

Lehmann's relaxed approach may well be the perfect tonic for a squad that is clearly under pressure. He's a bit of a gambler and perhaps that laissez-faire attitude may undo some of the shackles and release the side from the siege mentality that may have taken hold after the events of the last few months.

In some senses Lehmann may be taking over at the best possible time. Everything to gain, nothing to lose. If Australia get soundly thrashed, it won't come as a huge surprise. If they hold their own or even win the Ashes back, he will be hailed as a messiah. If Clarke's back injury gets worse, Lehmann can then stamp his own unique style of leadership on the team and start afresh, with no expectations of immediate success hanging over his balding head. Where it will get interesting will be if/when discipline issues rear their head again, especially around alcohol, late nights and a party atmosphere. Cricket Australia have made a rod for their back by taking a semi-hardline stance on these issues and they will need to maintain this corporate line, even with a relaxed Lehmann at the helm, steering a slightly different course.

Only time will tell if Arthur's sacking was driven by revolution or devolution. It bodes ill for the second most important office in the country, that mere trifle of a prime minister, also fanning away the flames of discontent from within her dressing room. If she too loses just one key supporter who had previously backed her, we might see a dual change of leadership. Win the Ashes by August and it could soon be "Lehmann for PM".

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