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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Gilbert on June 25, 2013, 12:14 GMT

    Arthur's sacking will make no difference. Neither will Boof. Those that hired Arthur should take some of the blame themselves and should resign or be sacked. When this happens, sack the whole lot with the exception of Clarke and Haddin.

  • Dummy4 on June 25, 2013, 4:41 GMT

    I personally feel Lehmman would do an decent job handling this realtively young and inexperienced Australian Side.If Australia is to succeed in England Clarke, Haddin , Watson , Johnson and my vote would go to a certain Steven Smith who will be surprise package there .Currently Lehmman's job to bring in the old hard way of australian sides which is big time missing from this new bunch of cricketers from the land of Oz .For me Warner, Hughes and Khawaja are uselesss bunch of players who wouldnt be making any impact on this Ashes .Bailey ,Maddinson ( current Australia A player ) would have made a better choice to strengthen up the weak batting side .

  • Mark on June 24, 2013, 16:31 GMT

    Nice article, Australia still has a decent pace bowling attack which they could build around. It is certainly not an impossibility that this Australian side can level or win the series. If Australian pace battery is fully fit and firing, who knows anything is possible. I certainly wouldn't write this Australian side off. They still have good cricketers there especially their bowling attack is still good for test cricket.

  • Dummy4 on June 24, 2013, 10:35 GMT

    I think you have the nail on the head sifter. We have had a coach that just did not gel with his team. The observation I would add, is that we seem to have a Captain who has the same issue. I cannot believe that Michael Clarke was separated from the rest of the team - bad back or no bad back! It just sends a terrible message to all concerned.

    It might be time for James Sutherland and the ACB to get on their knees and ask Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey to come back for one last campaign and then build for 4 years.

  • Dummy4 on June 24, 2013, 10:22 GMT

    spot on Jeh...never underestimate the player power...There is a reason why the cliche' goes the coach is as good as the team. A coach and the captain needs evolve a harmonized style of leadership. While an young team in transition needs a slightly authoritative touch, at the same time there needs to someone from the leadership who empathizes with younger players - their insecurities, their infallibility etc.. While we know Arthur can be quite authoritarian, I am not sure Clarke is an empathizing sort of a bloke, nor as inspirational as someone like Ponting - best bat in the team and a very good captain not withstanding he isn't well liked even. And in this combo Arthur is clearly more expendable than Clark so he goes. And Jeh - while Kirsten deserves every bit of credit - you must give credit to the Indian super stars and their 'egos' as you chose to put it that they invested in that relationship as well. Guru Greg didn't and he met the inevitable end.

  • Peter on June 24, 2013, 7:33 GMT

    Seems in line with what I have been hearing. Would be interesting to hear what Mark Taylor has to say as his role was to make sure team management and direction is right. A fresh start for the Aussies is fantastic, clear their heads of what was going on before and focus on the poms.

  • Hamish on June 24, 2013, 6:51 GMT

    Love your articles Michael, and as usual, this is is spot on.

    Whatever the reasons (and frankly i can't find it within me to care), Boof offers so much more to the job than Arthur it's not funny. First and foremost, and you'd think this would be just the bleeding obvious, Lehmann is Australian! Wow!

    Regardless of heritage and the stereotypes underpinning that heritage, Arthur never brought team unity and even when ostensibly, it looked like we were looking good for the Ashes after performing considerably better than England did against South Africa, it was always just two or three performing, and not the whole team. Not to mention that there was always a problem in every series (selection, rotation, etc). Boof will have a straightforward approach and team unity will be paramount. Skills coaching isn't necessary at this stage (it's too late for that), it's all about the mental state heading into the Ashes for every player.

    Arthur caused division, Lehmann will cause cohesion.

  • Amit on June 24, 2013, 5:37 GMT

    Your instinct might be right. Clarke aslo seems very old school to me, in terms of leadership style. Too many personal management issues - Watson, Katich, probably Hussey and few more who were disciplined in India. Time to play Clarke only as a batsman and give Haddin or Watson a go at leadership. The only chance Aus have in the Ashes is when Watsons and Warners and Mitchell Johnsons are allowed to express his skills and not be pegion-holed. Bring Lehmann in, loosen up and have some fun. Its a long tour and these young guys have too much money through IPL to follow the strict rules set by Mommy and Daddy.

  • David on June 24, 2013, 5:33 GMT

    I'd love to hear what Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey REALLY feel about this. Hussey in particular. I'm not sure we'll ever hear their true feeling publicly, but it seems those 2 guys were players who initially buying into the Arthur way of management for a while, but retired quite quickly, and quite recently.

    The other aspect here is timing. I can understand a sacking after a 4-0 drubbing by India, but I can't understand one now. Was David Warner's incident so egregious? Was Australia's Champions Trophy work so bad? I can't say yes to either of those, so it's odd to speculate what might be going on here.

  • Luke on June 24, 2013, 4:36 GMT

    Nice, balanced speculation. Will be interesting to see how accurate it is in about 2 months time.

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