July 8, 2013

A knife in the back

Cricket Australia's decision to sack Mickey Arthur after having supported him in disciplining and rotating players betrays the management's muddled thinking

Clarke and Lehmann have said Warner can make his way to the squad for the first Test even though he hasn't played the warm-ups. What message does that send to the other players? © Getty Images

One foreign coach dumped (Mickey Arthur) and another looking nervously over his shoulder (Robbie Deans, Australia's Kiwi rugby coach).

One British triumph sewn up with the Lions in three weeks but the longest ten-Test series in my living memory is about to start. A relatively stable England camp and anything but stability for the Australians.

It will be interesting to see whether injuries, form, suspensions and team rotations will do anything to alter this picture by the time we get to Sydney in early 2014. Both teams will know each other intimately by then, so the last few Tests are likely to be a battle of attrition rather than an ambush mugging. The series in England will be interrupted briefly and both the teams will make their way to Brisbane, and any bragging rights from round one in Old Blighty will be short-lived. Whoever wins the series in England will not have the luxury of savouring that pleasure for too long, mindful that that the final battle in Sydney will be when the victor truly gets to enjoy the spoils of a long war.

New coach in tow, Australia will be comfortable starting as underdogs, having endured a few months of complete confusion on many battlefronts. At management level, Cricket Australia has been forced into defending the inconsistency of muddled thinking that increasingly shows little signs of any clarity. Clear as mud. The board has argued passionately (and sometimes irritably) for the "Informed Player Management" system, but it has been hastily abandoned, as if they never anticipated a period of transition and public disenchantment. Surely when they first embarked upon the rotation policy, they must have envisaged a few hiccups, both in execution and perception. To abandon it so soon suggests that it was never the carefully thought-out process that was so indignantly defended by the selection panel, James Sutherland and Arthur at various points during the summer.

Arthur, he who uncharacteristically snapped at journalists when arguing the merits of resting players, at the time secure in the long-term tenancy of his job, must now be wondering if he shouldn't have insisted on always having the best XI on the park, given that his lack of success was no doubt one of the reasons why he was so swiftly given the boot. They can talk about the lack of discipline but it essentially boils down to too many Ls and not enough Ws in the win/loss column. If Arthur's team was winning regularly, it is unlikely that his axing would have happened in such dramatic circumstances. Perhaps the discipline issues stemmed from that lack of success, so there's an element of the chicken-and-egg argument too.

As for those discipline issues, the mixed messages emanating from Cricket Australia continue to obfuscate their actual stance on behaviour standards. At the height of the Mohali incident, when four players were dropped for off-field issues, the rhetoric from the hierarchy was encouragingly consistent with Arthur's position. Perhaps Arthur might later reveal that it was Cricket Australia's management who actually loaded the bullets in the gun.

Sutherland was quoted as being "a really firm believer in the fact that those decisions will ultimately stand us in good stead as we build to sustained performance at the highest level".

Management-speak and all very dandy but the subsequent betrayal of Arthur who had to implement these decisions certainly didn't stand him in good stead. Shane Watson, James Pattinson and David Warner are all still on the Ashes bus; only Arthur has paid any real price for enforcing the discipline regime that Cricket Australia presumably backed him on. No clean slate for poor Mickey - only players have been washed clean with the arrival of the new coach.

What is the point of any punishment if Warner merely gets two weeks rest and then finds his way back into the playing XI on the back of net form? In that case, why have warm-up games against the counties at all?

Michael Clarke's recent utterances that Warner is still very much in the mix for selection in the first Test just underscores the lack of clarity in the selection policy. What is the point of any punishment if Warner merely gets two weeks rest and then finds his way back into the playing XI on the back of net form? In that case, why have warm-up games against the counties at all? Why not just have back-to-back net sessions and choose the team on that basis? It's not even the case that Warner was a prolific run scorer up until the moment he took a swing at Joe Root. His selection was already the source of much debate anyway; the captain has now effectively declared that not being available to score runs in the warm-up games is of no consequence. What does that say to the other players who have kept their noses clean and their fists to themselves, only to be given the message that runs in the middle mean nothing?

One can understand Darren Lehmann's public statement that the slate is wiped clean and that everyone starts afresh with him, but surely that must necessarily also mean that an out-of-form batsman with no match practice cannot possibly usurp others who have first-class runs under their belt. Watson is already the beneficiary of a muddled disciplinary culture that sees him dropped for one Test, captain the next, and then be given his choice of batting position over the incumbent Ed Cowan. Watson's recent Test record would see him struggle to make just about any major Test team in world cricket. His potential is undoubted, but how many other players described unflatteringly by Pat Howard as "sometimes a team man" emerge with more aces up their sleeve than before they were suspended? Arthur, supported to the hilt by management at the time of the Watson incident, soon discovered that when it comes to consistent policy, inconsistency was the only constant.

If Watson happens to fail in the next few Tests, will he then just get shunted down the order again until he eventually finds a spot that suits him? Give a good player unlimited chances and he's bound to score runs eventually. It's that sort of inconsistency that may cause dissent in the ranks if other players feel aggrieved that they don't get the luxury of choosing which positions they can fail in before finding their best spot. It's all very well for Lehmann to reassure his squad that everybody starts with a fresh slate but does that mean that history is wiped out and past failures too don't count?

There was much talk in hindsight about why Arthur was a cultural misfit for this young team that he inherited. At the time he was hired, though, the very opposite was said to justify his appointment, by the very same people who were quick to jettison him when player power won the day.

There's similar talk now about rugby coach Deans being shown the door, with his possible replacement mooted to be South African Jake White. Like the cricket team, if the Wallabies continue to perform poorly, will it always be the coach who gets the chop or at some point will the coach be retained and the players dropped? Professional sport is too coach-focused these days, quick to hold anyone but the athlete responsible for poor performance.

After the Mickey Arthur experience, no sensible coach will be inclined to believe management when they tell him that they will back him 100% when it comes to enforcing discipline. Mind you, it is easier to knife someone in the back when you're right behind them.

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