Warne, Watson, and the importance of emotional intelligence
Sometimes it is the calm before the storm that produces the most turbulence. These last few weeks, in anticipation of the Ashes opener in my hometown of Brisbane next week, have been decidedly tumultuous in Australian cricket circles.
Hatchets previously buried have been unearthed, players have been turning on each other, autobiographies have been released at propitious times, former captains (and frustrated never-to-be captains) have been weighing in with strong opinions from outside the dressing room, and through it all, Michael Clarke has been the ultimate diplomat. Under extreme duress, his grace under fire has been admirable. Perhaps when he finishes his career, we'll find out what he really thinks. Thus far, despite his no-win situation, his opinions have been about as interesting as wet lettuce, because we all know that he is (sensibly) shouldering arms until he can later take a swing at his detractors. That book might be worth waiting for.
The ODI series in India was hard to fathom. Australia keep insisting that they treat every international series with the dignity it deserves, but when the rubber hits the road, it is clear that even India, despite the big cheque book, runs a poor second to an Ashes series. How else can you explain removing Mitchell Johnson from the deciding game of a series locked at three apiece? Surely, if you really cared about winning the ODI series, you cannot remove your best bowler for the crunch match. The series is up for grabs, you send your best bowler home to prepare for the Ashes, claim you still want to win the game, and then get belted for 380-plus.
What's even more confusing was that they risked their most fragile player, arguably one of the batsmen England fear most, and then saw him hobble off with another hamstring injury. If Johnson was important for the Ashes, was Shane Watson not equally valuable? What purpose was to be served by him belting another score on a pitch that had nothing in common with the Gabba or the WACA? It doesn't make sense in the context of sending Johnson home, with only one game to go, a crucial series decider at that. Well, maybe that ODI series wasn't that important after all.
Mike Hussey and Ricky Ponting's books were full of surprises, but in their own ways measured, dignified and insightful. Both men were entitled to air their opinions and it was done with grace and dignity, without being too vanilla.
It is a mark of modern sport that any interviews given by current players are simply not worth analysing to any great extent. Neither Hussey or Ponting was prepared to make these comments till after they retired, so it's clear now that all the facile, bland and scripted interviews they gave during their careers were merely that - utterly useless in terms of the real truth. One cannot blame them, of course, but it just goes to show that there's little point in listening to anything a player has to say whilst he is still playing. That's why Clarke's post-retirement book (or interview) will be more revealing than anything he says now with a straight bat and a straighter face, sardonic smile just twisting at the corners of his mouth.
Shane Warne, of course, is predictable. Genius cricketer, probably popular in the dressing room on match days, and always looking for attention. It's clear now why most of his contemporaries rate him so highly as a cricketer and less so as a reliable, long-term cricket luminary. It's also clear why he was never captain of Australia. Many people rave about his brilliant tactical acumen, but I'm in the camp of the unconvinced. Apart from one major T20 trophy with Rajasthan, his captaincy record has precious little silverware in the cabinet, though he had some serious talent at his disposal (for example: Melbourne Stars). He was a brilliant bowler and he brings that sharp cricketing brain to his work in the commentary box. However, intelligence and emotional intelligence are separate things.
Ever since he first announced himself on the world stage, Warne has constantly reminded us that captaincy is about more than just tactical genius. In the modern game, the on-field stuff is probably the easy part, armed as you are with printouts and video analysis prepared by the support staff. Captaincy is now a role akin to that of a chairman or CEO, as much about PR as it is about lbw.
Both Clarke and Alastair Cook have Warnie covered when it comes to the more statesman-like demands of being the captain of a country. Cook's dignified response to Warne's astonishing attack on his captaincy said as much about Cook as it did about Warne. Here's a captain whose so-called unimaginative captaincy has resulted in a more impressive captaincy record than anything Warne has conjured up, and he is vilified for… winning?
Apart from when he has ball in hand, Warne has mostly courted the sort of reputation that hints at style over substance. His life story is replete with scandal, and now the unprovoked comments about Ponting, Clarke and Cook just reinforce why he was never considered captaincy material by those who understand it is no longer simply about setting imaginative fields and making bold declarations.
You see leaders like MS Dhoni and George Bailey who are difficult to dislike, regardless of which team you support. They have found a balance between sportsmanship, competitiveness and leading by example. The Warne-Samuels incident last year goes to show that some people just don't "get" what true leadership really means. Young guys occasionally get hot under the collar and they seem to mature, but not Warnie.
The ugly incident between Shikhar Dhawan and Watson in that last ODI was one example of immaturity, although Watson is now too old to use that excuse. His rage at Dhawan's tasteless mocking was out of proportion to his reputation as a serial sledger throughout his career, including earlier that same day, when he clashed with Dhawan himself. If you dish it out, there's every chance you might get it back. You can't always choose when you get your comeuppance. I find the whole sledging thing distasteful, regardless of who's doing it, but I refuse to subscribe to the Watson Theory that it's "only funny when I'm doing it".
So as Brisbane gears up for a week of afternoon storms leading up to the Test next week, the calm before the storm is almost past. Despite Ian Botham's stirring of the pot and Clarke's predictable bullishness, it will soon come down to actions speaking louder than words. And despite being a writer, trading in words, it is time for me now to forget autobiographies, petty grudges and conspiracy theories. I think this series will ultimately be a war of attrition, decided as much by who's in the sick bay as who's at the wicket. It should be sponsored by Medicare!
Michael Jeh is an Oxford Blue who played first-class cricket, and is a Playing Member of the MCC. He lives in Brisbane