Australia's troubled tour March 11, 2013

Arthur finally cracks the whip

Mickey Arthur's hard call was in sharp contrast to his low-key, passive tenure as South Africa coach

In his five years as South Africa coach, Mickey Arthur kept confrontation at bay and was known for his relaxed and sometimes removed demeanour. Arthur is not known to have disciplined players personally, which makes his axing of four Australia players uncharacteristically strong-handed - even out of character.

Arthur had opportunities to wield the whip with South Africa but not many. His tenure was defined by the start of the Test team's unbeaten run away from home in 2006 and reached its highest point when they won series in England and Australia between 2008 and 2009. It took a dip when they drew against England at home in 2009-10; shortly afterwards, Arthur resigned.

Like every other South Africa coach, he did not manage to win a World Cup but the one during which he was in charge contained a fair amount of controversy. At the 2007 event, some South Africa players were criticised for being overweight and enjoying life in the Caribbean a little too much. Reports of binge drinking and late nights were circulated widely and, although they were never proved, neither were they denied by the team.

None of the players was reprimanded, breaking of curfew was never discussed and Arthur returned to South Africa with his glass half-full. His statements spoke of satisfaction with the on-field successes but made no mention of the alleged off-field shenanigans.

He was retained for another two-year term, in which one of his biggest challenges was managing the bad boy of South African cricket, Herschelle Gibbs, a rule-breaker since touring with the South Africa Under-19s team in 1992 - where he was almost sent home from Barbados after a night on the town.

He admitted to being drunk the night before the Wanderers 438 game in 2006, as one among many other occasions. He copped a few fines from the team manager (a position created after the 2007 World Cup) but Arthur is not known to have intervened.

Gibbs was ordered to attend alcohol rehabilitation in late 2008 but again there was no public evidence that Arthur had a hand in it.

In his biography To the Point, Gibbs put his finger on it. Arthur, he said, "didn't have much influence over the guys" because the team was controlled by a small clique of senior players.

Whether that is the truth or an exaggeration, it does explain why Arthur could afford to step back. He was in charge of a team that was led by Graeme Smith entering the mid-section of his captaincy and a senior core of players that included Mark Boucher and Jacques Kallis. There was leadership in the group before Arthur entered it and he was content to let that take its own course rather than steer it in any direction.

The Australia squad Arthur took over had some of that with Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey but has since lost a lot of its experience. Because he has a group of youngsters, Arthur may have felt compelled to impose seniority and assert authority.

That group of youngsters is also under extreme pressure, having lost two Tests in India and, at the start of the season, a home series to South Africa. As a result, Arthur is under strain too, perhaps even more. There is no parallel to his time with South Africa to this. Apart from the 2007 World Cup, the expectation on South Africa never reached boiling point and was always manageable.

As long as the team met expectations - and they exceeded them most of the time - Arthur's job was safe. That is not the case now. A far more critical media and public, who are used to winning after two generations of champions under Steve Waugh and Ponting, demand more from him.

With that on his mind, Arthur seems to have resorted to a typically South African way of doing things. The sergeant major is the caricature of the South African style of old, which was based on boarding-school rigidity and discipline and absolutely no wriggle room.

As South Africa's structures have grown up to meet modern standards, that has changed. Accountability, maturity and flexibility are three of the tenets on which the current success enjoyed by Smith's team has been built. In his new job, Arthur would do well to remember that.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo's South Africa correspondent