May 26, 2010

Headingley revisited?

Dissent in the ranks and divisive captains? The parallels with a legendary series from three decades ago are inescapable

Sport can hoist us to the highest highs then plunge us, before you can say "Hansie", to the deepest depths. It is the extremes that seduce. Last week was a case in point.

Wednesday in Antigua offered a grotesque Twenty20 match between West Indies and South Africa, enlivened almost exclusively by a shockingly awful pitch without whose erratic bounce and sense of humour it wouldn't have been a tenth as much fun. It also submitted for our jaded delectation not one but two instances of what some romantics might one day characterise as The New Chivalry.

When Andre Fletcher sprang to his left like a Siamese in gloves and somehow came up with a leg-side deflection - it could have come off anything, so inconclusive were the replays - Loots Bosman, South Africa's gifted young opener, failed to notice that a wide had been signalled. Instead of blithely re-scratching his guard or fiddling with his gloves, while inwardly smiling the serene, if ginger, smile of someone who knows he's just got away with it, he took the law into his own hands. He knew he'd made contact, knew the catch was legitimate. His conscience forgot to flee the scene; pragmatism was wrestled into submission. He was free to Do the Right Thing. So off he walked. Cricket 1, Professionalism 0.

Fletcher was also involved in the second episode, which attracted considerably more ambivalence. Later in the innings, Graeme Smith overbalanced attempting a reverse-sweep off Nikita Miller and the sprightly keeper whisked off the bails, whereupon Smith walked off. Replays showed that his back foot was grounded behind the line, yet even when team-mates implored him not to cross the boundary rope, he hesitated only briefly. A soft grin confirmed to some that the game, farcical as the umpires were making it, was not being accorded sufficient gravitas. Others, though, might interpret it as gallows humour: Smith's captaincy, after all, is back under the unforgiving microscope.

It may have been an innocent mistake born of a genuine belief that he was out, but in that case why not stay within the boundary - and the rules - and see whether the decision might be overturned? Could it be that Smith didn't care enough for the collective good? Was his behaviour spurred by anger? Was this a captain divided against himself? More pertinently, was he undermining himself in order to flay those who had undermined him? Was he saying, in short, "I'm noble but you're not"?

Then, the very next day, came the news, at Sir Paul Condon's farewell press conference, that Pakistan's woeful tour of Australia is being investigated by the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit to discern whether that slapsticky run of failure could be explained by a dysfunctional dressing room or something of a sleazier, more criminal kind. A leaked video of the Pakistan Cricket Board's inquiry reportedly revealed enough plotting and infighting to put the Windsors out of business.

Shoaib Malik, according to taste, is either devil or deity; Rana Naved-ul-Hasan confessed to first siding against and then siding with Younis Khan, and underperforming under his captaincy. As Osman Samiuddin put it in these very pages the other day: "The one thing the video makes abundantly clear is that these men cannot play with each other, at least not without harming the team." Now Kamran Akmal is threatening to sue Intikhab Alam and Aaqib Javed, the former national coaches, for suggesting a missed run-out in Sydney, one that Laurel and Hardy might have disowned as too improbably laughable, was attributable to deliberate underperformance. The case is closed, say the PCB, whose hands are far from unbloody; the recriminations appear to be some distance from their sell-by date.

It was hard not to be reminded of another time and a very different place…

THE ODDS AREN'T WORTH contemplating. The side batting third were staring defeat in the teeth, only 10 and jack to come; the opposition cock-a-hoop and perhaps a little cocky, had more than two days to get the job done. Done deal.

For Headingley '81 (England were 92 runs behind when their seventh wicket fell) read Sydney '10 (Australia were 51 on when their eighth fell)? The connections are too coincidental, too umbilical, to ignore. For Mohammad Yousuf read Kim Hughes; for Kamran and Umar Akmal (with Shoaib Malik the elephant in no mood to leave the room) read Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee. It is not that much of a stretch.

That Australia, having asked England to follow on, somehow plucked defeat from victory's jaws in that historic Test 29 years ago stemmed from a plethora of factors, from the state of Keith Boyce's pitch and the luck-kissed edges of Ian Botham's bat to Mike Brearley's psychological hold over blokes in baggy-green caps and Bob Willis' druggy-eyed determination to save his Test career. That few of Hughes' team-mates had any desire to win for him may have been as crucial as any. That Lillee and Marsh placed that infamous bet against their own side at 500-1 is still considered by some to be the slow-burning fuse that lit the match-fixing explosion, but the foundations of their willingness to take such a punt were laid by a complete and utter lack of respect for their captain.

"Tossing [Hughes] the job in post-Packer Australia," argued Brearley in his seminal book The Art of Captaincy, "was like inviting the Darling children to take the place of Captain Hook." As Chris Ryan vividly portrays in Golden Boy, Lillee and Marsh had never bothered hiding their contempt for their fellow Western Australian. The sight of Hughes in the nets was guaranteed to add yards to Lillee's pace and cut feet from his length. Now he was livid that this cocky whippersnapper had been appointed captain ahead of Marsh, his bosom buddy.

Marsh did not always disguise his resentment, greeting changes in the field with a prolonged shake of the head and a pronounced sigh intended for widespread consumption. "That's heavy shit," warranted Mike Whitney, who made his Test debut for Australia in that 1981 series. "It's like, oh, hang on, Rodney doesn't agree." It was not unknown for Marsh to wave the fielder back a few metres.

When Whitney finally terminated Botham's brutal 118 at Old Trafford, he was astonished at the lack of animation from the catcher, Marsh. Indeed, the keeper frowned. "I'll never forget it," attested Whitney. "I thought I'd done something wrong." Yes, it may have been because Marsh was as peeved that Botham had once again subverted the plot as he was relieved that the full-frontal assault was over. It also might have been, surmised Whitney, because Hughes had made another daft fielding change, or perhaps that Marsh had urged him not to take the new ball. "The thing that irked me the most was that the bloke wouldn't listen," admitted Lillee, whose bowling to Botham during the latter's match-turning 149 not out at Leeds was atypically awry, generously feeding his off-side splurges. "For some reason or other [Hughes] thought he knew better and this led to some bitter conflicts." Undermining the skipper? It was their patriotic duty.

"[Lillee and Marsh] weren't disappointed at Kim failing," claimed Peter Philpott, the team manager and de facto coach. "I don't think they set out to destroy him. Basically they just did. When things were going bad, he needed their support and there was no active attempt to help the boy." Philpott, it should be stressed, had also incurred their wrath: after all, the New South Welshman had had the effrontery to be chosen ahead of the WA coach, Daryl Foster. The Westies, observed Dirk Wellham, a member of the NSW coterie, "were not so enthused by the conservative approach of those from the hypocritically corrupt eastern states". The split between West Australians and New South Welshmen was almost as cancerous as that dividing Westie and Westie.

Philpott had "never seen an Australian side drop its bundle" the way it did at Headingley: "Our body language went down the bloody hill." To some degree, this could be traced to an incident on the second morning, when Hughes farmed the strike to protect Graham Yallop from Willis; he even declined a single to fine leg. Yallop was incandescent; his manhood had been publicly demeaned. At lunch, team-mates saw a Yallop virtually unrecognisable from the mild-mannered Victorian they knew. He was speechless. His eyes raged. "Hughes certainly didn't find a warm reception in his dressing room when he followed a livid Yallop through the door," related Welham. "I found the situation slightly confusing. I had always felt that the Australian team was 'one for all and all for one'. The latter part of that phrase seemed to be more appropriate than the first."

In our account of that match, 500-1 - The Miracle of Headingley '81, Alastair McLennan and I wrote a brief chapter entitled "Conspiracy - a theory", concluding thus: "Is it that big a stretch of the imagination, then, to interpret Australia's collapse at Headingley not as an attempt to lose the unloseable Test and hence win the unwinnable bet, but as the subconscious by-product of the antipathy engendered by their captain? Sigmund Freud might well have nodded his assent… Might it possibly be that heads made promises that hearts were unable to keep?"

A captain, stated Brearley, "must instil the will to win". Like Hughes, Mohammad Yousuf and Younis Khan now know that instilling that will in a dressing room divided in good measure by the captain himself can be impossible. Amid such internecine warfare, if any influence is exerted by bookmakers, that can only reflect a far deeper malaise. The ACU can surely rest easy, but the PCB most certainly cannot. Nor, for that matter, can their South African counterparts.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton