November 22, 2011

The steel behind Arthur's smile

The new Australian coach is gregarious in public, but also capable of taking tough, and sometimes unpopular, decisions when needed

Amid South African celebrations of a first-ever Test series victory in Australia, Mickey Arthur jumped off a chartered boat hosting the team on New Year's Eve and swam in Sydney harbour. There must have been something in that water, for less than four years later he has dived in again, becoming Australia's head coach until at least 2015.

The leap epitomised Arthur's gregarious, enthusiastic and ever-smiling public face. He is unfailingly friendly to journalists and strides easily under the gaze of cricket watchers. Grins were frequent when Arthur was announced as coach, and he accompanied his sunny visage with all the right words about building a team. But those who have worked with Arthur in South Africa, and more recently in Western Australia, are in no doubt about the steel behind the smile.

Arthur, it cannot be forgotten, fought unceasing battles with South Africa's cricket administrators as he and Graeme Smith forged a team capable of claiming victory in Australia. The struggle was relentless, and it ultimately hastened Arthur's departure from the job, much to the chagrin of the players. At Western Australia, one of his first decisions was to jettison the ailing seam bowler Ashley Noffke after the first round of domestic matches. His demands for a stronger work ethic among WA squad members raised the ire of several established players but earned the respect of all. These are not the actions of a roly-poly yes-man.

Marcus North, the WA captain, first encountered him when Arthur was South Africa's coach in 2009, and they formed a strong relationship. He has seen both sides of Arthur, public and private, and considers the balance an apt one.

"I think we've seen some of the positives that are coming through WA cricket over the last year and a half," North said. "We've seen some difficult changes he's had to make in our set-up, and also [in] South Africa - and some of the changes he had to make there with key players... you have to control egos to a degree in all levels. He's experienced that and his knowledge of being able to adapt to different personalities is certainly going to be a huge plus for Australian cricket.

"I think he's got a great balance in the way he approaches people. He's got a great way of learning how to get to know different people and how they work in and out. He's not all about the hard South African kind of way. He's certainly got a formal side, as you need at the top job as a head coach. The players know exactly where they stand. He's a great communicator and I can't speak highly enough of him."

North and Adam Voges, another senior man, were important to Arthur establishing himself at WA. Styled as a tough taskmaster on his appointment, Arthur followed through on his promise for higher standards, and needed help to carry them through. "Marcus and Adam were fantastic within the structure, and I think that every state definitely needs those players in their system because those are the guys who bring the young guys through," Arthur said earlier this year. "You can't have a team of total youngsters with no players to learn off. But similarly you can't get yourself into a position with a team that's just old, and [you're] going to lose three or four guys in one go and have no succession plan."

Before their relationship was cut out by wider circumstances, Arthur enjoyed a similar partnership with the strong-willed Smith, who jokingly referred to his coach as "the world's most optimistic man". Smith gave Arthur the honour of writing the foreword to his captain's diary of the build-up to 2008-09 and the win in Australia. "He had put so much work into the squad and never, ever complained about the relentless demands on his time and how much work he did behind the scenes," Smith said later. "He is a selfless man, happy for the players to take the glory and the credit when we win."

The far-reaching powers of the job caught Arthur's interest, and he remarked on how similar they seemed to the description he answered to with South Africa in 2005, then in a state of similar regeneration to Australia now

Though selfless, Arthur is hardly lacking in self-worth. He has contended for other coaching jobs between South Africa and Australia, applying for the India position that ultimately went to Duncan Fletcher, and also seeking roles in the Indian Premier League. Arthur's appetite for coaching will be sated by the expanded remit outlined in the Argus review, requiring him to oversee the progress of coaching philosophies and their practical application among the states. The far-reaching powers of the job caught Arthur's interest on the day the review findings were announced, and he remarked how similar they seemed to the description he answered to with South Africa in 2005, then in a state of similar regeneration to Australia now.

One clear point of difference between the South Africa Arthur left behind and the Australia he joins is that the administration of the latter will be less likely to provide the sorts of obstacles confronted in the former. Arthur's predecessor, Tim Nielsen, complained at the end of his tenure that team concerns were often subjugated beneath those of the bean counters, and that it had taken a disaster of Ashes magnitude last summer to impart genuine change. Now a governance review is in its closing stages, as Cricket Australia seeks a more streamlined structure to prevent the kinds of divisive political machinations that Arthur frequently had to confront in South Africa.

Freed from the interference of the boardroom, Arthur will need to surmount the sometimes shadowy politics of the Australian dressing room to establish himself. Despite the win in Johannesburg, this will be a challenge. Over numerous years the culture of the team was fostered by Allan Border and Bob Simpson, grew stronger under Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh, then began a regrettable curdling on Ricky Ponting's watch. Michael Clarke has made an outstanding start to his captaincy, but that in itself may be problematic - the fielding coach, Steve Rixon, was Clarke's mentor in New South Wales and likely to have been his preferred choice as co-pilot.

CA's preference for Arthur ahead of Rixon is thought to have had much to do with the broader responsibilities of the coaching position. Rixon may have been a better fit had Australia simply been seeking a replacement for Nielsen, but Arthur has more to do than that, effectively becoming the director of coaching for the states. In order to win the Australian job, he was obliged to beat the deepest field ever assembled for a CA coaching role, including at least two other former international coaches: Rixon and Tom Moody. England's Andy Flower was also approached, though far earlier in the search. Nevertheless the Flower entreaty was significant, showing that Australia's administrators were no longer worried about choosing a countryman. By arriving early to coach the Warriors, Arthur had familiarised himself anyway - there is not much unpleasant in Australian cricket that remains undiscovered.

Armed with that knowledge, Arthur will work alongside Clarke, the national selector John Inverarity, and the team performance manager Pat Howard, to build a team. Already he has had some good fortune - Pat Cummins looks capable of anything, much as Dale Steyn did early in Arthur's South Africa tenure. But there are other questions, ranging from Ricky Ponting to Mitchell Johnson, and a short series against New Zealand seems a better time than most for introducing further youth.

The alliance between Arthur and Clarke is spinal, and the coach likened it to nothing less intimate and lasting than a marriage. Usefully, many of Arthur's words on the day of his appointment echoed those of Clarke on the day he replaced Ponting, particularly the following, referring to South Africa's win down under in 2008. Like Clarke, Arthur spoke of basics, and of methodical building. This will be a thorough Australian side. "We wanted to have Australia crack before us, in terms of building pressure and being nice and patient. We wanted to make sure we were more ruthless on the basics, because ultimately that's what the game of cricket comes down to."

Following a final interview last Thursday, Arthur was informed the job was his on Friday morning, and kept the appointment secret until the announcement on Tuesday morning. This was no small feat for a man with a widely circulated phone number, and another sign of the steel behind the smile.

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo