March 15, 2013

Australia need an understanding leadership

They may have chosen to be firm with their erring players, but to make them perform, the coach and captain need to be reassuring

That great cover drive that makes us stand up in admiration, that late outswinger that makes us gasp, the offbreak that turns to hit the top of middle, the diving stop at backward point - these are images that allow television to carry sport into our being, to let it reside there and make us reach into it when the world is less thrilling. The stars create these images and television creates that aura, allowing us to believe the players are invincible. That is hero worship, isn't it? Letting your mind believe that your hero can do no wrong.

But because television is concerned with the here and now - this shot, that dismissal, this commercial break - it doesn't allow itself time to look beyond, or indeed into, the hero who succeeds and fails so spectacularly before us. So we can often be led to believe that sportsmen inhabit another planet, that they are made of steel and elastic, that they are not us, they don't have our problems (EMI has gone up, the maid announces she is on long leave, there is a transport strike). We fail to understand them because we measure them with unreal scales.

But meet them away from the cameras and the scorecards and you see different people, ones we can recognise better. People who worry and fret and wake up in the middle of the night and are scared for their future, who look over their shoulder, and maybe are even secretly happy at a colleague's bad patch. Their lives too are governed by where they are on the grid of ambition/frustration and confidence/insecurity. When ambition is in stride with confidence, they approach the image I talked about earlier, but ever so often they are consumed by life in the other quadrant, that of frustration and insecurity, which is where I suspect some of the Australian cricketers find themselves. That is why the job of the leader, whether the captain or the coach, is to try to constantly push them towards the space defined by ambition and confidence.

Good leaders do that regularly, and the incompetent or uncaring ones let their players wallow in insecurity and resultant frustration. Imran Khan was a great leader. Under him Wasim Akram bloomed and Inzamam-ul-Haq was able to grow strong roots. With another captain, two of Pakistan's greatest-ever talents might have been lost, as some others have been. The key to Imran's leadership was to understand the world these extraordinary players sought to inhabit and the hurdles they perceived on the way. Akram could bowl every ball but needed to learn when to bowl it; Inzamam was beset with self-doubt, unaware of how good he really was.

So too with Sourav Ganguly, who was able to understand the person behind the wild talent of Harbhajan Singh, Yuvraj Singh or Virender Sehwag. They needed reassurance, and once given that, they went on to great success. MS Dhoni has tried that, with a little less success, with Rohit Sharma, for example. Ian Chappell did that with a generation of Australian cricketers, as did Mark Taylor. Mike Brearley and Nasser Hussain, in contrasting styles maybe, were able to understand too the insecurity that accompanies a competitive but short-lived profession.

Winning breeds security that can lead to the generosity that is at the heart of team spirit. Losing, on the other hand, can leave people feeling edgy, which translates to selfishness

It is through this prism that we need to see where Australia's cricketers are and whether the insecure world they now inhabit is dictating their approach. It is easy to demand team spirit. It is a strange animal, for no one has yet established whether winning creates team spirit, or whether it is indeed, as some of us believe, the other way around - that a great team ethic leads to winning. What we do know is that winning breeds security that can lead to the generosity that is at the heart of team spirit. Losing, on the other hand, can leave people feeling edgy, which translates to selfishness. And so it is when a team is losing that managers need to remind people that skill doesn't desert you, only confidence does.

Shane Watson, in the eye of the storm, is someone who, I believe, can be understood on this ambition/frustration and confidence/insecurity platform. A hard-hitting, unusually gifted batsman who can bowl over 135kph is rare in our sport. Understandably Watson was celebrated, admired, and would have resided in the ambition/confidence quadrant. Ten years later, with injuries afflicting him at key moments and well into the second half of his career, he is aware that he couldn't become the player he believed he could have been, and is slipping into insecurity and frustration. But he is still a fine player and, from this distance, clearly one of the two best opening batsmen in Australia. Watson's problem at this stage is not skill but reassurance. He needs to be led.

But it is not a situation that Australian cricket, so abundantly successful, has often encountered. It has responded with an iron hand.

Of course the administrators might have tried, offered support and understanding, and might have been rebuffed. Too much reassurance can lead to a feeling of being indispensable, and maybe they have now reined in prima donnas. We don't know. But Australia need to be careful here in ensuring that the rest of the team and the wider cricket-playing world in their country agree with what they have done. If people think they have exacerbated the problem, not found the solution, they risk driving more players towards insecurity and frustration, a state that England knew very well and that they would relish in their opponents.

Australia need a firm, understanding leadership. They have shown the firmness, but it is in the understanding part that their success might still lie.

Harsha Bhogle is a commentator, television presenter and writer. He is currently contracted to the BCCI. His Twitter feed is here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Jay on March 18, 2013, 0:22 GMT

    Team India's been in a transitional down-cycle for almost 2 years - wrought with attrition caused by injuries, fatigue, slumps & compounded by retirements of key senior players. Yes, it's bending but not breaking apart. Despite all the media brickbats, the Dhoni-Fletcher duo & senior leadership have endured the crisis, quietly & steadfastly. The cycle of renewal continues, with new players eagerly assuming key team slots & responsibilities. The team's bouncing back. Importantly, it's coping without any of the public dirty-linen washing seen with the Aussies. The "My-way-or-the-highway" leadership style doesn't cut it. It didn't work for Greg Chappell. Also, Hussey & Ponting are sorely missed by Clarke. CA's "summary dismissals" of Katich, Ponting (ODIs) & Hussey's "fear of being dropped" have created mistrust. The winning culture has disappeared. No quick fix: It will take years to rebuild. Yes, Oz needs an "understanding leadership". But it also needs "crisis management leadership"!!

  • atul on March 17, 2013, 20:03 GMT

    Great Article defining a sportsman away from cricket field.. What it takes to go at top and be there... True leaders are leaders of men of all the time...

  • Jay on March 17, 2013, 15:53 GMT

    Harsha - The real test of leadership is when the chips are down. The rebuilding job that Ganguly & John Wright did - in lifting India out of the abyss of the 2000 match-fixing scandal - was masterful. It succeeded because of the coach-captain rapport as well as the support of a core group of solid players like Dravid, Tendulkar, Kumble & Laxman. Together, they instilled by example the work ethic, discipline & trust: building blocks of a stable foundation. They acted as role models to motivate youngsters - like Viru, Yuvi, Bhajji, Zaheer & Co - to build team spirit. So began a winning culture. Similarly, the Gary Kirsten-Kumble/Dhoni leadership - after the debacle of Greg Chappell's coaching - built on this stable foundation & advanced India to the top. Again, senior players & team management played a key leadership role. Team India passed the test of leadership - by surmounting crises - with their inbuilt winning culture. But it took years of painstaking leadership effort to build it!

  • Azfar on March 16, 2013, 19:51 GMT

    Very insightful article, Harsha. If you look at pure facts that have come out, Watson and co. have no excuse for not doing what they were asked to do, they had all the time in the world, it was just a few bullet points. The fact that they chose not to do it and and something so apparently trivial resulted in their sacking clearly shows that there are bigger issues with communication etc within the team. And for that the Captain and coach have to take equal blame. This series is the acid test for Michael Clarke's leadership abilities. Before he became the captain there was a big question mark whether he is the man for the job. But since then he has at least shown that the extra responsibility has done wonders for his batting. He hasn't shown any great leadership skills like say Ian Chappell did in 1972 tour of England or Mark Taylor in the 1995 tour of West Indies. In fact since 1985-86 I have never seen an Australian team going down without a fight like this.

  • Dummy4 on March 16, 2013, 11:14 GMT

    @Quater Mani: Well, the Aussies were never ruthless. They simply had wonderful test cricketers. The youngsters in Australia and for that matter in many parts of the world sadly don't like test cricket much. They think it's like T20 and try to be flashy and aggressive without putting in the hard yards. That's exactly what's happening to the current Australian team. India suffered whitewashes against ENG and AUS not too long ago. It's nice to see the Indian team realize their problems and try to be good in the BEST format of the game. Test cricket needs different skills and endurance levels. T20 is fun and all, but it can NEVER be Test Cricket. So Aussie fans should hope for some raw talent to emerge once again down under.

  • Sam on March 15, 2013, 23:24 GMT

    Some people respond better to stick and some to carrot. Some needs a push and others need guidance. Inflexible leaders should learn flexibility. One size does not fit all.

  • Jaijo on March 15, 2013, 23:07 GMT

    Nice article.. Not long ago everyone was writing about Indian team's leadership (or lack of it) Now the attention is diverted to Aussies.. But they are least bothered about these issues. they will be back on top by end of this year if not in this series... Dont write off Aussies on such issues...

  • Tinker on March 15, 2013, 19:42 GMT

    hmmm for all those that wanted Clarke at 3 ...worked well hmmmm.. maybe he should have stayed where he was doing his best for the team

  • Dummy4 on March 15, 2013, 17:36 GMT

    Enough with playing useless t20 leagues and rubbing shoulders with Half-talented players, Warnie. Please do coach your struggling countrymen. You've got the wickedest brain in international cricket. You're such a gambler, a successful gambler. Only you can make the aussies ruthless once again. Warnie for coach(he's won an IPL with rajasthan, mind you)

  • Aaruni Kant on March 15, 2013, 15:47 GMT

    Interestingly, immediately after this article, I read the one on Roy Gilchrist, written by one of his fans. It seemed to be completely in sync with Mr. Bhogle's article. The fact that Roy Gilchrist - who was apparently the fastest bowler of his time - gave up what could've been a sterling cricketing career at the young age of 24, only goes to show that team sports are as much about leadership as they are about skills. For those who feel that a Captain can only be as good as his team, should think again. If you have a 'bad' team, a good Captain like Nasser Hussain will start patiently rebuilding it into a good one. If you have a bunch of good players who are not clicking as a team, you've got to rethink there roles, just like Sourav Ganguly did. There is as much display of leadership in a cricketing field, as there is on a battlefield.