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

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