Arthur's exit highlights deeper problem
"What are we doing ????? Cricket ???? Adults we are , not schoolboys!"
Those words were tweeted by Darren Lehmann back in March after news emerged that four players on Australia's tour of India had been suspended for a Test over the so-called homework saga. It was an understandable sentiment from 10,000 kilometres away. The nine question-marks from the Twitter comment above accurately expressed the prevailing disbelief of cricket fans and former players alike. Now we're about to find out whether Lehmann has the answers.
Australia's coach Mickey Arthur admitted at the time that in taking such a harsh stance on the homework issue, he was putting his neck on the line. James Sutherland, Pat Howard and the Cricket Australia board have now lopped it off. That is not in itself remarkable, for few occupations have poorer job security than sports coaching. But the timing was jaw-dropping, much more so than the homework crisis, or the news that David Warner had punched an opponent.
Arthur had been coach of Australia for 578 days, yet 16 days before the first Ashes Test, Cricket Australia decided he was no longer the man for the job. It was a decisive move, but one that smacked of panic. In the past few months, Arthur has presided over a 4-0 thrashing in India and an early exit from the Champions Trophy, but this was a call made less on the basis of on-field results than of off-field direction. Or rather lack of it.
First there was the homework issue. Cricket Australia supported the stance taken by Arthur, Michael Clarke and team manager Gavin Dovey at the time, but also wondered how the so-called misdemeanours from the wider playing group had been allowed to build to such a degree. In banning Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Usman Khawaja and Mitchell Johnson from the Mohali Test, Arthur said Australia were drawing a line in the sand. Nobody seemed to recall where that line was when Warner punched Joe Root in a Birmingham pub this month.
Cricket Australia's displeasure at the handling of that incident was evident when the chief executive James Sutherland spoke about the whole squad and team management being responsible. Why were the players out drinking at 2.30am in the middle of a Champions Trophy campaign, he wondered. And why had it taken so long for word of the incident to filter back to CA headquarters?
The coach is responsible for what happens on a tour, but he is not the only one. Team culture is also directed by the captain, team manager, assistant coaches and senior players. Not to mention that in the aftermath of the Argus Report, Cricket Australia appointed a general manager of team performance, Pat Howard. The idea was that the buck would stop with him, yet he'll be there on Monday in Bristol to announce the sacking of the coach. A coach he played a key role in appointing.
Over the past few weeks, Arthur has had plenty on his plate, devising game plans and tactics for the Champions Trophy and the upcoming Ashes. That is not to say he is blameless for the direction this squad has taken; far from it. But it's hard not to see him as a scapegoat. All smiles in public, Arthur could deliver a spray when required, but there comes a time when the players must also be held accountable.
If Arthur did not gain respect from the players, that says as much about their attitudes as it does about the coach himself. When Arthur led South Africa he was in charge of a group full of hardened professionals who did not require serious disciplining. By contrast, this current crop has lacked leadership and self-governance. It will be fascinating, therefore, to see if Lehmann has any more success than Arthur.
Certainly he will have the respect of the players, as a former Test batsman, prolific first-class run scorer, successful coach and stereotypical Aussie bloke. But this job will be much, much harder than it might appear from the sidelines. It's all well and good to tweet about the players not being schoolboys, but Lehmann might discover they're acting like them.
Getting the players to take responsibility for themselves will be his biggest task. But on his side will be the fact that when he talks about what it means to play for Australia, when he delivers an impassioned statement about the responsibilities incumbent on those who wear the baggy green, they will listen.
He may be the right man for the job, but how Cricket Australia has let it come to this, two weeks from an Ashes series, is astounding. Australia's 1948 Ashes touring party went down in history as The Invincibles. It's up to Lehmann to ensure the 2013 squad is not remembered as The Uncoachables.
Brydon Coverdale is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. He tweets here