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Australia's recently replaced coach came up against an Australian cricketing culture struggling to come to terms with a new reality
June 26, 2013
One of the questions asked of Australian cricketers during the Mickey Arthur era was, "How did you rate your sleep?" The idea was to encourage a holistic approach to match preparation, in which mind and body worked together in blissful harmony.
From today, if a player complains about a poor night's sleep under the new coaching regime of Darren Lehmann, he should expect the burly left-hander to reply: "Should have had an extra couple of beers last night then, mate." As for hydration, Rod Marsh used to say that if you had to take a toilet break during the hours of play then you obviously hadn't drunk enough the night before. Being a bit thirsty in the morning has its benefits.
In turning to Lehmann, there is a sense of Australian cricket coming home. He is naturally chatty and quick-witted, with a keen cricket brain and an earthy manner. When he was Yorkshire's overseas player, I remember a close four-day match between Yorkshire and Kent at Canterbury. Before the start of the final day's play, it was agreed that both teams would enjoy a few drinks in the home dressing room after the match. Lehmann was free and unguarded with his perceptions and insights, almost as though it was a responsibility of senior players to talk about the game. You could also tell he was absolutely in his element in a dressing-room environment.
Context is everything, as Mickey Arthur has found out. As coach of South Africa, Arthur enjoyed an established side, a resolute captain and an experienced group of senior players. That played to his strengths. An affable and undemonstrative man, Arthur could operate under the radar. Graeme Smith, one of the strongest captains in world cricket, already commanded plenty of authority and a clear sense of direction.
It has become fashionable in modern sport to waste a great deal of energy fretting about "job descriptions" and "lines of accountability". In real life, however, wherever the arrows may point on the flow charts, power finds itself in the hands of dominant personalities. The real determining factor in the distribution of power between a captain and a coach is their personal chemistry. A shrewd coach will empower a captain and the senior player as far as possible. And when Arthur was coach of South Africa, there was no shortage of alpha males out on the pitch.
Now transfer Arthur into a very different setting. Where South Africa had a settled side that was enjoying sustained success, Australia are adjusting - or failing to adjust - to leaner years, having gorged themselves on two decades of feasting on perpetual success. Where most of the South African team selected itself, Australia have had great difficulty identifying their best XI. That is not a criticism. You try selecting the same team during a sequence of defeats and listen in vain for the pundits shouting, "Well done on retaining consistency of selection." No, losing teams search for a new combination that will bring better results. The much-worshipped god "consistency of selection" is partly a privilege that follows from success as well as a cause of it. There is certainly a strong correlation between a settled side and a winning team, but as mathematicians learn in their first statistics class, correlation does not always imply straightforward causality.
Arthur faced another problem not of his own making: the expectations of the Australian cricketing culture. This has been an unpleasant hangover after a hell of a party. For 20 years Australian cricket celebrated a golden age that would have made Jay Gatsby blush. In terms of cricketing talent, the taps overflowed with vintage champagne. To understand how good Australia were, simply remember that Lehmann himself only played 27 Tests.
|We used to hear how Australian cricket was best because they were mates who played for each other; Australian cricket was best because they were tougher and "mentally stronger"; Australian cricket was best because they had fewer first-class teams; Australian cricket was best because it didn't have to endure the "mediocrity of county cricket"|
As any economist will tell you, the most dangerous aspect of any boom is the absurd way it is "explained" as a new and permanent paradigm shift (remember the view, just before the financial crisis, that modern banks had mastered "risk-free" methods?) We used to hear how Australian cricket was best because they were mates who played for each other; Australian cricket was best because they were tougher and "mentally stronger"; Australian cricket was best because they had fewer first-class teams; Australian cricket was best because it didn't have to endure the "mediocrity of county cricket"; Australian cricket was best because they knew how to enjoy a win and let their hair down; Australian cricket was best because they were "more professional". I heard all those theories put forward with huge confidence, often in tandem, even when the theories contradicted each other.
The difficulty, of course, came when results deteriorated, as they eventually had to. In a boom, you can have any explanation for why Australia were so good and still be proved "right". As a result, Australian cricket finds itself awash with voodoo doctors - convinced of their own prescience - rushing to pronounce the cure for a new and frightening malady called "average results". My own opinion is that the rise and fall of cricketing nations is harder to explain, let alone reverse, than most people seem to think.
Arthur's frustrating time with Australia reveals a broader problem. The whole notion of "a track record" is questionable, especially when the track record under discussion consists of a smallish sample size. Arthur's track record of success with South Africa does not "prove" he is a brilliant coach any more than his track record of relative failure with Australia proves he is a bad one.
Each phase of every management career is unique. The way any team functions can never be reduced to scientific analysis. As a result, credit and blame can never be exactly apportioned. We know for sure that some leaders experience success and failure. But exactly why, or to what extent they were responsible, will always remain partly a mystery. Coaches do not operate in a vacuum. What they inherit - the personnel, appetite for change, and attitude of the wider culture - matters at least as much as their methods.
Arthur encountered an Australian cricketing culture struggling to come to terms with a new reality. Quite simply, they aren't that good anymore. They may well get better under Darren Lehmann. But anxiously searching for miracles has a nasty habit of making them harder to find.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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