June 26, 2013

Mickey's problem

Australia's recently replaced coach came up against an Australian cricketing culture struggling to come to terms with a new reality

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.

Ed Smith's latest book is Luck - A Fresh Look at Fortune. He tweets here

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Shantanu on June 29, 2013, 17:40 GMT

    Good article but it seems to suggest that its not Arthur's fault and its the detriorating aussie performance that has to take blame. Being dismissed ingloriously just before ashes this looks similar to sacking of a non performing CEO in a Multinational corporation. The very way Arthur tried to run a national cricket team throwing out players who didnt do their homework. So what you do to the players has boomranged. I would agree that coach alone can not bring results, he can give direction but its the players who have to perform. And in this context Arthur's performance in India was appaling. Aussies lacked clear direction as there were too many changes in side. Learning for any coach or an aussie coach is to negotiate a decent exit clause as the aussie setup doesnt have the patience.

  • Android on June 29, 2013, 7:47 GMT

    yaaaa thisss time is sooo difficult situatiion in australian team.....

  • Saurabh on June 29, 2013, 4:47 GMT

    Great angles...one doesn't get to read too many interdisciplinary articles on cricinfo. But this one manages to put the Arthur episode in proper perspective through some fine thinking derived from seemingly disparate fields.

  • colin on June 27, 2013, 13:56 GMT

    Interesting to see the contrasting fortunes of Arthur and Duncan Fletcher. In the two years that Fletcher has been in charge his head has been called for many times [especially after the India v England series] However, they've stuck with him, and India are once more a force to be reckoned with. Their fielding has improved markedly, and virtually every "new" player they've integrated into the team seems to have been a success.

  • Amit on June 27, 2013, 11:35 GMT

    You always have to find the glove that fits the hand!!! It may or may not be the best glove.

  • Scott on June 26, 2013, 22:00 GMT

    Wow, I love these articles from the English - whereas our results are lean....compared with which other teams results? Eng's? Well, for deteriorated results, why is it that since our last Ashes meeting our results in tests are very similar to that of Eng's? I think there are too many out there who only seem to recollect one series, played 2 months ago and have such minimal brain capacity to recollect that we challenged SA at home not so long ago and almost went to #1 due to it. Yes, they have been leaner times than when we were winning almost every single match we played in...but seriously, how long CAN that continue. We did have amazing players overflowing; to the point where we could've fielded 3 sides capable of winning most test matches. Maybe we don't have that depth, but don't judge us based purely on these selections, our selectors are rubbish and should also be shown the door. There is talent in Oz (don't kid yourselves there's not), who may not dominate, but they will compete.

  • Tom on June 26, 2013, 20:53 GMT

    I still think Arthur was sacked because he tried to play down the seriousness of Warner's transgressions. I think Sutherland was appalled by what he perceived Warner had done, and felt undermined by the coach playing it down in the media, on an issue that had already been dealt with some time before. He briefed one day in the UK, and was sacked when Australia woke up that night.

    Personally I felt Warner's misdeeds were over punished, it was just a bit of nonsense, "say sorry and move on" sort of situation.

  • thomas on June 26, 2013, 18:28 GMT

    Ed has this one right. When Cricket Australia selected Arthur they ignored the fact that his track record was not his only. He did not take a bunch of nobodies and turn them into superstars. Smith and SA team had a bunch of very talented players. To me he is SA equivalent of John Buchanan -I don't think Buchanan contributed to Ponting, Waughs or Shane Warne become better players :). A good coach to me is someone like Wright or Kristen both Indian coaches who had lion share to play in India's success. Lehmann might succeed where others have failed but for that a lot of hard decisions have to be taken and start afresh with fresh legs and clean slates

  • Guruprasad on June 26, 2013, 18:08 GMT

    A very well-argued article by Ed Smith. The correlation-causality analysis indicates that Ed is a serious thinker and analyzer of situations and facts. @cric_options: I feel that sacking of Arthur is more unfair than that of Greg Chappell. Although Greg was honest and had the best interests of Indian cricket in mind, he made the mistake of going to the media too often, and discussed his interaction with players in a public manner. Moreover, he was given time till World Cup 2007 and then sacked. Arthur has been sacked for misdeeds of players like Warner and Co. Really, Arthur can't be held responsible for players' off-field behaviour. The fact is that this is a low-quality Australian test team with only one world-class batsman and maybe two world-class fast bowlers.

  • xxxxx on June 26, 2013, 12:46 GMT

    As always with Ed, an interesting and thought provoking article. I agree with with Ed that Arthur was an experienced, affable coach in the wrong situation. With Ponting and Mike Hussey both retired the match between Arthur and the Aus cricket team became "more wrong".

    Lehmann could not be more right for where the Aus cricket team is now. It seems as if Lehmann was born and lived all his life for this role and he will also be a wildcard for Aus in the upcoming Ashes.

    Congratulations to CA on this occasion for spotting the problem with Arthur and having both the daring and decisiveness to act when they did. It reminds me of one of Steve Waugh's slams over cow corner for six.