June 27, 2013

Clarke has it all to do

Australia's captain needs to buckle down into his relationship with the new coach, trade in some charm, and look to turn things around

Suddenly cricket is football. Two high-profile coaches sacked mid-season within a week or so of one another. First Surrey dumped Chris Adams and then Australia paid off (presumably) Mickey Arthur. In the age of instant gratification, instant success is an unremitting pressure. Both are good men but both have failed to convert the promise of their empire into results. When the names are big, the stakes are bigger. Mike Brearley once wrote: if the fish is rotten, look at its head.

Surrey's master plan for 2013 involved Graeme Smith but injury did for that. It is a team with some oldish cricketers and one who is struggling with the demands of a county calendar that brings no respite. Smith would have injected a sense of purpose and unity, along with a feeling for reality. The wounds of last summer may not yet have healed but they are unlikely to be the cause of the indifference that pushed the club's governance into such radical action. Tom Maynard is a dreadful loss in every way. Right now, though, his batting is most missed.

Smith was a good choice because it is clear he is the boss. Cricket teams run best when the captain is just that. Players like to know whom they must answer to. This could continue to be a difficult season for Surrey because the captaincy is in limbo. Bravely, Gareth Batty has once more stepped into the breach, and for another month he has Ricky Ponting close by. Also at hand are Stuart Barnes and Alec Stewart but the layers of management are not as crystal clear as they might otherwise have been. Such confusion is compounded by poor results, so the players must find something extra if the wheel is to turn for them.

If Surrey surprised us, Australia shocked us. Here, on enemy territory and on the eve of the battle, they court-martialled one of their own. Except he wasn't one of their own, he was a gentle, approachable, cap-doffing South African, and appointing him was a ghastly mistake. At least that is how it appears now. Back in the days when Arthur was going okay, the players spent a lot of rhetoric saying how they loved him. He was an arm-round-your-shoulder sort of guy, good at lifting you up when down at heel and better still at taking you to the clouds. But the players have cost him. First the tour of India and the "homework" saga; then David Warner's second face-off in a month (one by handheld phone, the other by fist); then the calamitous cricket in the Champions Trophy. Poor Mickey, we knew him well.

Clarke must be accountable. Not Lehmann or Pat Howard, Clarke

The appointment of Darren Lehmann is a good idea. There is huge respect for the way in which he approached his cricket and for the early signs in his coaching career. He knows the Australian way, and believe me, it takes some understanding. He arrives at a bad time or a good time, depending on the way you see it. If the Australians come out of the Ashes summer with their heads held high, he might be offered the job for life.

The smartest thing Lehmann can do is put the captain out front and slip in just behind him. Michael Clarke must be accountable; not Lehmann or Pat Howard, Clarke. When Kevin Pietersen organised the coup that did for Peter Moores, he also did for himself. The result was that England made new appointments and created a clear structure of management. Hugh Morris is managing director of England Cricket. He, along with his board and the selectors, choose the captain and coach and then let them get on with the cricket. Andrew Strauss was made captain after the Pietersen-Moores affair, and Andy Flower was appointed coach. Though they worked together, the buck stopped with Strauss, as it does with Alastair Cook.

Pat Howard's job description is subtly different. His title is General Manager Team Performance and, thus, he is more hands on than Morris, which is not a good thing. If the lads are out on the piss at 2 o'clock in the morning, who takes the rap? Captain, coach or GM Team Performance? The CEO, James Sutherland, called the incident "despicable" and you had to wonder how things had got so out of hand. Well, the captain was in London and the GM in Australia, all of which left the coach drowning.

Clarke cannot stand away from the team. Though not a selector, he should drive its culture with his every move and word. The team should perform in his image. This may not please all Australians, a number of whom still find him hard to trust, but at least Australia will know where they stand.

The first thing Clarke must do with Lehmann is establish the responsibilities of every member of the touring party, both on and off the field, and then spell them out one on one. There is but one week till Trent Bridge and the first Test against an increasingly buoyant England, who are looking on with much amusement. By then each member of the team must know exactly what is required of them. And that should literally mean how to bowl and bat and when to party. Damn the diets and sleep patterns, close ranks and give 'em nothing. You, yes you! Bat for the morning session, come what may. And you! Bowl a foot outside off stump at all the England right-handers. And you, bowl gun-barrel straight with another fielder leg side. Oh, and you Davy, get out of the bar and smash these Poms to Sherwood Forest and back. Forget the blocking, that notion that you must play an innings: bat like you hate the bastards.

As for Clarke himself? He should think back to Allan Border in 1989, who arrived in England with yet another of those teams considered to be the worst that ever left the Great Southern Land. He put the happy go lucky AB of 1985 - when the Australians got beat with a smile on their face - he put that fellow on the back burner and morphed into more than just Captain Grumpy. He played it hard as nails and the Aussies won 4-0 against an English team led by David Gower that never got off the floor after the pounding they took on the first couple of days of the first Test at Headingley. Gower had put them in to bat. The response was 600 and a declaration. It was one of the great psychological heists, one that turned the predicted result on its head. Charming as Clarke is by nature, he must de-charm himself pretty damn quick and throw his every waking hour at overturning the odds.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK