July 24, 2013

Australia: hubris, despair, panic

Clarke and Co find themselves where England were in the 1990s. But how did the two nations fall into such a state?

I have been watching Michael Clarke, but the shadows I see following him around - to my eyes, anyway - resemble the ghosts of old English nightmares.

When Clarke stood at slip on the third day at Lord's, with the match over as a contest but unmercifully drawn out as a spectacle, he experienced what every captain dreads. He could move the deckchairs, but the boat was sinking. He could change the bowling, but it would be determined by a sense of fairness and sharing the burden rather than to swing the match; he could set new fields, but more to protect pride rather than ensnare opponents; and, worst of all, he had to weigh up how fully to engage in captaining the fielding effort, and how much emotional energy to preserve for when his turn to bat came around. Captaining the team, captaining your own mood, managing defeat, managing the draining away of hope.

I bumped into Mike Brearley during the long afternoon slaughter and we agreed: no captain, so far behind in the match and still awaiting a slim chance to save the match with his own bat, can captain flat out in the field all day. He inevitably dips in and out of full engagement, the long spells of routine steadiness in which he preserves emotional energy interspersed with shorter bursts of activity and invention designed partly just to keep up his own sense of interest and alertness. And what emotional outlook should you adopt? Is it easier to retain optimism and be perpetually let down? Or better to accept the inevitable, release the burden of pretence, and just wait to bat with coolly detached precision?

And that is why the shadows looked so English to my eyes. I thought of Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain, hurling their considerable competitiveness and intelligence at the effort to win the Ashes - pick any moment you like, really, between 1993 and 2002-03 - and ending up exhausted, holding a losing hand of cards, looking within once again, wondering how much more they still had left to give when called upon to bat.

Clarke, when the series is over, will doubtless seek honest conversations with men who have experienced similar suffering. Ironically, the opposition coach, Andy Flower, knows more than most about how to retain exceptional standards while playing for an inferior team.

All of which leads me to the central point: if you are interested in leadership (and I have never met a sports fan without strong opinions about captains, managers and selectors) then you have the obligation to be equally interested in context. Sport, like political analysis, suffers from the recurrent delusion that great leaders can change everything about their circumstances, that they can engineer a new reality out of will power and charisma alone. They cannot.

Just think how beside the point the analysis of Darren Lehmann's character and personality now sounds. It is the same Lehmann - with the same sense of fun and enjoyment, the same sharp cricketing brain, the same mischievous enthusiasm. All of which is being applied to the same tendency of Shane Watson to get lbw, the same Phillip Hughes weakness against spin, the same holes at the top of the order, the same shortage of new cabs on the rank. No coach can solve all those problems in a few weeks. So it is largely irrelevant to analyse the strengths and weaknesses of the man currently trying to do so. Mickey Arthur is suing Cricket Australia for damage to his reputation. Perhaps he should be sending them a cheque and a letter of thanks for preserving it.

So let us leave behind the soap opera, the tidbits of gossip and intrigue. No causal truths reside there. What David Warner's brother thinks of Shane Watson did not lose Australia the Test match, nor did the sacking of Arthur, nor homework-gate, nor an incident in a nightclub, nor even an alleged rift in the team. There was, in fact, no news from Lord's. Old failings, long present, were simply exposed in a clearer light.

Players, they are the problem; performance, that is the flaw; culture, that is the cause.

Before the 2010-11 Ashes, I suggested that the pillars of Australian excellence - club cricket, state cricket, and a hard-bitten unified cricketing culture that ran through their game at all levels - had crumbled. One firm push and the citadel might fall. I first put my theory to a distinguished former England captain. He didn't quite ridicule me, but he smirked at the idea that an enemy that had inflicted so much pain on him might now suffer structural decline. I deferred to his greater experience, cut short my conversational theorising, and steeled myself for print instead.

This is what I wrote in the Spectator on 20th November 2010:

The idea will not leave me alone. A sneaking question keeps coming into my head: are Australia losing their cricketing edge? And I don't just mean the Ashes. I mean the whole legend of the Aussie battler that has been constructed over decades of flinty toughness…

[Once] self-reliance was as central as toughness. Rod Marsh's coaching advice was simple: "Sort it out for yourself." That spirit ran through the great tradition. Bradman taught himself to bat by hitting a golf ball against a wall with a stick. Learning to bat was another form of looking after yourself, like pitching a tent in the outback. That resilience was compounded by the sense that Australians had a point to prove, that the world too often underestimated them. Cricket was a means of getting even…

I was brought up on the received wisdom that it was the Australian system that made them so tough - the strong club cricket, the fierce inter-state rivalries. Each has now declined, at least to some extent. It may be a very long time indeed - a full turn of the dynastic wheel - before Australia will again be able to boast such a record of dominance.

Let us leave behind the soap opera, the tidbits of gossip and intrigue. No causal truths reside there. What David Warner's brother thinks of Shane Watson did not lose Australia the Test match, nor did the sacking of Arthur, nor homework-gate, nor an incident in a nightclub

Since then, Australia have lost five Ashes Tests, several disastrously, and won just one.

It has become a truism that Australia now find themselves where England were in the 1990s. Less explored is the question of how the two nations fell into such a state.

Here is my abbreviated history of England's decline. First, phase one: "Cricket is our game; we run it. We have the oldest, richest and most fully professional game in the world. We know best and won't take any lectures from New World upstarts."

Well, that didn't work too well. After decades of being overtaken by leaner, hungrier cricketing nations, the original decline was compounded by the following over-reaction. Let's call it phase two: "England must now copy Australia, who are the best team in the world. We must reshape our character as well as our institutions to follow a new model."

Hubris, in other words, gave way to despair, confusion and panic. Sound familiar?

Yes, that is now the lot of Australia. First, phase one of decline: "We win because Aussies are tougher, braver, better mates and grew up getting bounced and abused in club matches tougher than war zones. We are cut from different cloth, born of a different gene pool. The rest of the cricketing world is effete and soft. Leopards don't change their spots. Seen one Pom, seen them all…"

At Lord's, Australia entered phase two: despair and confusion. History tells us to expect all manner of wrong turns and pseudo solutions, sackings and scapegoats, false dawns and bad logic. Most of it will be aimed at the wrong targets.

The English should be wary of gloating. After all, it took decades of quick fixes and attempted root-and-branch reform before England eventually emerged from the darkness. That was through luck as well as planning. Sporting success is increasingly determined by wealth and England can invest in success because it has deeper pockets, thanks to the bounty television rights, than any nation except India.

Conclusion: the best guard against hubris is continuing to recognise the role of fortune. Just ask Australia.

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