"Bet you're glad you took this on." As far as welcomes go, Adam Gilchrist's light-hearted commiseration to Tim Nielsen after his first game as Australian coach ended in calamitous loss to Zimbabwe was apt, but also foretold much of the chaos that was to follow in Australian cricket's lean years following the disbanding of their golden generation side.
In Whitewash to Whitewash , journalist Daniel Brettig* goes in search of the answers to the many questions that still linger about Australia's bumpy, often calamitous seven-year stretch between the Ashes triumph of 2006-07 and the thumping 5-0 annihilation of England in 2013-14. Brettig covered the Australian side from close quarters during that period and this book attempts to capture a sweeping, often complicated panorama of comings and goings, wins and losses, triumph and disaster.
The first time I saw Brettig at work, a few years back, he was in the middle of having several strips torn off him by a senior cricket administrator - a normally measured man who was now a shade close to crimson as he verbally unloaded on the journalist. "This guy is asking the right questions," I thought to myself. It's a useful back story to appraising this book, full as it is with the insider information that only comes from the relentless pursuit of answers.
The retirements in short succession of Australian superstars Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Damien Martyn and Adam Gilchrist had decimated the national playing ranks, but in an even-handed manner, Brettig also does well to illustrate the additional self-inflicted wounds; shoddy succession planning, part-time selectors, muddled priorities, player mismanagement, widely panned changes to the structure of domestic cricket, and complacency. They give us a compelling account of the decision-making that blighted Australia's regeneration.
Needless to say, such an undertaking required the asking of many more awkward questions because Australian cricket didn't always reveal itself in the best light in the period surveyed.
We're reminded of the deep wedge driven between Cricket Australia and its players - particularly then-captain Ricky Ponting and Andrew Symonds - by the "Monkeygate
" imbroglio between Symonds and Harbhajan Singh, the start of a recurring narrative in which the corporate imperatives of administrators tended to outweigh those of a waning team expected to excel as they always had.
On account of Brettig's lean, reporterly prose and strict adherence to the facts, we're able to make up our own minds on these issues in much the same way as we did in Mark Ray's era-encompassing Border and Beyond or Malcolm Knox's Taylor and Beyond. Those books were clearly an influence on Brettig's, and Whitewash to Whitewash might eventually stand alongside them as the definitive, no-nonsense account of a cricketing era.
This book is never better than in insidery vignettes like Brettig's account of the Michael Clarke-Simon Katich SCG change-room contretemps
, which soured Matthew Hayden's retirement celebrations and is relayed here in all its unseemly glory. A few years later, in his role as a CA board member, Hayden would baulk at endorsing Clarke as Ricky Ponting's captaincy successor. Often you're turning the page to another grinding axe or wounded ego.
The portrait that emerges of the current Australian captain is intriguing. Often the younger, brasher Clarke emerges as the kind of bloke you'd probably prefer left before the team song anyway - bubbling away with thinly veiled ambition, abandoning team protocols, and rather too eager to usher earthier team-mates into VIP nightclub rooms and luxury yachts.
We witness a team at odds with opponents and its own board lapse into infighting and cliques - newbies isolated and ignored, old hands embittered. When asked when Shane Watson will return from injury one team-mate responds, "We don't care." Some shine, too. You wonder whether Australia could have achieved anything in the last 18 months without Brad Haddin.
The post-Warne spinners are worthy of a book of their own - Stuart MacGill's body disintegrating, Beau Casson debuting in promising style and then being discarded for a tour of India for the jobbing Cameron White ("I'm a batsman," explains an unenthused White as he receives tutelage from Bishan Bedi). Jason Krejza emerges amid a minor drug scandal and disappears not long after a 12-wicket haul on debut; Bryce McGain - disparagingly referred to as "clubbie" by some team-mates - misses the plane to South Africa and almost gets belted all the way back home again. Nathan Hauritz's very human frailties are heartbreaking.
Sometimes you laugh remembering Australia's most notable follies, like the farcical scenes surrounding the marketing-driven naming of Australia's bloated 17-man squad for the first Ashes Test of 2010-11. Brettig reveals that CA's original plan was even worse: a daily paring back of one member of the squad until 12 remained. I'm an Australian Test cricketer… get me out of here.
By that point Australia had discarded Hauritz for good. Into the breach stepped the workmanlike Xavier Doherty, then greenhorn Michael Beer and an unpolished, cherubic Steven Smith, at that point expected to rip some legbreaks rather than peel off hundreds. Spinners weren't the only ones getting a raw deal. "We back you… but can you please just score some bloody runs?" is Greg Chappell's mixed message to an out-of-form Michael Hussey. Australia's shambolic display in that series seems almost preordained when you sift through the wreckage.
Brettig distils the most recent years poignantly. Of the 2013 "Homeworkgate
" fiasco in Mohali, we learn that the fate of the four suspended players was decided not in hushed tones between the coach, Mickey Arthur, Clarke, and perhaps the tour manager or a selector, but during a shaggy corporate brainstorm with a hotel conference room crammed with 15 of CA's touring supernumeraries, physios, PR and communications types, doctors - basically everyone bar the room service staff.
Arthur is honest when talking Brettig through the shortcomings of his coaching tenure, and we're given fascinating insights into his horrible time in the top job - too convivial and isolated to mete out appropriate discipline and then clinically disposed of on the eve of the 2013 Ashes. Reliving it all gives you another layer of appreciation for what Darren Lehmann has achieved in cleaning up such a mess.
It's not all bad news. The Arthur debacle forces a greater honesty in CA's self-analysis; senior management heeds informal advice from Ponting that Lehmann should be given the space and leniency to run things as he sees fit, an opportunity not extended to his happy-go-lucky predecessor.
For all the internal reviews and recriminations ("You're one of the people who has to go," thinks a shocked interviewee when CEO James Sutherland sits in on their Argus Review
meeting), Brettig also does well to impart a sense that not every problem of the past decade was always within the control of Australia's captains, coaches and paymasters.
This book is not without the odd pitfall. For all its absorbing and fresh detail, the 17 pages on "Homeworkgate" dwarf by three times the wordcount given to the entire 2013 Ashes series. There's a lot to fit inside 291 pages, I suppose. Owing to the limited availability of certain players and the need for discretion around the many off-record interviews that give this book its depth, Brettig is also forced to lean on secondary source material for quotes more often than he'd probably have liked.
Still, books like Whitewash to Whitewash are vital to a thriving body of cricket literature because they distil events that help us piece together the evolution of cricket nations. "If you keep toning us down, toning us down, you'll make us the same as everybody else," says Ponting during the callow years. This is the story of a country rediscovering its cricket identity, a task that's much easier said than done.
Whitewash to Whitewash: Australian cricket's years of struggle and summer of riches
By Daniel Brettig
*Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo
Russell Jackson is a cricket lover who blogs about sport in the present and nostalgic tense for the Guardian Australia and Wasted Afternoons. @rustyjacko