Four players dropped. Two massive defeats. One team in crisis.
"I'm surprised that's the penalty for something so mundane. It seems like it was on a schoolboy tour or something. It's an over the top reaction.”- Allan Border.
"I'm stunned. I've never heard of this sort of thing before at top level in any sport. When you are losing there are niggling things there but they're grown men, it's not school boy stuff. It's not under-6s, this is Test cricket… there would have been a better way."- Mark Waugh.
"What is going on with Aussie cricket?? Didn't realise you had to do an essay to get a selection these days..!!!!!"- Michael Vaughan.
For once, let’s overlook the use of multiple exclamation and question marks by Vaughan on Twitter and focus on the controversy which has shocked Border and the younger Waugh.
If we were to simplify the issue which led to the dropping of James Pattinson, Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson and Usman Khawaja from the Australian team, we would essentially have to answer three questions:
1. Were the four players wrong in not preparing the presentation on their individual performances, as directed by coach Mickey Arthur?
2. Was the punishment meted out to them harsh?
3. After suffering a couple of heavy defeats, would Australia gain from following Arthur’s methods?
The first question is, arguably, the easiest to answer. The facts and common sense are loaded against the players in question.
In a team of 16, if 12 players comply with the coach’s orders, you’d have to be pretty dumb to not assess the possible consequences of swimming against the tide. The fact is that the four should have seen it coming. Seen what coming, though, is a different question.
If the quartet knew it would be dropped for not making the presentation, in all probability, it would have fallen in line. But it didn’t and paid for its misdemeanour.
Going by the reaction of a few ex-players mentioned above, it was a harsh punishment. Michael Clarke and Arthur have received much flak for their action, described by many as strict and improper.
Others argued that, with the series on the line in Mohali, dropping the quartet bordered on the suicidal. That objection, however, stands on a weak ground since decisions related to indiscipline within a team should remain independent of the circumstances.
Probably, a heavy fine and a warning would have been enough. However, in the aftermath of the decision, Clarke insisted that “it’s not just about one incident.” The rest of the reasons behind the action, unfortunately, remain unclear. Hence, it would be dangerous to speculate on it but sadly, the complete truth may never come out.
(Clockwise, L to R): Watson, Johnson, Pattinson, Khawaja. Courtesy: ESPN Cricinfo.
The final question, however, is certainly speculative and doesn’t solely deal with this particular incident. How much do such three-point presentations actually help?
Arthur essentially wanted the players to reflect on their performance and gave them the freedom to either text, mail or write a note on it. Surprisingly, a chat with the coach or the captain was not one of the options.
The outrage at the ensuing decision, unsurprisingly, has largely been voiced by ex-Aussie cricketers. Having played the sport in a time when a coach’s role was limited or non-existent, it’s not surprising to hear somebody like Allan Border compare the Australian side to a schoolboy team.
Going back to the late 1800s, it’s insightful to read one of Australia’s earliest heroes’ views on coaching.
“In Australia, boys learn by watching each other and any grown up cricketers they see. The result is individuality, and their natural ability is not dwarfed by other people’s ideas.” So wrote the legendary fast bowler Fred Spofforth.
While the opinion of a 19th century cricketer may not be entirely resourceful, it did hold sway over the cricketing establishment Down Under until March 1986 when Bob Simpson was appointed as the first full-time coach of the national side.
Remarkably, the job was initially offered to Ian Chappell but he refused it since he was sceptical of the position’s importance and probably still remains so. Even Simpson perceived its potential as limited.
Later, Shane Warne’s run-ins with John Buchanan became part of his legend as he seemingly led a sole charge against the increasingly growing role of a coach within a team.
In August 2006, when Buchanan set up a ‘boot camp’ for the players, the leg-spinner shot back by saying, “International players know how to play. You don’t need a coach getting too technical. You can forget that you just need to bowl the ball.”
For a natural genius like Warne, cricket was an easy game. He also played in a team that regularly won and won handsomely. Unfortunately for Australia, things are no longer the same.
After suffering two heavy defeats to India, the quartet chose the worst possible time to engage in unprofessional behaviour. Moreover, neither of them is indispensable like Warne.
Pattinson’s reaction to the punishment was natural for a young player as he realised he had let his teammates down. Ostracized from the squad, the young Victorian’s desire to be valued by the setup may have been the reason behind his quick apology.
The senior player in Watson, however, has not taken it too well. Expected, again.
"I have missed Test matches and games through injury throughout my career. I feel like I've worked my absolute bum off to have an opportunity to represent my country. When that's taken away from you, you think the actions must be very severe. That's where we differ on our opinions. I think it's extremely harsh,” said the 31-year-old.
Though Watson doesn’t bowl anymore for Australia, he continues to be a valued member of the squad and importantly, he knows that. Hence, the manifest disagreement by the middle-order batsman.
Clarke and Arthur, along with team manager Gavin Dovey, wouldn’t have anticipated the backlash caused by their decision. While this would serve as a lesson to the rest of the team members, the team setup now faces the task of assuaging the concerns of the dropped four.
It’s important that the coach’s decision is not judged by the result of the Mohali Test, but by whether it leads to greater professionalism within the Australian team. If it does not, Arthur may have to look for another job soon.