The Ashes phoney war: notes on leadership

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

Put this in your tour diaries, Michael

One of the dominant narratives in the run-up to the return Ashes series has been – thanks to Shane Warne and a press pack grateful for headlines – the contrasts in leadership espoused by Alastair Cook and Warnie’s mate, Michael Clarke. The former is pigeon-holed as ‘negative’ and ‘reactive’ while the latter is praised as being ‘positive’ and ‘proactive’ – on the field of play, at least.

It’s rare in professional sport nowadays for so much leadership responsibility to be vested in playing, rather than coaching,  personnel. It’s one of the many things that sets cricket apart.

Anyway, Gideon Haigh always seems to sum up the majority perspective better than anyone else around. Here are his thoughts on the matter:

The Art of Captaincy 2

Cuts and Glances Blog | 11 November 2013| 4 Comments

On a good thing, Shane Warne is sticking to it, taking his critique of the respective Ashes captains into print in the Daily Telegraph.  But the inference to be drawn is simply that Warne is on a roll.  His candidates to captain England?  Kevin Pietersen, because he has ‘the best cricket brain in the team’, and Graeme Swann, because he is ‘a good reader of the game’.  But, at the risk of repeating an obvious point, this is a reductive view of leadership, as analogous to a chess grandmaster plotting move and countermove.  Captaincy is every bit as much about the blending of personalities, the motivation of individuals, the setting of a personal example – especially in these days when the game is analysed so closely by coaching staffs, one might even say that ‘tactics’ trade at a discount.  That is before we even get to Warne’s alternative skippers.  In Pietersen’s case, his ‘cricket brain’ is harnessed to a nervous system of unpredictable impulses; in Swann’s case, he turns 35 in March, and may here be on his last lap.  Both players have long-term injury concerns.  They are fine, experienced cricketers.  Are they really superior candidates to a twenty-eight-year-old with twenty-five Test centuries?

Perhaps more interesting are the parts of the column where Warne invokes the example of his own career. ‘I played for 15 years in one of the best teams of all time, winning in all conditions against all opposition,’ he says.  ‘We had some great players, sure, but we also needed a good captain with imagination.’ I love that ‘sure’.  ‘Oh yeah, we had me, McGrath, the Waughs, Ponting, Gilchrist, Hayden, Langer, Martyn but really it was all about leadership.’ For one thing, this rather flies in the face of everything he’s ever said about the leadership qualities of Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting, who led him in two-thirds of the Tests in his career.  For another, it overlooks that Warne, perhaps the most powerful ‘cricket brain’ of all, was capable of making a contribution without being captain.

Then there’s this observation: ‘England won the Ashes in 2005 because Michael Vaughan was imaginative and proactive. He came up with different fields, attacked with the bat and challenged the opposition batsmen all the time.’ The field settings I remember from Vaughan eight years ago are the boundary sweepers he employed from early in the innings to arrest Australia’s boundary flow – smart captaincy, I grant you, but hardly ‘aggressive’.  And where are the England players in this remembrance of events?  Frankly, England briefly repossessed the urn in 2005 because they had Flintoff, Harmison, Pietersen, Trescothick, Jones and others playing he cricket of their lives, not because of a short cover Vaughan set somewhere or other.  Warne’s reading also underestimates Vaughan in ascribing his success to on-field inspirations.  Vaughan’s real triumph, I thought, was as a man manager, inculcating such a sense of self-belief in England’s dressing room, despite eight consecutive Ashes defeat.
Of the Australian dressing room, of course, Warne has said Clarke needs to foster a ‘happier team environment’.  Having last week expressed confidence that his ‘best friend’ Clarke and ‘good mate of mine’ Darren Lehmann are making progress in this respect, he here cites as evidence that during ‘the recent one-day series in India, there were a lot more Australian players smiling and in form’.  Perhaps he’s right.  But it’s not mere pedantry to point out that neither Clarke nor Lehmann were actually in India, that the team was led by George Bailey and coached by Steve Rixon.  Bailey has yet to join the Test team, and rumour abounds that Rixon is about to part ways with it.

Finally, there’s this, which surprisingly has not featured in any of the quotebacks from the Telegraph column: ‘To me Australia have to improve in more areas than England if they are to regain the Ashes.’ Oh, OK.  But it seems to undermine all the foregoing, and also Warne’s Twitter prediction of 3 November: ‘I think Aust will regain the Ashes Urn in Aust 2-1.’ (which by the way was Warne’s prediction for the series in England). There as usual lurks a solid point behind this column – that England in their determination simply to stifle and frustrate Australia have missed opportunities to really put the skids under them.  But you need to work your way through some slightly chaotic thinking to find it.

From: Accessed 14 November 2013

His first piece on the subject is accessible through The Australian newspaper’s paywall:


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