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:


The Science of Selection

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

England Chairman of Selectors Geoff Miller, looking rightly satisfied with his lot

It’s a job I’ve long coveted. What could be a cushier gig than being a national cricket selector?

If you’re lucky enough to be employed by the ECB, you spend the early part of the domestic season touring around county grounds gorging on cucumber sandwiches and warm beer, all the while your centrally-contracted mainstays are wrapped in cotton wool for the international rigours to come.

Once the touring teams arrive and the proper cricket starts, you find a nice seat amongst the members, sit behind dark glasses, and occasionally discuss who’s next in line for the coveted 13th man position behind Steve Finn/Tim Bresnan. Then there’s the exotic jet-setting during the winter months, with all the five star luxury sports administrators have come to expect.

For the four-man[i] panel that have the responsibility of finding eleven good men and true to don the baggy green, however, the job is not so enviable. In the space of two overseas trips to India and England (and Scotland, officially), they have taken a total of 22 different players on tour, all of whom will have played a Test by the end of this current trip (Matt Wade has not played in England, but got three games in India; James Faulkner will debut today at The Oval). That statistic alone is enough to highlight how onerous a job the Aussie selectors are faced with.

Here’s another: Mitchell Starc has played four of the eight Tests against India and England this year, none consecutively. How does that help either his rhythm or confidence?

So, while the selectors are not faced with an embarrassment of playing riches, they’ve hardly helped the team bed in and build a rapport while facing two of the three best Test playing nations.

But to really nut out farce that the selection panel’s work has become, consider the chopping and changing in the batting order in the past 16 Test innings:

Position Players selected against India and England in 2013 Tests, as at 20 August Number of players selected in each position
Openers EJM Cowan; DA Warner; SR Watson; GJ Maxwell (yes, really); CJL Rogers 5
No. 3 EJM Cowan; DA Warner; PJ Hughes; MJ Clarke; UT Khawaja 5
No. 4 PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith 4
No. 5 SR Watson; MJ Clarke; SPD Smith; NM Lyon (nightwatchman) 4
No. 6 DA Warner; PJ Hughes; SR Watson; MJ Clarke; MS Wade; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 7
No. 7 MS Wade; MC Henriques; GJ Maxwell; BJ Haddin 4
No. 8 MA Starc; PM Siddle; GJ Maxwell; AC Agar; MG Johnson 5
No. 9 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; RJ Harris 4
No. 10 MA Starc; PM Siddle; JL Pattinson; NM Lyon; RJ Harris 5
No. 11 JL Pattinson; XJ Doherty; AC Agar; NM Lyon; RJ Harris; JM Bird 6
The confused face of Australian cricket

The confused face of Australian cricket

New cap James Faulkner will play at seven today and Starc – the poor lad – will come back in again and play at either eight or nine. Shane Watson will move up to three, a position he has not played in since the Aussie summer, while Khawaja finds himself again cast into the wilderness alongside Phil Hughes and Eddie Cowan; a player who, in the mould of Chris Rogers, they could have persisted with after his horror show in the Trent Bridge Test, in which he was suffering from a virus.

Australia, we are told, need to win this dead rubber so they can build momentum for the return series in three months time. Even if they do so, who can say with any confidence what their XI will be in Brisbane? At this stage, the chances of them fielding the same team in that next Test seem as likely as the four-man selection panel remaining unchanged.

[i] John Inverarity (Chairman), Rod Marsh, Andy Bichel and Darren Lehmann (since June 2013)

The Breakfast Club

VegemiteBoof: [cracks open a tinny] Good morning, gentlemen. Thanks for meeting me for breakfast this morning. I know you’ll have today’s game on your minds but before we get to the ground I think it’s important we thrash out a few of the issues that have come up these past couple of days.

Pup: No worries, coach. You know I respect you as a man, as a leader and as a humanitarian. I’m at your beck and call.

Watto: [looks up from his organic bircher muesli] There’s a game today?

Boof: Yup, a rather big one, Shane. Don’t worry, you’re opening the batting.

Watto: I should bloody well hope so. Don’t think I dobbed in Davey boy for no good reason. I only had the team in mind, you know; my capacity to reach 40 before loosely nicking off far exceeds his ability to race to 30 before doing likewise.

Boof: I know, I know. We’re all very grateful. Aren’t we, Michael?

Pup: Oh yes, coach! Anything you say, coach!

Boof: Call me Boof.

Pup: Of course! Sorry about that!

Watto: What exactly is a ‘Boof’ anyway?

Boof: Back to what I was saying, the media have been having a bit of a merry old time with you two over the last 48 hours. We need to get this sorted right away…

Pup: Permission to speak, boss.

Boof: [sighs and slumps into his seat] Granted.

Pup: Look, I was just thinking that, what with everything’s that happened, maybe it would be for the best if, well… what I mean is that… you know… Watto – great guy and all – heck, he is a bit of cancer on the team, isn’t he?

Watto: This is what I’m talking about! He’s always had it in for me! Everyone else thinks I’m great, why does he not like me?! I just want to be liked! [sobs into goji berry and roasted partridge semen smoothie]

Boof: The way I see it, you two are the best chance we’ve got of beating the Poms and for us all to return to the colony as heroes. There are 22 million Australian men, women and children imploring you to put aside your differences and focus on what matters – wiping that smug look off Broady’s irritating face.

Pup: Now you’re talking, boss! That Stuart Broad is the real enemy. Why, when he refused to walk in the first Test I was so angry that I stomped so hard I almost crooked my back up. Of course, when I referred my caught behind decision you must understand I really didn’t think I edged it.

Boof: I don’t care about that, Michael. In fact, if you ever walk without being given out I’ll not only strip you of the captaincy, I’ll also make sure you never wear the hallowed baggy green again and are forever forced to carry Warnie’s bag around depressingly cavernous casinos. Is that clear?

Pup: Yes, got it. Am I allowed to apologise for not walking on my Twitter account though? That got me over 5,000 retweets during the Adelaide Test in 2010.

Boof: Absolutely not!

Watto: You know I’d never tweet, Boof. I prefer to say what I have to say behind someone’s back! [cackles]

Boof: Look, we’ve got to leave for the ground soon. I need both of you to look me in the eyes and tell me these issues are all behind you.

Pup: Everything’s fine, boss.

Watto: I’ve forgotten what we were fighting about.

Boof: Good.

Watto: I mean it, what was the problem again?

Boof: Shake hands, both of you.

[Pup extends his hand, Watto puts down his hairbrush and shakes it]

Boof: See, that wasn’t so hard, was it?

Watto: No, surprisingly soft and tender actually. Like shaking a limp orchid.

Boof: Great. That’s a load off. I really feel we’re shaping up quite nicely to give those Poms a good buggering now. There’s just one more thing I need to resolve before we set off.

Pup: Can I help with that, boss? Please let me help.

Boof: Actually, yes you can, Michael. Go over to Eddie’s table and tell him he’s cut.

Pup: I’d do anything for love, boss. But I won’t do that. I mean, look at his sad little eyes. It’s cruel.

Watto: [grins and rises from table] Leave it with me. It’ll be a pleasure.

Quadruple detention

So, he CAN write...

So, he can write…

Seen through the lens of a partially interested observer, the suspensions meted out to four Australian cricketers for not completing their “homework” initially felt like a huge overreaction. An arbitrary deadline for delivering a written or verbal assessment on how to recover from the first half of what is shaping out to be the most humiliating tour in Australian sporting history was missed by the vice-captain, leading fast bowler, maverick match-winner and great future batting hope (and multicultural icon); now they’re sat on the sidelines, unable to contribute to what looms as the biggest test for the team for a generation.

But that’s the point.

What were the players thinking if they felt like they could take a ride on this? What does that say about a team that is already hugely reliant upon the exploits of its star batsman and captain? They are professionals in the spotlight performing for their country and the sport which has provided them with a very healthy living.

The proliferation of coaches and other support staff in cricket has been a marked feature of the past 20 years. It’s of no coincidence that the opprobrium over the stance taken by Mickey Arthur and Michael Clarke is most vocal from ex-players from the early 1990s. To them, it’s another example of coaches overcomplicating issues which would, in the past, have been settled (one way or another) in the bar. Players of today are labelled as robots as they’re expected to follow the strict plans devised by staff eager to justify their pay packets. Autonomy, individuality, resilience and innovation are supposedly sacrificed.

Actually, in this instance at least, the coaching staff were giving the players their head. They were given responsibility to pitch in ideas on how to improve; an opportunity to take responsibility has been scorned and it speaks to a deeper sense of drift in this Australian team. For sure this isn’t an isolated incident.

The focus for both Australia and England in the past few months has been too heavily slanted towards the impending 10 Ashes Tests. Perhaps performances on both sides have suffered. Of more importance, I think, is the much longer back story of Australian cricket.

The era of world domination is far behind them. Australian cricket is struggling to adjust to a period – who knows for how long – of middle-ranking stagnation. The Argus report pointed to the thinning of the grassroots and hollowing out of structures to support the game. To recover will take time and no longer can they hope for epoch-defining cricketers like Warne, McGrath, Ponting and Gilchrist to emerge at once. At the moment they’re lucky to have Clarke and he’s fighting a very lonely battle.

The culture in the team has been identified as lax; too comfortable due to the fame and fortune established players without pressure on their places can command. The world dominating team in the late 90s and early 2000s was almost more notable for the players unable to regularly force their way in – Darren Lehmann, Stuart Law, Stuart MacGill, Brad Hodge, etc – than for those making the headlines in the baggy green. Today, average players in Shield cricket are failing to push underperforming ones in the Test side.

This issue will sure as hell jolt the players. It may even be a turning point; forcing them to understand that they reap what they sow. It must also act as a time which helps the public recalibrate their expectations for the team. The period of domination is over and it can be hard to adjust. Just ask England football fans before a major tournament whether they believe their team to be an average side. The memories of past glories feed a sense of entitlement. Instead they should feed a fierce hunger to return to the top.

A heavy burden

Australia's Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia’s Test Combined Innings Team and Captain Totals

Australia has just lost to India by 8 wickets. This is despite a first innings century from Michael Clarke and a commendable bowling effort from James Pattinson (6-109). If it were not for two gutsy half-centuries by the Portuguese-born debutant Moises Henriques an innings defeat would certainly have been on the cards.

Much has been made of Australia’s reliance upon the runs of Michael Clarke. Since becoming permanent Test captain he has averaged 73 at a time when the combined team average per wicket has been around half that – less than 37. Without the runs of the retired middle order stalwart Michael Hussey, who has produced 14.3% of the team’s runs over the same period (not including the Chennai Test, of course), not to mention his crucial composure and ability to marshal the tail, the onus on the captain to carry the team becomes ever starker.

Yet the Aussies boast an enviable stock of pacemen. It certainly bears comparison with England’s resources, especially in terms of depth; though there is arguably no-one of the skill of Jimmy Anderson in their ranks. But they need runs to bowl at. Particularly in India. Even more so when the spin bowling department is so threadbare.

And to think Ricky Ponting thought he had it bad…

Ricky Hughe?

A new generation of Aussie fans must get used to seeing a lot of Phil Hughes

Older readers may remember the great Australian batsman Ricky Ponting. It is easy to forget the contributions of the former captain as his heir to the dashing no.3 spot Phillip Hughes piles on the runs against the mighty Sri Lankans.

The selectors’ faith in Hughes’ abilities has led him to be dropped on three occasions in his 19 match Test career, only welcoming him back this time after openly sparing him from the fierce South Africans – where poor Bobby Quiney acted as Hughes’ human shield, picking up a pair in Adelaide.

What inspired management. Hughes is now back and duly filling his boots against the second string medium pacers of Sri Lanka, on his home SCG pitch [at the time of writing he’s just given his wicket away for 87].

With this sort of Ramprakash-esque momentum behind him, Hughes is bound to prosper in the alien conditions of India and, afterwards, in back-to-back Ashes series. If there’s anyone in the top 7 who’s less comfortable against the moving ball than PJ Hughes then Jimmy Anderson et al are going to have a gay old time.

Back in the day, it used to be that Australians raised their games against the old foe while the English wilted under the strain of facing a supremely competitive, chips-on-their-shoulders team from Down Under. Now, it’s more likely the other way round. Mitch Johnson, Shane Watson and Hughes have all grossly underperformed in the Ashes spotlight. More and more, the opposite is true of England; even Ian Bell had one of his Bangladesh type series in Australia in 2010/11. That same series arguably rescued Ali Cook’s whole career.

With Hussey retiring and Ponting long gone, the baton charge against the English must be led by the captain, Michael Clarke. And the bowlers. They’re the Aussie trump card right now. Jackson Bird, James Pattinson, Pat Cummings, Mitchell Starc and the new, improved, Peter Siddle are all likely to prosper in English conditions, as well as back home. When you consider how many runs they may be asked to bowl at in 2013, the selectors’ eagerness to rotate their pack and prevent burn-out is entirely understandable.

The Drossier

Crickometrics, it ain’t

Ball Control can exclusively reveal that South Africa will target old laggards Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey as the weak links in Australia’s batting line-up, according to a top secret dossier in our possession. The plans, personally drawn up by Head Coach Gary Kirsten, are a comprehensive strategy to combat opposition players’ weaknesses, and nullify their strengths, in the upcoming three-Test series.

Among the many startling revelations is that Shane Watson can be unsettled early in a series if he is denied unfettered access to full-length mirrors in the changing rooms, while Imran Tahir’s bowling tactics against the captain Michael Clarke revolve around wearing a Simon Katich mask and singing the Australian team song during his run-up.

Ricky Ponting, coming off a successful calendar year in which he averages 63 in Tests, is said to be vulnerable to substitute fielding and by having his past captaincy ability compared to all Australian captains before 2004 and after 2010. The dossier intriguingly adds for emphasis that this comparison includes “that whole embarrassing Kim Hughes period”. Ponting’s co-veteran in the middle order, Mike Hussey, is also reserved for special attention in the dossier; noting the acute dry skin areas below his eyes, requiring almost constant application of industrial-grade zinc.

Of Australia’s vaunted bowling attack, the South Africans have clearly closely analysed their many and varied strengths. As one of the newer members of the pack, Nathan Lyon has not gone unnoticed for his talent to make older team members look far younger than they are. The depth of analysis in the dossier is hinted at as it suggests that 68-year old chairman of selectors John Inverarity personally trumpets the selection of Lyon as he enjoys the company of a man who shares his interests in stamp collecting and listening to gramophone records.

Peter Siddle has developed many attributes in the past 18 months and can lay claim to being the most improved international bowler over that period. After undergoing a remedial winter program with renowned primate expert Jane Goodall, Siddle has added the ability to count to six to his impressive armoury; a skill he has successfully employed to keep track of the number of legitimate balls delivered in an over. This new skill has impressed Kirsten, who has devised a cunning strategy: “to confound Siddle the non-striker should blurt out random numbers as the bowler passing upon returning to his mark, thereby flummoxing the great lug and causing extreme mental disintegration.”

The one man in the Australian set-up singled out as immune to efforts of being undermined by opposition tactics is Head Coach Mickey Arthur: “a man with no discernible weakness, whose vast array of strengths are unshakeable due to his Afrikaans purity”.