SPIRO: Last chance saloon for fractious four

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Cricket Australia's Executive General Manager of Team Performance, Pat Howard. AAP Image/Dave Hunt

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Since the fractious four failed their pre-Test preps, I’ve been flooded with emails from good old boys wondering what would have happened if Keith Miller or Dougie Walters had been asked to write up their thoughts about how the team could improve their performance.

The answer is that both of them, and virtually every cricketer up to about 10 years ago would have told the coach and the selectors to get knotted (this is bowlderised, of course).

Miller was famous for turning up around the time the match started, even when he was captain of NSW, and virtually staggering on to the field and with a raging headache telling his players to ‘scatter’ into their positions.

If the opposition batting side was a bit obdurate on a hot day, he was known to grab the ball, go through the lineup and get back into the shade of the pavilion before the lunch-time break.

Even the great Don Bradman was treated with a sort of disrespect on occasions if the players felt this was in order.

Malcolm Knox’s marvellous account of Bradman’s last tour of England in 1948 gives a series of vivid descriptions of Miller and others in the team giving the captain some surly attention when they disagreed with his tactics.

Bradman himself was rather stand-offish to the players as well.

Sam Loxton liked to tell the story of approaching Bradman on behalf of Neil Harvey, the gifted youngster in the side, to get some advice for him on how to get out of a batting slump.

“Tell your mate to hit the ball along the ground,” Bradman chirped.

That was then. This is now, a different time.

In the last 15 or years or so we’ve seen the rise of managerialism and coaching in the production of first-rate cricket sides.

South Africa and England currently, the two best sides in the world, are constructs of the managerial revolution.

The essence of the managerial approach to creating a great cricket team is that processes are put in place that involve the players in making significant inputs into the making and playing of the side. These processes require players to monitor their physical and mental preparation.

The team itself is involved, too, with the coaching staff in producing detailed plans for every situation, either batting or bowling.

The point here is that the modern player not only has to prepare himself for the tasks he performs on the cricket field. He has to prepare with the greater good of the team as a priority, as well.

In the case of Shane Watson, he prepared himself well but neglected, it seems, his duties as a leader in the team.

The other three, it seems from reading between the lines of various statements, didn’t really prepare themselves properly, let alone doing their utmost to elevate the performance of the team.

I noted, for instance, the comments of Daniel Zammit, who is the manager of Usman Khawaja. Zammit said he welcomes the ‘firm message’ sent to his client.

Cricketers, he continued in an obvious reference to Khawaja, have been indulged for too long.

In the case of Khawaja it seems he was concerned/obsessed by the fact that, in his belief, he had been dropped without good reason from the Australian XI.

He saw himself as not being given a fair go by the selectors to inherit his rightful place in the Test squad.

More generally, the fractious four were leaders in a team culture where “back-chat” and “giving attitude” (Mickey Arthur’s words) had become an “unacceptable” form of behaviour within the team.

Arthur summed up the problem this way: “Being late for a meeting, high skinfolds, wearing the wrong attire, back-chat or giving attitude are just some examples of these behavioural issues that have been addressed discreetly but continue to happen.”

The commentators often talk about coaches ‘losing the dressing room.’ Generally, when this happens the revolt is led by the leaders of the team; the players who have influence and success on the field.

James Pattison is on the brink of a great Test career and has performed well so far. But he is no Dennis Lillee right now.

Mitchell Johnston has his best Test days behind him. He is not, and was not, the dominating player he should have been.

And as Gideon Haigh points out in The Australian, Shane Watson has scored two Test hundreds in 40 Tests.

He is a player, in my view, who looks better than he really is. He is also a player with an inflated view of his own abilities.

He won no friends inside the team or within the Australian cricket community with his frequent pushing of his role as a top of the order batsman.

Player power has always been a potent factor in Australian cricket right back to its earliest days when the players clashed, sometimes physically, with Board members who tried to control who went on tours and how much they were paid.

Even the great Keith Miller fell foul of this control when Don Bradman forced the Board to drop him from a team travelling to South Africa.

An injury to one of the players subsequently got Miller his tour, where he starred. But Bradman ensured that Miller never became the long-term captain of Australia, a job that went to the yes-man, Ian Johnson.

And we have seen with the Brumbies Super Rugby side that player power works when the team has gifted players who can win no matter what system of team preparation is used. But when these players lose their mojo, player power becomes an impediment to progress and success.

Interestingly, Pat Howard was one of the player power ring-leaders for the Brumbies.

He seems to have learnt the lesson that a team without great players (or with only one great player, Michael Clarke) must play as a team, enhancing the potential of everyone in a common cause rather than as a collection of individuals, if it wants to ascend to great heights.

I know there has been a huge amount of criticism of Howard and Arthur (and Clarke, as a selector who must have agreed to the diktat) but it seems to be that Arthur was right when he told journalists: “You can only get your last chance so many times.”

If the players were too obsessed with their own concerns rather than those of the team to really be part of the team’s preparations for Tests, then they don’t deserve to be in the side.

The upside is that Khawaja and Pattinson are in the early part of what should be (especially in the case of Pattinson) a distinguished career with the baggy greens.

Johnson and Watson, however, are a different matter.

Both have delivered less than their promise suggested they might.

They are closer to the end of their Test careers and it will require a massive change of attitude on their part to win back the confidence of the team’s managers that they will deliver in the back-to-back Ashes series that is coming to us later this year.

Spiro Zavos, a founding writer on The Roar, was long time editorial writer on the Sydney Morning Herald, where he started a rugby column that has run for nearly 30 years. Spiro has written 12 books: fiction, biography, politics and histories of Australian, New Zealand, British and South African rugby. He is regarded as one of the foremost writers on rugby throughout the world.
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