It was the morning after India’s high-voltage semi-final clash with Pakistan at the 2011 world cup. All of Chandigarh was still fast asleep after late-night high-jinks celebrations. I met up with the Indian team’s mental conditioning coach, Paddy Upton, for breakfast and commended him for bringing the entire bunch of boys together. Team India, it appeared, was firmly united behind captain Dhoni and Paddy Upton, and coach Gary Kirsten deserved credit for forging the bond. Upton, however, disagreed. In fact, he smiled and said something that remains for me a fascinating lesson about team sport.
“Look, when you have 15 talented men in a team they can never be united. There will always be differences among them. There will be egos and personal issues. It is only natural. Frankly, I am not bothered as long as one simple thing happens: when the final catch goes up in the air and whoever among the 15 is under it, the rest of the 14 should wish that he takes the catch. That’s all I want and that’s all that is needed. It is not imperative that they have meals together or they go out together.”
The startling implication is that the four players who faced the axe weren’t adhering to the team code. While the wide world is led to believe—through blood-and-guts anecdotes from the age of Victor Trumper to that of Steve Waugh—in the priceless value that Aussies place on representing the national team, it’s made out that the four players had traduced that ethos by multiple acts of indiscipline and forced coach Arthur and captain Clarke to act.
While there is raging debate about the harshness of the action—social media networks have been gloatingly lampooning the beleagured team—the real fact is more serious. Sourav Ganguly summed it up nicely, “This is the worst I have seen of the Australian team over the last two decades. It will be very difficult for them to come back from here on.”
At a time when the touring team management in India and Cricket Australia officials back home are engaged in trying to do damage control, Watson’s statements come as a further breach of the disciplinary code. Can he openly criticise the CA manager and get away? By saying that he will now be considering his Test future, hasn’t he harmed Australian cricket itself and brought out the differences between him and Clarke into the open? Also, his dad, who has gone on record saying that his son can give Test cricket a miss for the IPL, has only added to murmurs of misplaced priorities. Question is, in a team sport where the captain and coach have the final say, can a player, however important, publicly castigate their decision and get away?
While the Indian media picks at raw Australian wounds and waits for the Mohali Test to unfold, a few important observations need to be made. From what Clarke has written—“We need to uphold the highest of standards in this team and it’s unfortunate we have reached this point”—it is apparent that differences in the team have been simmering for some time. These have only spilled out now that the Australians have started to lose, and that too badly.
Then there is the little matter of the calibre of this Australian team. Suffice to say this charade wouldn’t have happened with Steve Waugh’s or Ricky Ponting’s Australians. Waugh and Warne never quite saw eye to eye, but that didn’t come in the way of Australia’s complete domination of world cricket. Again, in a side full of match-winners, a Shane Watson would never have dared put himself ahead of the team. In Waugh’s time, if any batsman had the gumption to do so, there was a Darren Lehmann or Damien Martyn on the bench to replace him. And in Ponting’s team, Clarke himself was in the centre of a row for taking things for granted in 2009 versus South Africa.
But still, the dirtiest of Aussie linens wouldn’t have been washed in public in those champion teams of the past. The unsavoury drama in Chandigarh happened only because this team is in transition and that there are but a handful of players of the calibre of Clarke or Watson. Brian Stoddart, one of Australia’s leading sports scholars, puts it well, “This team is in transition and losing, so it is natural that they are under pressure. But one also has to question why Pup and Micky did not follow up and ask why the four had not done their homework? This incident says a fair bit about team unity or the lack of it.”
The message was brutally direct. But will it have the desired impact of getting the Australians to rally behind the captain at Mohali? After having spoken to Michael Clarke at length, it must be said that he is seriously optimistic. “You should have seen the intensity at training on the day of the suspension and the next. It is the best we have had so far in India. The boys realise it is time we stand up for our cause and I am confident they will do so in Mohali.”
Importantly for Clarke, his own personal legacy hangs in the balance. He has done exceedingly well as captain and batsman in the last fourteen months to bring Australian cricket back on track. Beating India 4-0 at home and following up with some very good wins against the West Indies and Sri Lanka while himself scoring almost at the rate of the Don, Clarke was being looked upon as the saviour steering Australian cricket back to its erstwhile dominance.
With back-to-back Ashes series scheduled for later in the year, he has little time to get things back to normal. If he is able to do so in the teeth of adversity, he has a fair chance of counting as one of the best Australian skippers. If he fails, his will be a legacy of a fractious descent into mediocrity. The countdown for this personal battle, as also general repair works, begins at Mohali as the two teams lock horns for the third Test. Till such time, that is before Clarke heralds what at this stage looks an unlikely turnaround, the verdict is clear. To use the words of Peter English, former editor of Cricinfo, Australia, and currently finishing his PhD on cricket, “This incident is a sure sign that they don’t care about attempting to the win the series.”
(Boria Majumdar is one of India’s leading sports experts)
I regard Mr. Mazumdar greatly, but equally I have conviction that if Michael Clarke is captain, today, of the Australian team, then he is in equal measure great as captain. There is no indiscipline, it appears. Not speaking is no measure of any perception, either for or against discipline. The Cricket Australia authorities have also spoken, is that a measure of unhappiness, and against Cricket Australia? The reason why we admire Clarke is, that first he is ordinary, and then he seems to be likable, to us, and his team considers him to be a person to listen to, not because they meet him everyday, but because of other reasons. He is arguably, easily the most efficient One Day International captain, of Australia, according to the consideration of certain perceptions. I use the word, 'is' because no one is not captain because they have retired, or we feel they are with us, even when we cannot see them, when we would like to. I would hate to see Cricket Australia feel inadequate because Clarke is so good a ODI captain, that they felt they made a mistake, giving him the most thankless job in Cricket. Cricket Australia does not thank captains, for no reason, when they feel compelled to do so. No one thanks them, for anything, and they are not asked why they do their calling. To feel, one can become anything in Cricket Australia, needs the perception, that most of the officials are not cricketers, they are in an organisation, where people appreciate a sport, and a sport which has Rugby Union, Hockey, Swimming, and other sport to be a consideration also for people's attention. We feel, that we need cricketers in administration, but as our politicians are asked to head the B. C. C. I., Mr. Benaud was asked to be in the then Australian Cricket Board. The Australian P. M., or ex-P. M., Mr Howard is the President of Cricket Australia, and he was in the consideration for heading the I. C. C., just now, and he might be heading the I. C. C.
I mean, the series is so significant, that I felt I needn't watch Dhoni score a double century, not look at Ashwin be the highest wicket taker, just because others were watching it. I just heard about it, and felt good. It seems that when people knew that South Africa won in Australia, in South Africa, when people travelled not in aeroplanes, they felt similarly. One must feel a little reticent, not because the Australians played badly, but because they lost. I wouldn't want to feel reticent at all, because I wouldn't want to play the Australians for them to loose. I can say, that the Indian team won, and it was an equal happiness, to the perception that they played Australia.
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