Any team in transition will stumble somewhere. So there was always a possible problem for Australia as Ricky Ponting and Mike Hussey were replaced by Philip Hughes and Usman Khawaja, among others. ‘Homeworkgate’ has transformed that stumble into a plummet down a deep cliff, and is as much a malignant marker for the immediate future as a player succession problem, even if the remaining players have closed ranks to claim the censure was a ‘good thing’.
Australian media comment has stuck at an obvious level: there was poor team ‘culture’, the ‘line in the sand’ has been drawn, players are ‘on notice’, cliches at fifty paces. There is talk of Australian cricket in ‘crisis’, but that crisis is regarded as of the moment rather than a structural problem, even if there is now increased anxiety about the imminent Ashes tour. As always, Gideon Haigh is more adventurous, identifying Shane Watson as more individualist than team man, a line echoed by Cricket Australia’s high performance manager Pat Howard, who was immediately rebutted by Watson himself. The deeper texture to all this has not yet been traced satisfactorily, but that texture goes straight to the management role. If ‘homework’ following Hyderabad was so important, for example, why did neither Mickey Arthur nor Michael Clarke follow up with the laggards, especially vice-captain Watson?
The immediate answer is that Clarke and Watson are not ‘close’. While journalists suggest there is no more to it than that, a captain and vice-captain not being ‘close’ in an Australian team is unusual, and simply underlines the point about Watson being a loner who has advanced his own interests against those of teammates like Ed Cowan, whose opening position Watson campaigned for openly. It also raises the question why he was made vice-captain in the first place. The management issue takes on another dimension with Khawaja—along with Moises Henriques, the poster boy for multicultural Australia’s arrival in cricket, an arrival soon to be boosted further by Ashton Agar and Gurinder Singh Sandhu. Khawaja has been in and out of the Australian team an extraordinary number of times in his short career, and that is the source of serious personnel development issues. There was selectorial concern over his fielding (for which read lack of commitment), his inability to turn over the batting strike (selfish rather than team-oriented) and with his low strike rate (ditto). Even his manager reckons Khawaja deserved the fate handed out by Mickey and Michael because his charge, like most young cricketers, was not committed. That manager is about to be dumped, which might suggest Khawaja has poor listening skills.
Yet, somehow, this talented young player with a complex social profile combined stellar performances while gaining a commercial pilot’s licence and studying for an aviation degree. That does not sound like someone with an attitude problem. Yes, ability to handle a workload is not necessarily the same as being ‘committed’ to a team, and he reportedly left New South Wales for Queensland because of tension with the Blues captain and coach. Coach and team members reportedly love him in Brisbane, which returns the focus to management practice and style. Unfortunately, some newer players serve themselves poorly. Phil Hughes suggested through his manager that Cricket Australia (CA) was responsible for his poor batting form by ignoring his requests for additional training support. That is, a professional cricketer blames others for his failure as a batsman. Whatever you think of Ian Chappell, Alan Border or Steve Waugh, say, they would never have made such a claim.
There is a generational as well as a player transition here, clearly, though Watson at 31 is a different case from Khawaja and Pattinson. There is a serious and obvious possibility that Cricket Australia’s vaunted administrative and management overhaul via the Don Argus review has not produced the magic answer on how to maintain the crucial team ‘culture’. Cricket Australia leadership is not handling some of these players well. Reports that the sackings stemmed from an accumulation of indiscretions reinforces this view. In short, the management must take some blame here, as demonstrated in the ongoing management/team tension over selection policies and the controversial rotation scheme. Australian cricket now has so many management layers that at least someone should have been looking after Khawaja and others, so that they did their homework and developed as required. If this missing management is not fixed, quickly, the Hyderabad hammering will likely to be repeated elsewhere, especially in England this summer.