By SB Tang
Note: this article was re-published on The Guardian Sport Network on 19 September 2013.
Sixteen days before the start of the Ashes, Cricket Australia sacked the coach of the Australian cricket team, Mickey Arthur. On the very same day, Cricket Australia announced that Darren Lehmann would take over as Australia’s coach with immediate effect. The objective behind that two-fold decision was straightforward and clear — to improve Australia’s performances and chances of winning back the Ashes. Now that the Ashes are done and dusted, it seems reasonable to ask: did that unprecedented decision actually achieve its objective?
At the time that the decision was made, it was widely reported that Arthur had committed the deadliest sin of modern professional sports coaching — he’d lost the dressing room. Lehmann, the good old-fashioned Australian Test cricketer — festively plump, uncreatively nick-named, beer-loving and cigarette-smoking — would win back the dressing room and imbue the young Australian team with the centuries-old lore, the hard-won wisdom and the old-school winning culture which made Australian cricket the envy of the world. Or so the theory went.
Thus far, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.
The Argus Report — or, to give it its full, formal name: Australian Team Performance Review: Summary Report (dated 19 August 2011) — is a bit like the United States’s Bill of Rights — it’s a document that everyone cites, but hardly anyone’s actually read. Thus, it should come as little surprise that both documents are frequently misunderstood and misquoted.
The Second Amendment of the US Bill of Rights is frequently quoted as: “The Right to Keep and Bear Arms”. But that’s not the entire amendment — it’s just an abbreviated version of the second half of it. The entire Second Amendment actually reads (emphasis added): “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” As a matter of common sense, anyone who can read English can see that the first half of the amendment qualifies, to at least some extent, the right clearly contained in the second half. Just don’t say that to the late Charlton Heston — or, it seems, the modern Supreme Court of the United States of America.
Similarly, the 40-page Argus Report is sometimes cited as if it were some sweeping, revolutionary document which proposes a root-and-branch overhaul of Australian cricket when, in truth, much of what it does is to merely codify and reiterate the traditional principles which have long underpinned the success of Australian cricket. That’s hardly surprising when one glances at the list of authors: one titan of corporate Australia (Don Argus), one successful career sports administrator (Malcolm Speed), and three former Australian cricket captains (Allan Border, Mark Taylor and Steve Waugh) who are about as hard and old school as they come.
Page 19 of the Argus Report contains two bullet points, in the section titled “Improve the selection function”, which encapsulates the traditional Australian approach to selection:
- It is critical that superior performance is rewarded at all levels. Players must earn their positions in the time-honoured way of making runs, taking wickets and showing that they are ready to play at the next level
- At the same time, potential cannot be overlooked: there must be room for some intuition in selections
The first bullet point, embodying the ancient Australian philosophy of Sheffield Shield empiricism, is straightforward to apply in practice — just look at the Shield stats. An early model cylon could do that. The principle embodied in the second bullet point — the selectors’ reserve right to make what are commonly described as “judgement calls” — is not so straightforward to apply, involving intuition rather than empiricism, subjectivity instead of objectivity. That’s where the Australian selector earns his keep. Lehmann’s debut Test series as Australia’s coach and an Australian selector was chock full of judgement calls made predominantly by himself and Rod Marsh, the selector on duty.
The dawn of Lehmann’s Test reign was marked by the jaw-dropping decision to dump the 25-year-old off-spinner Nathan Lyon from the XI for the opening Ashes Test at Trent Bridge. In his previous Test match in Delhi, Lyon, playing in just his third Test on Indian soil, had recorded match figures of 9/165. Even the great Shane Warne, in nine Test matches in India spread across three tours spanning over six years, never took more than six wickets in a Test match on Indian soil. Lyon’s performance in Delhi was hardly an aberration. His career Test record after that match read: 77 wickets in 23 Tests at an average of 34.09. For an Australian finger spinner in the modern era, that’s very good — the last Australian finger spinner to play at least 23 Tests, Tim May, had only taken 75 wickets at 33.54 by that stage of his career. Mike Hussey must reckon that Lyon’s pretty good too: when Hussey retired from Test cricket in January 2013, he passed on the custodianship of the Australian team song to Lyon, an honour traditionally reserved for those who can be certain of selection in the team.
Since landing in the British Isles with the Australia A team in June for a pre-Ashes warm-up tour, Lyon had taken 12 first-class wickets in three matches at an average of 25 in the same spin-unfriendly conditions in which England’s then second-choice Test spinner, Monty Panesar, only managed eight first-class wickets at an average of 39.38 in the same number of first-class matches over approximately the same period.
None of that was enough to save Lyon from the axe for the Trent Bridge Test. Lyon’s replacement was a 19-year-old left-arm orthodox spinner named Ashton Agar. He’d played just 11 first-class matches for a return of 32 wickets at an average of 30.53. This was the very definition of a selection based on “intuition” and “potential”. Still, on the face of it, this judgement call was so bold, so lacking in apparent reason that Cricket Australia took the unprecedented step of releasing a press statement to explain the basis for the selectors’ intuition: “The main reason for the selection is taking the ball away from all their right-handers and we think this is a really important weapon in particular for this Test match on that particular wicket.” That basis would be coherent — but for the fact that six of Lyon’s nine wickets in Delhi were right-handed specialist batsmen: Cheteshwar Pujara, Virat Kohli (twice), Sachin Tendulkar (twice) and Ajinkya Rahane, all of whom can reasonably be regarded as equal, if not better, players of spin than the Anglo-South-African contingent of Jonathan Trott, Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow, Ian Bell and Kevin Pietersen.
Agar did ok in this summer’s first two Ashes Test. And no, I’m not substantially factoring in his outstanding performances with the bat — he was picked as the sole specialist spinner, therefore, he must be evaluated primarily on the basis of his performances with the ball. Agar bowled with decent control and good flight but insufficient spin (especially side-spin) to consistently threaten to take wickets on modern Test pitches. After the first two Tests, he’d taken two wickets at 124 apiece.
The question then on every Australian cricket supporter’s mind was: would Nathan Lyon do a better job as the team’s sole specialist spinner?
We soon got the answer to that question as, in a portent of things to come, the Australian selectors executed a U-turn as swiftly as a career politician, restoring Lyon to the Test XI at Agar’s expense for the third Test at Old Trafford. That, in itself, was an odd decision. If the selectors were so confident in their intuition that young Agar was ready for Test cricket that they were prepared to drop Australia’s best-performed Test spinner in the post-Warne era to make room for him, then tradition, if not reason, suggests that they should have backed their judgement by persisting with Agar, just like Australian selectors past stuck with young bucks like Shane Warne and Steve Waugh all through the difficult early stages of their Test careers.
As it turned out, the answer to the question was what most Australian cricket supporters expected it to be: yes, Lyon would do a better job as the team’s sole specialist spinner, as he claimed nine English wickets at 33.66 in the last three Tests, the highlight being a gutsy first innings, first day haul of 4/42 at Chester-le-Street, including the wickets of Trott, Pietersen, Bell and Bairstow, which put Australia in pole position to win the fourth Test after having dominated the third Test.
Thus, the first big judgement call of the Lehmann era must be adjudged to be an unqualified failure — the confidence of both Australia’s number one Test spinner and one of Australia’s most promising young spin-bowling all-rounders was dented, and although Lyon, to his immense credit, fought back to perform creditably in the final three Tests, no-one could suggest that Lyon is a better bowler now than he was before the start of the Ashes. Indeed, psychologically, Lyon must be now more uncertain than ever of his place in the team — if nine wickets in a Test match doesn’t secure a spinner’s selection for the next Test, then what will?
At around the same the time that the first big judgement call of the Lehmann era was being reversed, the second one was being made — the retention of Usman Khawaja, at the expense of Phil Hughes, for the third Test. When that decision was made, Hughes had scored 494 first-class runs on tour at an average of 54.89 with five fifties and a Test top score of 81 not out. By contrast, Khawaja had only scored 303 first-class runs on tour at an average of 30.30 with three fifties and a Test top score of 54. At that point in the Ashes series, Hughes had made the highest score of any specialist Australian batsman, which also happened to be the only knock by a specialist Australian batsman which altered the course of a Test match in Australia’s favour, whereas Khawaja’s top score of 54 at Lord’s was not only substantially lower in quantum than Hughes’s, but, more importantly, did absolutely nothing to change the course of the Test match in which it was scored.
So much for “reward[ing]” “superior performance” and “[p]layers … earn[ing] their position in the time-honoured way of making runs”. The retention of Khawaja at Hughes’s expense was about as intuitive and unempirical as selection decisions come. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt that the well-established Australian selectors’ prerogative to make subjective judgement calls empowered Lehmann and his fellow selectors to make that decision. But, because that power is a reserve power which, when invoked, deviates from the default empirical Australian approach to selection, it should only be used in exceptional cases, any use of it should be closely evaluated, and selectors who exercise such a reserve power unsuccessfully should be held strictly accountable for their actions. As that hoary old saying goes: live by the sword, die by the sword.
Lehmann must shoulder a substantial, if not the greater, part of the responsibility for the Khawaja decision. Khawaja, after all, is one of Lehmann’s anointed disciples at state level.
In the Australian winter of 2012, the then 25-year-old Khawaja’s career was at a crossroads. After being dumped from the Australian Test XI in December 2011, Khawaja had failed to score a single first-class half-century in the rest of the Australian season and his state, New South Wales, finished second-last on the Sheffield Shield table with just one win. It was to Lehmann that Khawaja turned to revive his career, making the decision to move 924 kilometres from Sydney to Brisbane so that he could take his cricket to the “next level”. Khawaja made it clear that the opportunity to work with Lehmann was a significant factor in his decision to move: “To be under Darren Lehmann is a real plus. … I like the way he thinks about cricket, I like the way he goes about being a coach. He can be hard when he wants to and quite relaxed when he wants to.”
Lehmann was no less effusive about Khawaja, praising his decision to move as “a mature cricket decision, based around joining a successful group” and declaring “I’m very excited about him coming into our culture, developing his skills and growing as a player.” When Khawaja began the following Shield season in good form and Ricky Ponting’s retirement opened up a spot in the Test team, Lehmann was quick to publicly put his new charge’s name forth, opining “I think he’s in the best six in the country. … I think if they gave him a chance and let him have a good run at it he’d be fine”. After Khawaja was called into the Australian squad as an injury standby for the final Test of the home summer in January 2013, Lehmann continued essaying his theme of Khawaja getting a “good run” in the Test XI, telling ESPNCricinfo: “If he gets a good run at it, that’s what you want. If he can get that run and he doesn’t have that fear of getting dropped straight away, he’ll do well.”
Less than six months later Lehmann was the Australian coach and one of only two Australian selectors actually on tour during an Ashes campaign in England. He duly gave Khawaja a run in the Test XI — but he hardly gave Khawaja a good run, dropping him after just three consecutive Tests in which he averaged 19. It’s worth recalling that Matthew Hayden took seven consecutive Tests before he established himself in the Test XI with a 119 in Mumbai (before that innings, Hayden averaged just 24.36 in Test cricket) and the man who did more than any other to ensure that Hayden finally, at the age of 28, received that fair go, Steve Waugh, himself took 27 consecutive Tests to nail down a spot in the Test XI with a 177 not out at Headingley in 1989 (before that innings, Waugh averaged just 30.52 in Test cricket).
The decision to pick a not-exactly-in-form Khawaja at number three then dump him three Tests later reaches the realms of truly Kafkaesque absurdity when one considers that the extension of Khawaja’s run from one Test to two required the dumping of Phil Hughes — Australia’s top first-class run scorer on tour and by far Australia’s best-performed young Shield batsman over the past five years — and that Khawaja was replaced not by a specialist batsman, but by a fifth seam bowler (the seam-bowling-all-rounder James Faulkner) on a slow Oval pitch renowned for taking spin.
The 23-year-old Faulkner is a hardworker, a competitor and a ready-made Test player as a seam-bowling all-rounder batting at eight. But, with a first-class batting average in the high 20s, he’s no top six Test batsman, especially not in a team whose batting has been its Achilles heel in recent years.
His selection for the Oval Test could certainly be rationalised as a just reward for a good tourist at the end of a long tour. But such an individual player reward rationale would be anathema to the very raison d’être of the Australian cricket team — you know the one you heard Michael Clarke articulating at every opportunity this summer: it’s about winning Test matches. It’s difficult see how picking a fifth seam bowler at the expense of a specialist batsman, in a team whose weakness is its batting, could possibly improve the team’s chances of winning a Test match played on a slow, spinning pitch.
Thus, the second big judgement call of the Lehmann era must be adjudged to be an unqualified failure — the confidence of not one but two young batsmen was shredded and the team’s thorny problem of finding a long-term number three has been exacerbated rather than solved (Shane Watson, an all-rounder, should not be batting at three long-term because Australia needs him to bowl).
In the May issue of The Cricketer, Malcolm Knox, the Australian “novelist-cum-cricket-writer extraordinaire” in the words of Gideon Haigh, wrote a typically perceptive Ashes preview article in which he described Hughes and Lyon as “[t]he two players who embody Australia’s position … The selectors have backed them, more or less, as the young batsman and bowler to fill the holes.”
But since Knox’s article was published, the Australian selectors have italicised the “more or less” for emphasis, doing anything but back Lyon and Hughes. Indeed, in the past six months, it seems that the solution to every ill facing the Australian cricket team is: drop Lyon and/or Hughes. The results speak for themselves.
The lack of faith in Lyon and Hughes is mystifying for they are precisely the kind of young blokes that Australian cricket has, historically, always placed its faith in — born-and-raised in obscure country towns with populations of five digits or less; hardworking, self-made and technically heterodox; fearless, bursting onto the Test stage at a young age (Lyon took 5/34 in Galle on debut; Hughes scored back-to-back hundreds in Durban in his second Test); and constitutionally averse to a clean shave.
In the post-2007 era of Australian cricketing decline, a complaint frequently aired by some sections of the Australian public unfamiliar with the concept of Australia losing Test matches is that the new generation of Australian cricketers are somehow not old school enough, a perception perhaps best encapsulated by the sight of Mitchell Johnson modelling men’s underwear. But the truth is that the current generation of young Australian cricketers are no less humble of origin — Peter Siddle is a champion woodchopper from country Victoria, James Pattinson comes from a family of roof tilers, Hughes is the son of a banana farmer, Lyon was a groundsman, and Khawaja is the son of migrants from Pakistan — and hardworking than their forebears; they just need to be backed by the selectors to the same degree that their forebears were.
Relax. A two-syllable word which forms the title of the “wonderful, ’80s classic” song by Frankie Goes to Hollywood used to brainwash male supermodels; a few, now barely remembered, months ago, it was also the buzzword of Lehmann’s nascent coaching reign.
Lehmann’s predecessor, Arthur, was supposedly the coach who made the players too tense, the stern disciplinarian who, along with captain Michael Clarke and team manager Gavin Dovey, made the decision to suspend four Australian players from a Test match in India for failing to complete a team task set by Arthur. According to this narrative, Lehmann was the liberator who’d amble into the dressing room and “relax” the boys. This view was well-summed up by Ricky Ponting who wrote in his column in the Daily Mail that Lehmann “will bring calmness to the group, make sure they try to have fun and enjoy the experience of playing for Australia”, “instil confidence into the young guys in the team who seem to be lacking it at the moment”, and make someone like Phil Hughes “feel confident and relaxed.”
By the lead-up to the final Test at the Oval, with the Ashes already lost, Lehmann was making public statements about team selection like “yep, there is nothing wrong with that” when asked by the media whether players could be playing for their careers. Lehmann made that statement at a time when 26-year-old Khawaja was in the midst of his first run in the Test XI in 19 months, 24-year-old Steve Smith was in the midst of his first run in the Test XI in over two years, and 24-year-old Hughes was trying to psychologically cope with having been dumped from the Test XI when he was still the highest first-class run scorer on tour. Steve Waugh certainly wasn’t a fan of Lehmann’s public remark, telling Fairfax: “there was no need to actually say it out in the public arena — it just puts more pressure on the players.”
A team atmosphere where cricketers’ careers are on the line after one or even three bad Tests sounds about as relaxed as the personal attitude of Australia’s new Prime Minister to homosexuality — “I’d probably … feel a bit threatened”.
To walk or not to walk?
In England, that’s a moral question. In Australia, it isn’t.
The Australian cultural convention is that every individual batsman has the right to choose — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a batsman standing and accepting an umpire’s decision, nor is there anything wrong with walking. But you ought to be consistent — you’re either a walker like Adam Gilchrist, or a non-walker like Steve Waugh. You can’t have your cake and eat it too by walking when it’s convenient for you to do so (for example, when the umpire is clearly going to give you out anyway) and not walking when it’s convenient for you to do so (for example, when it’s a close call).
Broadly speaking, Australians aren’t walkers. To be frank, that was one of the bedrocks on which the two great Australian teams of the modern age were built.
As Gideon Haigh explained, one of the core on-field values that Ian Chappell preached and practised was: “Don’t walk, even on edging a catch, but accept the umpire’s decision.” It’s one of the few things that Chappell and Steve Waugh wholeheartedly agree on — Waugh never walked and in his 2005 autobiography he even expressed his admiration for his erstwhile colleague Dean Jones as “the best non-walker I’ve ever seen because his reaction never gave any inkling as to his guilt. He just scratched centre, adjusted his pads and carried on in a ‘business as usual fashion’.”
Jones himself went so far as to elucidate, in Dean Jones: One-Day Magic (1991), the art of how not to walk when one gets a close LB shout:
When that happens you can do two things — turn your back on the umpire and give the impression that it’s just a frivolous appeal, or pretend to take a run, again showing you are unconcerned about the appeal. I never shuffle away from the stumps because that is often an admission of guilt.
Cast your mind back to Hobart in November 1999. It’s the first year of Steve Waugh’s captaincy of the Australian Test team. At close of play on the fourth day the Test against Pakistan, Australia are 5/188 chasing 369 for victory against a Pakistan attack featuring Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Shoaib Akhtar and Saqlain Mushtaq. Justin Langer is 52 not out and Adam Gilchrist, playing in just his second Test, is 45 not out. The next morning, Langer, on 76, flashes at a wide ball from Akram. There is an audible nick as the ball passes Langer’s bat, which is nowhere near his body. The umpire Peter Parker gives it not out. Snicko shows a clear nick. Langer goes onto score 127, Gilchrist finishes unbeaten on 149, and Australia win the Test easily with four wickets to spare. At the time, Langer, with his tongue somewhere in the vicinity of his check, explained that the clicking noise was due to his bat handle creaking, but, in 2010, he admitted: “I absolutely smashed it”.
That miraculous win at Bellerive was Australia’s third consecutive Test match victory. They went on to win 16 Test matches in a row, setting a new world record which still stands today. That feat, which defined an era and cowed the rest of the cricketing world into submission, would never have been accomplished had Langer walked after smashing it.
Waugh’s successor as Australia’s captain and best batsman, Ricky Ponting, was one of the greatest non-walkers in Australian history. Heck, in the Lord’s Ashes Test of 2009, Ponting went so far as to order a 20-year-old Phil Hughes to stand his ground when he started to walk after accepting Strauss’s word that he’d taken a low catch at first slip cleanly.
Historically, Australian cricket culture can quite fairly be criticised for many things, but hypocrisy isn’t one of them. Australian cricket teams have always done what they say they’ll do — play to win. Australian cricketers exercise their individual right to choose whether to walk, and fully respect the opposition’s right to do likewise.
Thus, Stuart Broad’s decision to stand his ground after whacking the ball to first slip late on the third day of the first Test at Trent Bridge, was brutishly criticised by English moralisers in their media and their general public — an English friend of mine who went to Harrow told me: “that was f**king cheating; as a public schoolboy who walks, I can say that” — but stoutly defended by the Australian captain Michael Clarke: “Well, I think it’s up to him, there’s no doubt about it. Look, I’ve always been a believer in the umpires are paid to make decisions. That’s why they have a job. … I certainly don’t think any less of Stuart, that’s for sure.”
This Australian team may have lost the Ashes 3-0, but they and their captain upheld the values which made Australian cricket great — they fought hard; they accepted the umpires’ decision, never whingeing even when it was blatantly incorrect; and, right until the very end, they kept going for the win, even when that meant risking the humiliation of losing (yet again).
What did their coach do?
Well, leading into the final Test, with Australia already down 3-0, Lehmann accused Broad of “blatant cheating” on Australian commercial radio. Yes, you heard that correctly — an Australian who played his entire career on Australian teams whose members routinely exercised their individual right to not walk criticised a young Englishman for doing precisely the same thing. I believe there’s a word for that: hypocrisy.
Lehmann’s time would be better spent investigating and explaining how Australia managed to burn their two umpire decision reviews — given to them for the purpose of correcting blatant umpiring errors — by the time Aleem Dar incorrectly gave Broad not out. The wastage of the second of those reviews was particularly self-evident — Pattinson’s delivery to Bairstow was full, swinging in sharply, only struck the batsman in line with leg, and was easily sliding down leg — and highlighted the absence of a basic, clearly defined, rational system for utilising the decision review system in the Australian team: an astonishing omission for which the team’s well-paid, full-time professional coach ought to shoulder a substantial part of the responsibility.
To return to the question posed at the very beginning of this article: did Lehmann’s appointment as coach improve Australia’s performances and chances of winning back the Ashes?
Australia lost the Ashes 3-0. That was bad. But the result wasn’t the worst aspect of Lehmann’s debut series as coach. The selection policies were. By the end of the series, the confidence of both Australia’s best-performed spinner in the post-Warne era and Australia’s best-performed young batsman since 2007 had been severely undermined, Lehmann’s own batting disciple had been discarded like an orange peel after just three Tests, and Australia was playing five seamers on a slow, turning Test track.
It’s difficult to conceive a scenario in which Arthur could have done any worse than Lehmann did, therefore, the answer to the question posed at the outset of this article must surely be “no”.
Australia’s selection policies exhibited all the logic of a practising creation scientist, the far-sightedness of a card-carrying member of the Flat Earth Society, and the patience of the average One Direction fan. The level of reason apparent in Australia’s recent selection policies is perhaps best surmised in a well-received speech by a US Presidential candidate on The Simpsons: “we must move forward, not backward, upward not forward, and always twirling, twirling, twirling towards freedom.”
Why then, has there been no sign that Lehmann will be held accountable for his and the team’s performances in the same fashion that his young players have been?