The Eternal Dilemma

Posted on January 13, 2015

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By SB Tang

Note: an edited version of this article appeared in The Guardian Sport Network.

In Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the Devil, disguised as a foreign professor, and his retinue visit Soviet-era Moscow. During the course of their visit, the Devil’s interpreter, Koroviev, explains to a Muscovite that even in the strictly-regulated housing market of Soviet Moscow it was perfectly feasible for an ordinary citizen with no special powers whatsoever to obtain for himself one of the most spacious apartments in the city via the simple process of barter.

The point that Koroviev was making is that certain basic aspects of human nature cannot be suppressed by man-made laws for long, even when those laws are being made and enforced by a seemingly all-powerful totalitarian regime. In his “story of the ingenious property tycoon”, the particular aspect of human nature in question was a universal one — man’s desire to better his lot in life via whatever economic mechanisms are available to him.

There are, however, certain aspects of human nature that are particularly prevalent in the sub-species of man that is the focus of our nation’s attention during the summer months. The Australian cricketer is a competitive, determined, strong-willed and opinionated creature. Those traits can no more be suppressed by rules and regulations than man’s desire to better his lot in life, which is why the history of Australian cricket — from the 1912 Overture to Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket to the narrowly averted 1997 players’ strike — has been regularly punctuated by substantive disagreements between Australian cricketers and the administrators and/or selectors who govern and select them.

Naturally then, the aforementioned character traits can typically be seen in the cricketer who has reached the apex of his profession — the Australian cricket captain. Like any Australian cricketer, he has strong opinions about the merits of other cricketers and, as the man entrusted to lead the Australian team, he, understandably, wants to influence the selection and composition of that team. The exact nature and scope of his power to do so has long been a problem for Australian cricket. It remains unresolved to this day.

When Allan Border reluctantly became Australian captain in late November 1984, the formal selectorial powers that came with the job were limited. The captain was not formally a member of the selection panel that chose the Australian XI for home Test matches and the Australian touring parties for overseas tours. However, once those overseas tours got underway, the captain, along with his vice-captain and another senior player, became one of the three touring selectors responsible for picking the Australian XI for all matches on tour.

Saliently, the informal selectorial powers of a captain as universally respected and important to the team as Border were substantial. Generally speaking, Border got the home Test XIs and touring parties that he wanted even though, formally, he had no power to select those teams — because the selectors listened to and respected his opinions and picked teams that were consistent with his opinions.

On the rare occasions when the selectors dared to choose teams that diverged from Border’s fiercely held opinions, he, to put it politely, let them know about it. In January 1992, the Australian selectors dropped Border’s trusted deputy, the 33-year-old Western Australian opener Geoff Marsh, following a protracted nine-Test form slump in which he’d averaged 25.68. The fact that the last four of those Tests were against India — a side that had never won a Test series in Australia — in Australia only made the selectors’ already empirically justified decision all the more reasonable.

But Border was having none of it. The selectors’ decision to drop Marsh was announced before the start of play on the final day of the fourth Test against India at the Adelaide Oval in late January 1992. Border’s response was recorded by a young cricket writer by the name of Gideon Haigh: “He refused to take the field for the first 20 minutes while he harangued chairman of selectors Laurie Sawle on the telephone. Nor did he accompany the team to Perth at the end of the day, travelling 24 hours later when some of his anger had subsided.” Then Australian selector John Benaud later described Border’s telephone conversation with Sawle as nothing short of a “tongue-lash[ing]”.

The Marsh incident raised an important question that Australian cricket has failed to answer with any degree of certainty in the ensuing years — should the captain be a selector?

The arguments against the captain being a selector were well-articulated by Steve Waugh who, as captain, successfully pushed for the office to be stripped of what little formal selectorial power it had — namely, the formal power as one of three touring selectors to pick the Australian XI for all matches on tour — after he and his vice-captain, Adam Gilchrist, were put in the awkward position of having to axe their out-of-form friend and teammate, Michael Slater, from the Test XI during the 2001 Ashes tour. It’s hard to disagree with Waugh’s reasoning:

one selection committee making all the decisions, home and away, would create greater stability and confidence throughout the squad. Having a player as a selector could potentially divide the team, and with the selectors now being paid they should also be accountable. It was a big ask for, say, me and Gilly to tell a teammate he’d been dropped and that his income was consequently going to be cut by 75 per cent. The game was now a business, and critical decisions such as selections needed to be based totally on clear thinking and made by those who were a step back from the coalface.

John Benaud reached the same conclusion as Waugh — that “[t]here needs to be a ‘separation of powers’” and raised an additional argument against the captain being a selector: “they can be blindly patriotic to their teammates.” Moreover, players may be reluctant to openly disclose their problems to their captain if he is a selector for fear that they may be dropped on the basis of having those problems.

By contrast, Waugh’s successor as captain, Ricky Ponting, sought full selectorial powers for the office. Ponting’s reasoning, expressed to Don Argus in 2011, was no less logical than Waugh’s — the captain is “the only person” who is ultimately “accountable” for the performance of the Australian cricket team, therefore, he must be a selector so that “he can … be truly accountable for what happens in his team.” As Ponting went on to explain in his autobiography:

This [proposed change] was … about getting the lines of communication right. How could I properly and honestly tell players why there were in or out if I wasn’t part of the selection process and privy to the selectors’ thinking? If the selectors had concerns about how a player was going, how could I, as captain, act on those concerns if I didn’t know about them?

Ponting’s suggestion was adopted in the “summary report” of the panel chaired by Argus, which had been commissioned by the Cricket Australia board to “review” the Australian cricket team’s “performance” in the wake of the crushing 3-1 home Ashes defeat to England in 2010–11 and “make recommendations to the CA Board that will position the Australian Cricket Team to return to leadership in all three formats of international cricket”. Amongst other things, The Argus Report, as the document came to be known, recommended that the National Selection Panel be “[r]estructure[d] … to include the Head Coach and Captain” alongside a “full-time” Chairman of Selectors plus two “independent, part-time selectors”, which made for a total of five members in the newly restructured NSP.

Ponting never got the opportunity to exercise the selectorial power that he’d campaigned so vigorously for the captain to have. By the time that The Argus Report was released on 19 August 2011, Ponting had relinquished the captaincy to Michael Clarke. Thus, although he never asked for it, Clarke became the first Australian cricket captain in the modern era to possess the formal power of a full-fledged selector.

Clarke exercised that power responsibly. Just four months after being allocated the power, Clarke did what the great Border could not bring himself to do — he dropped a mate who wasn’t scoring enough runs. By mid-December 2011, Clarke’s close friend and teammate for club, state and country, the late, great Phillip Hughes, had played 10 consecutive Tests, in his first real extended run in the Test XI, for a return of 457 runs at an average of 24.05. Hughes deserved to get dropped, especially since Ed Cowan was scoring hundreds at will for Tasmania, so Clarke dropped him. It was the right decision for both the team — which received the benefit of an in-form Cowan — and Hughes himself, who was finally able to take an extended time-out to successfully tweak his technique and win his spot back. Of the three occasions on which Hughes was dropped during his Test career, this — the one occasion on which his friend and captain Clarke was a party to the decision — was the one and only occasion on which it was empirically justified. That tells you just about everything you need to know about both men’s commitment to the team cause.

Over the next 16 months, Clarke successfully performed his dual role as captain and selector, leading Australia to three comfortable Test series victories — against India and Sri Lanka in Australia, and the West Indies in the West Indies — and one narrow series defeat to the world number one ranked South Africans in Australia. However, following a 4-0 series defeat in India — the country that has been a graveyard for Australian teams for most of the past half-century — in March 2013, Clarke suggested to James Sutherland, the CEO of Cricket Australia, and Pat Howard, Cricket Australia’s team performance manager, that he “stand down” as a selector.

Although Clarke was far too diplomatic to say so explicitly, it seems likely that his decision was at least partially influenced by the difficulties that he and the team experienced when he, as a selector during the tour of India, was party to the decision to suspend four Australian players — then vice-captain Shane Watson, James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson and Usman Khawaja — for one Test for failing to complete a simple task — to communicate “three points … technically, mentally and team as to how” the team was going to get back into the series after going 2-0 down — set by then coach Mickey Arthur on time.

The ensuing imbroglio in which Watson publicly voiced his displeasure at the “very harsh” decision and appeared to suggest that he may quit Test cricket (“At this point in time … I’m sort of weighing up my future and what I want to do with my cricket in general”) because of it illustrated the existence of the very problems that Waugh had predicted would be caused by the mere fact of the captain being a selector — division and instability in the team.

Thus, Clarke’s decision to give up his selectorial powers was entirely understandable. And when, shortly thereafter, Australia reclaimed the Ashes by whitewashing England for just the third time in the Ashes’ 131-year history, his decision appeared to be the correct one. But subsequent events have complicated the picture.

At the very same time that Clarke relinquished his selectorial powers, Darren Lehmann was appointed coach of the Australian cricket team. The two events were causally independent, but the latter would prove to have substantial ramifications for the wisdom of Clarke’s decision.

The root cause of what would become a public disagreement between captain and coach was simple: Lehmann, courtesy of The Argus Report recommendation that the coach be a selector, is a selector; Clarke isn’t, nor is his stand-in and heir apparent, Steve Smith. That in itself is not necessarily a problem. In the past, captains who were not formally selectors, for example, Border and Waugh, still got the teams that they wanted for crucial series that Australia went on to win because the selectors generally listened to and respected their wishes.

However, unlike his low-key predecessors, Tim Nielsen, John Buchanan and Geoff Marsh, Lehmann has proven to be an assertive coach who has sought and bathed in the public limelight. On at least two occasions in the past six months, Lehmann has been party to a decision to send Clarke out on to the field without a player that the captain wanted and Clarke has publicly expressed his frustration at that.

Firstly, in late August, Clarke wanted Steve Smith in his one-day XI for a game against Zimbabwe in Zimbabwe. It was a no-brainer — the pitch was a raging turner and Smith is, along with Clarke, one of Australia’s only two world-class players of spin. Yet, for reasons known only to them, Lehmann and the other selectors chose to leave Smith out of Australia’s XI. The result was predictable: the Australian batsmen perished against spin, Australia lost an ODI to Zimbabwe for the first time in 31 years and Clarke, playing a lone hand as he’s often done in such conditions, injured his hamstring — an injury that is still plaguing him to this day — compiling a dogged, unbeaten 68.

Secondly, in late October, Clarke wanted Alex Doolan retained at number three for Australia’s must-win second Test against Pakistan in the UAE. Doolan had made a hundred in Australia’s tour game against Pakistan A and, up to that point, had only been given four Tests to make the number three berth his own. But the selectors dropped Doolan and employed Glenn Maxwell — a fine cricketer, but a middle-order batsman with limited top-order experience — as a makeshift three. The experiment failed. Australia lost the Test by 356 runs and fell to their first Test series defeat to Pakistan in two decades.

The contrast with Clarke’s illustrious forebears could not be starker — by and large, Border and Waugh got the teams that they wanted for big series, which Australia went on to win.

In late March 1993, the Australian selectors gathered in a room at the Sheraton Wentworth Hotel in Sydney to pick Australia’s 17-man party for the 1993 Ashes tour. The selectors respected Border’s decree that David Boon, who’d been used as an opener in Australia’s preceding eight Tests, would bat three and, as a result, the selectors decided to allocate the very last spot in the party to an uncapped, 23-year-old opening batsman from Wagga Wagga named Michael Slater. Australia went on to retain the Ashes 4-0 with Slater and Boon played starring roles.

In early 1999, the Australian selectors released their preliminary 20-man squad for the World Cup to be played in England later that year. Tom Moody’s name wasn’t on it. Waugh immediately rang Trevor Hohns, the then chairman of selectors, and pleaded for Moody to be included on the basis of his experience, style of play (perfectly suited to English conditions) and “fantastic team ethic and ability to build camaraderie”. Hohns listened to the then one-day captain. Moody was included in Australia’s final 15-man squad and played a crucial, underrated role, both on and off the field, in securing Australia’s first World Cup triumph in 12 years. When, early in the tournament, the lines of communication between Waugh — still new to the captaincy and lacking his predecessor Taylor’s gifts of group speak — and his troops became garbled, it was Moody who re-established them. And Moody’s quick-fire, unbeaten 15 coming in at seven in Australia’s famous, successful chase of 272 for victory in their final, must-win Super Six game against South Africa remains perhaps the most valuable 15-run-innings in Australia’s ODI history.

It should come as little surprise that Clarke publicly voiced his frustration at being handed sub-optimal XIs by the selectors. Any other response by an Australian cricket captain would be contrary to the very nature of the men who hold that office. What is surprising is that Lehmann publicly criticised Clarke — “I would rather our conversations [regarding selection] stay out of the media” — for doing what Australian captains have always done: honestly (and, sometimes, unsubtly) express their opinions.

There is a discomforting hypocrisy at play here. On the one hand, Lehmann appears to be saying that all selection matters should be kept private. On the other hand, Lehmann himself has publicly threatened players with the axe, most notably, before the fifth Ashes Test at the Oval in 2013 when he said “yep, there is nothing wrong with that” upon being asked whether players could be playing for their careers. So unreasonable were Lehmann’s comments that Steve Waugh quickly moved to admonish him for them: “There was no need to actually say it out in the public arena — it just puts more pressure on the players.”

So, according to Lehmann, selection matters should be kept private when the selectors commit a blatant error (for example, omitting Smith on a raging turner), but selection matters can be made public when a selector (that is, Lehmann) feels like threatening some players’ careers?

That self-evident hypocrisy is a symptom of the remarkable public image that Lehmann has carved out for himself as coach of the Australian team. Lehmann is quick to accept the plaudits for the team’s successes — it was Lehmann, not a player, who, shortly after Australia regained the Ashes last summer, appeared in a nation-wide TV commercial for team sponsor Bupa — but somewhat reluctant to publicly accept responsibility for mistakes such as the failure to pick Smith.

There is absolutely no reason to believe that Smith will be any less opinionated and strong-willed than Clarke when he eventually ascends to the captaincy on a full-time basis. When, at the beginning of the Australian summer, the 25-year-old Smith was surprisingly left out of the first ODI versus South Africa after having scored 101, 12 and 77 in his last three ODIs, he did not hesitate to voice his disappointment at the selectors’ decision, albeit in that polite, wonderfully earnest Leave It to Beaver manner of his that has made him more popular than ice-cream this summer.

In just his second Test as a young stand-in captain, Smith ignored pressure from pundits and ex-players alike to declare Australia’s second innings of the Boxing Day Test closed before the start of play on day five or, at the very least, early in the morning session on day five, in order to push for victory. Australia’s lead at the close of day four was already 326 and no-one had ever successfully chased more than 332 in the final innings of a Test at the MCG. But Smith judged — correctly, as it turned out — that the hard, true MCG pitch had barely deteriorated at all and remained a freeway that any Test batsman would be happy to drive on, particularly a talented, in-form Indian batting line-up that had already nearly chased down 364 for victory on a final day Adelaide pitch that had deteriorated considerably more than the MCG pitch had.

Thus, Smith delayed his declaration until just before lunch, by which time Australia’s lead in the third Test had swelled to 383 and the overs remaining to India had contracted from 96 to 70. With Australia already holding a 2-0 series lead in the four Test series, Smith left just enough overs to tempt India without giving them a real prospect of victory. Subsequent events proved that Smith’s decision was a wise one — Virat Kohli and Ajinkya Rahane were untroubled in their 85-run fourth wicket partnership (scored at a brisk clip of 3.26 runs per over) that steered India to the strong position of 3/104 after just 34 overs, which suggested that the chase that India would have been presented with if Smith had bowed to popular pressure to declare overnight or early on day five —332 in 96 overs — would have been well within their reach.

*****

As the veteran Australian cricket writer Mark Ray put it: “In Australian cricket, the captain not the coach drives the ship.” The office of Australian cricket captain predates the Australian nation itself; the office of Australian cricket coach doesn’t even predate the Australian cinematic release of Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.

However, since Lehmann took office in 2013, the power and media profile of the coach has expanded to an uncomfortable and unprecedented degree. The current imbalance between the powers of the captain and the coach should be redressed by restoring the captain’s informal selectorial power to the same level as that enjoyed by Border and Waugh. As John Benaud, a member of the Laurie Sawle-led selection panel that guided Australia from the mid-80s doldrums back to the summit of world cricket in the mid-90s, put it: “the best way to go” is for the selectors to “[c]onsult[] with the [non-selector] captain, before and after [selection]”.

Although the age of Ian Chappell’s aphorism that the best coach is the one that takes you to and from the ground has passed, it must be remembered that, at the end of the day, it is still the players and their captain, not the coach, who win Test matches for Australia.

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