Paul Lewis on sport

Paul Lewis is the Herald on Sunday's Sport Editor

Paul Lewis: Aussies run themselves out

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It is not just Michael Clarke's opponents who say he is aloof and arrogant. Photo / Getty Images
It is not just Michael Clarke's opponents who say he is aloof and arrogant. Photo / Getty Images

Cricket must be the world's worst sport for back-biting, politics and whinging. Just ask the Australian team.

Commentator par excellence John Arlott once said: "They call it a team game but it is in fact the loneliest game of all." He meant the loneliness of an individual called on to perform. Every one of the key actions in the game - batting, bowling and catching - is applied individually. Even a team en masse in the field are individuals when the ball goes in the air. Only one person can catch it.

Arlott's quote, born of the love of the game, still reveals the unlovely side of cricket. Because of this individualism, there has grown up, within teams down the ages, a political dimension unsurpassed in any other sport. That doesn't mean politics in the sense of a clever operator manipulating others. It means bitchy whinge-meistering.

We saw it when former New Zealand skipper Jeremy Coney had to communicate with star bowler Richard Hadlee via intermediaries because the two had fallen out and would not speak.

In 1995-96, Chris Cairns and Adam Parore left the 'mutiny' tour of the West Indies. To this day, it's not clear if hard-arse coach Glenn Turner was too much the disciplinarian or whether Cairns and Parore behaved like sulky movie stars. Depends who you talk to.

It's been, apparently, in any side containing Geoff Boycott. Or Kevin Pietersen, the England player who texted his native South Africans with advice on the weaknesses of the England captain he didn't like, Andrew Strauss.

It seeps through all levels of cricket. I can remember playing lower-level stuff in England when our star all-rounder celebrated after a satisfying victory. "Everyone played a part," he boomed to the dressing room, "except him ...". He pointed to me. He was quite right. I'd gone out early and hadn't taken a wicket or a catch. If I'd propped up a cardboard replica of myself and gone to the pub for a pint and a piece of rabbit pie, it wouldn't have made a difference.

But it was political, see. This bloke had an ego the size of Surrey and, even though he was a better all-round cricketer than me, he had seen my modest batting heroics as a threat and that was how he chose to express it; a very cricket moment. Just like Mike Hesson and the infamous Ross Taylor coup, it wasn't what he did so much as how he did it.

In cricket, everybody has an opinion and a position to protect.

England's tourists in New Zealand must be rubbing their hands together ahead of the much-anticipated back-to-back Ashes series. The Australians are revealing deep schisms in their team at the same time as the Indians are going through them like a dodgy prawn vindaloo.

What's stood out in the hubbub over four Australian players - including the vital Shane Watson - being stood down for the third test against India is the team's lack of unity. There are reports of a divided dressing room, some of the players behind huge-scoring captain Michael Clarke and some behind Watson, the key all-rounder and a game-turning player. Watson and Clarke deny that.

Most who saw what coach Mickey Arthur wanted the players to do for their "homework" (present three points they considered would help the team perform better) scoffed. Like former Australian cricketer Mark Waugh, who said: "I've never heard anything so stupid in all my life. It's not under-6s - this is test cricket."

Uh, yes, it is. Test cricket for which they get paid a great deal - about A$500,000 each. Professional cricket but there's not much professionalism being shown by a group of adults supposed to play as a team; capable, you'd think, of sorting out their differences for the good of the side.

Arthur, originally ridiculed for the HR and over-corporate nature of the assignment, then revealed a list of infringements by players - all redolent of a team of fading discipline; where players with lax attitude ruled the roost. He and Clarke are entirely justified in trying whatever they think will restore the team to winning ways.

Just like Hesson and NZ Cricket had a perfect right to appoint whoever they liked as captain; employing and executing a strategy that management and skipper agree on. You just might want to get your strategy and timing right.

There are questions over Clarke's man management. Like Taylor, he has led from the front with an enormous array of recent runs. But it is not just his opponents who say he is aloof and arrogant. Tellingly, even though Watson is vice-captain, he is not part of the team's leadership group, which maybe puts his non-delivered Powerpoint presentation in some context.

There have been other casualties in the court of Clarke. Simon Katich (with whom he had a famous physical fight), Brad Haddin and Mike Hussey all had Clarke's fingerprints on the throat of their international cricketing corpses.

Now Watson is in the frame, though he can wear some of the blame for his highly public thirst for an opener's slot; a bit of a no-no which does not take into account the feelings of the incumbents. Bitchiness again.

Another interesting element of all this is the corporate vs natural approach.

There are many who think coaches and high performance managers overdo corporate techniques and buzzwords.

Bowler Jeff Thomson was once asked what his technique was for delivering his comets at 150km/h and occasionally at 160km/h. A puzzled Thomson replied: "I just run in and go 'whang'."

The great golfer Seve Ballesteros, asked to describe his playing style, said: "I hit the ball, I hit the ball, I hit the ball, I hit the ball in the hole."

England's great all-rounder Sir Ian Botham once sniffed that cricket was full of theorists "who can ruin your game in no time".

Not everyone has the natural talent of that collection; most internationals are made, not born. But maybe Australia needs a return to simpler times, when iron-jawed men sorted out their differences over a beer and a series of grunts.

Otherwise, you'd have to say, with the Ashes fast approaching, it's a great time to be English.

- Herald on Sunday

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