England and Australia both took ruthless decisions yesterday in their quest for the Ashes. The home side dropped an opening batsman in Nick Compton, the tourists sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur. With 15 days to go before the series starts at Trent Bridge it was irrefutable evidence that both countries will do what they think it takes.
There is always a phoney war leading up to the most resonant contest in sport but it does not usually claim such significant casualties so quickly. Australia struck first early in the day by announcing that Arthur, coach for the last 18 months, was being removed to be replaced by the former Test batsman Darren Lehmann.
Hours later, England jettisoned Compton and promoted Joe Root as Alastair Cook’s partner at the top of the order. Although the squad announced was for the warm-up match against Essex next week, not the first Test, there is no way back for Compton. Neither decision was entirely predictable but, once they had been taken and digested, they seemed to have assumed an air of inevitability linked with desperation.
Australia, already reeling from a series of incidents which indicated an ill-disciplined dressing room in turmoil, took the view that the buck had to stop with Arthur, who was appointed only after a wide-ranging review into the state of Australian cricket.
James Sutherland, Cricket Australia’s chief executive, who was instrumental in orchestrating Arthur’s fate, said: “The timing is far from ideal but we didn’t feel we could sit back and hope matters would change without addressing issues critical to a high-performing team culture.
“It obviously isn’t the type of change we want to make three weeks out from the Ashes commencing but we believe a change is needed. The coach is not solely responsible for that. But we didn’t want to get to a stage in this Ashes series where we felt we could have done something about it.”
There seemed to be little sympathy for the affable Arthur beyond the team. In some quarters, he was never fully accepted as Australia’s coach simply because he was a South African. Lehmann could hardly be more Australian in his approach, a genial fellow and highly accomplished performer.
He brings some baggage of his own. Despite his undoubted rich talent and ability to play destructive innings he was never a player who could be accused of leaving his finest work in the gym. In early 2003 he ran foul of the authorities when during a one-day international against Sri Lanka he described an opponent as “a black c***”.
Jason Gillespie, the Yorkshire coach and close friend of Lehmann, said: “It is a fantastic decision. I admit I didn’t think Cricket Australia would be bold enough to make this call but I’m pleased they did. There is absolutely no question that Australia are now in a better position to win the Ashes.”
At a press conference in Bristol, where the decision was formally delivered, Michael Clarke, Australia’s captain, said everyone in the squad was shocked when they heard of the sacking. “This is a decision made by CA, it has had nothing to do with the players or with me personally,” he said. “CA have made this call for us as a playing group and now it is important we look forward to what we have ahead of us and have success on this tour.”
Arthur’s goose was probably cooked after the Champions Trophy, in which Australia’s turmoil was obvious. They lost all three matches and had to discipline their opening batsman David Warner after he punched Root in the face in a Birmingham bar in the small hours of a Sunday.
Sutherland said there had been concerns about the team for some time and it was not only about the Warner issue. But he said he would not be considering his own position.
Arthur, beleaguered since he dropped four players from a Test match in India earlier this year for failing to fill in a team questionnaire, was philosophical about it. “The players needed real structure,” he said. “They were a group that was going in the wrong direction but not swimming in synchronisation. We set down some real hard perimeters and standards in India. The players bought into them and they seemed to be living by them until we had the one incident in the Champions Trophy.”
England made no mention of Compton’s absence when the squad – in which the pace bowler Boyd Rankin was included – for the match against Essex was announced. Geoff Miller, the national selector, said: “We believe Joe Root is currently the best opening partner for Alastair Cook and he will open the batting against Essex.”
It was a rather harsh valedictory non-message for a player who made consecutive Test hundreds on the tour of New Zealand and played a full part in the epic victory in India late last year. But batting had become a struggle for Compton and England, like Australia, have done what they felt they had to do.
England squad to play Essex at Chelmsford (30 June- 3 July): A N Cook (capt), J M Anderson, J M Bairstow, I R Bell, T T Bresnan, S C J Broad, S T Finn, G Onions, K P Pietersen, M J Prior (wkt), W B Rankin, J E Root, G P Swann, I J L Trott.