Australia’s quest to regain the Ashes was severely disrupted yet again yesterday when court papers revealed a split at the heart of the team. The former coach Mickey Arthur, who was sacked two weeks before the series began, has alleged in a claim for unfair dismissal that the captain, Michael Clarke, told him that senior player Shane Watson was “a cancer on the team”.
The tourists, who lost a thrilling first Test by 14 runs in Nottingham on Sunday, have been beset by dressing-room discord for months. They hoped that the astonishing removal of Arthur and his immediate replacement by Darren Lehmann would right the listing ship.
It appeared to have worked and their obdurate performance at Trent Bridge, allied to regular briefings that they were all friends together have been persuasive. But Arthur’s incendiary statements in a submission to the Fair Work Commission in Sydney have put the focus firmly back on relationships in the team, especially between Clarke and Watson, with the second Test beginning at Lord’s tomorrow.
Arthur, a South African, is claiming A$4m (£2.44m) from his former employers, Cricket Australia, and one of several grounds for his complaint alleges racial discrimination. He has also stated that CA did not support him last year when he dropped four players from a Test match for failing to fill in a team questionnaire, an affair which inevitably became known as “Homeworkgate”. Watson was one of the disciplined players.
It was an open secret that Clarke and Watson were not bosom pals but since Arthur was removed from his post they have been intent on showing the world that they can at least rub along. For most of the match in Nottingham they stood next to each other at first and second slip, though there was an eloquent moment late in England’s second innings when neither moved for a catch as the ball flew between them off an edge from Stuart Broad.
Arthur claims in the documents lodged by his lawyers and obtained by the Australian TV network Channel 7, that he was “the meat in the sandwich” between conflicting camps. According to his statement, the Clarke and Watson factions in the dressing room were constantly at loggerheads.
But the former coach also suggests that he was discriminated against because he “didn’t understand the Australian way”. His employers decided to sack him following the incident during the Champions Trophy last month when the opening batsman David Warner punched the England batsman Joe Root in the face in a Birmingham bar hours after the sides had played each other.
In his court submission, Arthur states that it was Watson who told him what Warner had done, although the player has denied doing so. Warner was banned for two matches, fined A$11,500 and is currently on secondment with the Australia A team in southern Africa so he can have time in the middle.
The emergence of Arthur’s detailed claim was deeply embarrassing for Australia and may unravel the good work that appeared to have been done since Lehmann took over. It was certainly the last thing they would want as they try urgently to regroup after their heartbreaking loss at Trent Bridge.
Clarke said yesterday when he fulfilled a sponsor’s engagement at a London hotel: “First, I’m not going to get involved in it, the most important thing is that we as a team are as focused as we can be on Thursday. We’ve obviously got a huge game in front of us, the boys are feeling great, as we showed in the last Test match we’re here to fight and do as well as we possibly can in this Test series, and I think we showed that the other day.”
Nor was his vice-captain, Brad Haddin, who replaced Watson in the position, eager to comment on the latest revelations.
“For legal reasons I can’t go into it,” said Haddin. “All I can say is that it’s pretty obvious where the team is going, that’s as plain as the nose on your face. All the other stuff we talk about it is white noise. It hasn’t affected the side at all.”
Arthur himself, who is on holiday in his native South Africa, was aghast that the documents had been placed in the public domain. He had been hoping that his negotiations with CA could be kept private.
“I am extremely upset and disappointed that confidential documents appear to have been given by others to the media,” he said in a statement issued through his lawyers. “The matters raised by my application to the FWC concerning issues within the Australian cricket team are very sensitive, which is why I was at pains to keep them confidential, especially at this time. I have kept them confidential, unfortunately others have made them public. I want to stress how important to me the members of the team were, and still remain to me. The welfare of the Australian cricket team is utmost to me.”
There is much sympathy over the way in which Arthur was treated, although it was becoming clear that some members of the team had not responded to his methods. But he was shown scant understanding by Shane Warne, the former leg-spinner, who told Sky: “It sounds like sour grapes to me and it’s pretty disappointing. He should have been grateful for the opportunity to coach the Australian team.”
When Clarke and Watson emerge from the Long Room tomorrow all eyes will be on their every move.