Stephen Brenkley: Australia's Ashes meltdown runs deeper than ineffectual Mickey Arthur

 

It is difficult to understand what Australia are up to. This is largely because they do not have a clue either. In a sensational act of desperation, barely a fortnight before the start of the Ashes series, they have sacked their coach, Mickey Arthur and deprived their captain, Michael Clarke, of his selection duties.

The fullness of time might come to judge these as brave decisions designed and taken for the good of a team which is going places. But from where anyone not directly involved was sitting it looked like the only place Australia are going imminently is down the pan.

Arthur's departure and the stripping of Clarke's duties merely confirmed a divided dressing room where a culture of mutual mistrust and a mood of toxic spite prevail. It makes the England dressing room with Kevin Pietersen's presence look like a haven of sweetness, light and goodwill to all men.

If Cricket Australia determined that something was wrong, which would have taken the vision of a man with 20:20 sight confronted with a mountain falling on top of him, they might have fired Clarke as well. It is an open secret that Clarke, earnest, driven, selfish, rubs some of his team up the wrong way, not least the affable all-rounder Shane Watson. One disaster is following another.

But for the Cricket Australia board that must have seemed a step too far. Clarke is their best batsman by a mile and, in tactical terms at least, a captain of shrewd judgement. Yet that does not make him a leader of men.

The appointment of Darren Lehmann as Arthur's replacement was universally welcomed. For some while it has been clear that he has a certain something as a coach. He was also a magnificent player, who was unfortunate to play only 27 Test matches and was one of the few universally admired and respected at the same time. Everyone likes Boof.

But Boof too comes with baggage. He was arraigned for racially abusing a Sri Lankan, whom he called "a black c***" during a one-day international early in 2003.

That all this should be happening now is unfathomable. Australia have already conducted a performance review into how their game operates. A panel under the respected businessman Don Argus was set up after the cataclysmic defeat to England in the 2010-11 Ashes.

The Argus Report was broadly along the lines of the Schofield Report which England instigated after their cataclysmic defeat to Australia in the 2006-07 Ashes. Before there is too much gloating about the present Aussie crisis, it should be remembered that that took time to work its magic.

The timing of Arthur's departure, as James Sutherland, the chief executive of Cricket Australia, said in a hastily convened press conference yesterday, was hardly ideal. But in saying that discipline, consistency of behaviour and accountability for performance were all key ingredients that needed to improve and that the head coach was ultimately responsible for that, he drew attention to what precisely his own responsibilities might be.

In essence, the improvements supposed to have been instituted after the Argus Report have not worked. Actually, of course, it all comes down to results and Australia's have been increasingly wretched.

Had they managed to dismiss South Africa in the second Test in Adelaide last winter, as they looked like doing at 45 for 4, all might have been well. But the unsung Faf du Plessis defied for them nearly eight hours, South Africa hung on for a draw, won the deciding Test in Perth and things were never the same for Arthur – or Clarke.

On the tour of India that followed strange things happened. Australia's players were out of their depth on turning pitches, lost 4-0 and dropped four players in a comical spat over form filling which amounted to failure to do homework. One of those was Watson, the vice-captain.

 



Arthur never really recovered from that. It was increasingly obvious on this tour, and from a distance too, that the Australian dressing room is unsettled.

The incident in which David Warner hit Joe Root in a bar two weeks ago was indicative of something badly awry. The captain, incidentally, was nowhere his team at the time and did not think of rushing back to it for days. He was being treated for a bad back but that did not prevent him making public appearances at events nothing to do with his team.

In the good old days when they were winning everything in sight they were never all friends together. It is difficult to imagine, for instance, Shane Warne and Adam Gilchrist issuing reciprocal invitations for Sunday tea. But they put up with each other to the extent that they formed a deadly alliance as spin bowler and wicketkeeper in 70 Test matches together.

Warne seems about to be welcomed back into the dressing room soon. Lehmann, who played with him, said: "We would love him in the room. The past legends is what we are about. Having guys involved in our current structure and having some sort of input. You don't have a guy take 700 Test wickets and not use him if he is around the place."

It is the past legends, Lehmann probably knows, that are at the root of the present difficulties. The culture may indeed be pitiful at present but the real problem is that now they lose when they used to win.

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