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Down Under

Your dogma ate my homework

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RUN OUT: The troubled Aussies go through their paces during training ahead of to the third Test in Mohali

The ludicrous reason behind the suspension of four key Australian players halfway through the tour of India reveals a systemic flaw in the way cricket is run and nurtured Down Under. Have the Australians, once famed for their preparation, lost the plot?

Just when you thought that humour had gone out of the game Australia's coach Mickey Arthur had the entire cricket world ROTFL (Rolling On The Floor With Laughter) by banishing four grown up adults from the team for not doing their 'homework'. Arthur's do-your-homework-or-bepunished theory is seriously funny. Under normal circumstances, one would have dismissed it as antics of an eccentric coach, but with Australian cricket struggling to rediscover its punch and panache, the fallout of 'Homework-gate' could have far-reaching implications on the players who are suddenly being treated as kids.

That is when you stop laughing and start worrying about a team that was virtually invincible in Test cricket from the early Nineties to mid-2005 when Australia surrendered the Ashes to England in a stirring series at the home of cricket. The setback was followed by yet another period of domination up till 2008 after which Australian cricket went into a tailspin and continues to hurtle from one disaster to another.
Ironically, Arthur seems to have woken up to the reality only after his team found itself 0-2 down in the series after playing some pretty ordinary cricket. If the 'homework' is meant to be a managerial tool to make players more responsible for their own deeds and improve on-field performances, it shouldn't certainly have been a one-off exercise that appeals in theory but achieves nothing in practical terms.
Moreover, it was mighty uncharitable of the coach to punish his wards for not completing their homework when he himself shunned doing his own bit prior to the opening Test match against India in Chennai where the team management announced two days in advance that Australia would be fielding four pacers on a parched track that threatened to crumble on Day One itself. Both Arthur and skipper Michael Clarke surely need to tell cricket lovers what had prompted that bizarre decision that was bound to backfire on them.

However, it will be unfair to pin all Australian cricket's woes on Arthur, who is the national team's first foreign coach. He took charge of the team at a time when the Baggy Greens were resembling more like 'Saggy Greens' with a view to getting Australian cricket back to the No. 1 spot.

He owes his position of eminence to one Don Argus, who was hired by Cricket Australia (CA) to study the ills afflicting their cricket and suggest short as well as longterm remedies. Among other things, the Argus report recommended an enhanced role for the coach.

It suggested that the coach and the captain be also part of a five-member selection panel. This prompted Australian cricket bosses to look for a foreigner and Arthur happened to be at the right place at the right time. That he has not made much headway is clear from his rather comical man management style. What is worse is that no one appears to have a clue about how to set things right. There are simply too many issues to be addressed before the Aussies can hope to reclaim their numero uno status in world cricket.

DEARTH OF TALENT
The biggest threat to Australian cricket comes from other sports. The young generation of Aussies appear to be hooked to only slam-bang cricket, or simply not interested in it. Cricket is losing out to other sports like football, tennis and Aussie-rules football.

The famed Australian system that produced scores of world-renowned players is now struggling to throw up cricketers half as good as those they are expected to replace. The pipeline of talent has gone dry. The Centres of Excellence have turned into Monoliths of Mediocrity. The riches from IPL and Big Bash League has dimmed the lustre of the Baggy Green and players are no longer averse to putting cash before country. The crisis of talent, especially in the spin department, is best highlighted by the fact that little-known Pakistan-born left-arm spinner Fawad Ahmed's citizenship application is being fast-tracked by the Australian authorities with a view to fielding him in the return Ashes series later this year. It is a telling comment on the state of cricket in a country that has produced the likes of Bill O'Reilly, Richie Benaud, Ashley Mallet and, of course, Shane Warne.

SELECTION MESS
The best thing about Australian selection policy in the past was that it used to move in players at the right time and move them out when the time was ripe. No one was allowed to linger longer than their sell-by date. This policy has gone for a toss in recent times primarily because Australian selectors have not been able to fill the void left behind by the retirement of stalwarts like Glenn McGarth, Warne, Matthew Hayden, Adam Gilchrist, Justin Langer, Brett Lee and Damien Martyn, and the recent walk into the sunset by Ricky Ponting and Michael Hussey.
It is hard to find adequate replacement for top players but the shoddy manner in which the Australian selectors handled the phasing out of senior players clearly indicated that they had no succession plan in place.

Hussey's confession, that he had not shared his retirement plans with anyone for the fear of being dropped before the end of the Australian season, is a damning indictment of myopic selectors who are paid to do much better. They are also to blame for a ridiculous rotation policy that requires their premium fast bowlers to play musical chairs instead of firing out the opposition consistently.

It is not clear whether former bowling coach Craig McDermott, under whose guidance the likes of James Pattinson, Ben Hifenhaus, Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Ryan Harris and Mitchell Johnson had bowled so consistently and superbly last season, supported this rotation policy, but Australia's bowling graph has certainly headed south since his quiet exit.

Australia's rest-and-recharge policy is quite in contrast to South Africa's approach that requires their best bowlers to belt out chin music match after match in a concerted effort to consolidate their No. 1 ranking in Test cricket.

ENIGMATIC CAPTAIN
There is not a shred of doubt that Clarke is the best man to lead Australia in the current scenario. He is by far their best batsman who leads by example. Since taking over from Ponting, two years ago, Clarke has set very high standards for himself and his team. A big fan of Michael Jordan, the Australian captain's motto of 'playing to win' mirrors that of his idol. But the enigmatic Clarke is no Jordan, nor do the current bunch under him resemble the Chicago Bulls.

It is not easy for a new captain to be his own man when he has a clutch of seniors to deal with in the dressing room. Clarke's perceived problems with vice-captain Shane Watson stem from a deep-rooted ego problem. With Watson now ready to join Ponting and Hussey on the sunset walk, it's Clarke's big chance to shape the destiny of Australian cricket.

He has an unenviable task on his hands because Australia, much like India, are in a transitional phase and the skipper himself is on a learning curve. At 31, Clarke is no spring chicken. He has the right amount of experience and the attitude to lead Australia's revival provided he curbs his overzealousness and learns from his mistakes.

Underbowling Pattinson in India's first innings on Day 2 of the Chennai Test will go down as a howler on the skipper's CV. Declaring Australia's first innings on Day One of the Hyderabad Test was at best a crude effort to deflect attention from his team's woeful batting display and Clarke's lack of confidence in his No 1 spinner Nathan Lyon betrayed the impatience of a man in tearing hurry.
It had taken Allan Border the better part of a decade to rebuild an Australian side hit by the simultaneous retirements of Greg Chappell, Rod Marsh and Dennis Lillee. It could take Clarke a little longer, for he has been saddled with a similar exercise that should have begun much before McGrath and Warne called time on their illustrious careers.

ADMINISTRATIVE ISSUES
The good thing is that Clarke, who has shed his playboy garb after taking over the reins of the team, enjoys the backing of CA, which has belatedly woken up to the crisis in Australian cricket. The biggest criticism of a highly corporatised CA is that, much like the BCCI, it continues to under-utilise the services of former greats of the game on cricket-specific issues. CA's partnership with the BCCI (and Cricket South Africa) with regard to Champions League T20, a tournament of little consequence, only highlights the compromises it is willing to make for a share of the booty.

The review of Australian cricket, commissioned by the CA, had taken Argus and his fellow-members (former captains - Allan Border, Mark Taylor, and Steve Waugh - and Malcolm Speed, former CEO of CA and the ICC) seven months to complete. At the end of it Argus had concluded: "Lack of accountability, and the objective of really performing was something that wasn't in the jargon that was coming through". Unfortunately, the review had raised more questions than it answered.

CA will need to play a more proactive role as Clarke tries to steer the team out of choppy waters. The embarrassment in India can only be wiped away by regaining of the Ashes in England in July-August. But there will be no respite for Australia as they host England in a return Ashes clash three months later. An unprecedented 10 Tests against England in a span of less than six months could well define Australian cricket's future.

And the homework for that should begin now.

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