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Who's to blame for the Australian predicament?

Tough love has always been a common factor among the protagonists in the myriad of sports movies and stories. Be it Coach Carter or Coach Herman Boone (from Remember the Titans), all the heroes of these (true) stories have made ridiculous to downright insane decisions in the belief that they would benefit the team in the longer run. In all these stories, we stuck with the protagonist while he was enduring ridicule from his society and puffed out our chests with pride when he eventually came out of the quagmire with unprecedented success. Yet, somehow when such an instance occurs in real life, we join the society in all the mocking and jeering. Axing players for not doing their homework does have a comical ring to it, there’s no denying that. But before we go ahead and accuse the Australian camp for presenting the appearance of a first grade classroom, let us take a step back and examine what is, what was and what could have been.

Michael Clarke and Mickey Arthur 

For the past couple of years following the retirements of many legends, Australia have lost the ruthlessness with which they topped the ranking table. It wasn’t too long before they sunk further, losing their top status in all formats and even sliding beneath Ireland, considered one of the minnows, in T20I rankings. Captain Clarke was burdened with the unenviable task of reconstructing among the ruins of what was once a glorious team. Ever since he took up captaincy of the Australian Test team, he has been steadfast in his approach, always leading from the front with inspirational performances. He was the first one to criticize and point out his team’s shortcomings, and was always ready to accept the reality, as harsh as it came.

When Clarke said, “We can’t accept mediocrity here. This is the Australian cricket team. Maybe I am biased [but] there is a big difference between this team and other cricket teams”, even the staunchest of critics could’t write that off as swollen-headed pride. Australia has always been a country which takes enormous pride in its sport, a country where sport is a fundamental part of the national identity. And consequently failure is that much more hurtful, especially to Clarke who is one of the only two remaining members from Team Australia in its glory days under Ponting’s captaincy.

What is expected of every professional sports contingent is a coach who, keeping in mind all the players, their strengths and weaknesses, comes up with a strategy; and individuals who adhere to the strategy the coach comes up with and contribute in a positive way to the team as a whole. A slipshod attitude can be disastrous to the morale of the entire team. There have been innumerable accounts of non-compliance to tasks set by the coach by individuals at various levels, either blatantly or inadvertently. Not all of them have been dealt as harsh a rebuke as this one, which naturally brings up a bunch of questions: What is the parameter on which laxness is to be judged? What is lax enough to warrant punishment and what isn’t? Focusing on this particular case, is a relatively minor disciplinary infraction enough to warrant axing from a match?

Are all four of them equally guilty to warrant the same punishment?

According to the version given by Australian coach Mickey Arthur, Watson and Pattinson were going to see him regarding the presentation on Monday (two days past the deadline), while Khawaja and Johnson forgot about the assignment. Also, from the coach’s comment, Usman Khawaja is different. This will be the catalyst I think for Usman Khawaja to realise we’re pretty serious in the Australian cricket team.”

It appears that this isn’t the first instance of non-compliance by Khawaja. So, how justified is it to give Watson, a totally passionate and dedicated cricketer, the same punishment as Khawaja, someone with prior instances of disciplinary infractions? If we were to conclude that this punishment was solely based on failure to adhere in just this instance and not an accumulated debt, it would seem that Watson and others were caught in the crossfire, hit by the bullets aimed at cleaning up the lazier members of the team. That being the case, axing due to non-compliance is more about sending a message to the lazier members of the team, that perfection is expected of them every single time and to this no one would be an exception.

Although the message that they intended to send out is highly commendable, it is the execution that left a bad taste in the mouths of many. In looking at the execution of this punishment, I have the luxury of observing this from a neutral perspective as a cricket enthusiast. I am a proponent of the theory that people need drastic examples to shake them out of their apathy. What if a less severe punishment were carried out: a warning or a sharp reprimand from the coach perhaps? The players would remember it for the next couple of matches and then would have let bygones be bygones. The team would have forgotten sooner, if it had known in the first place. What if a repeat of the infringement was to occur, or worse a different set slacked off this time? Australian management were probably of a similar opinion. They felt that players not complying with simple requests would bring the team morale down, and felt that they had to send a strong message to prevent any recurrence in the future.

But Watson’s statement, following the axing, about rethinking his future in Test cricket prompts one to reconsider the propriety of such a blunt comeuppance. Should the management somehow have considered a midway solution, dramatic enough to be remembered without resorting to public condemnation? I, for one, can’t think of any, and even if there was a midway solution, the coach and the captain decided that they wanted to go all the way in sending a message and risked certain public ridicule to do so. To all those who are falling over one another to take a crack at jokes around the axing, I only have this to ask – “What if you were a cricketer who submitted a presentation when the coach asked you to, while a bunch of others did not and no action was taken?”. Or better yet, “What if you were the one who did not submit while a bunch of others did and no serious action was taken?”. How would you feel?

But all said and done, this is an undeniable quandary for Australian cricket, one from which they can only come out of as a team. And in this dire situation, it is good to see that not everyone is taking the axing personally. James Pattinson displayed his professionalism in apologizing for letting the team down and said that although he’s still hurting about it, in the long run it would make them a better team. So before passing judgement on the decision and criticizing the ones responsible, I would urge everyone to spare a moment to pause and think about what it meant to the rickety Australian side and the ones that made that decision. Because I for one, as a cricket fan, would love to see Australia rise out of all this controversy and match its former glory.

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