Everyone knows what this photograph is about. Whats less commonly known, perhaps, is that coming into the “final frontier” series, Michael Slater was grappling with a bipolar disorder. That bit is true. Its also true that he was also going through trouble (and ultimate breakup) in his marriage. There was also a bunch of tripe that was questioning his integrity. Like he was asked by Malcolm Speed of Cricket Australia and the ICC ahead of the tour about rumours about a cocaine addiction. (“You go back to your so-called reliable source and tell him he’s not so reliable. Drugs have never been a part of my life, will never be a part of my life. It’s just something I will never stand for.“) And there was an awful, vicious rumour that he was the father of Adam Gilchrist’s child.
And then, in the heat of the contest, somebody had “sufficient doubt” to question his integrity about a catch. Something snapped…
Australia, of course failed to cross the final frontier and in August that year just ahead of the last Test of the Ashes, Steve Waugh abruptly dropped Michael Slater. Justin Langer was the makeshift replacement and never looked back. But more of that later…
[As an aside, do read the Peter English piece on the Slater story here . ]
Somewhere, in Steve Waugh’s book Out Of My Comfort Zone, you’d get the impression of Waugh being maybe a bit cheesed off with Slats. A bit impatient, or losing patience with a man craving patience maybe? Judge for yourself.
” What also was only a matter of time was Michael Slater being involved in an incident. With his marriage apparently in trouble, Slats was struggling to find a clear direction and had strayed from his normal means of preparation. Greatly exacerbating the problem was the fact that no one in the touring party was trained to handle personal difficulties of this nature. I tried my best to keep things under control, even speaking to Board officials about getting professional help, but with everyone’s lives so busy and the guy in question denying any problems, life went on. Slats’ personal problems were brewing, however, and unbeknown to me at the time he was also suffering a medical condition that was related to an injury he’d suffered at the Australian Cricket Academy many years before and required ongoing medication.
During India’s second innings, Rahul Dravid scooped one out in Slats’ direction at midwicket, but it was difficult to see whether a catch had been made. Slats claimed it, but the days when any fielder’s word was taken as true were gone and umpire Venkat referred the matter to the third umpire, who ave the benefit of doubt to the batsman. Slats saw this as his integrity being questioned, and the time bomb ticked its final second. He blew up at the perceived injustice, and his personal stresses spilled out in a messy tirade that involved finger pointing and an out-of-control plea for justice. It was the last thing I wanted to see, particularly as we’d regularly talked about our on-field behaviour and wanted to change the long held perception of many that we were ‘ugly’. Slats’ performance was unacceptable and selfish, as he let his personal emotions overrule the team’s ethics and standards. I was torn between physically pulling him away – which may have led to real ugliness – or yelling at him to get out of there. I opted for the latter, but my order fell on deaf ears and I was left holding the baby. As his friend and the captain I was willing to wear the consequences to a certain extent, but if I had my time again, maybe I would have risked manhandling him out of the confrontation.
One of the problems with such an incident is that when it happens it’s over very quickly – in this case around 30 seconds – but with continuous replays, many of them in slow motion, reality gets distorted and the ramifications grow. The bottom line was that I was in charge of the team and on this occasion, in trying to to protect a guy on the edge and manage a situation in the best way possible, I was derelict in my duty to protect the image of the game.
The match referee, Cammie Smith from the Wes Indies, showed sympathy by letting Slats off with a censure and a severe warning. It was a decision we welcomed, but one that put into question the inconsistencies of the system when penalising players who stepped out of line. This was an area Time May, as ACA boss, and I had often talked about. We believed there needed to be a uniform penalty for clearly defined breaches so that everyone knew the consequences when they did the wrong thing, and therefore couldn’t claim bias when they were punished. On this occasion, after handing down his compassionate verdict, Cammie Smith clearly stated to Slats, Buck, manager Steve Bernard and me that the matter was closed and not for public discussion.
The Test ended in a stunning 10-wicket win for us, even though for a long time it seemed the game could go either way. We had the knack of winning. Straight afterwards, Slats went on Australian radio to discuss the Test. The ‘incident’ came up and he said he’d done nothing wrong. Cammie Smith was so incensed by this thathe immediately informed us that Slats now had a one-Test ban for his comments. It took an emergency meeting a few days after the Test, at the Taj Hotel in Kolkata, to sway Cammie from making Slats the first international cricketer to miss a Test due to a suspension earnt in a Test match. Steve Bernard and I argued that such a ban would be a stigma Slats would have to bear for the rest of his playing days and that his behaviour had been out of character. Slats remained unrepentant and felt hard done by, and I’m sure he was only saved by our pleading and well conveyed sentiments. Cammie eventually changed his mind and issued a one-match ban suspended for six months and a loss of half a match fee. It was as good a result as we could have imagined., yet Slats didn’t then thank the referee for his leniency or us for our efforts. He just left the room without uttering a word.”
About six months later, at the last of the Ashes tests …
Days later Gilly and I, as selectors, had to concur when the ordinary form and negative attitude of Michael Slater could no longer be ignored. Technically Slats was permanently on the move at the crease, which caused his balance to be poor and his head position to be out of line, and his head position to be exaggerated and loose. In his prime, Michael had a pristine technique that was tight in defence and expansive in attack, but the longer this series went on the more he was ‘going fishing’ outside off stump, a dead giveaway of poor form. Just as concerning was him missing a bus to training and numerous reports of his lack of professional behaviour. A rebellious streak had taken over, causing his teammates to tread on eggshells around him. Excuses impeded reasoning, and the fault was always someone else’s. It was time for a change. Gilly and I were in total agreement, but we knew it would be tricky communicating our concerns to Trevor Hohns on the other side of the world.
The result wwas an animated three way phone hook-up, with the chairman of selectors pushing for a stay of execution , suggesting there was no need to make a change at this time. Besides, he added, the selectors had only picked two opening batsmen for the tour. This was a red-rag-to-a-bull stuff and I countered strongly, ‘You aren’t here! The change needs to happen and it should be now, not in a few weeks’ time at the start of our home season. Secondly, you guys didn’t pick an extra opener, not me. And in Justin Langer we have a guy who will do a great job.’
In the end, it was 2-1 against Slats. With hindsight, I might have been a little assertive in my views, but I knew, as did most of the guys, that the change would be in the best interests of team harmony.
Telling Slats was the toughest part, and the next morning I asked Steve Bernard to come with me to back me up when we talked about the disciplinary issues and make sure it went okay so we could all move along as a group afterwards and be in harmony if the press tried to make an issue of the decision. But the meeting didn’t last long, with a shocked Mick getting up and exiting the room with, ‘You can all go and get fucked!’
The situation didn’t get much better at training later that day when I thought that the team learn of Slats’ axing direct from me as a sin of respect to him and to clear the obviously edgy atmosphere. But halfway through my attempt, Slats cut me off and said, ‘Come on, Tugga, tell them the real reason why I got dropped.’
To which I replied, ‘If you’d bothered to stay and hear me out [this morning], you would know.’
Thankfully, Lang jumped in and settled things down with a heartfelt spiel on how we should never take the baggy green for granted because we never know when we might be wearing it for the last time. That was the last we saw of Slats for the session – he walked off and went back to the team hotel.
In his autobiography, Michael Slater’s view is that he was furious that Waugh offered no reason when he informed the rest of the team of Slater’s omission. He felt that the team ought to know the real reason behind his sacking. At this juncture, Adam Gilchrist asked Slater to keep quiet, saying his behaviour was not in the best interests of the team as they were preparing for a Test .
Gilchrist’s reaction shocked Slater into silence and he left as he was too upset to complete the training session that was underway. Slater mentions that Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne offered him consolation. Admitting that while Waugh’s mental toughness was incomparable, Slater said that he, and others, often felt uncomfortable in Waugh’s presence.
The point of a long post on Slater – and the series on Waugh’s questionables (sledging , the Slater issue and one could yet go into the text of the Mcgrath – Sarwan issue or the Lara- Waugh slanging match – or the horrible rumours about the Chris Cairns sledge) was / is because there is so much available on the guy. And because he’s managed such a successful lot of people under so much scrutiny and he’s kept a log. It provides great insight even if its often biased by his own prejudices as this must be. And it gives a view into the workings of a successful outfit. And sometimes, as in this case, some of the failures within it.
Here is Slater’s view 4 years after it all on Steve Waugh. Time heals and yet it does not.
Dropping Slater and promoting Langer was that great gamble that worked and was one of the many strokes of luck Steve Waugh had. Or was it great foresight. The fair answer is probably a bit of both ?