Managing a Clean Slate ..

slats.jpg

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 ?

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18 thoughts on “Managing a Clean Slate ..

  1. “No, I don’t agree with it at all. There was a bigger picture in terms of Australian cricket that needed to be looked at – you are playing with someone’s job. I wasn’t the only one who had underachieved at that point. There are many factors that need to be looked at before you take a very serious step and drop someone from their job, when it has been their job for eight years. It wasn’t my first tour, I’d been around for a while. I don’t agree with that decision and I don’t think I ever will agree but you have to get over it and get on with it – and I have.”

    Perhaps a little less tough guy posturing, a little more transparency and a little more conversation between Waugh and Slater would have helped.

    Interesting though is the fact that while Slats was undergoing a public breakdown, was there no one in the Oz team that had his confidence and his ear? And what were the lines of communication between Slats, Waugh and this unknown/unnamed person?

    Not that in any way condones Slaters behavior. or Ponting’s appeal to take a fielder at his word when it comes to dicey decisions.

  2. Thanks for the comment, as always Homer.

    The first part is exactly the issue. Its what Steve Waugh talks about in the extract about the Bombay Test … “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.” … and Slater himself talks about in that Peter English article – the whole “fruit loop” bit. How could a tough guy ask for help. Its a sad story.

    To their credit, you’ll find in the book, immediately after this Slats issue, Gilchrist, Steve Waugh and CA instituted the concept of selectors being part of the tour selection committee. Its a business and players careers are also jobs and it can divide teams as it nearly did.

    Am not so sure Slater was undergoing a public breakdown. Nobody knew then. At least his captain didnt know of the bipolar disorder. Its not a small deal.

    Slater’s behaviour and Ponting’s appeal are double standards. Taking a fielder’s word is like assuming that a batsman will walk …

  3. I am not too thrilled about Mr Waugh. There is a latent hypocrisy in his words and deeds.And no, the Slater incident wasnt a 30 second highlight reel but was spread over a good 5 odd minutes( what with the Dravid episode, then the umpires decision, then the third umpire and umpteen TV replays, then the meltdown against Venkat). Also ignored is the fact that the Aussies, including their skipper, had something to say to Dravid at the end of the over.

    As I said before, sledging is all fine and dandy. It is the self righteousness that follows that is galling.

  4. “Kahani Ghar Ghar ki” would be an apt name for the oz team with Stevie playing “Parvati”.. one guy had marital discord, one’s wife was suffering from cancer, one had a drinking problem and frequently got black eyes for that (I am no talking about David Hookes..).. Poor ozs, they needed a psychologist more than a coach.. And trust Parvati to defend all those poor men for their onfield indiscretions..
    I admire Parvati immensely..

  5. One of the things that is forgotten in the Waugh story is that he was never really under any pressure to deliver results. His once in a generation cricketers ensured that – McGrath, Gilchrist, Warne, aided by Waugh himself, the best of Damien Martyn, an ever improving Ricky Ponting, and the best of Mathew Hayden.

    The Slater story illustrates more than anything else the difficulty of selection – it is in effect the nearest thing to playing God in sport and that brings with it all allied subjectivity.

    The real story of Waugh’s captaincy lies in Test where he captained (or his stand in captained) and one or both out of Warne and McGrath were absent. Waugh was captain in 57 Tests from 1999 -2004, and both McGrath and Warne were missing in 9 of those – 4 v India, 1 v England, 2 v Zim and 2 v West Indies. Australia were 5-2 in those 9 Tests and two of those results came against Zimbabwe. This even though Lee, Gillespie and MacGill were available. Compare a 3-2 record in those 7 Tests (discounting the Zim tests) with 41-9 overall and add to this the fact at a first innings lead was conceded in both drawn Tests, and you begin to realize that what made Waugh the legendary success he ended up being as captain was personnel – and a consistency of personnel.

  6. Homer,

    I recommend the book to a number of people managing others – in that its unique in its detail. 900 pages of descriptive detail. The more I read of it though, the more I agree with the prejudice and bias in it. (And why not ? It is an autobiography, so it is his point of view). Hypocrisy , I am not sure of.

    I won’t embed it but here’s a link to the youtube version that Waugh’s referring to :

    It isn’t 5 minutes (the outburst itself is real time and closer to the 30 second mark that he’s talking about) and while Steve Waugh may well have sledged Rahul at the end of the over, the part I remember is the part I see in this footage (Hayden and Mcgrath as they cross over).

    What part of the “self righteousness” that follows after the sledging are you referring to ?

  7. rahul,

    Apart from the fact that i’m convinced that there isn’t enough cricket if you’re up to speed with kahani ghar ghar ki, isnt it quite good if someone manages success consistently with a bunch of mavericks like that?

    p.s. my curiosity gets me. who was the one with the drinking problem who frequently got black eyes?

  8. kartikeya,

    Stunning stats, as always – and sure puts things in perspective. And of course, there is no doubting the fact that he had awesome talent at his disposal.

    But, (and please correct me if I am wrong) here are some more stats : Of those 57 Tests that he captained , Warne played only 38. Mcgrath played 48, Gilchrist 49, Ponting 51, Damien Martyn 30.

    And 41 of 57 is still an awesome win %age. And includes a 6 wins in 6 games against Pakistan. 9 in 12 games against West Indies. 8 in 9 games against England. 5 in 6 games against South Africa.

    Its a matter of a winning habit.

    We could go into teams (Pakistan at some stage, India in patches for instance) who have had the talent to target at least comparable win %ages.

    By saying that he was never under any pressure to deliver, I think you pay him a huge compliment.

  9. Good work Sfx, except the video does not show Slater having his meltdown moment against Venkat.

    The self righteousness is this – we are a good team, a clean team. Boys will be boys.. No harm was intended, no malice too. mental disintegration. We play the game hard etc.

    Which condones everything negative done on the field of play.

    Slater had a problem. But is he the only one? And what does one say about the match referee ?

  10. The argument has invariably been made that while missing the odd batsman from his glittering line up might have mattered a little bit, missing Warne and McGrath was the key because they offered him the wicket taking edge which ensured victory.

    Warne and McGrath – that combination in Waugh Tests as captain took 404 wickets at 23. They were supported by Jason Gillespie who peaked during Waugh’s reign, and Stuart MacGill who had a better wicket taking rate than Warne during this time.

    Waugh never had the problem of a batsman who couldn’t play fast bowling well or a bowling who was not accurate (like Indian captains have perennially had)… the side he took on to the field was consistently superior – man for man than the opposition.

    When Waugh did have to make do with Bichel, Williams and Bracken (with MacGill being neutralized), he conceded first innings leads in 2 of the 4 tests, and one 1 and lost 1 when he secured a first innings lead. A better Indian bowling line up might have meant that Waugh would have lost the series 2-1.

    In my view Waugh’s merit as captain, much as Lloyd’s (though to a lesser extent than Lloyd) lay in the personal example he set as a batsman and a cricketer.

    Further, if you look through Shane Warne’s record, he went through a bit of a trough with Waugh – he did well under Border, Taylor and Ponting, but not so well under Waugh. He had fitness and injury trouble, came up against India….. McGrath on the other hand was at his peak.

    Waugh’s book is much like is play – solid, meticulous and painstakingly deliberately detailed… its a great book if you want a fly on the wall view of a great cricket team – it is not necessarily a book about a great leader of men.

  11. By the way – have you read the part about the 1996 world cup final?

    About this Slater incident, what was exceptional was Cammie Smith’s benevolence, not the incident itself. There have been blow ups before and since this incident, but players have invariably had the rule book thrown at them quite pitilessly. Waugh acknowledges this.

    I have never had a problem with the Aussie behaviour, i have had a problem with what they were allowed to get away with – and that was in no way their fault. Everybody understands (or ought to understand) that players are in the spotlight.

    The point was that Slater got away with what he did and Smith let himself be swayed by the Australian team management (that is their job).

  12. Homer,

    True – The video does not include the Venkat rant. But, arguably, neither does the Steve Waugh piece. We’re getting into the semantics of it though. Slats was wrong. Cammie Smith was lenient. And as Kartikeya says – and I agree – the Aussie team management was doing its job in trying to convince him.

    The self righteousness you refer to after sledging does not apply to the Aussies alone. But that does not make it defensible. The whole “mental disintegration” defence selectively applied is a part of the Steve Waugh captaincy that a lot of his fans (guilty as charged) will agree to disagree with him. Winning a lot does not give anybody the right to be a bad loser…

  13. kartikeya,

    I like your book analogies… maybe you’re right about the fly on the wall bit. I think though, that actually its just good because it is stark. We know each of the characters clearly. We know their failings. Not a lot of the “great leader of men” books out there have indisciplined heroes with shades of grey.

    Read the part about the 1996 finals. Personally thought he could not make up his mind while writing it whether he wanted to make excuses about the defeat, give credit to Sri Lanka and be graceful or blame his skipper for being a bit tactless. Would love to hear your take… ?

  14. I thought it provided a glimpse into the Waugh psyche. For him it was a simple matter of Australia not being well prepared. Once that was the case, it didn’t matter how well or poorly the opposition played. Thats the theme of the book. He casually mentions for example that he spent 10 hours a day (i think he mentioned 10) on the physios table between Headingley and the Oval Test in 2001. You almost miss the line. If you really think about it, its a phenomenal effort to spend 10 hours a day on a physio’s table – both the for Waugh and the physio (even it 10 was an exaggeration and it was actually closer to 8 or 9).

    In that sense Waugh was more Federer (minus the outrageous genius) than Hewitt…. if you see what im saying…

  15. You also notice in Waugh’s book that he has his likes and dislikes as far as his fellow cricketers are concerned. His opinion about Lara is mixed, but when it comes to Tendulkar the reverance is there for all to see – the first reference if i remember correctly is about Tendulkar 241 where he starts by referring to Tendulkar as the maestro…. There is respect for Dravid as well. And in general there is respect for genuine quicks. Not so much for the steadier bowlers. In Waugh’s time as captain, only India really stretched him, and that shows..

  16. This has nothing to do with the discussion above (well, only tangentially in that it concerns Slater). During the 2001/2002 Aussie cricket season, I went to see New South Wales play Queensland in the Mercantile Cup at the Blacktown Oval (the Waugh’s hometown). Slater was fielding right in front of us, and I must say, I’ve never seen a more entertaining cricketer in terms of his repartee with the crowd. When I learned of his personal troubles later, I was shocked.

    Cheers,
    Samir

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