On Imposing Discipline..

Rohit Brijnath’s piece on the Australian Cricket saga of the past few days. From this morning’s Straits Times.

 

REVENGE is always gleeful. Mauled on the field by Australia, envious of their casual unity, cricketing nations have spent decades in painful prostration before them. Now, in a delicious irony, a grinning world is offering them lessons on team culture and spirit. If you live long enough, there is nothing in sport you will not see.

Four Australian cricketers – James Pattinson, Mitchell Johnson, Shane Watson, Usman Khawaja – have been ignored for selection for the third Test in India notionally for not sending in suggestions to coach Mickey Arthur on how to improve their team. It seems the equivalent of being asked to stand outside class for forgetting homework. For a macho nation, it is a hideous image.

The only paperwork that once concerned Australians was the scoresheet. They wrote history on it, not notes. An Australian journalist described the crime to me as a “parking infringement”. A former cricket coach of another nation noted “the Australians are cracking”. In football, where Wayne Rooney was once benched for a night out, this spanking would be standard; in cricket’s unique world, this is contentious.

Team captain Michael Clarke later insisted more was at play here: “I want the public and the media to understand, it’s not just about one incident.” Yet, nothing was spelt out, a lack of transparency about the sins at hand which led only to speculation. Clarke does not like Khawaja. An egotistical Watson’s exit was planned. In this, team management has slightly mismanaged a team.

Argument is raging like a verbal bushfire. The former cricket coach told me “not everyone likes to write”. Presumably, they can at least text. Times have changed. Shane Warne in his day might have turned any request form into a paper plane, but his homework was evident in his performance.

Exceptions for sinning are always made, but usually for the exceptional. As the saying goes, “the bigger the pain in the a** you are, the bigger your game had better be.” The old Australians were dominant and victory forgives everything. The current practitioners are mostly average and only building a culture and every little thing matters. Be on time. Fulfil media duties. Obey the captain.

The former cricket coach asks: “Did the players know if they didn’t respond they wouldn’t be in the next Test?” If it wasn’t clear, why not? If it was, what does it reveal of their motivation?

Indeed, if Khawaja, on the team’s periphery, is keen to play, such a minor task like listing three points in four days should be within the ambit of even someone with a tiny attention span. The counterpoint is that, if the task is minor, so should be the penalty.

In most sports, the coach is revealed as an autocrat, personified best by Alex Ferguson, who runs a well-documented hair-dryer company. But cricket’s ruling figure is the captain. In a long game full of tactical consideration, he fashions the culture, his position is not ceremonial but deeply influential.

For traditionalists, the modern cricket coach is an inflated invention, who mistakenly sees himself as a football-like figure. But he is supposed to only assist the captain, not dilute his role.

But, since it is Clarke’s team, he must wear responsibility for their slackness. And, if he is unhappy with discipline, he should have spoken out first – not Arthur who is being mocked – and with clarity and authority about his indiscreet team-mates. Sometimes the identity of the voice gives a legitimacy to a punishment.

But, either way, discipline is non-negotiable as teams are constructed. John Wooden, the US college basketball coach, insisted in the 1950s that his team never use profanity, criticise each other or arrive late. Others bind teams through ceremonial acts, like the the Australians visiting Gallipoli to remember their war dead.

Playing for a nation should be sufficient motivation to walk a disciplined line. But, in a distracting, celebrity world, all manner of ideas, some in the guise of gimmicks like listing three points, is flirted with in the search of spirit.

When it works, it is brilliant invention. With Australia currently, little is working, and, if their harsh penalty has earned ridicule, it also might be calculated to get the players’ attention. The danger is revolt, the reward might be a higher new standard.

With its dope scandals, the silliness of its swim team and now the cricket controversy, Australian sport, once a model, now looks bruised. It only proves that great sporting cultures do not simply keep breathing strongly but must be carefully preserved.

The cricketing management believes, and not entirely wrongly, that success in the short-term is worth sacrificing for a process to be set in place. But, by allowing it to become a public and ridiculous spectacle, a presumed lesson on discipline has turned also to evident distraction. A good point has been clumsily made.

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