Australian Coach Diary: Coach v Player Power Ripples
The topic of player power was on the table last week as the latest round of IPL mega auctions became the weekend’s top sporting agenda. To lend weight to the growing concern is the ripple effect of the recently concluded Ashes that is still being felt, as not only did England lose their ‘popular’ coach but also Australia got rid of their unpopular one, the ICC Twenty20 World Cup success notwithstanding.
Speculation grows not only about England’s new coach but also Australia's. Not what one would have expected. Although the Ashes seems like a done and dusted affair with Australia coming up predictably triumphant by a margin of 4-0, on the face of it, it would seem like a strange story that while England’s situation of downsizing was expected, Australia should not have been allowing a coach to slip through the fingers, particularly a coach who helped pull Australia out of one of its lowest moments in cricket history. At the very least, it could have been handled undramatically.
Justin Langer’s sudden resignation midway last week caused shockwaves, but nowhere more than within Australia’s own cricket fraternity. Those who have spoken up in favour of Justin Langer, which includes several of his former teammates, have been accused of wanting to hold up the old brigade.
The fact of the matter remains that the current Australian cricket team has not earned its badge to dictate terms of who they want as their next coach or to fashion a coach’s exit without the collusion of their cricket board, which is what makes this eyebrow-raising and a disturbing trend.
In a span of three months into the Test captaincy, Pat Cummins is realizing that the captaincy job is not just one of responsibility but also, diplomacy, both being put to the test.
His latest, rather lengthy statement in the media have done little to ease the tensions or the perception that the coach had been left out to dry by the current crop of cricketers, setting plausibly a worrying precedent for how the composition of the Australian dressing room is going to be made up in the future.
If the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) (read: Sourav Ganguly and Jay Shah) has been accused of being a puppet master, engineering an untimely vacuum in Test cricket leadership after the captaincy drama, Cricket Australia has been directly accused of chasing the big bucks and allowing players to hold more sway than they have been deemed worthy of.
CA’s handling of the sandpaper-gate has once again been brought front and centre, in the wake of Langer resigning after being handed a six month extended stint, a trial of sorts after four years at the helm.
It was no surprise given the stories – from the serious to the ridicule about Langer’s rigid methods and rigourous discipline and demands – that have circulated over the past year, that eventually despite the coach’s concerted efforts to curb his own style and adapt, the Australian cricket team’s mind had been pretty much made up, jumping at the chance to make the case as was evidenced in Cummins’ own statement.
Here is Cummins’ statement (versus Langer’s) which pretty much tells the story:
“Justin has acknowledged his style was intense, he has apologized to players and staff for his intensity, and I think the apology was unnecessary because the players were okay with JL’s intensity. His intensity was not the issue for the players and support staff. To be better players of Australia, from this solid foundation, we need a new style of coaching and skill set.”
Responding to the fact that there has been public derision of the way the matter was handled and how the Australian players triggered the coach’s exit, Cummins came out, but only seemed to incriminate himself and his team mates, “To all past players, I want to say this: just as you have always stuck up for your mates, I’m sticking up for mine.”
Brought to the fore was the issue of how Justin Langer had taken over from Darren Lehmann in the immediate aftermath of the 2018 sandpaper-gate scandal in the Cape Town Test, when David Warner, then captain Steve Smith and greenhorn Cameron Bancroft were handed limited time bans for their role in the ball tampering.
Conjecture though never died down that there might have been more to the story that Cricket Australia swooped in to shove under the carpet, implicating as it did bowlers who might have had a larger role to play with the ball. While the speculation has been reignited in the wake of Langer’s unceremonious exit, Cricket Australia’s own ethics and practices have been brought into question, coming as does Langer’s exit on the heels of Tim Paine’s resignation of the Test captaincy three weeks before the start of the Ashes series at home and the reappointment of Steve Smith to a leadership role within the team.
What came to light was not only Paine’s extramarital affair with a CA official but also, of the fact that CA was in the knowing, and chose once more to look the other way when appointing him as the captain after sandpaper-gate even as Langer was talking about bringing “integrity” back to the Australian game and also, used terms like “elite honesty”.
Not many in Australia were excited by the prospect that CA was reconsidering Steve Smith for the services of captaincy, even his elevation to vice captain being questioned after repeated gaffes, none more telling than in South Africa during sandpaper-gate. Not only did it show lack of leadership talent in the squad but also, CA’s myopic vision, they contended.
From taking a ramshackle Australian team in the doldrums, to the heights of drawing the Ashes in England and then following it with the Ashes win at home, that followed Australia’s first trophy triumph in the Twenty20 format in the ICC Twenty20 World Cup in 2021 in the UAE – coming on the back of confidence crushing back-to-back 4-1 defeats in Twenty20 series to Bangladesh and the West Indies, Langer played a heavy hand in bringing some pride back into the Australian game, even as players did not always create the aura of being impregnable as their predecessors did.
Much has been debated, discussed and dissected in the wake of Virat Kohli’s abrupt resignation as India’s Test captain. With an ego tussle with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) chief, Sourav Ganguly at the heart of conspiracy theories, it soon became a case of a senior board official overreaching versus a player enjoying unprecedented amount of power and influence, even to decide which coach stays or goes.
Although it appeared that at one time, Kohli did get his way and Anil Kumble’s one year checkered Indian coach tenure met a watery grave for the preferred choice in Ravi Shastri, the latter’s exit has caused the inevitable, indubitable dilution of power for Kohli, leading to the sequence of events that have divided fans, leading to a collective conjecture of how the aggressive battle between top board officials and captain-cum-mainstay batsman was reducing Indian cricket to tatters in terms of an obvious leadership vacuum.
Back in England, a different kind of breeze is blowing, with certain players irate over the manner in which the England and Wales Cricket Board is going about making changes to the squad ahead of the series against the West Indies.
Amongst the handful of players shown the door after the Ashes were 39 year old James Anderson and 35 year old Stuart Broad. Although Andrew Strauss, the interim director of cricket, did not talk about this being the end of the road for either player, Broad in particular has been pretty vocal given that both fast bowlers, despite their age, were not only not used throughout the Ashes because of a rest and rotation policy that defied logic when England were in the trenches and also, were instrumental for the bulk of the wickets in the matches that they did play.
Disgruntlement is already doing the rounds because Joe Root apparently has his job by the skin of his teeth in the absence of a worthy contender to challenge him for the post of England’s Test captain. England’s cricketing director, Ashley Giles, Chris Silverwood, England’s head coach, and Graham Thorpe have been given the pink slip.
England were racked with accusations, coming from Root amongst others, that while England had taken their white ball ambitions seriously, Test cricket was allowed to stagnate not just because of the board’s apathy. What Root did not mention was another accusation that the team goals were watered down because of the coach’s easy going, back slapping relationship with some of the players in the England squad. Much in contrast to Australia’s conundrum vis-à-vis their coach but very different in one telling aspect, “too soft,” seemed to be the verdict to explain the downfall of Silverwood’s reign as England’s coach.
Ironically it was apparent to all and sundry that England were always going to struggle in Australia. The result was never in doubt. Whether England could have wrung in the change regarding their coach before the anticipated embarrassment is debatable, leading either to the conclusion that the ECB were looking for an excuse beyond reasonable doubt and beyond the reach of the players who share an affable respect with the coach to oust the coach or were simply willing to gamble on the results, unmindful of the status of Test cricket or the ICC World Test championship.
While Silverwood’s removal was met with almost disturbing nonchalance, Langer’s scenario is showing no sign of fading from the airwaves. Former captains/players including Mark Taylor, Ricky Ponting, Adam Gilchrist and even Mitchell Johnson (who described Cummins as “gutless”) and Shane Warne weighed in on the shocking turn of events, calling it “embarrassing for Australian cricket”, a “sad day”, and “disgraceful” amongst a few choice words.
Although Warne was one of the biggest critics of John Buchanan who held the coaching post at the height of Australia’s dominance in the late 1990’s and 2000’s, even he seemed quite flabbergasted. He contended that respect was not being given where it was due, citing the case of sacking Paine who had been appointed by CA as Australia’s captain after sandpaper-gate despite full knowledge of his personal transgressions, though CA was not made accountable for the decision.
He even went on to suggest that Australian cricket’s turnaround took four years in the making and that if Langer has been unusually high handed, then perhaps the players needed it to be where they are now. Warne called it the “New South Wales mafia”, New South Wales being where Cummins and Warner come from. He even suggested on a podcast that Warner was given unusual choice to pick his opening partner ahead of the Ashes and was granted Joe Burns as per his wish, to highlight just one case of how matters were being handled in the dressing room.
Adam Gilchrist wrote: “Still can’t get over what a pathetic day for Australian cricket yesterday was.” The former wicketkeeper-batsman is of the contention that while analysis and statistics have their place, they have been used merely as an excuse by Cricket Australia who, in his opinion, have a “churn and burn” mentality, failing to account for human endeavour and cost as well as capital, allowing current players to create bad blood which might drive away former players, after the Langer incident, to take up instrumental coaching positions in the future.
Brad Hogg took to his social media to write:
“He (Langer) picked up the pieces, a little more – sorry, but a lot more respect should be shown. History has shown that if you don’t have a leader at the helm who is willing to call a spade a spade, it can lead to a period of decay.”
Only a year ago, CA chief executive, Nick Hockley, was forced to address the issue in public – after stories circulated about players’ grievances with the coach, “His (Langer’s) efforts have restored public faith in the national team which is a side all Australians can be incredibly proud of.”
Cummins may have been forced to come out in public and lay the facts on the table as they stand. But what he has done is only add fuel to the conjecture that Cummins was not on board to begin with and was merely falling in with the consensus of a group of players in the Australian dressing room who had been wanting Langer out.
In terms of defining moments in a captain’s life, this is one Cummins might not be too proud of, looking back.
In trying to clear the air, he might have tried to shift some of the axis of focus on Langer by pointing to Langer’s backing down of his coaching style. But it shows that the captain’s mind was made up or made up for him, well before time ran out for Langer as many contend.
While it might be that a team needs to find a new coach, the manner in which it has been speculated about how the players went about it, unmindful of Langer’s contributions has been disappointing. With an almost tabloid-like reportage on the issue with Michael Vaughan, the former England captain, sounding a note of concern directly to Cummins, about “you are always under watch”, while alluding to a public bar conversation that purportedly went down even before the Hobart Test that involved the Australian captain in the cutting down of the coach as overheard by two journalists in the British media has brought Australia to a new low.
Langer’s candidness (albeit through his management company on social media) throws light on the unsung hero’s arduous assignment four years ago and also, on the current state of affairs which is rather telling:
“After careful consideration I have decided not to accept this contract renewal (for six months), and as a result I believe it is in everyone’s best interests for the Australian cricket team to begin the next chapter immediately.
“If media reports are correct, several senior players and a couple of support staff don’t support me moving forward, and it is now apparent the CA board, and you, Nick (Hockley, CA chief), are also keen to see the team move in another direction. I respect that decision.”
The note with which Langer left his message encapsulates the feeling as Australia’s cricket fraternity continues to live in shock over recent events rather than be on a high over painstakingly accrued results, “Whilst it is not up to me to judge, I hope Australians respect what has been achieved over the last four years in Australian cricket.” A sad epitaph for what should have been crowning glory for the recent Hall of Fame inductee.