Wednesday, December 15, 2010

It's not you, it's me.

Greg Chappell's job title is Australian cricket's "High Performance Manager". Even though the Chairman of Selectors is Andrew Hilditch, Chappell's moniker may as well be "de facto Head of Selection". After a series of bewildering selections and speedy discards, Chappell was brought in recently to head up the team designed to make Australian cricket a world power again. His presence on the selection committee meant no more space for Merv Hughes, the only bowler on the panel. His appointment was met with joy and expectation by Aussie fans dismayed at the performances of their team - very much the hero striding back to our aid in an hour of need.

It's Chappell's second stint on the Australian selection panel after being one of the boffins behind the youth movement of the mid 1980s. In fact, between 1985 and 1989 Australia debuted twenty new players. Since regaining the Ashes loss in 2007 where Australia the search its ranks for heirs to the thrones of Warne, McGrath, Langer and Martyn began in earnest, Australia has doled out twenty-one new Baggy Greens, with Michael Beer expected to receive the twenty-second on Thursday.

It's obvious to the outside eye that change is needed in Australian cricket and is needed as soon as possible. By selecting Beer instead of the tried and true Nathan Hauritz - who still has almost insurmountable claims to being Australia's premier spin bowler - the selection panel has sent a strong message, intended or not. By first discarding him for Doherty and then scouring every possible option rather than recall him despite career-best form recently, Chappell and his cohort have essentially told Hauritz one of two things - his Australian career is over or hangs by the slimmest of threads. The same message has not, however, been delivered to Mitchell Johnson whose recall to the Test team looks assured.

Chappell has a great cricketing brain. He speaks lucidly, giving thought to his words and had perhaps the greatest mental preparedness for batting that the game has seen. He's long been thought to impart his remarkable knowledge well to younger players, even if he does it in a very business-like way. He now also may be our best hope for a quick return to the top. However, his early gambits in this role seem to mirror slightly his stint in charge of Indian cricket, where as coach he fell foul of the whims of then-captain Sourav Ganguly. Behind the dispute was Chappell's desire to replenish the One-Day team in particular with younger players, specifically guys like Suresh Raina and Sreesanth. When told he could be included in the players who would make way, Ganguly led a near full-scale revolt against the coach and the player-coach relationship, probably fraught in that case to start with, was irreparably damaged. Chappell's tenure was undermined to such an extent that his position was untenable. The ill-feeling that persisted from that fallout has been fingered by a number of Indian cricketers as the chief reason for their underperformance in the 2007 World Cup.

With several of their stars ageing, Chappell saw a real need for change in the team and set about making those changes. Not being privy to how he delivered his message to those senior team members it's impossible to know how tactful he was; but one of Chappell's most obvious (and endearing) qualities has always been his honesty and frankness. It's quite possible that he was simply too honest for renowned prima-donna Ganguly; it's also possible that need for change could have been either postponed until after the 2007 World Cup or administered in a graduated manner rather than the "making space in the squad to add youth" method purported by "Guru Greg".

Of course this is all theory, but it does sit well: with Chappell now chief among them, the selectors have acted similarly with Hauritz, a player thought behind the scenes to be overly sensitive. It seems the mindset behind the team is now "Change is needed, so make that change as soon as possible". Sometimes sensitive players appreciate frankness and other times not. In a time where cricket has demanded so many sacrifices of the current players, how could an incumbent player not take brick-wall honesty concerning their future prospects as reproof?

As further testament to Chappell's ability to call a spade a bloody-great-shovel, Dean Jones remarked in his 1994 autobiography "Deano" that at the beginning of the 1984-85 season, newly minted selector Chappell approached him at Victorian training with the news that he had no chance of playing for Australia in the foreseeable future. At the time, the Test debutant was gutted and reflected in print that it was a harsh thing to say so frankly. Always a businessman on the cricket field, Chappell had his poker face on and Jones says he didn't elucidate further.

Australian cricket is a business, and has been for players since Gregory Stephen Chappell was amongst the first players to sign with Packer in 1977. But it's a business that operates unlike any other business in the world, so traditional business methods - poker faces, "step into my office" and water cooler discussion - don't work like they do in the outside world. Suddenly the business depends on the headspace of his men who often haven't worked in that outside world and who have been treated differently ever since they were acne-spotted early teens. If Chappell does deal with players playing his "CEO game" then he risks alienating any Ganguly-types in the dressing room.

There's no question he's a bonus to have in the Australian camp however and forthrightness is something that lacks in pro sports so in some ways it is very refreshing. Chappell's reputed unorthodox cricket coaching methods have a large role to play in the development of the next World Beaters from Down Under and as many other nations have adopted the analysis techniques made famous by John Buchanan an amount of the maverick could serve Australian cricket well as it searches for a new personality after the outgoing Warne, the taciturn Ponting and the redoubtable McGrath. An asset sure, but it appears we're witnessing a synchronisation where his style takes time to mesh fluidly with the players he's going to be managing.

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