Three Thoughts on Australia’s HomeworkGate

1. Michael Clarke says that the punishment came after a series of incidents, and not just one. Let’s assume he’s telling the truth — that is, let’s assume he didn’t rest four players (including his best pace bowler) because they didn’t complete a “mundane” assignment (more on that later). Let’s also realize that the issue involves more than silly paperwork. The culture of an organization — in this case, a cricket squad — is immensely important. (John Wright, India’s first successful foreign coach, once marveled at how junior Indian cricketers would have to bring tea to the seniors– a tradition that no doubt unleashed waves of resentment, entitlement, etc.) For a team like Australia, where most of the players haven’t played many Tests, this period marks a dangerous moment: the rookies don’t know the traditions or the rituals or the customs, and they could set Australia on a course very different from the one it’s been on for the past 15 years. Listen to what Clarke says:

“We can’t accept mediocrity here. This is the Australian cricket team. Maybe I am biased [but] there is a big difference between this team and other cricket teams. If you play for Australia there is a lot that comes with that and standards, discipline, culture that is all a big part of what we are talking about here.” [emphasis added]

Clarke sees the future, and it’s bleak. He probably knows that Australia will likely not dominate the way it did in the 1990s and 2000s, but there’s a still a lot of room between South Africa and Bangladesh. We can disagree about where culture comes from, or how best to enforce its norms. [The Indians tend to favor a fatherly foreign coach who leads by example (Kirsten apparently moved Indian cricketers to become fit because he was, as a 40-plus-year-old, more capable than they were) or by gentle coaxing. Not really sure what moves Australians.]

2. I find it a bit strange to read posts about how Australia’s management technique appears to be ripped straight from Office Space, a 1990s film that lampooned the tedious, bureaucratic and often meaningless rituals of American managerial culture. So some people didn’t file their paperwork before a deadline! Big deal! What if they were training all day? Yeah, except this is what modern athlete management looks like. It means that players have to file tons of paperwork to let coaches know their fitness levels, how much they need to train, and rest, etc. When we were all praising England’s player management, what did we think we were talking about? This is the “price of modern cricket,” as I wrote in 2011 — someone records and analyzes hundreds of hours of video footage, then tells bowlers what’s wrong with their action, and then the players train obsessively to correct it. Or players go on the field wearing instruments strapped to their arm to measure every single step they take. The reason I find the Indian approach to cricket exasperating is that it is largely unplanned, ad hoc, and driven by often competing (and fickle) impulses.

3. In 2010, I quoted from David Foster Wallace’s incredible profile of Michael Joyce, in which he examined the kind of intelligence that is needed to succeed as a modern athlete. Wallace’s conclusion — that you have to completely zone out as many intellectual distractions as possible — suggests modern athletes are, basically, a special kind of dumb. Now, in that post, I wondered whether the same could be said of cricketers, whom I like to think are a breed apart from their colleagues in soccer or rugby or swimming or even tennis. The sheer complexity of Test cricket and its length of time require both discipline and strategic nous.

Or does it? Tom Moody’s reaction to the sacking was basically, ‘Well, fast bowlers aren’t the best at writing reports.’ But Mickey Arthur presumably wasn’t asking for intellectual manuscripts; he wanted his cricketers to reflect and think about their game. It’s a very common exercise in coaching — “Tell me what you think you did wrong” — as it forces you to get out of habit and to see your flaws. Wasim Akram once said that he’d often be frustrated when batsmen-captains hoped to get him to bowl better by saying cliched stuff like, “Line and length, line and length.” Wasim would think, “But why am I not bowling line and length right now? Why am I failing?” So, this wasn’t really that ridiculous an assignment at all — if you want a bunch of players who can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and express them clearly enough, then this makes perfect sense to me.

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12 thoughts on “Three Thoughts on Australia’s HomeworkGate

  1. I was going to pen something about this absurd situation that Australia have amusingly (from afar) backed themselves into, but you’ve done it much better than I would have bothered to do so I’ll leave it :) I really don’t get the situation, how has it been allowed to come down to this!?! It’s nuts.

  2. ram says:

    Oh come on! Putting aside corporate-management-psychobabble, the question is whether the punishment fit the crime. Its difficult to agree with Watson on anything, but he’s right when he says you usually get this only in much more serious circumstances – like getting drunk and falling off a pedalo or turning up drunk for practice or getting high on drugs or hiring a plane and flying it over a practice match or selling pitch info to bookies. The second question is whether the dirty laundary needed to be aired to the world. Pattinson could ve been informed player managmented away, Watson could ve been dropped on performance or sent to his wife, no questions would ve been asked about Johnson. Khawaja was the only issue. What did they gain by going public? In the end it all depends on where they go from here meaning the next 2 tests & the ashes. Win and everything would be forgotten. Lose and it will be even more chaos.

  3. awbraae says:

    I actually changed my opinion somewhat after reading this piece. Previously I had firmly thought that it was a ridiculous, managerial overreaction to people not being bothered doing a pointless exercise. To a degree though, you are right. These people are modern athletes, and that means having a high degree of knowledge about your own game, often in minute detail. Its fair enough that after two losses each player should be able to look at their game and pick out small flaws that they should work on.

    Having said that, how is dropping a key bowler, a key batsman, and two replacements who a) weren’t playing so can’t really contribute to the assignment and b) might well have been called into the team going to help Australia turn the tour around? You speak of a long term culture that the management are trying to instill, but in the short term a move like this will likely lose them the next two matches. How will a humiliation at the hands of an arguably pretty average Indian side help the confidence of the younger players in the team? Do they really want the message that they can’t win in India burned into their memories?

    Besides, now Smith will probably play. Thats not good news for anyone.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      Yes, things do look a little bleak at Mohali. I was surprised to hear Clarke say that he didn’t even look at the names — that is, he didn’t consider the implications for the next Test match. It could have been his entire top order, and he’d still have done it!

      I’m not sure, though, that Australia would have had a fair chance even with the suspended players, frankly. Confidence is a strange thing — I remember when India were losing eight Tests overseas, we all wanted something to be done. Some urgency! Some action! Some change! Instead, the team largely kept going the same way…So perhaps this represents a productive rupture?

  4. Samir Chopra says:

    Rohan,

    Modern corporate management techniques are grossly inefficient, productive of waste, and destructive of employee morale. The only people who like them are management consultants. A domain of human activity requires solutions pitched to the nature of the activity – that is the problem with the wholesale importation of Price Waterhouse style tactics into cricket.

    • duckingbeamers says:

      I’m just as wary of modern management techniques as you are, Samir. But this post wasn’t meant to be an endorsement of all things American corporation. I think cricket teams can justly care about things like culture and norms about discipline and practice and attitude, right? And if more detailed analyses of a player’s health and physical data can reduce injuries and improve performance…well, it’s difficult to argue with the mounting paperwork, no?

      I was just listening to Gideon Haigh’s take on this (w/ J Kimber), and he bemoans this trend wherein cricketers have become increasingly passive and instead rely more on the coach for insights into the game. This goes to my question — are cricketers now like other modern athletes? That is, are they just dumb? Or can we still hold out for intellectual cricketers who are able to dissect the game on their own?

      Another interesting question — can you imagine an Indian captain exercising Clarke’s level of authority on his team? Because I can’t. I’m fairly sure Dhoni has wanted to strangle Virender Sehwag for a year now…

      • ram says:

        That’s because Dhoni has to manage legends. Clarke can assert his will because he is the only one in his team. By your logic, I am sure Clarke would have wanted to strangle Ponting at some times too.
        Again just because they did’nt fill out a form does not mean they don’t think about their game. But just take a look at CA speak – Stakeholders, National Talent Managers, Team Directors, Team Performance Managers, Informed Player Management et al – It is all just spin. The Corporate takeover of Cricket is almost complete.

  5. Nishant says:

    My thoughts on the HomeWorkGate.
    Getting a censure for not completing an assigned task of time is something expected. What makes the situation here different is the scale of response and the public manner in which it has been carried out. There is certainly more to the situation than meets the eye.

    Detailed post here http://www.batball2cricket.blogspot.in/2013/03/homeworkgate.html

  6. Sahil says:

    I really enjoyed this blog and it certainly challenged my take on the goings on.Though as the author of said Office Space comparison I should assert I was not saying Australia’s management technique was ripped straight out of Office Space.

    Rather homeworkgate to me seemed to belong to a ideology that’s growing as much in cricket as it is in many other areas of the political economy, namely US-style managerialism. It is a belief that individuals can work best when carefully controlled by a central authority dreaming up objective measurements and tasks. This is why it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a Clarke-led move or Mickey Arthur, in either case they are extending the belief.

    I think the point with England is very relevant. Two years ago I was very taken with the fact an extensive and strong management team had turned a bunch of good players into the world’s best team. But two years later the limits have shown. England don’t have less injuries, don’t take more catches and aren’t better adjusted to all conditions than ever before. Despite all the stats wizardry and careful fitness monitoring nothing has significantly changed about how they approach the game.

    I don’t doubt highly-paid cricketers need to be wholly committed and work hard to maximise their potential. I do, however, question whether the managerial techniques that have grabbed the sport over the last 10 years really help that. Moreover being caught in a managerial system robs players of responsibility and agency over improving their skills.

    It hasn’t markedly improved standards in cricket much like managerialism hasn’t markedly improved productivity in the US or British economies. It has, however, created a flourishing industry around itself and is an mode of thought we need to critically reflect on.

  7. [...] the story than a simple punishment for not doing homework, as it originally seemed. The excellent Ducking Beamers piece on the matter suggested the move was part of a wider play to install a better culture and [...]

  8. test says:

    You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complex and extremely broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I’ll try to get the hang of it!

  9. awbraae says:

    By the way, thanks for introducing me to that incredible article by Wallace.

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