It’s official: Aussie sport has gone soft

The once all-conquering Aussie cricket team has dropped four players for not handing in their homework. WTF?

Duleep Allirajah

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Strewth! What on earth’s going on with the Aussie cricket team? Four players dropped for not providing feedback. It’s beyond satire. And that on top of a wretched medal haul at last summer’s Olympics. It begs the question: are the Australians losing their Aussie-ness?

There’s an episode of the American sitcom Happy Days where The Fonz loses his ‘cool’. The Fonz was cool. It was what defined him. Right now it seems that the Aussies are going through a similarly traumatic moment. They’re losing their Aussie essence. Their sports stars embodied the winning mentality. For a quarter of a century, the Australian Institute of Sport was a hothouse for sporting champions. It seemed that Aussies were natural-born winners; that sporting excellence was hardwired into their DNA.

But, alas for them, they seem to have lost the knack of winning. Their cricket team, currently getting their butts spanked in India, is a pale shadow of the all-conquering Aussie sides of the past two decades. Their Olympic team flopped at London 2012, bagging just one gold. In swimming, their strongest event, the Australians spectacularly underperformed, failing to win a single individual gold for the first time since 1972. Now, the men’s 4 x 100 metres relay squad is facing an ‘integrity panel’ after admitting that team members had taken sleeping pills. They are getting hauled over the coals even though the pills in question weren’t on the World Anti-Doping Agency banned list. Not only have they lost the winning knack, they’re starting to reveal the same corrosive traits that have dogged British sport for years. The whingeing and self-loathing for which the Poms were famed now seem to have infected Australian sporting culture.

The suspension of four members of the cricket touring party in India illustrates the depths to which Aussie sport has sunk. It was comedy gold. Vice-captain Shane Watson was suspended, along with team-mates Mitchell Johnson, Usma Khawaja and James Pattinson, for failing to do their homework. Coach Micky Arthur had asked the team to provide feedback on three areas for improvement after Australia had been comprehensively defeated in the first two Tests. It’s quite right for a coach to expect players to take responsibility for poor performances. But to ask cricketers to provide written feedback, as you might do in a white-collar job, is the worst kind of David Brent-style management-by-numbers.

Where do they learn this nonsense? A diploma from the Joe Mangel Business Institute? There’s more than a whiff of Chairman Mao’s infamous self-criticism sessions here: grotesque public confessionals where party officials were forced to denounce themselves. Wherever the Aussies have picked up the feedback gimmick from, it’s clearly not the way to galvanise a group of demoralised cricketers. What’s wrong with the old-fashioned Fergie-style hairdryer treatment? Or perhaps a team-bonding session? Queens Park Rangers’ reported five-day binge in Dubai doesn’t seem like a bad idea after all now that the R’s have shown a bit of fight in recent games. But whichever strategy you prefer – whether it’s tough love or an arm round the shoulder – you must speak in a language the players understand. Using management mumbo-jumbo is a calamitous miscalculation.

The suspensions have quite rightly been slammed by former Australian stars. ‘I’m surprised that’s the penalty for something so mundane’, said former captain Alan Border. ‘It seems like it was on a schoolboy tour or something. It’s an over-the-top reaction.’ Mark Waugh was similarly dismayed: ‘I’ve never heard anything so stupid in all my life. It’s not under-sixes – this is Test cricket.’ Invariably, the disarray in the Aussie ranks has been the source of considerable mirth among the Poms. ‘What I am confused by is that the coach of Australia asked the players for only three things to improve the team??’ tweeted former England captain Michael Vaughan. ‘If you want feedback listen to Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner”. I’m off to the nets’, former batsman Mark Butcher quipped on Twitter.

While the English are indulging in Schadenfraude, the Australians have some soul-searching to do. The madcap idea to give the players ‘must do better’ homework suggests Australian sport is caught between new and old cultures. The rebellious, tough-as-nails larrikin culture, from which sprang cricketers like Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee, is giving way to a more therapeutic culture in which individuals are assumed to be fragile and vulnerable. The Aussies, dare I say it, seem to be going soft. It’s a problem which has been evident for some time. In 2008, the tour of India was nearly cancelled after the Australians complained that Harbhajan Singh had racially abused Andrew Symonds. The following year, Cricket Australia instructed its players to refrain from ‘sledging’ on the eve of the Ashes series in England.

The feedback episode shows that business practices can’t simply be transplanted on to cricket. Sporting culture is ruthless, meritocratic and unforgiving. Players understand they’ll get a rollicking if they screw up. They know that they will be dropped if they don’t perform. But getting suspended for not providing feedback? What’s that all about? It is something entirely alien to sporting culture. This whole sorry episode suggests that the coaching team has lost the plot.

Sportsmen who can’t win. Coaches who can’t provide leadership. It’s a complete mess. I’d fear for Australian sport… if I wasn’t laughing so much.

Duleep Allirajah is spiked’s sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter @DuleepOffside.

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