Australian Captain as Selector has a poisoned chalice?

Gideon Haigh, courtesy of The Weekend Australian, 5-6 November 2011 — under the title “Katich might have done captain Pup a favour”

STEVE Waugh’s autobiography contains a memorable cameo of Simon Katich at a fitness session with NSW in the pre-season of 2002-3, when players were set a rock-climbing exercise. Three-quarters of the way up the vertical face, Katich’s body seized. But rather than admit defeat, he hung there for 40 minutes “unable to progress but steadfastly refusing to back down”. Ironically, Waugh thought that such tenacity was why Katich would one day make a fine Australian captain.

It didn’t work out that way. In clinging to the slippery rockface of Australian cricket now, Katich is making life awkward for the captaincy’s latest office-holder. The rancour is doing something else too: it is pointing out the dubious advisability of the captain doubling as a selector, as recommended in August by the Argus review.To Katich’s recent assertions that Clarke had influenced the termination of his Cricket Australia contract this year Clarke, amplified by Cricket Australia’s chief executive James Sutherland, had the ready counter that he was not involved in the relevant selection deliberations.

It was not a resounding refutation, it being difficult to credit that the selectors did not consult their new captain at all. But having had no actual vote on Katich’s position, Clarke was free to avail himself of what in politics is known as “plausible deniability”.

Don Argus’s wise men want this to change. They have described entrusting captains with selection responsibilities as ensuring “appropriate authority and accountability”. Now, there is much to be said for “accountability”. After all, who, apart from the executive board of the International Cricket Council, believes in “unaccountability”?

In these days of cricketers cowering behind the “bowling plan” and the “batting group” like petty bureaucrats, there’s even something quaintly refreshing about the idea. But there are also sound cultural reasons for cricket’s traditional separation of powers, between leadership and selection.

Players are optimists. They have to be. They must trust their talents. They must continue believing when runs and wickets are scarce that they lurk just around the corner. “Who ever hoped like a cricketer?” asked that most feeling of English cricket writers, R.C. Robertson-Glasgow.

Players collude in that optimism in others, too, and captains not least of all. When the out-of-form batsman claims to still be hitting it well, no skipper retorts: “You’re fooling yourself. At the moment, you couldn’t drive a dodgem and you couldn’t cut a sandwich.”

Selectors transact not in hope but in expectation. They deal in dark truths, not white lies. They have their instincts, too, but must exercise them disinterestedly, and in the interests of fairness to all need to limit their indulgence of the few. A persuasive voice in the advocacy of the captain joining the selection panel would almost certainly have been Clarke’s predecessor. Ricky Ponting publicly coveted the role of selector. With his unrivalled reputation and uncommon sense, he would probably have made a good one. Some hunches in which he has enlisted selectors have paid off handsomely, Mitchell Johnson’s inclusion at the WACA last summer a case in point.

But here’s the thing: Michael Clarke is not Ricky Ponting. And in certain key respects, he is very far from Ponting indeed. In succeeding Ponting with Clarke,Australiahas done more than simply swap names at the top of the team sheet. They have replaced a captain who cared very little what people thought with one who cares a lot. Ponting was the most insouciant captain since Allan Border. Not that he was tactless or taciturn – well, not too often in public anyway. But in handling his team on and off the field, he was the straightest of arrows. In an era that prefers its celebrities more emollient, he retained an old-fashioned abrasive edge.

Clarke’s nickname “Pup” was bestowed in recognition of his sunny, unfeigned, eager-to-please, happy-to-help disposition as a junior. Clarke remains conscious of his profile. He is good with the public. He is accessible to sponsors. He mouths agreeable nothings with the media. Thinking before he speaks, he tailors responses to his audience.

These are not, by the way, wholly negative qualities – some are useful attributes for an Australian captain. It is impossible, for example, to imagine Clarke growing as stroppy with umpires as Ponting did – perhaps his one consistent leadership shortcoming.

But are Clarke’s qualities, though, those of a selector? A selector should avoid situations of needing to tell a player one thing and do another. A selector must set personal considerations aside, and on occasion bear bad tidings.

And while it is pleasant handing out baggy greens, it is not so easy grabbing them back. Relations between Steve Waugh and Shane Warne, once so warm, never regained their cordiality after Waugh’s part in Warne’s omission from the Test team in April 1999.

Throwing Justin Langer then Michael Slater under the team bus in 2001 further convinced Waugh to tell CA’s Sutherland that having players make selection calls was potentially divisive: “The game was now a business, and critical decisions such as selections needed to be based totally on clear thinking and made by those who were a step back from the coalface.”

Interestingly, Waugh was a member of the Argus review committee that advocated restoring powers he traded away. But the game is no less a business than a decade ago. WithAustralianow a mid-table Test team, the coalface is also a good deal grimier.

CA recently took its most positive step in years by appointing as “national selector” John Inverarity, one of cricket’s nimblest minds. But Clarke should be acute enough to grasp that, especially at this stage in his incumbency, it is not his interests to shoulder selection responsibilities also. To set aside his ambitions in that direction would not be a confession of weakness but an indication of self-knowledge.

By inducting Clarke in some of the tensions involved in a dual role, then, Katich might have done his erstwhile colleague a favour.

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