Despite losing to Zimbabwe for the first time in 31 years and plummeting to fourth in the ODI rankings, it’s still far, far too soon to start criticizing Darren Lehmann’s management. Besides, fourth spot isn’t so bad compared to where Australia currently sits in the T20 rankings (23rd, between Tuvalu and Western Samoa). But the fallout from the loss brought to light the continuing uneasiness between captain and coach. Lehmann rules with an iron fist when Australia is on tour, and whilst that is the case there is the potential for things to go very, very, wrong.
When Lehmann took the reins before the Ashes last year, things couldn’t have been much worse for Australia. David Warner was awaiting sentencing for the crime of being David Warner (a pretty heinous felony it must be said), Michael Clarke and Shane Watson were seemingly barely on talking terms, and, even worse, Usman Khawaja was considered an important part of the Test setup. The future looked dire. We call this time the ‘pre-Devereux Epoch’.
In return for taking a job that most probably wouldn’t have wished on their worst enemies, Lehmann was able to extract a fair amount of leverage from Cricket Australia. Rotation was quickly declared a thing of the past (screw you Pat Howard), the coaching staff was reshuffled, and Warner was sent into exile in deepest darkest Africa. But the biggest move received little attention (especially compared to Warner’s plight): Chairman of Selectors, Jon Inverarity was effectively stripped of his powers. Whilst on tour the team would be selected by Lehmann in collaboration with Rodney Marsh.
Clarke acquiesced to this power shift by relinquishing his own selection duties, and this was construed as an exercise in team building. Which it probably was, as now Clarke appeared more as one of the team, instead of a somewhat aloof figure lording over them. But Clarke appears to have never warmed to this arrangement. Questions from the media on team selection seem to really get under his skin. He doesn’t know the team till it’s given to him, usually the day before the game, but sometimes not until right before the toss. Clarke’s comments about team selection after the Zimbabwe loss just further emphasise that he is not always happy with the team he’s been given.
Whilst Australia are winning it’s not a problem, but when they are not then issues will arise. Team selection for the T20 World Cup in particular was…peculiar. Brad Hogg was the first choice spinner in the first game, then he was dropped for James Muirhead for the next two, and in the final game they didn’t bother with a spinner at all. But George Bailey, unlike Clarke, is hardly the type to speak out against the decisions of management.
Now that Inverarity has moved on, and Marsh has taken his place, the impression is that Lehmann, particularly after the successes of the last nine months, has taken an even stronger grip over team matters. A coach wielding as much control as Lehmann does now is something of an oddity for Australian cricket. Even Bob Simpson didn’t get everything his own way. This creates some interesting challenges, particularly in terms of accountability.
If things start going badly for Australia there will be some interesting times ahead, and given they have a series against Pakistan looming, and how well they acquit themselves against spin, things could start going badly very soon. Any move from Cricket Australia to limit Lehmann’s authority, particularly in regards to team selection, will be construed as a vote of no confidence in his leadership. It’s hard to say that Lehmann will even want to stay on without having full control over team matters. But a repeat of the capitulation against Zimbabwe, particularly in a Test setting, will make things uncomfortable for both Lehmann and his paymasters.
All of which isn’t to diminish the positive things Lehmann has brought to the Australian setup, but it seems there may be a price to pay. A falling out between Clarke and Lehmann is improbable but not impossible. If Mitchell Johnson, in particular, breaks down before the World Cup, Lehmann’s rejection of ‘rotation’ will be sharply called into question. Until now he has lead something of a charmed life. Which isn’t to say his success has not been deserved, for without him Australia would never have rebounded in the manner they did last year. It remains to be seen, though, how long that shine will last.
An easy solution to all of this, however, is to just ensure Devereux is selected in every team. Simples.