Assessing the Mood in the Australia Dressing Room: Has Team Spirit Improved?
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If sufficient evidence hadn't already been provided, then last week's revelations from former Australia batsman Michael Hussey emphatically confirmed the wider perceptions regarding the culture within the Australian dressing room.
Hussey, who retired from Test cricket in January, released his book Underneath the Southern Cross last week. It details concerns the prolific left-hander had for what he described as an "insular" mentality that led to a "stressful and tense" dressing room, according to ESPN Cricinfo.
The scorer of 19 Test hundreds recalls his unease regarding team spirit and Australia's collective mindset, which first became apparent to him as early as the team's tour to the West Indies in March 2012:
I sat down with him [Mickey Arthur] and and got all my concerns out in the open. 'We need to foster a culture that makes them want to think about other people and play for the team,' I said. 'Get them out of [that] insular thinking and bring in team activities. It's about caring for each other. There's too much insular thinking; about number one only.'
Mickey definitely listened, but he was in tunnel vision mode too. He had specific things he wanted to focus on, and anything from left field didn't register.
It was understandable how Mickey had his specific plans, and Michael [Clarke] too, but for me it was a big early warning sign that this team had problems ahead of it. We were fostering an environment where guys only cared about their positions and didn't think about the team. The dressing room became just as stressful and tense as [it was] out in the middle.
Perhaps these revelations merely confirm what many already believed to be the case. Certainly, discontent within the Australian camp has hardly remained secretive throughout a string of controversial incidents in the 12 months just passed.
Yet Hussey's description of the lack of action that was taken to alter the detrimental, widespread mentality is most telling.
One of the keys to fundamentally changing a team's fortunes is the ability to identify the true roots of a problem and the ability to quell the negative forces affecting performance. Hussey's detailing of his interaction with former coach Mickey Arthur is a damning assessment of the South African and a compelling insight into Arthur's flaws as a leader.
However, the more pertinent issue is whether Hussey's account of his final days within the Australian camp accurately reflects the position the team finds itself in right now, with the Ashes just six short weeks away.
Undeniably, Australia finished the concluded summer in England playing better cricket than with which they entered the season. A team that appeared as united as their nation's recently disposed of government remarkably wound up leaving British shores with renewed confidence and optimism.
Despite the Ashes scoreline, it's apparent that Darren Lehmann's impact on this current incarnation of Australia has been profound. While the disposal of Arthur was somewhat untimely, the appointment of his successor was the most significant move made by Cricket Australia since the current period of generational transition began.
Whereas Arthur is a career coach, a man focused on technical and tactical principles, Lehmann is a leader, an authoritative figure who owns a character long-revered in Australian cricket. A combative, blue-collar larrikin, the 43-year-old also embodies the very essence of the game that exists Down Under.
The former Test batsman's ability to build unity, to galvanise a group, has long been acknowledged among cricketing circles in Australia. His endearing character and leadership nous have left as much of an imprint on the Australian game as his prolific first-class run scoring.
Michael Clarke's admiration for his new coach is obvious, reflected in his most recent comments regarding the South Australian, according to ESPN Cricinfo.
I think Darren Lehmann's done a wonderful job since he came in, the feeling in the group is outstanding and the boys are all heading in the same direction.
Lehmann's presence represents a desirable throwback for Clarke, who has appeared determined to place his own stamp on the team, yet finds himself surrounded by a culture and situation to which he's unaccustomed.
Undoubtedly, Lehmann's presence is a soothing one for Australia's captain.
However, the skipper's battle with internal divisions has been largely due to his own situation. Hussey describes Clarke's former position as a national selector as a driving force for the team's insular mentality, which forced players to "keep their heads down" in fear of retribution at the selection table.
Clarke, who relinquished that role following Arthur's sacking, believes stepping away from his position as selector is the best decision he's made as captain, according to ESPN Cricinfo.
Instead of selection meetings and being on the phone for hours, I'm having coffee, lunch, breakfast with my team-mates now and trying to help all of us. They're giving me their time as well to help me become a better player and a better captain.
Removing that conflict of interests has undoubtedly alleviated a major source of strain within the Australian camp. Although the dressing room rifts created during Clarke's term as a selector won't be repaired overnight, the healing process can now begin.
However, it's hard not to feel a touch of sympathy for Cricket Australia when examining this issue in isolation. The presence of Clarke in the selection process was intended to create a connection between the decision makers and the nation's playing stocks. As captain, it was expected that Clarke would provide valuable insight into the team's psyche, to act as a critical pivot between the players and their governing body.
In reality, the move turned poisonous, paving way for the proliferation of the narrow mindset described by Hussey. Yet Australia's leader stopped short of mirroring his former teammate's stance regarding the team's mentality, insisting that other factors were at play:
I can't answer that on behalf of the other guys, but there was obviously a lot of things going on over a period of time that I didn't think were good enough.
I think the media and the public got to see the frustration and the consequences of that. But I can guarantee that has changed now.
Australia's play over the final three Tests of the recent Ashes series (and subsequent ODI series win) should serve as justification to Clarke with regards to that final statement. In genuinely testing the triumphant England, Australia rediscovered their identity. The team's aggressive and combative cricket from Old Trafford onwards was an expression on renewed unity and belief.
While England continue to thrive through a methodical approach, measured conservatism has never been the colonial way. With that now acknowledged, it's clear that Australia have revisited the trusted sources of strength that have been the hallmarks of the country's history in the game.
Do you think Australia's dressing room spirit has improved?
Much of this can be attributed to Lehmann, whose appointment now forms the separation between two contrasting periods in the nation's cricketing story.
It must be remembered that Lehmann is still in the infancy stage of his reign, still yet to endure the rigours of leading a struggling team through a packed international schedule and endless travel.
However, the early signs are positive.
Belatedly, the team is making the right noises, while the cricket being played is more recognisable as definitively Australian. Although genuine shifts in on-field performance may be slower to materialise than desired, it's unquestionable that the spirit within the group is growing.
It's only a matter of time before that spirit, that harmony, is reflected on the scoreboard.
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