Review: Whitewash to Whitewash - Daniel Brettig
Whitewash to Whitewash is not actually a book about the Australian team as a flawed hero who overcomes. But it could be. Like our archetypical hero, the Ashes defeat of 2005, at the tail-end of an extended run as the most dominant side of that, and perhaps any, era, came as a call: to regain the Ashes, and pride.
Daniel Brettig, who I suspect I joined as the only other member of a club who wrote their first overseas match report from Kinrara Oval, begins the narrative at the dream stage, but dwells less on the victory than the retirements that followed. It would be easy to be harsh on the selectors for not managing the process. But as Brettig details the reasons for each, there was an inevitability to the break-up of this side, driven by the time-line of the Ashes loss to later victory, and the dynamic of the team. When Healy and Mark Waugh were tapped, there were ready made (superior) replacements. But except for Martyn, that wasn't the case here. Not Langer, whose absence would only have destabilised Hayden earlier, nor Gilchrist, Warne and McGrath, who were irreplacable. Injuries did for MacGill and Lee; noone could have predicted the form slumps of Ponting and Hussey that contributed so much to the uncertainty.
It is a testament to the research and writing, that the chronicle of the period of frustration and unchecked decline that followed maintains its balanced and even reporting. The breakdown in trust following Monkey-gate and subsequent disengagement of Symonds is covered in depth, as is the rise of cliques amongst the squad, and the problems of selection and leadership from the Ashes loss of 2009 to the disasters of Boxing Day 2010. The book works through each and every step of those four years that eventually led to this:
"Nothing about the Test team functioned properly. Batsmen were unprepared for England's plan, bowlers incapable of carrying out their own. Fielding and running between the wickets were never better than average, often catastrophic. Ponting's form evaporated and his composure followed, while his deputy Michael Clarke, fared almost as poorly. The coach, Tim Nielsen, and his assistants seemed unable to tackle the problems before them, whether through technical advice or sage readings of the team's darkening mood. And the selectors abandoned many of the players and the plans honed over the preceding eighteen months, leaving the likes of Phillip Hughes, Steve Smith, Xaxier Doherty and Michael Beer to squint at the harsh light of Ashes exposure. Not surprisingly, none were able to conjure the miracles suddenly required of them."
It would have been easy (and better suited to the narrative) to maintain a triumphalist tone across the resolving chapters, concluding as they do with aggressive winning cricket under a new coach and captain, defeating England 5-0 and regaining the number one ranking away in South Africa. Brettig wisely doesn't:
"It cannot be disputed that between November 2013 and March 2014 Australia's Test side played the most powerful and compelling cricket mustered by the baggy green at any time since Shane Warne, Glenn McGrath and Justin Langer all bowed out on the same day in Sydney seven years before. But the achievements were those of the moment, and any groundwork for longer-term success remains some way from bedding down. After the travails of India, CA - its board, management, selectors, and coaches - focused all their energies completely on regaining the Ashes. The victory in South Africa was a capstone on that achievement, proving that Australia had indeed reached a very high level of proficiency, albeit in conditions that largely suited them."
These seven years were the most interesting in Australian cricket since 1984-1994, that stretched from the retirements of Lilee, Chappell and Marsh to that of Border, tragically short of his triumphant moment, but with a conveyor-belt of incredible talent left to his successor. Australia has no such certainties in its next few years, and no shortage of looming retirements. Hopefully Dan is taking notes.
Interspersed with the depiction of on-field events are the equally important changes occurring off. Cricket Australia had been resting on their laurels, a monopoly sport in the summer market, and a national cultural institution still without peer. In the period since it has undergone a shift to an independent board; launched a profitable domestic competition based around cities, not states; been part of a significant political re-alignment of the ICC; shifted their touring program to accommodate the IPL, Champions League and the unmatched riches of hosting the BCCI on tour; appointed full-time selectors and a director of cricket; and experimented unsuccessfully with its talent pathways in the form of the futures league.
These are significant, even unprecedented, changes to the sport in Australia. The ramifications of most are yet to be felt. As a reference point for why many were tried, and whether they have worked to date, there is a lot to mull over in this book. A few have come and gone already, notably around the role of the captain in selections. Perhaps the most poorly thought-out was the move away from a century of tradition that promoted boys into the grades of men, in favour of pathways and the futures league. Australia has always tried to distinguish itself from England's over-coached under-competitive cricket environment, but in trying to improve on what they had, they went too far.
There is less cricket in this book than you'd expect. There is enough to provide context, but it is a book about culture and management more-so than about cricket. There are numerous fascinating vignettes of players who came and went, including many who might have felt hard-done by.
The culture of the team of the early-2000s was bound up in the legacy of Steve Waugh's captaincy. Given a choice of quality personnel, the players who stuck were those most immersed in that mindset. The era that followed seems to have struggled to reconcile other personalities. The personal struggles of Nathan Hauritz, Bryce McGain and Mitchell Johnson are evident in their on-field performance, and the weaknesses of Ponting's captaincy; Shane Watson and Andrew Symonds were given both extended opportunities and a different set of expectations, and both have encountered a different weakness in Clarke's leadership
For much of the era, the selectors themselves seemed to want to replace the irreplacable with the next best option, without considering the team around them. The squad became divided into permanent players, who no matter their form, and the team's form, seemed to remain; and temporary players, who were marked, given a role to fill, but always one match from being dropped. The difference in October 2010 between Hussey, woefully out-of-form but being backed by the selectors, and North, fresh off a hundred but sure he was going to be given only two tests, was particularly telling. The side that won in South Africa in 2009, where the enigmatic talent of Hughes and Johnson, meshed with the solid, if limited McDonald and North, was never seen on the field again. It was a false dawn, not only in performance, but in pragmatic, considered choices.
In the period since the Ashes whitewash we've seen Australia suffer their biggest statistical defeat in any series, against Pakistan in the UAE. A series that saw Maxwell promoted to number three, Johnson used as a cart-horse, and the limitations of the squad laid bare. The looming Ashes series means making a number of not only hard decisions, but decisions the public takes an interest in. There is a lot of luck to whether a selection will pan out, but there is none in the process. It is still quite unclear whether Australia has learnt from the mistakes in process that characterised the era in question. Brettig withholds his opinion on many of the decisions made in this book. But you can sense the disapproval.
Even at its worst, Australia has too much strength in depth, too much talent, to be really bad. This is a book packed with lessons, though many of them might be gleaned from any era, and it isn't clear they'll be learnt. The treatment of spinners, and the selection lottery that sees them brought into the side on half a dozen Shield appearances, is consistent either side of the Warne era; as too is the quixotic search for an all-rounder, when four bowlers is deemed too few. It is, nevertheless, amongst only a handful of books that have ever tried to find out what those lessons might be, and for that reason it is worth a read.
8th March, 2015 19:21:45