That great cover drive that makes us stand up in admiration,that late outswinger that makes us gasp,the off break that turns in to hit top of middle,the diving stop at backward point…images that allow television to carry sport into our being,to let it reside there and make us reach out to it when the world is less thrilling.
The stars create these images and television creates that aura,allows us to believe they are invincible. That is what hero-worship is,isnt it? Letting your mind believe that your hero can do no wrong…
But because television is concerned with the here and now this shot,that dismissal,this commercial break it doesnt allow itself time to look beyond,or indeed into,the hero who succeeds and fails so spectacularly before us. And so,we can often be led to believe that sportsmen inhabit another planet,that they are made of steel and elastic,that they are not us,they dont have our problems (e.m.i has just gone up,the maid announces she is on long leave,there is a transport strike!). And so too,we fail to understand them because we measure them in unreal scales.
But meet them away from the cameras and the scorecards and you see different people,those we can recognise better. People who worry and fret and wake up in the middle of the night and are scared for their future,people who are looking over their shoulder and maybe are even secretly happy at a colleagues bad patch. Their lives too are governed by where they are on the grid of ambition/frustration and confidence/insecurity.
When ambition is in stride with confidence,they approach the image I talked about earlier but ever so often they are consumed by life in the other quadrant; that of frustration and insecurity which is where I suspect,some of the Australian cricketers find themselves. And that is why the job of the leader,whether the captain or the coach,is to try and constantly push them towards the space defined by ambition and confidence.
The Imran Khan example
Good leaders do that regularly and incompetent,or uncaring,leaders let their players wallow in insecurity and resultant frustration. Imran Khan was a great leader,under him Wasim Akram bloomed and Inzamam-ul Huq was able to grow strong roots. With another captain,two of Pakistans greatest ever talents might have been lost,as some others have been.
The key to Imrans leadership was to understand the world these extraordinary players sought to inhabit and the hurdles they perceived on the way. Akram could bowl every ball but needed to learn when to bowl it,Inzamam was beset with self-doubt,unaware of how good he really was.
So too with Sourav Ganguly who was able to understand the person behind the wild talent of a Harbhajan Singh,a Yuvraj Singh or a Virender Sehwag. They needed reassurance and once given that,they went on to great success. MS Dhoni has tried that,with a little less success,with Rohit Sharma for example. Ian Chappell did that with a generation of Australian cricketers as did Mark Taylor. Mike Brearley and Nasser Hussain,in contrasting styles maybe,were able to understand too the insecurity that accompanies a competitive but short-lived profession.
It is through this prism that we need to see where Australias cricketers are and whether the insecure world they now inhabit is dictating their approach. It is easy to demand team spirit. It is a strange animal that for no one has yet established whether winning creates team spirit or whether it is indeed,as some of us believe,the other way around,that a great team ethic leads to winning.
What we do know is that winning breeds security that can lead to generosity that is at the heart of team spirit. Losing,on the other hand,can leave people feeling edgy which translates into selfishness. And so it is when a team is losing that managers need to remind people that skill doesnt desert you,only confidence does. Shane Watson,in the eye of the storm,is someone who,I believe,can be understood on this ambition/frustration and confidence/insecurity platform.
A hard hitting,unusually gifted batsman who could bowl over 135 kmph is rare in our sport. Understandably Watson was celebrated,admired and would have resided in the ambition/confidence quadrant.
Ten years later,with injuries afflicting him at key moments and well into the second half of his career,he is aware that he couldnt become the player he believed he could have and is slipping into insecurity and frustration. But he is still a fine player and,from this distance,clearly one of the two best opening batsmen in Australia. Watsons problem at this stage is not skill but reassurance,he needs to be led. But it is not a situation that Australian cricket,so abundantly successful,has often encountered. They have responded with an iron hand.
Of course they might have tried,might have offered support and understanding and might have been rebuffed. Too much reassurance can lead to a feeling of being indispensable and maybe they have now reined in prima donnas. We dont know. But Australia need to be careful here in ensuring that the rest of the team and indeed,the wider cricket playing world in their country,agree with what they have done. If perchance they dont,if people think they have exacerbated the problem,not found the solution,they risk driving more people towards insecurity and frustration,a state that England knew very well and which they would relish in their opponents!
Australia need a firm,understanding leadership. They have shown the firmness but it is in the understanding part that their success might still lie.