Sydney: Coach Darren Lehmann appears to have survived the ball-tampering scandal that has rocked Australian cricket, even as the win-at-all-costs mentality he instilled in the team comes under fresh scrutiny. Lehmann was hailed as a saviour when he took over in 2013, but critics now accuse him of overseeing a toxic culture that has dented the reputation of the famed Baggy Green cap.
After being appointed, Lehmann’s response when asked to list his top three priorities was telling: “Probably win, win, win, for a start,” he told reporters. Cricket Australia (CA) had other ideas when it gave him the job. “Discipline, consistency of behaviour and accountability for performance are all key ingredients that need to improve,” chief executive James Sutherland said at the time. “And we see that the head coach is ultimately responsible for that.” If part of Lehmann’s brief was to improve the Australian team’s behaviour, there is little doubt he has failed.
Players were once considered role models for children, but the situation has become so bad that CA is setting up an independent review into the team’s conduct and culture. Even Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has weighed in to criticise the practice of sledging — taunting opponents verbally with the aim of distracting them. “It has gotten right out of control. It should have no place,” Turnbull told reporters this week, lamenting the demise of a sport once regarded as the epitome of fair play. CA insists Lehmann had no prior knowledge of the plot to doctor the ball in the third Test against the Proteas.
But Australian Broadcasting Corporation senior cricket commentator Jim Maxwell said the coach had to accept some blame for an “arrogant” team culture where some players felt cheating was preferable to losing honourably. “He’s done a very good job with the side but has a very narrow view of the way players should conduct themselves,” Maxwell said. “Teams can no longer get away with being in the face of the opposition in the way they have in recent years.”
Lehmann became national coach in dramatic circumstances after Australia sacked the first foreigner to hold the post, Mickey Arthur, on the eve of the Ashes. A respected former batsman who played 27 Tests and 117 one-dayers for Australia, he was seen as an antidote to the disciplinarian Arthur. Whereas his South African predecessor asked players to provide written self assessments, Lehmann was an insider who had come through the Australian ranks.
A clue to his knockabout appeal lies in his nickname “Boof”, short for boofhead — Australian slang for an amiable prankster, one of the boys in the dressing room. “It’s important to talk about the game whether it’s with a beer or a Diet Coke,” Lehmann said after taking the job. Australia lost Lehmann’s first Ashes series in charge but later in 2013, after he had stamped his mark on the team, they crushed England 5-0 in ruthless fashion. While the plaudits rained down, there was also discomfort among some Australian fans at their team’s conduct, particularly Lehmann’s baiting of England paceman Stuart Broad.
“I hope the Australian public give it to him (Broad) right from the word go for the whole summer and I hope he cries and goes home,” he said in a taunting tone not heard before from an Australian coach. It was a dark side Lehmann also displayed as a player in 2003, when he yelled a racial insult in the dressing room after being dismissed in a one-day international against Sri Lanka. Under Lehmann, unsavoury antics have become common as players took the Steve Waugh-era goal of “mental disintegration” and turbo-charged it with vitriol.
It has become such a part of the game-plan that before the current tour of South Africa, the Australians asked host broadcasters to turn down the stumps mic between balls so their jibes would not be recorded. The Australians have been successful under Lehmann, with a Test record of 30 wins, 19 losses and eight draws under his stewardship. But as Cricket Australia has belatedly acknowledged with its culture review, winning is not everything and changes are needed in the dressing room, with or without Lehmann.