Mickey Arthur – Destined to Fail? by Neil Manthorp
Can you imagine Chief Geronimo leading a brigade of Yankee troops into battle against his very own Apache warriors, fighting for the Colonisers against his own people, driving them from their ancestral lands and forcing them to drink brandy and stop painting their faces?
Mickey Arthur is – I should say ‘was’ but that hints at the conclusion a little early in the piece – as South African as you get. His family roots are deeply embedded in the Eastern Cape and wife Yvette heralds from the Northern Cape. East London and Kimberley are towns well worthy of the old adage: “You can take the boy out of X, but you can’t take the X out of the boy.”
He was unscrupulously honest as a cricketer and as a team-mate, far ahead of his time in the way he supported his colleagues and prized team success over that of the individual. He earned a solitary cap for the South African ‘A’ team but otherwise was an opening batsman as unspectacular as he was unquestioned. Solid. Mr Reliable.
He went straight from playing to coaching in his mid-30s and was an instant success in the early years of South Africa’s professional Franchise system which controversially squeezed 11 historic unions into six modern ones. His strengths were empathy, enthusiasm, patience – in equal and endless supply – and organisation.
It was, nonetheless, a considerable surprise when he was appointed national coach in 2005. One of the key points of his presentation which persuaded the panel to take a leap of faith was the section geared towards ‘Transformation’. You don’t get more ‘new age South African’ than someone who understands why the advancement of non-white cricketers is vital to the survival of the game in the country.
He worked tirelessly, often late into the night when on tour, ceaselessly seeking new ways to help some of South Africa’s best cricketers become better. In order to do that he enlisted the help of the very best coaches, including Duncan Fletcher on a consultancy basis. He had no reason in the early days to feel confident about his position but he pushed personal interest to one side in the interests of the team. Arthur’s disinterest in ‘protecting’ his job or his turf almost 10 years ago starkly contrasts with what Brad Haddin recently claimed was ‘insecurity’ while he was coach of Australia.
Arthur became the first post-isolation Proteas coach to win a series in England in 2008. Graeme Smith gave the coach his man-of-the-match medal after his epic, unbeaten 154 in the series-winning Edgbaston Test. Six months later Arthur was swimming in Sydney Harbour on New Year’s Eve, fulfilling a promise he made to Smith and the team if they became the first team from the Republic to win in Australia, ever, after a century of trying.
At this point you would imagine there would be more chance of the Australian team being coached by Chief Geronimo’s great-grandson than Mickey Arthur. It still seems extraordinary, years later, that it happened. But it did.
Arthur’s relationship with the Cricket South Africa Board soured for many reasons, but principally because he was unable to produce another black player alongside Makhaya Ntini in the Test XI. He increased the non-white representation in the ODI team significantly and selection at every other national level had a racial bias, but he refused to compromise with the Test XI. Eventually, he was ambushed and forced to resign.
When he was paid out the remaining months of his contract, having reached a semi-amicable agreement to terminate the deal prematurely in 2009, it was widely reported that he had received around R4 million. The implication was that he’d done rather well out of his fallout with CSA’s board of directors.
There was an element of ‘ballpark’ truth in the figure, but it wasn’t that high – and it excluded his tax of 40%. By the time he had relocated to Perth, paid a deposit on his rental home, bought a car for himself and Yvette, flown his three girls to Australia and hired the garden service, there was barely enough left to “have a couple of decent meals out”.
It was a salient time in the former Proteas coach’s life. The transition from five largely successful years in charge of the national side to a contract with the Western Australian Cricket Association was the stuff of dreams, but he certainly wasn’t well off.
Yvette had grown cynical about the land of her birth after an appalling random shooting cost the life of a sleepover friend’s father and was ready for a change. Arthur, too, was exhilarated by the challenge of coaching one of the country’s six state sides. But, financially, he was starting from scratch. Not because of profligacy or carelessness, but merely the exchange rate and the cost of living in Australia – admittedly in one of Perth’s most expensive suburbs.
No matter. Arthur threw himself into the task of resurrecting the fortunes of a Western Australian team which had grown lazy and developed a culture of booze and disrespect, for the game if not for each other. An anecdote from the early days reflects the unusual fusion between his empathy for players and ruthless determination to get things done.
A senior bowler was grumbling about his creaking body. Arthur asked him whether he was fit. The bowler replied that he was not, but that he would “get by”. The next time the coach spoke to the media, he intimated that a high-profile retirement was on the cards. And that was that. Ruthless, but respectful. The bowler had his opportunity to bow out gracefully, which he did.
Cricket Australia representatives spoke confidentially to Arthur about the national post after just two years in Perth. They were making long-term plans and were interested in his sentiments. He told them that national pride was permanent – but transferable. But it was not immediate. He was still settling in at the WACA. Yvette had settled in Perth and built a family environment in which Mickey and the girls were happy, although the situation was complicated by the older duo of Brooke and Kristin opting to take up varsity places in South Africa at Rhodes and Stellenbosch respectively. Kristin has since transferred to the University of Western Australia. Ashton, however, was virtually a naturalised Aussie by the age of 15.
A year later Arthur was asked to apply for the national job.
It was not his fault that his interview was the best. He did not force anyone to employ him. His vision for the future of Australian cricket was adopted by his new employers.
The dynamic within the national side was, at first, extremely positive. But stubborn attitudes are hard to change in any team and Arthur’s nationality was soon blamed when results didn’t go its way.
Michael Clarke backed his coach to the hilt, the captain declaring his belief in discipline, fitness and “the right attitude”. Between them, they were going to guide a new breed of young, potentially gifted Australian cricketers to the unprecedented heights the team had enjoyed when Clarke first joined it. It was a simple and laudable goal.
But the players weren’t as receptive or malleable as either coach or captain might have hoped. And, whereas Arthur had a history of compromise which served him well, Clarke was a ‘my way or the highway’ personality. Chief among several snags along the way was Shane Watson.
There is one high-profile coach who has worked with both Clarke and Watson in the admittedly very different confines of the IPL. The difference between the men, and their public profile, could hardly be more stark.
“Shane Watson is a sensitive man with a high regard for his team-mates and an ability to be self-critical,” says Paddy Upton, who led the unfancied Rajasthan Royals to this year’s play-offs. In previous years he was a member of the Pune Warriors’ coaching staff which featured Clarke as their star player – and captain. “Michael is strong-minded and not prone to having his opinion changed.”
In short, the clash of personalities between the Australian captain and their leading all-rounder was never likely to be resolved. As far as Arthur was concerned, the choice between the two was never a choice: “The relationship between the captain and coach is critical to the success of a team. It was vital that Michael Clarke and I agreed on the basic principles to take the team forward.” Arthur was more naturally inclined to compromise and mediation, but with Clarke uncompromising, Arthur felt he had to follow the same path, even if it meant leading the way.
When Clarke insisted on discipline and training, and Watson believed rest and recuperation were required, there was only going to be one outcome. Faced with a choice of who to back, Arthur chose the obvious route: The relationship between the captain and coach is critical to the success of a team.
The infamous ‘homework’ saga on Australia’s ill-fated tour of India came as a result of Arthur’s determination to follow an inclusive approach to the squad rather than one which excluded those who did not see eye-to-eye with the captain or coach. Watson’s refusal to be an obedient and subservient Clarke follower led to a split in the squad – with Arthur perceived to be firmly in the captain’s corner.
But true to his career-long belief that a coach’s duty is to take as much pressure off the captain as often as he can, it was Arthur who faced the media when the four ‘rebels’ who failed to complete their feedback assignments were suspended for a Test match. And it was Arthur who bore the brunt of the media and public scorn, despite Clarke driving the suspensions. While it certainly benefitted Clarke, it destabilised the ground on which Arthur stood.
With results still ordinary, including a dismal Champions Trophy campaign, Arthur was just one scandal away from crisis. It was duly provided by David Warner and his drunken, late-night swing at England batsman Joe Root.
“You can be quite certain of two things,” a senior newspaper journalist covering the Ashes tour said soon after Arthur’s sacking. “Warner is a low-class grub – and Mickey would still have a job if he [Warner] knew how to behave himself.”
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland was feeling the heat back in Melbourne. A notoriously smooth operator with a propensity to deflect criticism away from himself, he surmised that a head needed to roll – and it wasn’t going to be his. Popular Queensland coach Darren Lehmann was offered the job before Arthur was informed, and jumped at the chance.
Not only was there an element of panic in Sutherland’s actions leading to basic mistakes, but one of arrogance, too. He failed to follow the requisite labour law protocols in dismissing Arthur – indeed, it would have been impossible to do so in so short a timeframe. In a rare, unguarded moment he then admitted that the sacked coach was a “scapegoat”. And then the arrogance. Despite having almost 24 months left on his contract, Sutherland offered Arthur a derisory three-month payout.
Hiring and firing is an intrinsic part of the business of sport, but so are contracts. In the absence of reasonable, legal grounds for dismissal, CA was obliged to, effectively, buy Arthur out of his contract.
So incensed were some of Arthur’s more influential friends in Perth at his treatment, they hired the best in the business to make sure he was treated fairly – Harmers Workplace Lawyers. They explained that, if CA was insulting enough to offer three months compensation, then he needed to aim absurdly high in order to meet somewhere fair in between. Hence his initial claim for A$4 million.
Arthur, it seems, was unaware of the firm’s history of using the media to help sway high-profile cases its way and was genuinely shocked when some of the juicier sections of his claim for unfair dismissal were made public. The naming of Watson as “a cancer” was misleading. Arthur claimed that Watson’s relationship with Clarke was cancerous, not the individual, and said he was the “meat in the sandwich” between the two players. At least he didn’t claim to be lettuce.
There is no doubt that Arthur genuinely felt he had suffered “reputational damage” and that his sacking had “significantly affected his prospects of future employment” when the claim was made. And CA was quick to back-track on its insulting first offer with something a great deal more palatable in private negotiations, which prevented the matter from going to arbitration.
But Arthur’s future is not nearly as bleak as he might have imagined. Not only did he conduct himself with immense dignity during and after his demise, but he has five largely successful years with the Proteas on his CV and a large group of players and coaches in Australia who believe he was, in fact, on the right track with the current Australian squad.
A return to South Africa was never on the cards. Perth is now home and, although he was approached with offers to work in Asia and the UK, he expressed no interest. He is enjoying life at home after 20 years on the road, for now. Consultancy work, schools coaching, a bit of media and whatever else crops up is paying the bills, for now. He is happy. For now.
The cricket world has not seen the last of 46 year old John Michael Arthur. In fact, it may not have seen the best of him, either.
He probably was destined to fail as coach of Australia, but it wasn’t because he was South African or implemented South African ways, means or methods. It wasn’t because he was intransigent or inflexible. And it certainly wasn’t because he was arrogant or uncommitted.
I suspect it was because he was perceived as all of those things by many, if not most of the men he worked with. And there’s only so much any man can do to change other people’s perceptions of him.