Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A feminist analysis of Homeworkgate

Homeworkgate: noun. A controversy in which four Australian players (Watson, Pattinson, Johnson and Khawaja) were dropped for the third Test after failing to provide coach Mickey Arthur with feedback on their own and the team's performance in the humiliating loss against India.

We've all read about it and we've all (with the possible exception of some Australians) had a pretty good laugh about it. But what, precisely, is behind it all?

It's obvious that it's about more than just the failure to complete a piffling piece of homework set by Mickey Arthur. If that was all it was, it would, indeed, be the "very harsh" punishment Watson considers it to be, and the ridiculously drastic move it has been labelled by commentators and fans. But that's not the whole story.

So what is it about? The key is this statement from Clarke, in a press conference yesterday:
"I want the public and the media to understand...it's not just about one incident. Firstly on this tour our performances have been unacceptable and there has been some stuff off the field [that has been unacceptable] for the standards an Australian cricket team needs to present itself to achieve what we are trying to achieve...In my opinion, for the four players to not do it, not only does it let the team down, it also shows a lack of respect for the head coach and in the Australian cricket team that is unacceptable."

In my view it's not the lack of respect for the coach that really matters here. Homeworkgate is symptomatic of a more significant problem in Australian cricket: a lack of respect amongst a not insignificant group of players, influenced by the media and the fans, for their captain. Why is it lacking? With my feminist hat firmly in place I can safely say it's about something pretty damn fundamental: masculinity.

As many have pointed out, this is not the first time that Clarke has faced issues with other members of the Australian team. Previous form has included the infamous confrontation with Katich, the ending of Symonds' career, and the rumoured fall-out with Hussey following his retirement earlier this year. Pat Howard has also alluded to "difficulties" in the relationship between Michael Clarke and Shane Watson prior to this incident. In the media coverage of and fan reactions to all these incidents, Clarke has faced continued criticism. He has more often than not been portrayed as the one at fault. Why? His lack of "blokey" credentials.

The Katich scrap is the perfect example. Apparently what happened was this: following a match victory, Clarke wanted to leave the after-party in reasonable time in order to spend the evening with his girlfriend. Katich felt this was unreasonable, so to try and prevent him leaving he GRABBED HIM BY THE THROAT, and the whole thing escalated from there. Does this sound like reasonable behaviour on behalf of Katich? No. But in almost every media outlet "Katto" was portrayed as "the ultimate bloke's bloke", defending the team against the guy who wanted to betray them all by leaving the party a little early. No doubt the term "under the thumb" was bandied around too. Then, when Clarke became captain and Katich was dropped, Katto was again the mistreated hero of the hour.

This is important because we're talking about a nation where the cricket captaincy is, more than most, historically associated with masculinity. Greg Chappell. Allan Border. Steve Waugh. "Hard-nosed warriors that would rather hammer a slab in the dressing sheds than go anywhere near a cocktail party", as this article from the Sydney Morning Herald in November last year suggests. Clarke just doesn't match up to that traditional idea of what it means to be Australian cricket captain. He dates models. He takes his shirt off for TV ads. For goodness' sake, this is a guy who CRIED in a press conference after Ponting retired. (This is presumably why a lot of Aussies didn't want him as captain in the first place.)

Clarke has consistently defied the critics since he took over as captain - taking Australia from fifth place in the Test rankings to third, and scoring a mammoth 1595 runs, including four double-centuries, in a calendar year. But an incident like this one, in the midst of a disastrous and humiliating tour, seems to have brought to the surface some of those old doubts about his fitness to lead his country. Doubts that some within the Australian cricket team seem to me, in refusing to complete Clarke and Arthur's assignment, to share.

Homeworkgate is therefore, at its heart, about Clarke struggling to assert his authority over his team. Unfortunately, he has chosen to do this through his insistence on the importance of "thinking" to one's place in the team:
"We were asked to do one thing from the head coach. It was giving information back to the head coach about not only improving your game - what you've learnt from the first two Test matches - but also how can you help this team turn things around and have success...It was a very simple task. Yes, it took a lot of thinking because you had to look at your game and where you thought you could improve, what you had learnt and what you could do to help this team level this series."
Why unfortunately? Because as has become obvious, most fans and commentators disagree with Clarke here: the general feeling is that players should be concentrating on training, playing and physicality more generally - the very antithesis of the intellectual exercise which has given this whole incident its name, "homeworkgate". Or to put it another way: the Aussies are in India to play cricket, not to fill out bloody forms.

This incident has therefore had the unintended effect of serving to detract from Clarke's so-called "masculine" credentials even further. Why? Because intellectuality and traditional conceptions of manliness just do not mix. Clarke is seen as siding with the intellectuals, and Pattinson as the guy who has bowled his heart out for his country and been dropped for not doing the paperwork.

This is of course a ridiculous dichotomy. Cricket is a game where self-analysis is fundamental to improving your performance. Ducking Beamers said it better than I could in his blog on the subject:

"Mickey Arthur...wanted his cricketers to reflect and think about their game. It's a very common exercise in coaching - 'Tell me what you think you did wrong' - as it forces you to get out of habit and to see your flaws...this wasn't really that ridiculous an assignment at all - if you want a bunch of players who can analyze their strengths and weaknesses and express them clearly enough, then this makes perfect sense to me."

In this respect, the best cricketers are often NOT the most "manly" ones. They are the ones with the best cricket brains. But Clarke is still, it seems to me, facing the challenge yet again of having his masculinity, and thus the respect of the players, called into question.

If this all sounds a bit far-fetched, just look at what Osman Samiuddin said about the incident on twitter:
"I want views of Chappell, DK Lillee and Rod Marsh on punishments for not doing homework. This feels like a seminal moment in Aus manliness."
Cricinfo later included this in their article with the comment: "Osman Samiuddin says aloud what everyone else is thinking".

Sadly, I think they're right.

Where is Australian cricket going wrong? It's nothing to do with the captain and coach now being a laughing stock the world over, and everything to do with the fact that some key players do not have the respect for their captain that they should, seemingly for the most stupid of reasons. Did Australia's Southern Stars win the World Cup because Jodie Fields was the blokeist captain? Errr, no. They won because they played the best cricket. Clarke is a damn good cricketer and the other members of the team, the cricket media, and the fans, need to have a bit more respect for that. Stop questioning his manliness, stop questioning his authority, and start trying to win some cricket matches.

But then, I'm a feminist. So that's what I would say, isn't it?

Friday, March 8, 2013

5 pioneer women cricketers (in honour of International Women's Day)

1. Molly Hide 

One of the best women's cricketers the world has ever seen - and she played the game at a time when women were starved of the best coaching and resources. She played in 15 Tests, including the first ever women's Test match between England and Australia at Brisbane in 1934, and captained England from 1937 to 1954, when she retired.

Her batting was both graceful and powerful. She made two centuries in her career, at a time when this was a rare feat in women's cricket - the first against New Zealand at Christchurch in 1935 (when she also put on 235 with Betty Snowball, in a match which New Zealand lost by an innings and 337 runs), and the second against Australia at the SCG in 1949, in which she finished on 124*, and in the wake of which her portrait was hung in the SCG's pavilion. She also hit five international 50s.

She retired with an average of 36.33 and remained involved with women's cricket, becoming President of the Women's Cricket Association in 1973.

Neville Cardus witnessed her 124* against Australia in 1949, and later wrote: " I was completely astonished. The stroke-play seemed authentic; in fact, there was a grace and freedom in Molly Hide's batting that rather improved on the congested utilitarianism of many a county professional."

Probably my favourite ever female cricketer.

2. Diana Edulji

Aside from Mithali Raj, India's best ever female cricketer, in my view. If Hide pioneered the game in England, Edulji did so in India. She began her cricket in the 1970s, at a time when the game was widely ridiculed in Indian society, and her name is probably still synonymous with women's cricket in India.

Her international career spanned the years 1976 to 1993. A left-arm spinner, she played in 20 Tests and 34 ODIs. In Tests, she took 63 wickets at an average of 25.77; in ODIs 46 wickets at an average of 16.84. In 1993, she took 4-12 in a World Cup match against England - her best ever bowling performance in ODIs, and it came against the side playing in home conditions, who went on to win the World Cup.

Her best ever performance in Tests came against Australia, the best team in the world at the time, in Delhi in 1984 - only India's fifth Test. She took 6-64, and in the process broke the record for most wickets in women's internationals. She is still the third highest ever wicket taker in women's Test matches.

In an interview in 1987 she was asked about her future, and her marriage prospects. "I am married to cricket", she replied. She has gone on to be an administrator in women's cricket, and more recently partake in one of my favourite activities - criticism of the BCCI's treatment of female cricketers.

At the height of her career, she bowled to visiting men's teams from England and the West Indies, and both Clive Lloyd and Ian Botham are on record as saying that they did not believe that a woman could bowl so well until they faced Edulji.

A true great of women's cricket.

3. Myrtle Maclagan

The first true all-rounder in women's internationals. She played in 14 Tests, including the first ever Test match in 1934 alongside Molly Hide, making a total of 1007 runs and averaging 41.95, as well as taking 60 wickets at an average of 15.58. In the first ever women's Test she took 7-10, which remained a career-best, and was instrumental in England's victory.

Her batting was truly special. She hit the first ever women's century in the second women's Test at Sydney in 1935, and hit another in the Blackpool Test against the Australians when they toured England in 1937. She also made six international 50s.

Her career can be aptly summed up by the Morning Post's assessment, published in 1935, following England's loss in the men's Ashes:

What matter that we lost, mere nervy men
Since England's women now play England's game,
Wherefore Immortal Wisden, take your pen
And write MACLAGAN on the scroll of fame.

4. Betty Wilson

Arguably the greatest Australian female cricketer of all time and certainly the leading woman cricketer of her day. She played in 11 Tests between 1948 and 1958. Her debut against New Zealand in 1948 was spectacular: she scored 90 and took 4 for 27 and 6 for 28. During the 1949 Adelaide Test against England, she made 111 and took 9 wickets.

Her best performance, though, was against England in the 1958 Melbourne Test. During this game, she became the first cricketer, male or female, to take 10 wickets and make 100 runs in the same match. This included the first ever hat-trick by a woman in a Test.

She finished her career with 862 runs at an average of 57.46, and a total of 68 wickets at an average of 11.80.

Beyond all this, though, my favourite fact about Betty Wilson is probably the fact that she refused a marriage proposal to play in Australia's tour of New Zealand in 1948. When asked why, she responded: "Why would anyone get married in preference to playing cricket for Australia?"

The Australian Under-19 Championship is named the Betty Wilson Shield in her honour and in 2005 she was awarded an honorary baggy green.

She deserved it.

5. Grace Gooder

Little is known about Grace Gooder. She only played one Test for New Zealand, against England at Auckland in 1949. (This was at a time when New Zealand were the minnows of the women's game, participating in only four Tests in the course of 20 years between 1934 and 1954.)

But in that one Test, her sole shot at international stardom, as it turned out, Gooder took 6 wickets for 42 runs in 23.2 overs. Her wickets included three of England's most dangerous batsmen - Cecilia Robinson, Mary Duggan, and Grace Morgan.

It remains the third best bowling performance by a New Zealander in women's Test matches ever - and all at  a time when New Zealand could barely draw a Test. They went on to lose this one by 185 runs.

Gooder should have played more Tests, but she never got that opportunity. I think of her as symbolic of a whole generation of women for whom that was true.

Cricket is a game where many fans have an above average knowledge of its history. Unfortunately the early internationals of the women's game are largely forgotten. Today of all days, we should take a moment to remember Hide, Edulji, Maclagan, Wilson, Gooder, and those like them - the pioneers.