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?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Raf great to see a feminist take on the baggy green cult. Agree with you re about half the fans, the initial wtf by the former players and media. But inside 24 hours the media turned as they got more info, and came down on Clarke's side, as did several of the former players eg Dean Jones. And interestingly, Border, Warne, Waugh S, McGrath etc have said little or nothing and certainly not against Clarke. As for the current Test squad, most of them are actually less blokey than Clarke. The problem for about half the fans is definitely masculinity. For the rest of us, it's too much coasting and boasting in the team vs Clarke the my way or highway dictator. That's in a way his form of masculinity, v the younger lads' lazy boyish form of it.