Australia took drastic action Monday to spare the team potential humiliation in the Ashes series against England, firing coach Mickey Arthur and replacing him with former national-team batsman Darren Lehmann just 16 days ahead of the first test.
And on a day of major upheaval within embattled Cricket Australia, captain Michael Clarke — who is currently out injured — had his long-standing desire to step down as a selector accepted so he can focus completely on the team.
It leaves the Australians in even deeper turmoil approaching the eagerly anticipated series against its old foe, with the tourists already woefully out of form, battling disciplinary problems within the squad and now with a new man in charge needing to learn the ropes quickly.
"The timing of this decision will no doubt have surprised and indeed shocked some people," Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said of the choice to change coaches so close to an Ashes series. "It's a not a decision that we've taken lightly, but the Baggy Green cap is something that is important to all Australian cricketers, is one of the great prizes in Australian sport.
"What we feel is that the Australian cricket fans expect that through the great history and tradition of the Baggy Green cap, that there is a responsibility in performance." Lehmann said he has signed a two-year deal, ending Arthur's 19-month tenure that was dogged by poor results and player misbehavior.
The Australians lost a test series 4-0 in India this year and failed to win a match in their defense of the Champions Trophy, which has just concluded in England. Off the pitch, Arthur polarized public opinion when he dropped four players — including vice-captain Shane Watson — from his team for the third test in India for failing to complete written reports on their views of the team's performance. The embarrassing saga was dubbed "Homeworkgate."
Arthur might also have been held partly responsible for an off-field incident during the Champions Trophy involving opening batsman David Warner, who was reportedly drunk when he aimed a punch at England batsman Joe Root at a nightclub in Birmingham after the 43-run loss to England in a group match. Warner, who was fined this year following a Twitter rant at senior journalists, has been suspended until the first Ashes test.
"They are a really good, young group of players who, yes, do need to learn the ropes and learn the ropes quickly," Arthur said. "And they are learning the hard way at the moment." Arthur, a South African hired in November 2011 as the first foreign-born coach of Australia, said he "didn't feel let down by the players at all" and took full responsibility for Australia's current plight.
"The disappointing thing is that we were nearly there to cracking it," he said. Sutherland, Arthur, Lehmann and Clarke were all put up in front of the media in Bristol — where the Australians are currently based ahead of a tour match against Somerset starting Wednesday — on another chastening day for Australian cricket.
Clarke, placed in the same position two weeks ago amid Warner's latest indiscretion, played down the effect such management changes would have ahead of the Ashes. "Playing for Australia is enough to galvanize the team — we don't need anything else to galvanize us," said Clarke, whose lower back injury that kept him out of the Champions Trophy is also a pressing concern for the Australians.
Sutherland had a different view. "The timing is far from ideal," Sutherland acknowledged, "but we didn't feel we could sit back and hope matters would change without addressing issues critical to a high-performing team culture. It obviously isn't the type of change we want to make three weeks out from the Ashes commencing but we believe a change is needed."
"Discipline, consistency of behavior and accountability for performance are all key ingredients that need to improve," Sutherland added in a Cricket Australia statement. "And we see that the head coach is ultimately responsible for that."
Lehmann, who was already in England in his role as coach of Australia A, led Queensland state to victories in Australia's first class and one-day competitions and the Brisbane Heat to win the Big Bash Twenty20 league.
The 43-year-old Lehmann, who played 27 tests and 117 one-day internationals for Australia, has also coached Kings XI Punjab and the now defunct Deccan Chargers in the Indian Premier League. "We're really confident that we are making the right decision right now, that this team will respond under Darren Lehmann and we will see an effort during this Ashes series and going forward that Australian cricket fans can be very proud of," Sutherland said. "We're confident that the decisions that we've made, tough as they might be, will see improved performance in the short and long term."
When asked what his three priorities were in his new role, Lehmann said: "Win, win, win." "If I don't win, I'll go — that's what goes with the job," said Lehmann, who may reach out to former players such as Shane Warne for advice.
The first of five Ashes tests starts at Trent Bridge, Nottingham, on July 10. Few were giving the inexperienced Australians a chance of reclaiming the Ashes before they arrived in England. Even fewer will now.