Sun Tzu is the Chinese overlord who most readily gets dredged up when it comes to questions of Australian leadership in cricket. The vaunted 6th century BC general's treatise on battle strategy was apparently much beloved by former coach John Buchanan and, perfectly and trend-settingly, slipped under the hotel room door of each member of his 2001 Ashes squad. Absurd as it may have been to equate warfare with cricket, even that tinged with his captain Steve Waugh's love of provoking "mental disintegration" among the opposition, the sentiments rested easily with Australia's 1989-2005 dominance of the then vanquished and pitiful English.
Mickey Arthur, Australia's present coach, has perhaps instead been studying the tactics of another Chinese general, Tan Daoji, who formulated thirty-six stratagems for war. They encompass numerous scenarios of battle but possibly the one held most dear by the former South Africa manager would be the maxim to "Sacrifice the plum tree to preserve the peach tree," or in layman's - that is, Wikipedia's - terms, to accept that, "there are circumstances in which you must sacrifice short-term objectives in order to gain the long-term goal. This is the scapegoat strategy whereby someone else suffers the consequences so that the rest do not." A further illustration is given of this methodology:
"Cao Cao [another esteemed warlord] demonstrated this strategy. During a siege, Cao's supplies ran low so he called in the supply captain and told him to dilute the rice with water to save grains. When the soldiers started to complain, Cao ordered for the captain to be killed. He would explain to his troops that the captain had been selling supplies to the enemy. This raised the army's morale and they were victorious in a few more days."
Referring to the original fruity analogy, Shane Watson - and to a lesser extent Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson, and Usman Khawaja - are the plum trees in this particular device, but with regard to the example one might suggest Kevin Pietersen feeding the South African enemy in summer 2012 would be the most obvious modern symbol. You have to replace rice with texts to get the feel, but the spectre of Pietersen's misdemeanours undeniably hovers large over the Australian farce. Last summer as now a man who perceives himself bigger than the team ethos is given a slap down, had his plum tree uprooted and burnt on the barbecue of unity. Then, as now, conventional wisdom started to harden in support of the management establishment of the respective side, with a rallying round of support for the bravery of the leader whose peach tree will surely bear fruit in the future. For Giles Clarke it did, but it's a moot point whether it was incompetence or reintegration that brought that about.
Great stock has been placed in the fact this was not an difficult task to undertake for the Australian four: Provide three suggestions on how to improve both your own and the team 's performance - if you can't be bothered to do that then you don't deserve to be playing for your country? This is fanciful. Across the planet talented people, skilled in their field, are asked to submit to the whims of of their managers' ad hoc notions of advancement. Show me an NHS surgeon who believes completing self-assessment forms improves the way they wield a scalpel and I'll show you an empathetic article on race relations by Dean Jones. The gravitas "The Task" has assumed is in inverse proportion to the details of its stipulations, hotel doors, texts and so forth. As any teacher knows, you don't set the most important task for your students to do as homework because some of them, however talented, just simply won't complete it. If something is of great consequence you make them work on it in class - or team meeting - where you can observe them hunched over in quiet concentration. Whether teenagers or cricketers, and there's admittedly a fair mingling of both mindsets in this scenario, if you don't then they'll wander off to do something more interesting - apparently golf in this instance - oblivious of how much it may be to their future detriment. Tut all you want, but this is what students do. Putting them in detention isn't always the best way to then help them pass their exams.
Mickey Arthur has a record of success which doesn't need any patronising, but he's called this one wrong. When Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were arrested and imprisoned for alleged possession of cannabis in 1967, the editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg - not a man known for his rampant liberalism - quoted Alexander Pope by asking the simple question, "Why break a butterfly upon the wheel?". It was a plea for proportionality in punishment. That Australian four are as unlikely to produce a Pietersen 186 in India as they are to write an better song than Dead Flowers but we'll only know in the next twelve months, as Arthur's own version of England's misguided adherence to team unity plays out, what results his militaristic discipline will bring. Arthur's laudible theory may well be deserving of another Australian dynasty of success, but, in practice, it seems more like he'll be presiding over a field of withered and unpalatable Ashes peaches.