Professional sport is measured on results. The pressure to perform can be magnified by the fact that it’s not only the stakeholders and fans, but also the broader media who can determine whether a performance is deemed acceptable, let alone worthy of acclaim. The team’s management, coaches, and players are rightly held accountable for poor results, often resulting in public demand for wholesale changes to be made in order to resolve the problem as quickly as possible.
In contrast, it can be deemed to be more important for current structures and systems to be maintained to ensure continuity and aid in succession planning, targeting long-term success over a short-term fix.
This highlights differing priorities in terms of managing poor performance:
- Sweeping changes versus continuity
- Short-term fix versus long-term results
Recent events in test cricket in South Africa and Australia provide a useful test case to examine the merits of these contrasting perspectives. In both of these cases, I have deliberately avoided consideration of the impact of player injuries, conditioning and resting over these periods noting that this is part of the game. The public and media give little weight to these matters when assessing team results.
At the beginning of 2015 season, the South African test side were ranked number 1 in the ICC test rankings, having not lost an away test series since 2006. However, a run of poor results including a 0-0 drawn series in Bangladesh, a 3-0 loss in India, followed up by a 2-1 loss to England at home, ultimately resulted in a drop in the rankings from #1 to #7 by August of 2016. This would be South Africa’s lowest rank since the ranking’s inception in 2003.
Understandably, concerns were raised about the state of the test side, the coach, the team culture and depth of available talent. What had gone so wrong and what needed to change? Seemingly, not much according to South Africa’s cricket bosses. Subsequently, after beginning a 2-match series against New Zealand at home (as underdogs), the South Africans went on to win 1-0 before taking on Australia, albeit in a different format, and beating them 5-0 in the ODI series. This was followed by a 2-1 test series win in Australia and a shift up to #5 in the rankings. It would seem that keeping the faith has paid off for now.
While the South Africans were struggling in the 2015/16 season, the Australian Test side went from strength to strength under the stewardship of Darren Lehman. The Australians surged back up to the top of the rankings in February 2016 and maintained this ranking until a 3-0 series loss in Sri Lanka in August 2016. This was followed by a difficult, winless ODI tour to South Africa and then a return test series at home in Australia. Losses in Perth and Hobart, characterised by major batting collapses, proved to be the tipping point.
The chairman of the selectors, Rod March, decided to step down citing the need for fresh thinking. In addition, no less than 5 players were dropped from the original test squad with four uncapped players replacing them. While drastic, these changes were deemed necessary, and did yield the desired result with Australia comfortably beating the South Africans in the third and final test in Adelaide, followed by a successful ODI series against New Zealand.
It is interesting to contrast the approaches taken by each of these major cricketing nations in response to perceived crises along with having to deal with public and media expectations. Perhaps the question then, is as much around the influence of public and media opinion, as it is the strength of the underlying systems.