Controversy erupted during Australia’s tour to India in 2013 after the touring team suspended four players, including vice-captain Shane Watson for a Test match after they failed to complete coach Mickey Arthur’s ‘homework’ on time.
Australia set foot in India in 2013 for a four-match Test series, looking to replicate their showing from 2004/05 when they won 2-1, and flying high after beating India 4-0 at home in 2011/12. However, things did not begin as planned, with India winning the first game at Chennai by eight wickets. A fine double hundred from MS Dhoni ensured that the hosts claimed a mammoth 192-run lead after in first innings, and Australia could never recover, with India being set a target of 50 for a series lead.
The second Test, in Hyderabad, saw India put on another dominant showing. After Australia declared their first innings late on day one at 237-9, India piled on 503 with Cheteshwar Pujara getting 204 and Murali Vijay making 167 at the top of the order. A five-for from R Ashwin skittled the Aussies out for 131, handing India a win by an innings and 135 runs within three-and-a-half days along with an invincible lead in the series.
With two Tests to go, the Australia camp went into crisis mode. Head coach Mickey Arthur assigned each member of the playing squad the task of submitting three points on how to improve their own individual performances and that of the team in the remaining two Tests. The players were informed of their ‘homework’ duties a day after the defeat, on Tuesday, and had four days, until Saturday, to submit the report. They could either text, email or slip a note to Arthur with the pointers.
However, by Monday, four members – Shane Watson, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Usman Khawaja – had not yet sent in their reports, following which the support staff along with skipper Michael Clarke converged to discuss the next course of action. The four who did not submit the ‘homework’ were later suspended from the third Test in Mohali, with Watson also flying back home, the suspension coinciding with the birth of his son.
Watson and Pattinson had played the first two Tests of the series, while Johnson and Khawaja were unused squad members.
As expected, the decision was met with criticism, with Mark Waugh saying, “It’s not under 6s – this is Test cricket,” and Ricky Ponting offering his staunch support of Watson.
Captain and coach, on the other hand, defended their decision by saying it was “not just about one incident.” Speaking soon after the decision, Clarke said, “I want the public and the media to understand, don’t get me wrong, it’s not just about one incident. 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. 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.”
Arthur echoed Clarke, writing about how repeated “minor indiscretions” led to this harsh step. “It has been a culmination of lots of minor indiscretions that have built up to now,” Arthur wrote in his Cricket Australia blog. “Some people may ask why it was left to get to this point, such an ‘extreme measure’. We have given lots of latitude and flexibility with a young and inexperienced squad. We know it’s going to take time for them to grow and mature, but there is only so long the leadership group can hold their hand.
“This decision was about sending out a strong message that it is about time all players had some accountability for their actions. Being late for a meeting, high skinfolds, wearing the wrong attire, back-chat or giving attitude are just some examples of these behavioural issues that have been addressed discreetly but continue to happen. If we’re deadly serious about getting back to number one in the world, all players need to raise the bar and lift their game.”
While Pattinson regretted “letting the team down”, Watson started contemplating his future in the format. It ended rather anti-climactically as the all-rounder, who flew to Australia after the suspension, returned for the fourth Test in Delhi and led the team in Clarke’s absence. Watson later described the sequence of events as “bizarre” but also as a huge learning curve for him.
Arthur, who was sacked later that year and replaced by Darren Lehmann on the eve of the Ashes series, harboured regrets over the ‘Homework-gate’ and said that he might have handled the incident differently. “The constant thing that always plagues and plagues me is around Homework-gate. Would I have handled that differently? I guess I might have.”
Clarke, on the other hand, has no such regrets, saying it was the “best decision for Australian cricket”.
It’s a furore that continues to spark debate to this day, with new details coming to light a few years ago. Arthur revealed how an off-hand comment from opening batter Ed Cowan accelerated the controversy. “I wasn’t that worried… those four players who forgot, all I was going to do that day was to remind them that day when we arrived at Mohali, ‘Hey guys, remember your lists’ and they’d have probably said, ‘Yeah sorry coach, I’ll get them to you tonight.
“But on the plane, I was sitting next to Michael Clarke, the manager Gavin Dovey was next to us and Eddie Cowan was sitting just in front of us. Eddie Cowan just happened to turn around and say, ‘Hey coach, how’s it all going with those things?’ I said, ‘Great but I need four to come in.’ And then the manager said, ‘Who are the four?’ and I said who the four were.
“Then they [members of the support staff] said, ‘that’s not very good, what are we going to do about it?’ In my mind at that point I was just going to nudge them as I got off the plane, it hadn’t become a massive issue for me at that time. It then became common knowledge that those four players hadn’t done it.
“You had Michael, the manager and the support staff saying, ‘What are you going to do?’ And then suddenly I’m sitting in a pickle. They clearly hadn’t done what I’d asked but I didn’t think it was that big a deal at that point in time. Had they not done it by the first practice, that then would have become a massive issue. It became a no-win situation for me. I wonder what would have happened to my Australia coaching career if Eddie hadn’t turned around and said, ‘Hey coach, how have the players responded?”
Australia went on to lose the remaining two games of the Test series against India as well and slipped down to No.5 in the ICC Men’s Test rankings. Eighteen months later, after Australia’s Ashes whitewash and a series win in South Africa, the team climbed to the top of the table.