The deep divide between Michael Clarke and Shane Watson exposed by sacked coach Mickey Arthur was sparked the moment Clarke became Australian captain.
While Australia continued preparations for the second Test against England, starting at Lord’s on Thursday, the relationship between the captain and his former deputy is again under the spotlight after Arthur included details of their feud in a $4 million action against Cricket Australia lodged with the Fair Work Commission.
Clarke is adamant that under new coach Darren Lehmann the team is as united as it has been for a long time. But Arthur’s allegations, which reportedly include claims by Clarke that Watson and his faction were a ”cancer” on the side, have thrust the pair’s historically fractured relationship back in focus, and with the Ashes on the line.
The two have known each other since their days as promising juniors and in many ways are very similar. Told they were going to be special sportsmen from an early age, both reached the top by combining their rich talent with infinite ambition and drive.
They were never close, however. The easy assumption is they saw each other as threats.
Whatever the case, the tension between the pair escalated when Clarke was made captain and Watson his deputy in 2011.
The antagonism intensified with Watson part of an ”old guard” that over the ensuing two years became increasingly isolated within the squad and resentful of what was perceived as Clarke’s favourable treatment towards a group of younger players it was felt he was aligned with.
Even before their rift was confirmed by Arthur, it had got to the point where Australian officials were conceding publicly there was a serious problem, despite the two players insisting they had not fallen out. ”The captain and vice-captain have got to sort their issues out,” Pat Howard, Cricket Australia’s general manager of high performance, said in March.
By then Watson’s future as deputy was already over. Fairfax Media understands he was told during his return to Sydney from India for the birth of his first child that his position was untenable. Remarkably, he would then end up taking charge of the side temporarily when Clarke’s back problem forced him out of the fourth Test in Delhi.
The dramatic events of Mohali and India, however, were only the flashpoint in relations between Clarke and Watson, and in Watson’s role as a team leader. Fairfax Media has been told that as far back as April last year there had been high-level Cricket Australia discussions held about relieving Watson of the vice-captaincy before the tour of the West Indies.
Those talks were aborted, though, with Clarke’s lingering back issues said to be a key factor. It was thought by members of the CA hierarchy that with Clarke a fitness concern, Australia could not afford to be without a viable back-up option at that time, particularly given another option, wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, had been out of form in the lead-up to that Caribbean series.
Watson has disagreed with suggestions he is not a team player. The former vice-captain has been widely criticised for being solely focused on his own performances and not taking sufficient interest in his teammates, but has always stated his efforts to improve himself were for the betterment of the team.
There were other contributing factors to the rift. Clarke’s notorious statement that Australia had beaten India 4-0 in a Test series at home without Watson would not have helped to improve relations.
Then there is the way Clarke has used one of the team’s key weapons. Whereas Ricky Ponting was content to use Watson as a partnership breaker with the ball, as much to protect his body as to keep him fresh to open the batting, Clarke batted him lower down the order and deployed him more as a fourth seamer. It should not have come as a surprise when Watson broke down during the Boxing Day Test just days after delivering nearly 48 overs in Hobart.
One of Lehmann’s first tasks was to broker peace – or at least ensure the two have a working professional relationship. As teammates they don’t have to be best of friends but Australia’s chances of beating England were never going to be improved if they were at each other’s throats.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.