The nation’s sports lovers are in shock and Crikey’s very own Neal Woolrich was at the dramatic Steve Waugh sacking press conference yesterday.

“The media” has taken the gloves off over the past month or two when it comes to the captaincy of the national cricket team. They’ve given Tugga more knocks than a Kings Cross floozy, prompting the skipper to call them a “bunch of fucking cockheads” at the end of a testy press conference. Frankly, if that’s all that he called them then they got off pretty lightly from what I saw of the presser in Perth.

Yesterday it was a much more sympathetic media as the Australian Cricket Board’s CEO, James “baby face” Sutherland, and chairman of selectors, Trevor Hohns, announced that Waugh would not be selected for the coming one day series in South Africa.

A couple of hacks were questioning how Hohns could justify sacking a bloke with Waugh’s outstanding record on the back of one slightly below par series. Were these the same hacks who only a few weeks ago were running the ruler over the form guide and suggesting Waugh was on his last legs?

Indeed, if you flipped through the sports pages of a newspaper over the last few weeks, you would think Waugh’s dismissal was fait accompli. But at the presser it was a different story, with the hacks firmly in Waugh’s corner and questioning the wisdom of the selectors in dropping him.

Peter FitzSimons, taking time out from apologising to the Muslim world for the sins of the West in his self-appointed role as spokesman for the entire Western world, asked Waugh whether he blamed “we of the media” for encouraging the selectors to drop him.

“I don’t blame anyone from the media for the decision,” Waugh said. “The decision is made by the selectors, that’s why they’re given their responsibility to pick what they think is the best side to win cricket games for Australia and I respect that, that’s the job they’ve got to do. From my point of view, once again I’m not in the side right now. I’ve got to try and turn that around and be available for the 2003 World Cup.” (when I’ll get a $1 million bonus from my Indian bat sponsor if I lead the side.)

As always, a straight bat from Tugga.

We won’t bother reporting too much of the cricket side of things here in Crikey you can read far more erudite accounts in the mainstream press than this waffling observer could possibly put together. Rather, we’ll look at the press conference as an event itself.

But just briefly, there are a couple of interesting things to this decision.

The first reason explaining his axing is that it is perceived to be because of a drop in form. Yet in the recent domestic series, he averaged just over 31, only slightly below his career average of 32. The second factor that is perceived to be behind his axing is the fact that the Aussies failed to make the finals of the tri-series with New Zealand and South Africa. Yet if it were not for the much maligned “bonus point” system the Aussies would have finished top of the table. Further, the Aussies beat eventual premiers South Africa in three out of the four games they played, including a comprehensive thrashing in the last game they played against each other.

While not wanting to call into question the credentials of Stumpy Boon, Hooker Hilditch, Captain Grumpy and Mr No-nickname Trevor Hohns, these are hardly condemning statistics.

All of the big cricket guns were there at the presser FitzSy, Peter Roebuck, Mike Coward, Malcolm Conn, Crash Craddock to name but a few but the big surprise was the presence of ACA’s Mike Munro.

Now I know I bagged ACA on this website not long ago, but the biggest revelation for yours truly was that Mike is actually a darn good bloke. (Are you drunk Crullers – Ed)

At the risk of being accused of being a sell out and basing this opinion on chatting to Munro for about 5 minutes before the presser got underway, he was a genuinely friendly bloke. (Tell that to the Paxtons – Ed)

I walked in and spied a vacant seat in between a couple of chaps, not realising until I was about to ask one of these blokes whether the seat was taken that I was about to plonk down next to Mike. We had a chat about Tugga and even when I told him I was with Crikey, he laughed off the fact that Crikey may not have said the nicest things about him in the past.

So I won’t have a bad word said about Munro again (unbelievable, a sell-out with no cash changing hands – Ed). Bring on the stories on bank bashing, miracle diets, arthritis cures, de-bunking miracle diets and arthritis cures, dodgy tradesmen and Dole Armies that live in caves.

It was a carefully stage-managed event, with the ACB’s media manager Brendan McClements introducing Sutherland and Hohns, who took turns to read Tugga’s one-day cricket obituary.

Thankfully Tugga didn’t do a Kim Hughes or Craig McDermott and turn on the waterworks, defiantly calling this a setback from which he planned to bounce back.

Sutherland opened the bowling from the Paddington end, reading a prepared statement and administering the last rites to Tugga’s one-day cricket career at least for the moment. While he was reading his spray, Tugga gave him an “if looks could kill” kind of look which would have just about caused the baby-faced 30-something Sutherland to spontaneously combust.

While Waugh was his usual matter-of-fact and determined self when taking questions from the press, the body language when Sutherland was reading his spray wasn’t the best.

Apart from the more predictable questions who will take over as captain, who else is in the firing line one of the more interesting questions was whether Waugh had been given the opportunity to retire rather than go out in this “pushy” manner, if you will.

“No, that wasn’t offered and I wouldn’t take it up anyway,” Waugh said. “There’s no shame in being dropped from the side. We all give it our best shot, occasionally performances aren’t up to scratch and sometimes you get dropped. As I said before, I see this as a setback, this is not career ending for me.”

The Australian’s Mike Coward pointed out that “one of the most critical issues with it is the separation of the one day and five day captaincy again. It caused a lot of pain from 1997 to early 99. How is the five day captaincy in view of the separation of powers?”

Tugga went down on bended knee and gave this the slog-sweep treatment over mid-wicket.

“I don’t really think it caused a lot of pain. I was obviously part of that and obviously captained the one-day side and Mark Taylor captained the Test side. I know it can work. The two captains have obviously got to have a good relationship and work together. Whoever that new captain may be I’ll certainly fully support him.”

One suspects Mike Coward can appreciate this, being such a learned student of the rich traditions and intoxicating culture of antipodean cricket.

Tugga’s no-nonsense appraisal of his sacking as captain was a refreshing breath of air for this cynical observer, who has seen too many under-performing execs go to the bank when they get the flick for inadequate performance. He said “no-one has a right to any position, whether it’s business or sport, I’m now captain of the Test side, someone else will be captain of the one-day side”. If only our business luminaries followed the same ethos!

And this from a bloke whose performance as skipper (or CEO, if you will) probably shouldn’t be called into question. His “company” has been the best performing in history, his own performance has been better than most who have tried and yet the “board” (i.e. the selectors) have deemed in their infinite wisdom that someone else is better suited to the position.

As a media event, this was strictly controlled and over all too briefly, although one feels having seen the footage of recent Waugh press conferences that “the media” probably didn’t have too many illuminating questions to ask.

McClements kept a tight reign on questioning, making sure that no-one piped up out of order. But it was over in under 20 minutes, probably not unreasonable given the inane grilling Waugh must put up with every time the Aussies play in a meaningless one-day international.

At the end of it all, one can’t help but feeling even more admiration for Waugh. He’s just been given the flick from one of his jobs, yet he fronts up to face the very same people who have antagonised him for the past couple of months and gives it to them straight with no bullspittle.

As a Crikey correspondent who has sat through endless hours of corporate types papering over crap, spinning never-ending bullshit bingo phrases and giving the public the run-around, it brings home how fortunate we are to occasionally get a straight-shooter.

Peter Fray

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