Is Australia Coach Darren Lehmann a Laid-Back Genius or an Optimistic Fool?
A much better idea of the merits of the Darren Lehmann's relaxed approach to the game will come to the fore after this week's second Ashes Test at Lord's.
"Everybody be cool, this a robbery!" So might Darren Lehmann holler as he brandishes his weapon and leaps onto a table in the Long Room at Lord's. OK, perhaps he climbs gradually onto that table. You don't imagine the Australia coach does a lot of leaping these days. Nor does he threaten to execute anything but plans. But it's alright. The diners will wait. (Ben Stokes hits out at 'Silly' Australian mind games)
In fact, maybe the whole enterprise is more laid-back than a typical Tarantino opener. If you want to wind your pulp culture back another decade, you might find that the t-shirts of the Australian cricket entourage read Darren Says Relax. Or they would, if the space hadn't already been sold to sponsors. (Forget beer diplomacy, it's bitter Ashes)
Staying relaxed while taking what he wants is what Lehmann is all about. Staying relaxed is a valuable commodity in international sport. Having not won an Ashes series in England since 2001, running a team thoroughly mugged in the first Test in Cardiff, Lehmann tossed worry aside. A "minor hiccup", was how he described that loss, and in a lot of ways he was right. (2nd Ashes Test preview)
Let's say you get smashed in a Test match. Getting antsy doesn't help. Stay cool. It was a five-Test series, so now it's just a four-Test series that you have to win. If Australia draw they retain the Ashes. They'll talk the talk about wanting to win, but a 1-2 line from here would do the job nicely. (Shane Watson faces axe)
There has been a lot of repetition flying around about how rare it is for a team to go 1-0 down and come back to win. It sounds compelling, but it's also because, as logic would have it, lots of series are mismatched, and the better team is more likely to win the first game. That doesn't mean you can't still have an evenly-matched series, where one team wins first and the other second.
That's what Lehmann is backing, and his tendency to encourage his team to take it easy (with the aid of two-pound pint night at the nearest Walkabout if need be) could be exactly what they need in this series.
On the other hand, saying "She'll be right" can mean you don't make sensible decisions. Back in 2005, Australia's selectors couldn't bring themselves to cross out top-order names like Langer, Hayden or Martyn, no matter how much those batsmen scratched around like old chooks. In the meantime, an England specialist named Michael Hussey played the preceding ODIs in such absurd form he was nearly glowing, and while England surrendered 40 wickets to Shane Warne's leg-spin, Stuart MacGill was left out every game in favour of ineffective third seamers.
No worries mate, we'll just back ourselves, play the way we play, use our instincts, play our natural game, believe we can get results, and lose the series.
There's a little of that in Lehmann's philosophy. Take the inclusion of Pat Cummins in the current squad. Lehmann's rule is that his fast bowlers must be fast bowlers. The Lehmann Mark is 140 kilometres per hour. If they can't top it, they're out of the side. Clint Mackay was Australia's top-ranked ODI bowler, now he's a county professional. Peter Siddle was a first-choice Test man, this time he barely made the squad.
Cummins wasn't even supposed to make the squad, he was signed up for a development tour of India. But with Ryan Harris's retirement, in he came, because he can deliver the requisite velocity. There's just the slight problem that he has played six first-class games in his entire life.
I'd like to emphasise that. In his life. Normally we'd feel dubious about a guy who'd played six this year. But Cummins' first four games were in 2011. The fourth was his memorable Test debut, but in four years since he's played once each against a Zimbabwe Select XI and South Africa A. People talk of picking players on Sheffield Shield form: Cummins' three Shield matches were an Olympiad ago.
No worries, says Lehmann. "Patrick Cummins has joined us and he's ready to go." Is he? Ready to go? He's played five List A games and five Twenty20s this year. Clearly the Australian camp hopes they don't have to use him, but they have to face the chance that they might. If they do, Cummins will be lucky to remember the rules of Test cricket. He'll probably pack up and go home at the end of day 1.
Then there's the back-up batsman in Shaun Marsh, and given the way the rest of the squad is in flux, he could be playing any minute too. For context, this is a 32-year-old batsman whose sole first-class game in the UK came a fortnight ago in a warm-up at Kent. His lifetime county experience consists of six T20s for Glamorgan, and he's played most of his first-class cricket on the Waca for an average of 38. Just the ticket for a damp morning at Birmingham.
That doesn't mean that if everything goes right for Lehmann, it won't go very right indeed. His gamble on all-out attack means his bowlers could channel Frankie Goes to Hollywood once more: "Shoot it in the right direction, make making it your intention. Live those dreams, scheme those schemes, got to hit me, hit me, hit me with those laser beams."
That's the gamble. If he's going full Pulp Fiction to pull off this heist then he needs Michael Clarke on the field to play Honey Bunny to his Pumpkin. Every orchestrator needs crowd control. Better make that Pup Fiction. But what if things don't go to plan? You could imagine Ben Stokes pinning Lehmann's gun hand to the table, saying "Now I want you to go in that kit bag and find my bat. It's the one with Bad Motherfucker on it."
Clarke looks at him. I love you, Honey Bunny. Except maybe this time the couple don't get to walk away with the loot. Maybe this belief that everything will work out will be shown up to be insane. In five days' time, the series will either be all square or all but lost. Lehmann will either be a laid-back genius or an optimistic fool. All we know is that however it goes, he's not going waste time stressing either way.