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The Real Reason We Lost The Ashes - We're A Sycophantic Clique

05/01/2014 17:11 GMT | Updated 07/03/2014 10:59 GMT

I doubt Michael Cimino has ever watched a game of cricket in his life - nevertheless the Oscar-winning director who imploded in a fireball of arrogance, sycophancy and self-obsessive control-freakery more than three decades ago is the perfect mentor for England's beleaguered cricket captain, Alistair Cook.

Cook has gone from world-beating hero to king of catastrophe in a few short months, not unlike Cimino's spectacular fall from grace when he turned from world's greatest director (The Deer Hunter) into world's worst human being (Heaven's Gate).

The seeds of destruction in both cases are remarkably similar, indeed the scenario is replicated endlessly in the worlds of business, politics, sport and media. Power creates cliques - perhaps even needs them at first - but those cliques are inevitably self-destructive.

People only want to listen to opinions that they concur with, argument is polite rather than constructive, disagreement is not just frowned upon but feared, maverick points of view are seen as trouble-making.

Instead of buying ex-captains' memoirs or books on leadership, the rather timid, too-nice yes-man Cook should buy an extraordinary document of how another 'captain' watched in horror as a project destined for greatness (like our once all-conquering cricket team) sank under a tide of ego.

Final Cut, written by one of Hollywood's foremost producers Steven Bach, recalls how a small-budget western ($5m) ballooned into $50m vanity trip because the system - and Bach, in particular - failed to rein in the excesses of an award-winning film director who had surrounded himself with timid yes-men (and women). The studio seduced by Cimino's astonishing former project, The Deer Hunter, was destroyed by his equally-astonishing follow-up, Heaven's Gate.

Cook is not Cimino, the English cricket set-up is. It is a tiny clique of individuals who look for consensus because that is where they see strength. The head coach, Andy Flower, is a control freak who knows (demands?) that Cook will agree with everything he does. The batting coach, Graham Gooch, is the person who has mentored Cook since his early days and a man to whom Cook willingly doffs his cap. The bowling coach, David Saker, is in awe of both these two men. The chairman of selectors, Geoff Cook, is a very close friend of the batting coach and has been instrumental in handing Cook his job and spending millions on teams of scientists who have stopped the players thinking for themselves.

So we have five men who all like each other and who all depend on - and are thankful to - each other for their careers. No one is wrong, no one is challenged, no one is to blame, no one should (but am pretty sure will) resign. The self-satisfied clique has succumbed to sycophancy in the same way that the Heaven's Gate production did.

No one dare challenged Cimino even though the studio could see that his inability to listen to others was putting careers at risk. The easiest thing was to nod heads and sign cheques. No one had the strength of character to speak out and risk being sacked for impertinence.

It reminds me of a job I once had in which the Editor mistook leadership for dictatorship - there was no point in debate since he was the sole decision-maker and arguing (remember, this was a newsroom in which journalists were paid to argue) was a 'waste of my time'. Sycophants were invited to join the cabal, individualists were ignored, the product was ruined.

Likewise, it seems, no one has had the strength of character within the England set-up to speak up and thus performances and teamwork suffered terribly. So convinced was management that we were the better side, that match-preparation was kept to a bare minimum. We took three tall fast bowlers ideally suited to the Australian pitches and yet none of them played any meaningful role. A senior player was allowed to resign from international cricket mid-way through a series rather than face the 'humiliation' of being dropped. Players were prevented from having fun off the pitch and being overly aggressive on it.

Heaven's Gate was an example of how one man's ruthless single-mindedness, appalling arrogance and inability to countenance alternative opinion combined to create the biggest flop in the history of cinema. The only difference between that episode and the England cricket team is that Heaven's Gate is now lauded as a triumph.

Every office needs different voices, every team needs its maverick, every small group of decision-makers needs to encourage debate without fear of being judged - and every leader needs to listen to more than his mates.