BRISBANE, Australia (AP):
Australia's cricket team is unravelling.
The public has been polarised by the decision to ban vice-captain Shane Watson and three other players for a Test for failing to submit a self-critique to the coaching staff on time.
The once-mighty team is also struggling on the field, trailing India 2-0 halfway through a four-Test tour which already had sparked plenty of criticism and debate about team selections.
Now the suspensions for a seemingly trivial misdeed have become the butt of jokes at home and abroad, with former England captain Michael Vaughan among those taking delight at the punishment dished out to players for essentially not doing their homework.
Watson left the tour hours after the ban was announced, saying he'd be considering his future in cricket. He returned to Australia late yesterday to spend time with his heavily pregnant wife.
Newspaper headlines expressed bewilderment, columnists were divided, and former players were outraged.
Allan Border, the battling batsman who guided the national team out of its previous cricket doldrums in the 1980s, could barely suppress a laugh as he discussed the sanctions in a television interview.
"What are they on, a schoolboy tour?" Border asked. "I don't see the logic in this. It is way over the top. It seems too strong a measure for coach and captain to take."
Australia coach Mickey Arthur and captain Michael Clarke have stood by the decision to suspend Watson, fast bowlers James Pattinson and Mitchell Johnson and backup batsman Usman Khawaja, saying it was the "last straw" after repeated warnings to the squad about discipline and professionalism.
Even after returning to Australia, Watson said the decision was too "harsh".
"I, obviously, accept that I did the wrong thing ... but I will always find it very hard to accept being suspended from a Test match for my country," Watson said. "I've missed a lot of Test matches and games through injury throughout my career and I also feel like I've worked my absolute (best) to have an opportunity to be able to represent my country."
Making matters worse for him, Cricket Australia's high-performance manager Pat Howard - a former Australia rugby union international - indicated at a news conference that there were issues between captain and vice-captain and suggested Watson was only "sometimes" a team-oriented player.
"Pat Howard doesn't particularly know me very well. He's obviously come from a rugby background and hasn't been in and around cricket for very long, so I think the best people to ask are the people I've played cricket with," Watson told a large media contingent at Sydney International Airport.
Arthur, a former South Africa coach, is the first foreigner to take the helm of Australia. Some of his methods and the selection policies, including the forced rotation of fast bowlers, have been the subject of heated debate.
Cricket is Australia's national sport, and fans became accustomed to continual success in the 1990s and early 2000s when the team won three consecutive World Cups and dominated the Test format. Some of the biggest stars of the modern era played during that time, and the demise of the team started with their retirements, starting with bowling greats Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne.