Australia's cricket team is unraveling.
The public has been polarized 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 Tuesday 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. Pattinson accepted the suspension, saying he should have followed the instructions for the self-assessments which were ordered after a heavy defeat.
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.
"I think it's extremely harsh to be suspended from a test match for your country in any circumstance, whether we are two-nil down or whether we are going very well."
Watson said returning home would give him the opportunity to reflect on what had happened over the last two days and focus on the arrival of his first child. His place in the team had come under scrutiny for a lack of runs and questions over where he should bat in the order now that he's playing as a specialist batsman and not an allrounder.
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.
Watson said he had a good working relationship with Clarke, admitting the pair had their "ups and downs like there is in marriages and in friendships."
"I've been playing cricket against and with Michael Clarke since I was 12, so we've got a lot of history as people," he said. "With Pat Howard, he's obviously just come on board the last year and a half and myself and Michael go a little bit further back."
Howard was appointed after a thorough, independent review of the running of Australian cricket in the wake of a home Ashes series defeat to England in 2010-11, and has been involved in changes in the structure of the support staff and selection panels.
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.
Howard maintains that discipline is needed to get Australia back on top of the world rankings.
"We have obviously made a very tough decision," Howard said. "The captain and coach have sent a very strong message about the expectations that are required to play for Australia.
"It's a high performance culture we are after and they have made a stance on what the minimum is required."
Howard said the four players suspended failed to complete a written task outlining what they could bring to the team in the future.
"This was the straw that broke the camel's back," he said. "To be No. 1 in the world takes a lot of sacrifice.
"If this happened in the middle of the Ashes it would have been catastrophic but we are trying to address it - we are not sweeping it under the carpet."
Australian Cricketers' Association chief executive Paul Marsh said he'd been in contact with the suspended players to offer support.
"The situation with the Australian team is clearly a difficult one," Marsh said in a statement. "While opinions will be divided on this issue, what is most important right now is the need for everyone in Australian cricket to rally together and put all their energy into getting the Australian team winning again."