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While cheating players were quickly sanctioned for what Cricket Australia’s Longstaff report damned as a win-at-all-costs mentality, the game’s administrators have been slow to accept responsibility. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Cricket chairman’s slow reckoning

Cricket Australia’s outgoing chairman David Peever at a press conference in Melbourne early this week.
Credit: Michael Dodge / Getty Images

Seven months after the instigating fiasco, the Longstaff report on the culture of Australian cricket was released this week. Its timing was more interesting for the fact that it came just days after Cricket Australia’s annual general meeting, during which its tacitly condemned chairman, David Peever, was re-elected to another term. Yes: a landmark report into the ethical health of cricket’s administration was released only after the re-election of its chairman. A generous person might assume benign coincidence, but for the fact the report was completed well before the meeting.

“Arrogant and controlling”, the report read of Cricket Australia, and CA’s handling of its release seemed to confirm it. First was the cynicism of the report’s delay; second was the painful sophistry of CA’s responses to it before media. Yet, the report was clear in its assessment of the notorious ball-tampering incident in March this year at the Newlands Cricket Ground in South Africa, which resulted in Australia’s captain, Steve Smith, vice-captain, David Warner, and batsman Cameron Bancroft being suspended from the game for nine to 12 months: “Below the surface [of the cheating], there is a web of influences – including of good intentions gone awry – that made ball-tampering more likely than not. Responsibility for that larger picture lies with CA and not just the players held directly responsible for the appalling incident at Newlands … The leadership of CA should also accept responsibility for its inadvertent (but foreseeable) failure to create and support a culture in which the will-to-win was balanced by an equal commitment to moral courage and ethical restraint.”

Before cameras this week, Peever suggested that the sum of his responsibility had been acquitted by merely commissioning the report – it didn’t extend to honouring its findings with his resignation. In an interview with Leigh Sales on 7.30 on Monday, Peever dodged the question. Sales repeated it: “Can I ask you to address the question – why shouldn’t the whole board and the senior executive resign?”

Peever responded: “The work was never about wanting to dwell on negatives. This is a very important day for cricket and we are moving forward from here.”

It’s hard to see the report as anything other than a long dwelling on negatives, but so be it. Peever’s intransigence was, in a way, already anticipated by the report. “It is the unfortunate lot of a leader that he or she may sometimes be called upon to sacrifice themselves for the greater good,” it read. “Principled leadership of this kind is rare in contemporary society. Cricket has a chance to set a better example – and in doing so, to remediate much of the harm caused by the incident at Newlands. Whether or not it takes up this option is a matter for the individuals concerned to determine.”

Peever had obviously determined the matter in his favour, albeit by denying the opportunity for others to determine it for themselves. In Longstaff’s review, surveys with administrators, coaches and players – past and present – reported irritation with a double standard: players were punished; their administrators were coated in Teflon.

On Tuesday’s 7.30, the plain-spoken former Test captain Ian Chappell responded. For a long time, Chappell has been aloof from the game’s administration, despite its overtures, and it’s probably one reason his voice remains so influential. He quickly located the double standard. “Well, didn’t he say the buck stops with me?” Chappell asked. “If the buck stops with him, he’d be gone, because when it occurred, when the fiasco happened, I said if only three people – being Smith, Warner and Bancroft – if only three people get it in the neck then it’s a joke. Well, I think it’s now officially a joke.”

The players’ union – the Australian Cricketers’ Association – seized the opportunity. In a statement, they said: “Given the new and damning findings of CA’s own independently commissioned Longstaff review that found CA was also causally responsible for the events in Cape Town, the ACA calls on the CA Board to lift the imposed suspensions on the three players, effective immediately.”

No one could explain Peever’s unusual sense of exceptionalism — why he might stay, but the chief executive, coach and performance manager had left, or planned to. And no one could watch Peever’s shabby, faltering evasions without the desire to cover one’s eyes. It was a friendless week for the chairman, and the pressure grew daily. By the time he had lost the confidence of three state associations, Peever finally saw what the rest of the country did: that his position was untenable. On Thursday afternoon he resigned.

 

The Longstaff review was commissioned by Cricket Australia after the exposure of the Australian Test team’s cheating in South Africa. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the review was commissioned after the Australian public’s convulsions on hearing news of that cheating. Regardless, within a bitter but dramatically contested series – one in which both sides were enthusiastically transgressive – the cheating in the third Test was especially gratuitous. Dominated on the scoreboard, and in the hope of transforming an old and unresponsive ball into something aerodynamically surprising, Cameron Bancroft was commissioned with its unlawful, and comically indiscreet, doctoring with a strip of sandpaper.

What followed is well known, and for this we have the ground’s attentive camera operators to thank. In the footage, suspicious officials call Bancroft and captain Steve Smith over for a chat. Bancroft desperately drops his sandpaper down his pants, before presenting to the umpires a substituted object of concern, a cleaning cloth for his sunglasses. It was a hopeless, additional deception.

If you’re not a cricket fan, it might be hard to appreciate the subsequent public feeling, or to find larger meaning from this specific act. But the report did. “Some of cricket’s challenges are due to structural problems (accumulations of power in too few hands),” it read. “Some are the unintended effects of good intentions pursued without ethical restraint.”   

In 2011, Don Argus, a former chairman of BHP Billiton and ex-chief executive of NAB, was commissioned to review the health of cricket after a precipitous drop in Australia’s Test rankings. The regular fan might have attributed this to the retirement of a rare and stupendous concentration of talent, but administrators and talent hounds are not paid for fatalism. Their question is: How do we locate, cultivate and commodify talent?

The Argus review, or what it begat, is criticised by the Longstaff review – perhaps a little selectively. But a resonant note is struck when Longstaff isolates its predecessor’s unqualified imposition of corporate practice on our national sport. “Argus then went on to recommend an approach to performance that is based on established business practices. This approach was not qualified – implying that what is appropriate for ‘business’ is appropriate for sport,” the Longstaff report reads. “One example of this connection can be seen in clause 2.2.4 of the Argus Report that recommends that players’ pay be linked to ‘absolute performance’, including world rankings, match wins, series wins, etc. … As the Hayne Royal Commission into Banking and Finance has shown so clearly, the remuneration policies of business have been notoriously effective in driving a ‘win at all costs’ performance culture that has seen fees levied from dead people and for services never provided. That a financial institution ‘robbed the dead’ is as unthinkable as an Australian cricket player taking sandpaper onto the field of play – and has prompted a similar response from the Australian public.”

Whatever it takes. Headbutting the line. The Australian way. There were many clichés that both flatteringly described and helped defend extreme boorishness. Coach Darren Lehmann – who exhorted players to join “The Australian Way”, an approach that emphasised aggression – also encouraged obnoxious, boundary-nudging behaviour. 

But not all players were comfortable signatories to the Australian way. The Longstaff review interestingly observes that: “In the worst cases, players are called upon to ‘play the mongrel’. Some players may have a natural affinity for playing such a role. However, the cost of playing such a role is that they risk becoming such a person.”

One might suggest Australia’s most successful off-spinner, Nathan Lyon, as one of the more reluctant actors. Hitherto unassuming, but wonderfully skilled, last year, just days from the start of the Ashes series, a truculent Lyon fronted the media and spoke of English scars, fear and trauma. “Could we end some careers?” he asked. “I hope so.”

It felt incongruous, to say the least. The team’s psychologist is better placed to answer this, but it’s doubtful that Lyon’s gift might be improved with this late assumption of false bravado.

Masks are a feature of the report. And the masks are multiple. There’s the masking of administrative failure with promises of more administration. On the field, there’s the masking of mediocrity with theatrical aggression. In the days following the sandpaper scandal, in the emotional media conferences of the condemned three, another mask slipped: these weren’t tough men, but weeping, coddled boys.

The Longstaff report considers the bruising consequences of living inside a “gilded bubble”, and, to be sure, to listen to Smith’s last press conference as captain was to watch a man stupendously oblivious to the trouble he was in. “There is a broad consensus that elite, male players occupy a ‘gilded bubble’,” the report reads, “blessed with wealth and privilege and cursed with long periods of absence from loved ones, isolation from the rhythms of ordinary life and exposure to cut-throat competition which is unforgiving of poor performance and that makes little allowance for individuality unless it serves the task of winning.”

This environment does not make for well-rounded men. Too often, it produces callow, oblivious and self-obsessed ones. In part, the report says, the Newlands debacle was a failure of emotional maturity.

 

This week, David Peever used the word “confronting” to describe the report. It’s a muscular word. Used once, it might have spoken to the painful depths Peever plumbed while reading it. But after its 30th use on Monday, the word was thoroughly denuded of its power. That’s because the word emerged from a marketing conference. It was a word that pretended to feelings, but was deployed as a shield from them. The fix was in. And if that wasn’t already obvious from the timing of the report’s release, it should have been from the robotic bleeps of contrition.

Peever’s desperation and obliviousness this week – not unlike Steve Smith’s in March – was just the latest indignity to be visited upon our game. And it was unnecessary. The report was a death blow to the chairman, despite the cynical machinations, and he should have gracefully acknowledged the fact. Instead, he raged against the dying of the light – confirming, if anyone needed confirmation, the same destructive arrogance exposed by the report.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 3, 2018 as "Caught and bold". Subscribe here.

Martin McKenzie-Murray
is The Saturday Paper’s chief correspondent.