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As the public reels from cricket’s ball-tampering scandal, the Australian Test team’s win-at-all-costs attitude has finally seen it caught out. By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The reality of Australian cricket’s boor war

Former Australian Test team captain Steve Smith.
Credit: ROBERT PREZIOSO / CRICKET AUSTRALIA / GETTY IMAGES

Of all the bitter astonishments, perhaps the most bitter was being astonished at all. To follow Australian cricket is often to accept our sweet exceptionalism: Aussies play hard but fair. Always. It’s a mantra in this country, but in every other cricketing nation it’s viewed as sanctimonious bullshit. A good number of Australians may have been shocked last Sunday morning, but the rest of the cricket world had their belief in our hypocrisy deliciously confirmed.

Hard but fair. The gentleman’s game. It’s just not cricket. There’s a surplus of empty pieties this week, usually invoked in inverse proportion to one’s knowledge of the sport. “Cricket is synonymous with fair play,” the prime minister said. “Integrity is written into the heart of this game,” Guardian Australia’s sports editor wrote.

Really? The game of Bodyline and Underarm? Of Hansie Cronje and Saleem Malik? The game of the News of the World match-fixing sting, and Australia’s tour of apartheid South Africa? Or the game of Shane Warne and Mark Waugh’s light collusion with John the bookmaker, imperfectly buried by Cricket Australia for a few years? The game played by the current Australian coach who, in 2003, referred to his Sri Lankan opponents as “fucking black cunts”?

Perhaps they’re referring to the game that has inspired an illegal gambling syndicate so vast and perniciously influential that many in the game consider its faceless mass responsible for the death of Pakistan coach Bob Woolmer? Perhaps it’s the game that’s administered internationally by an organisation widely thought feckless in its pursuit of corruption?

Perhaps the angelic game referred to this week is the one in which, in all grades and countries, ball tampering is common practice. Ball biting, lacquering, de-lacquering, scuffing and scratching are proud arts. To this end, zips, gutters, teeth, fingernails and viscous, mint-enhanced saliva are all applied to the cherry.

Spare me the piety. Cricket’s a wonderful game, but if you think it’s a paragon of virtue, you haven’t been paying attention. The same goes for our venerated “hardness”. Our Test team is notoriously obnoxious and globally disliked. Has been for many years. Publicly, there’ll be murmurings from our rivals about collective disrepute. Privately there’ll be a broad indulgence of schadenfreude. In fact, plenty of former players, their tongues freed by retirement, are crowing. “I think a lot of what they’re copping at the moment comes from the way they have played their game,” England’s Australian coach, Trevor Bayliss, said. “It’s almost like teams and people around the world have been waiting for them to stuff up, so they can lay the boot in.”

Australia’s venerated “hardness” was apparent when Michael Clarke warned England No. 11 Jimmy Anderson to “get ready for a broken fucking arm” while facing Mitchell Johnson at his fearsome best. It was evident in the boyish sadism with which Brett Lee fractured the ribs of paunchy middle-aged television host Piers Morgan on live television – “a deliberate attempt to hit, injure, hurt and maim his opponent,” admonished Sir Richard Hadlee.

“We know where the line is,” the Australians love saying. “We headbutt it, but we don’t go over it.” It was good old-fashioned hardness when David Warner, anticipating the beginning of the Ashes series late last year, said: “You have to delve and dig deep into yourself to actually get some hatred about them … As soon as you step on that line, it’s war.” But it’s not war, David, and it’s a strange comment from a man who witnessed – and was deeply affected by – Phillip Hughes collapsing fatally in the middle of the Sydney Cricket Ground three years ago, struck by a bouncer as he batted for his state team.

I won’t presume to speak for the agonies experienced by Hughes’s cricket mates. Suffice to say they were devastated, nauseated, for a time inconsolable. But from a distance I found it strange that, publicly at least, it didn’t appear to temper the infamous Aussie aggression, or compel a warmer perspective. Cricket was war. Opponents were scum. This past summer, Steve Smith happily replicated the 2013 tactic of unleashing a barrage of bouncers to hapless tailenders. Former England captain Mike Atherton wondered if the dust-gathered rule, 41.6.1, which protected poorly skilled batsmen against bowlers, should be enforced more regularly. “Cricket is an odd game in that it has three distinct disciplines and, within that, you have the unusual situation where someone who is totally useless in one area can face a world-class performer in another – with potentially harmful consequences,” he wrote.

Mitchell Johnson, the historically effective spearhead of Australia’s aggression in 2013, shrugged his shoulders. “If they take everything away from the bowlers we’re just going to see bowling machines,” he said. “I wouldn’t go into a game and be told, ‘Well, you can’t bowl two bouncers now, it’s one.’ ”

His argument had merit. The professionalism of cricket means that far fewer tailenders these days are so haplessly vulnerable. Plus, Johnson implied, shouldn’t it be for the batter to get better, and not for the bowler to become kinder? I have no answer – only to note that Phillip Hughes was no bunny and to the contrary had opened the batting for his country – but nor do I want to hear any more pabulum about the “gentleman’s game”. It’s a sport played with brutal pragmatism, enforced by the hyper-competitive. This is, in part, what attracts us to elite sport.

Last year, I couldn’t help but wonder why, when the tactic of aggressive bowling to England’s less gifted batsmen was discussed, the name of Phillip Hughes was rarely, if ever, invoked. Journalists didn’t seem to raise it with players, perhaps out of respect. The players themselves had seemed to compartmentalise it. It was a freak accident, yes; but I found it unsettling how easily and totally it seemed that the desire to win drenched whatever raw lessons of temperance, generosity and perspective Hughes’s death might have offered. Cricket was war.

 

Smith and Cameron Bancroft were beside each other again, courting the media. The last time these two paired in a press conference was last November, when the young Bancroft was delighting the pack with his strange recounting of meeting the England wicketkeeper in a Perth bar. “I got into a very amicable conversation with Jonny [Bairstow],” Bancroft said. “He just greeted me with a headbutt ... I was expecting a handshake, it wasn’t the greeting of choice that I was expecting. There was certainly no malice in it.”

The Australians were cheekily inflating the situation – and would include it in their sledging material on the field. Fair enough. There was merriment at the presser. Smith shook with laughter. Bancroft was hailed a new hero of the sport interview.

There was no laughter at their media conference this week. The pair’s cheating had already been captured by multiple cameras and transmitted to the giant screens around the ground and televisions around the world. As had Bancroft’s comically indiscreet cover-up – the “trouser” footage is now guaranteed of its iconography – and the pair’s desperate deceit of the umpires when Bancroft displayed the harmless cleaning rag of his sunglasses as the ostensible object of suspicion. We have since learnt of an additional deceit: it wasn’t tape laced with grit that was being used to scuff the ball, as was earlier claimed. It was sandpaper.

Now they faced the media. Both men wore their baggy greens, the simple cloth cap that’s received, in convenient moments, as saint’s relics. Smith’s cap, befitting his 64 Tests, was heroically frayed, dulled. A man of just eight Tests, Bancroft wore a cap that was still a deep, clean green. It was a physical reminder of their difference in experience and status.

Given that status, Smith’s first words in the press conference were a surprise: he threw to his underling. “Do you wanna explain?” he asked Bancroft, but it wasn’t a question. Following that, Smith spoke with a flat, seemingly guileless candour that was, nonetheless, filled with holes. “We saw … an opportunity. We’ve obviously seen the ball reversing quite a lot throughout this series and our ball just didn’t look like it was gonna [do the same].”

Some have welcomed Smith’s honesty as mitigating, rather than a simple obligation to a truth already discovered. Let that be debated. It will be for years. What I saw astonished me: Smith explained the conspiracy as if he were describing a bad day’s play, then shifted with equal banality to his simulation of introspection. Then: “No, I won’t be considering stepping down. I still think I’m the right person for the job.”

I’m convinced Smith didn’t have a clue in that moment. Couldn’t sense the gravity. Couldn’t sense the depth of the public’s willed naivety, nor the consequences of queering it. Couldn’t anticipate the imminent and thunderous collapse of dominoes – only the first of which was his personal disgrace. A generous interpretation of Smith’s press conference – of the weird estrangement of words and subject – was that shock was speaking.

Another interpretation is that Smith was so convinced of his own exceptionalism – so cosy inside the bubble of our reverence – that the same idiocy that inspired his behaviour encouraged his deafness to its consequences. I thought of LeBron James’s infamous televised Decision – a profitable affair, but deaf to its schlocky insensitivity. But it doesn’t bear real comparison: LeBron returned to his spurned town, and was only profiting from a legitimate decision to leave it; here was Smith, describing an act of destructive chicanery with the affect of a man describing a fishing catch.

Maybe you just become blind. Under strain, scrutiny and a culture of spiteful machismo, you become blind to the fact that you’re a custodian of the game – or, at least, a custodian of a useful myth of the game. You become blind to the fact that there are, eventually, hard perimeters to “the line” you conveniently redraw. You can only gerrymander those boundaries for so long – but who bothered to tell them?

Everyone, belatedly.

After that press conference, and Cricket Australia’s hasty inquiry, it surprised no one to learn that Dave Warner – our pretend soldier and chief headbutter of “the line” – had engineered the scam. In doing so, he had finally punched his thick skull through that hitherto adaptable wall of propriety. But Smith gave Warner’s plot the green light, watched the conscription of Bancroft, and, after discovery, felt duty-bound to protect his vice-captain by referring to a deliberately vague “leadership group” – which had the effect of implicating innocent teammates. One more fallen domino.

Smith and Warner have now been banned for 12 months. Bancroft for nine. Smith will not be permitted to captain Australia for at least two years. Warner will never hold another leadership position. Sponsors are fleeing.

Cricket Australia exonerated coach Darren Lehmann. He was ignorant of the plot but not of the culture. He oversaw the Boys and the Line. The encroachments. The headbutts. “We need to change how we play and within the boundaries we play,” Lehmann said this week, after Cricket Australia released their findings. “Obviously previously we’ve butted heads on the line, but that’s not the way to go ... I need to change. We need to work to earn the respect back from all our fans. The team has been received quite negatively in recent times and there is a need for us to change some of the philosophies ... Like all of Australia, we are extremely disappointed and as a team we know we have let so many people down and for that I am truly sorry.”

By late Thursday night, after seeing a tearful Steve Smith front the media in Sydney and Cameron Bancroft beg forgiveness in Perth, Lehmann had announced he would stand down at the end of the South African Test series. “…after hearing Steve and Cameron’s hurting it’s only fair that I make this decision,” he said.

But if many Australians now condemn their Test team for their boorishness and brutality, we might remind ourselves to rein in our own. “There is a human side to this,” the national coach said earlier in the week. “They are hurting and I feel for them and their families ... These are young men and I hope people will give them a second chance. Their health and wellbeing is extremely important to us ... I worry about the three guys immensely. We love all of our players and they are going through a really tough time.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Mar 31, 2018 as "Facing the reality of our boor war". Subscribe here.

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