Cricket

As Steve Smith and David Warner’s 12-month ball-tampering ban ends, what lessons have been learnt from Australian cricket’s darkest hour? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Spinning the sandpapergate scandal

David Warner salutes the crowd after scoring a century for the Sunrisers in the IPL this week.
Credit: AP Photo / Mahesh Kumar A.

The pockets of PR hacks aren’t usually rewarded with silence. It’s words that make them money. Narratives. Learnings. Personal truths. These are the honeyed words that form the Conversation, and if you’re not part of it, you’re dead. In this way, diuretics, face creams and foam pillows have their own Twitter accounts, and a cricketer is only ever one disgrace away from invoking St Francis of Assisi. “It is in giving that we shall receive,” Cameron Bancroft wrote late last year.

So it might be hoped that David Warner has made life more difficult for these people. Of the three Australian cricketers exposed and punished for the use of sandpaper in Cape Town a year ago, Warner has been the only one to shut his mouth. It has served him well. Whether it was good manners or cunning instinct, we might consider Warner’s restraint a public service. First, because shovelling shit on a fire smells bad; second, because his example of silence might make it just a little harder for ad agencies to recommend redemption by way of charity appearances and hollow loquacity.

Steve Smith and Cameron Bancroft took different counsel. In December, Bancroft published a letter to himself in The West Australian, accompanied by photos of him practising yoga on a beach. “You have no idea how amazing you are as a person,” Bancroft wrote, ostensibly to himself. “You have an ability to love others and not just love but even hug and understand others with compassion, strength and resilience.”

That Bancroft was surprised to learn he can hug – and that he offered this as evidence of his being “amazing” – was one of many sickly and false-sounding revelations he and Smith have “shared” with the public since the Cape Town Test. This modern pretence – spewing psychobabble to suggest depth – is uglier than the original sin. A defensive Bancroft later explained: “I felt like I had some really important learnings that I wanted to share which is why I wrote my letter … because I felt like there were some really powerful lessons in my journey that I wanted others to connect and share with.”

Connect. Share. The fingerprints of our age are all over it. Every disgrace is a Learning, every pratfall is part of a Journey, and every scandal is a Doorway through which an idiot steps to transform their humiliation into a spectacle of moral reformation. This process is indiscriminate. It doesn’t care how thoughtless its client is, or how trivial or severe their trespass. Every boy can be presented as a man.

The same month Bancroft was publicly forgiving himself, Steve Smith – who had become the planet’s best batsman, in part by thinking about nothing else – developed a sudden interest in mental health. His face appeared on a televised commercial. “I was in a pretty dark space,” he says, in voiceover. “It made me realise what other people go through.” At the end of the ad appeared the initially confusing words “Gutsy is calling”, followed by the clarifying logo of Vodafone.

 

In the second Test against India last year, captain Tim Paine saw an opportunity. He could start redrawing The Line – the mythical border between ethical and unethical aggression on the field – and perhaps regain the faith of some fans. “The Line” was always a conveniently fuzzy border, as well as a bit of jargon spat with comic insistency by our cricketers. Ultimately it meant nothing more than an alibi for cheats and arseholes.

But in the stump mic, Paine saw an instrument to sell his new team’s character. A character that was neither obnoxious nor sterile. Keeping close to the stumps to Nathan Lyon, Paine chattered provocatively to the batsman playing under the leadership of Virat Kohli – but with his tongue firmly in cheek. “I know he is your captain, but you can’t seriously like him as a bloke” was the most celebrated example.

It worked. Many columns and minutes of airtime were spent congratulating Paine on his harmless, enjoyable banter – and how it signalled a change in culture, and a simultaneous retention of larrikinism. Good fun, but I refuse to believe it was done unknowingly. It was more image management, but Paine can at least be credited with creating it himself – and making us laugh rather than gag.     

 

It wasn’t surprising to see Warner destroy bowlers in his return to the Indian Premier League late last month. He’s as gifted and bludgeoning with the bat as he is as obnoxious and brutal without one. He scored 85 from 53 balls in his first innings, then followed that with a 69 and a 100 not out in his next two knocks, both set at an equally blistering pace.

It wasn’t the only hopeful sign for Australia. Having been historically beaten by India in the Test series here – and then defeated again in the limited-overs series – the Australian one-day side beat India in India last month, and still without its suspended stars.

The form that had so conspicuously failed top-order batsman Usman Khawaja this summer suddenly, wondrously returned in limited overs. He was the player of the series, and its top scorer with an average of 76.6 – and this from a man overlooked for the one-day side for the past two years.     

This northern summer, England will host both the Ashes and World Cup – and are favourites to win both. If there’s hope at least for Australia’s one-day squad, there remains the question of how well Smith and Warner are absorbed by a bruised team that will soon sustain the additionally bruising attention of the English media – as well as a conventionally swinging Duke.

The media’s attention might also settle upon the big question, the one determinedly left unanswered by Cricket Australia: was Cape Town really the sole occasion of ball tampering? A year ago, then captain Steve Smith assured us that it was. The opinion of more than one of his predecessors is that it wasn’t. I suppose an inquiry that was indifferent to the answer was just another part of the Journey. Gutsy was calling, but no one answered.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Apr 6, 2019 as "A different kind of spin". Subscribe here.

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