A stunning win in the first Ashes Test has sparked new-found faith in Australian cricket. But is it the beginning of a renaissance after a period of decline and disgrace, or is it just due to the freakish talents of one Steve Smith? By Russell Marks.

Rising from the Ashes

Steve Smith and Pat Cummins (centre) celebrate with their teammates after Australia secured victory in the first Ashes Test match.
Steve Smith and Pat Cummins (centre) celebrate with their teammates after Australia secured victory in the first Ashes Test match.
Credit: Gareth Copley / Getty Images

Australian cricket fans and administrators hope that Australia’s “one for the ages” come-from-behind victory in the first men’s Ashes Test may be a sign of recovery, at last, after a decade of disappointment.

The mercurial rise of Australian men’s cricket during the 20 years from 1987 thudded to a halt with the collective retirements of Shane Warne, Justin Langer and Glenn McGrath in 2007. Within just a couple of years, Ricky Ponting was the sole survivor from an era of champions, and the team sank inexorably back to the pack. By 2011 its international ranking had slipped to fifth (out of 10), and it dropped as low as sixth on the one-day international rankings in 2018. In answering the inevitable question – what happened? – many were tempted to write off the preceding era as an outlier: nobody could expect Australia to keep turning out groups of cricketers as talented as those that spanned the careers of Steve Waugh and Warne.

But this was a view that ignored the structures that had been put in place to arrest the team’s previous decline during the mid-1980s, following the departure of the champions of the World Series era (Rod Marsh, Greg Chappell and Dennis Lillee famously retired at the end of the same match in 1984). In 1987 Marsh became a founding coach at the Australian Cricket Academy – a joint venture between the Australian Cricket Board and the Australian Institute of Sport – in Adelaide’s Henley Beach, and its graduates after he became its director in 1990 are a rollcall of the greatest men’s cricketers of their era: Michael Bevan, Michael Clarke, Adam Gilchrist, Jason Gillespie, Michael Hussey, Langer, Brett Lee, Damien Martyn, McGrath, Ponting, and Michael Slater. (Warne attended and was expelled for “indiscipline”, but not before he met his influential mentor, Terry Jenner.) The academy imbued Australian cricket with an embarrassment of riches – an embarrassment that became England’s in 1995 when a second Australian team kept England out of the summer’s one-day tournament finals.

Replacements for occasionally injured superstars arrived in the team as fully formed Test cricketers. Everyone assumed the academy would continue to flood the national ranks with such quality players ad infinitum. Australian cricket’s hierarchy congratulated themselves on their superior club and state competitions, and on their forward planning. The official search for Warne’s replacement began in the late 1990s. The net was cast so wide that even I found myself the surprised beneficiary of some individual coaching by Jenner.

That search failed, despite the depths to which it was prepared to pour resources. Everything else did too. Newer academy graduates were good cricketers, but they never became great. From 2010, fans saw poor performances, batting collapses and series losses that exceeded the miseries of the mid-1980s. That shouldn’t have happened. The national team had never been more professional or better resourced, in terms of both a swelling number of coaching and support staff and players’ incomes. Blame searched for places to land. One target was the once-great Sheffield Shield, whose standards had dropped as state selectors were urged to promote youth over experience. Another was cricket’s increasingly corporate image: Cricket Australia, as the ACB has been known since 2003, hired American “leadership advisory” firm Heidrick & Struggles in early 2011 to talk to players about “leadership and personal development”. To prepare for these meetings, players were sent lists of reflective questions that included “Is your team a learning organisation?” and “Do you recognise the sees [sic] of hubris?” Yet another target was the Cricket Academy’s move to Brisbane in 2004, which seemed to coincide with a decline in graduate quality, as if Adelaide’s coastal suburbs were blessed with the same sporting magic as Wagga Wagga, the New South Wales city that was home to cricketers Mark Taylor and Michael Slater, AFL legends Wayne Carey and Paul Kelly, and NRL star Peter Sterling during their formative years.

By April 2011, the Australian men’s team had lost six of its previous 11 Test series, including those it hosted against South Africa and England. Because he had few ties to cricket’s hierarchy, 72-year-old banking executive Don Argus was given the task of reviewing the structures of Australian cricket. Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland initially sat in on interviews, which prevented frankness, but then departed for California to attend a six-week management course at Stanford University.

Argus’s report pulled few punches. He found basic skill errors among leading players, a poor team culture, an “ineffective” coaching structure and a general lack of accountability for anything. He recommended new corporate and coaching structures, better links between state and national teams and, importantly, the revitalisation of grade and state cricket. At the same time, Argus introduced a new acronym into Australian cricket: PONI, or players of national interest, who should benefit from individual development plans. Many observers, though, had long seen the practice of identifying classy-looking teenagers and fast-tracking them to national selection through consistent inclusion in elite squads almost regardless of actual performance – the “show-PONI” effect – as part of the problem.

Argus’s review, conducted according to corporate protocols, ultimately hid the problems corporatisation had generated. Performance-based contracts, which Argus recommended, work to shift responsibility for structural flaws onto individuals who became bonus-obsessed. A long-running pay dispute between Cricket Australia and the Cricketers’ Association throughout 2017 left fans unsure about whom to support: the corporate managers who sought to divide and conquer in apparent pursuit of greater grassroots funding, or the players’ union that wanted greater incomes for players Argus had described as able to “make a very comfortable living without necessarily achieving excellence”.

The culture that bonus-obsession generates in Argus’s own industry – banking – was on shameful display last year. The day after Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne completed his first round of public hearings into fraudulent consumer lending practices in Melbourne, Cameron Bancroft was caught rubbing a cricket ball with sandpaper during a Test match in South Africa. It was, apparently, part of a plan developed by what captain Steve Smith called “the leadership group”. Sutherland didn’t survive “Sandpapergate”, which led to more reviews – there have now been dozens during the past decade – and more recommendations. A “culture review” by the independent non-profit Ethics Centre wanted Argus’s performance bonuses converted into payments recognising players’ “contributions to the maintenance and development of grassroots cricket” and “positive relationships with fans”.

Performance is relative, and it was inevitable that the Australian men’s team would slide. Australian teams have long struggled against swinging and spinning balls, so other countries now prepare pitches accordingly. Revolutions in English and Indian domestic structures mean those nations are now identifying and nurturing talent in the ways Australia was during the early 1990s. But performance is also reflective of structures. The number of people playing grassroots cricket continues to drop, and is now 30 per cent lower than the 500,000 threatened by ACB secretary Alan Barnes during the World Series defections of the late 1970s. Australia’s population has grown by 75 per cent over the same period. The long-heralded pyramid supporting Australian cricket’s excellence is corroding.

Of course, nobody will mind much if the men’s team continues to put in performances like last week’s in Edgbaston. That performance surprised many, especially given Australia’s bewildering lack of preparation: it was the first time an Australian team had played a Test match in England without first playing warm-up cricket against county teams. But without Steve Smith, in whom the world is likely watching a batsman second only to Bradman, that corrosion would surely be as stark as ever.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 10, 2019 as "Rising from the Ashes".

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Russell Marks is an adjunct research fellow at La Trobe University and works as a criminal defence lawyer in the Northern Territory.

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