Cricket

The man brought in to replace a shamefaced Steve Smith as Australia’s Test cricket captain has now also resigned in tears – but is he a victim of the inflated reverence placed on the position? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

Tim Paine and the danger of redemption narratives

Tim Paine is followed by the media in Hobart a day after his resignation as Test captain.
Tim Paine is followed by the media in Hobart a day after his resignation as Test captain.
Credit: AAP / Ethan James

So here we were again, just three years after the cheating scandal of Cape Town, an Australian Test captain tearfully confessing their sins and resigning their post. “I am sorry for any damage this does to the reputation of our sport and I believe it is the right decision for me to stand down as captain, effective immediately,” Tim Paine said last week, surrendering his captaincy to a sexting scandal.

Paine later said he always feared this day was coming. Over the three years of his captaincy, some journalists had made inquiries but had never – until now – published a story. That story, so far as we know – and there’s still a bit we don’t – is that in November 2017, before he was Test captain, the married father had consensually sent sexually explicit text messages – and images – to an employee of Cricket Tasmania.

Six months later, the woman made an internal complaint, triggering two separate investigations – one by the state administrator, another by the national. Both exonerated him. It was between the texts and the complaint that Paine was made Test captain.

We also know that in 2018 Paine confessed his indiscretions to his wife, Bonnie.

On the Friday of his resignation, Cricket Tasmania released a statement: “The allegations raised against Tim Paine by a former Cricket Tasmania employee were only brought to the attention of Cricket Tasmania when formal charges of theft were laid against that employee in mid 2018.”

Cricket Australia anticipated an imminent news story and encouraged Paine to pre-empt it and resign the captaincy. Following Paine’s resignation, the current CA chairman Richard Freudenstein criticised his predecessor, David Peever, and the decision to keep Paine as captain: “I acknowledge that the decision clearly sent the wrong message to the sport, to the community and to Tim – that this kind of behaviour is acceptable and without serious consequences.”

But Paine’s vulgar foolishness had already been seriously consequential: the private strain on his marriage, his awkward submission to two inquiries, and the rolling fear that the story would eventually emerge. What’s left unanswered by CA is whether it stands by the quality of its earlier inquiry, or the code of conduct the inquiry was charged to uphold. As it was, Freudenstein’s predecessor, David Peever, retaliated and criticised the current board for their ruthlessness.

If the details we have are accurate – that the texts were consensual, the inquiries fair and thorough – then we’re not left with much. My outrage has some faint value – if only to me – and I won’t spend it frivolously. It’s certainly not inspired by a single, consensual dick pic. God forbid that I endorse Paine’s behaviour, but if we’re serious about the wicked prevalence of sex crimes, gender inequity and abuses of power, then we must also manage a sense of proportionality in our opinion columns.

 

Sports fans have become connoisseurs of tearful resignation speeches. Paine’s was sudden, surprising and dramatically timed – the Ashes begin on December 8 in Brisbane – but it lacked the mystery and strangeness of Cape Town’s. There was also a significant difference: during that first press conference in South Africa, held by then captain Steve Smith and the batsman Cameron Bancroft, whose clumsily conspicuous doctoring of the ball and hiding of sandpaper was caught on camera, Smith initially refused to resign as captain. “I won’t be considering stepping down,” he said. “I still think I’m the right person for the job.”

After deferring the opening question to his inexperienced underling, Smith seemed bizarrely oblivious to the gravity of the situation. He spoke with the same bored affect as he did when robotically describing an ordinary day’s play. But his comic obliviousness – or denial – would not last long. His subsequent press conference in Sydney, having been stripped of the captaincy and suspended from first-class cricket for a year, was very different. He was ashamed, inconsolable, and publicly mourning his reputation. “Tonight, I want to make it clear as captain of the Australian cricket team, I take full responsibility,” he said, crying. “I made a serious error of judgement and I now understand the consequences … I know I will regret this for the rest of my life. I’m absolutely gutted. I hope in time I can earn back respect and forgiveness.”

In the wake of the scandal, an overdue spotlight was cast upon Australian cricket – namely its glib administrative culture and excesses of machismo. At home, our teams have long been vainly celebrated for being “tough but fair”, but for just as long overseas we’ve had a reputation for being obnoxious bullies. After Cape Town, you could add “cheats” to the charge sheet.

A subsequent report – the Longstaff review – was damning. It found Cricket Australia to be “arrogant and controlling”, a description hilariously confirmed by CA’s timing of the report’s release – after a board meeting that re-elected chairman David Peever, even though the report had been completed well before it.

“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,” the report stated. After initially refusing, Peever eventually resigned. He followed Australian coach Darren Lehmann, who had resigned months earlier.

After Cape Town, but before the release of Simon Longstaff’s report and subsequent board departures, Cricket Australia brainstormed a new captain. It was as much a branding exercise as anything, an opportunity to restore credibility – or at least its appearance.

Thus the anointment of Tim Paine, a man who until shortly before being given the top job had gone seven years without a Test match, and whose chief virtue on the ground seemed to be his affability. But it worked: during the 2018-19 home series against India, his composure and charmingly mischievous banter behind the stumps (conveniently captured on stump mics) was publicly celebrated, and Cricket Australia privately congratulated themselves.

At the time, the exaggerated attention to, and celebration of, a wicketkeeper’s banter struck me as supremely weird. Paine’s chirpiness – a cosmically trivial matter – was read as proof of a profound alteration to our cricket culture and thus a healing moment for an embarrassed nation. It was absurd. The real significance of Paine’s banter was that it helped sports hacks with their cartoon narratives of redemption. Soon, we read headlines such as “The accidental captain who saved Australian cricket”.

Thus constructed, it was now time to redeploy the old tropes in the service of the new, but related, narrative of a scandalous fall. “He was a cleanskin, all at once still the blond-haired wonderkid that first broke through and now the battle-weary veteran who pulled himself up by the bootstraps to earn a second chance,” wrote the ABC’s Dean Bilton last week.

That sound you hear is the creaking of a sentence beneath the weight of cliché. It’s a sentence that’s more revealing about journalistic habit than it is about a human being. Publicly, Tim Paine comprised clichés. That wasn’t his fault. Cricket Australia wanted a redemptive story; so did writers.

The clichés didn’t stop there. Andrew Wu, in the Nine papers, obligingly deployed another: “Cricket Australia’s board addressed the issue in 2018 but, with investigations by Jolimont and Cricket Tasmania clearing Paine of wrongdoing, kept him in the post, commonly referred to as the most important in the country behind the Prime Minister’s.”

Almost the only people “commonly” referring to the Test captaincy in this way are journalists, who’ve repeated the inanity often enough that it might now seem like a popular truth. Given its long and witless laundering, let me point out that John Howard coined it two decades ago, though he said that, as prime minister, he had the second most important job in the country.

Howard’s wry self-effacement has since morphed into a neat truism that sports hacks can use to spice “the narrative” and reinforce the grand illusion that our Test team is somehow magically representative of an imagined national soul.

It’s not. And just as we exaggerated Paine’s virtue, we may well now be exaggerating his flaws.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "The naked truth".

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Martin McKenzie-Murray is The Saturday Paper’s associate editor.

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