Headbutting the line
This last week has given every Australian who follows cricket or sport more generally a chance to pause and reflect on everything that has gone on with our national team. I must admit for me personally it was a time of introspection at the purported myth that those who represented our country (in what is our most followed international team) did so without the need to cheat or gain an unfair advantage. That includes the leadership group wittingly and premeditating to tamper with the ball using something as eye-poppingly anathema to the ‘spirit of the game’ as sandpaper on the ball, let along granules of the pitch from sticky rubber as Bancroft originally attested to!
Reams of articles have been written on the subject, which follow a uniform theme of severe castigation prior to the players’ press conference and then forlorn sadness, despair and the slow build to redemption and repair following it. Last week wasn’t unlike the kaleidoscopic emotions one feels when they realise they’ve had an adulterous partner all this time: Moral outrage, wounded pride, betrayal, anger, sadness, insecurity, then finally redemption and the ability to go out into the world again with a new outlook and steely resolve. You may forgive, but you do not forget.
I must admit, reading the quote from Tim Paine that he wanted to reassess the current culture of enmity and animosity directed at the opposition to one of respect and mutuality made me actually exhale, relax my unbeknown tense shoulders and feel like a new day had dawned. The hostility that fomented at each and every turn with each passing series (England, India, South Africa, heck just name a country!) was actually mentally fatiguing as a fan.. kind of like listening to US news 24/7 and being numb at the constant chaos emanating out of the White House or more pertinently Trump-fatigue.
Moving forward our blueprint we are told is to now look over across the ditch and take note at the wonderful, simpatico folk over there representing the Black Caps. “Look at them and seek to be better, humbler sportsman” dear Australian.
This all reads well and might well bring a few people back but taking away the theory and putting it in practice for a moment, I’m not convinced that this modus operandi is actually in our competitive psyche, at least not in professional sport.
One has to remember, that boorish behaviour on the cricket field involving Australians has been broadcast from Channel 9 into our living rooms almost every summer for nearly 40 years. One needs only cast an eye back at Dennis Lillee’s baiting of Pakistan’s Javed Mianded that tarnished both reputations and put a stain on the image of Test Cricket back in 1981. Or what about Shane Warne’s outburst in 1994 to ‘one of the nicest guys in cricket’ Andrew Hudson, sending him off with such incendiary rage he looked like he was going to give him one to think about. Or Michael Slater towards Rahul Dravid at the disbelief he didn’t walk when he claimed the catch. Or Michael Clarke’s thuggish but vacuous ‘get ready for a broken fuckin’ arm’ threat to Jimmy Anderson? Nary a Series has gone by without some form of stain brought on by hostility or animosity it has seemed.
In the first test in this extra spiteful series in South Africa last month we had David Warner frothing at the mouth like a car-yard Doberman upon running out the estimable AB de Villiers (and Lyon thinking it wise to unceremoniously drop the ball over his outstretched body). It was the aforementioned Warner who said before the last Ashes that “Australia must dig within themselves to find a "hatred" for England when the Test series began”. Yes when Warner talks he sounds like that Year 9 bully from a different home life to you who you know isn’t going to be around in Year 10 so you just endure him, but Warner is a man who is smart enough to take instructions and follows team orders; whether they are direct or indirect he plays his part perfectly.
The point I’m trying to convey is that there is a pattern that’s been formed over time at the highest level of cricket. This series was really a culmination of years of spitefulness and hostility that came to a crescendo and ultimately bubbled and spilled over into deep acrimony. Let me take you back to the beginnings..
Back in 1989 and after 12 long years of coming away with nothing to show as a country, Allan Border took his team over to England with a resolve and a determination that ‘enough was enough’. Losing was no fun, and reparations needed to happen. It’s often overlooked that our Australian side were an extremely mediocre team back then, having only won twice in their previous 11 Tests. That we went over and gave the English a working over in THEIR country in THEIR conditions with a 4-0 humiliation is now in the history books and has lifted Border to legendary status, along with that young and embryonic team of future stars.
What the series was most well-known for was Australia’s, and more specifically Border’s stiff upper lip mentality and conscious decision to let the opponents know the days of being friendly and colonial familiars were now over. Entered into lexicon folklore; Captain Cranky.
It was quickly surmised by team strategists and captains that we as a nation played better when we were unsociable, when we had a chip on our shoulder, when we went out with an ‘Us vs Them’ mentality that would brook no quarter to the opponent and ultimately this never left the zeitgeist of our national team.
All of a sudden, winning and insatiably picking up trophies along the way became the nom du jour. And through the good fortune of having a golden period of seriously good cricketers and a thirst to be No.1 and remaining there, the Australian team’s collective belief to put an end to the niceties, and a push towards aggression and abrasiveness would be the team’s mantra moving forward.
You might remember back in 2014 when Faf De Plessis came out and made the comment that Australia were ‘like a pack of dogs in the field’ which they then took as a badge of honour. In the ensuing days players were barking at him in the field imitating a dog. Then and current CEO James Sutherland saw the humour in it at the time but flippantly (and in hindsight erroneously) put it down to ‘childish cricketers’. Regardless, it was tolerated while we won.
Australia have had some horrendously low (and abjectly so) periods and series, like when South African Mickey Arthur was our head coach and likely wanted to bring some education and possibly civility to the players, and upon setting them some required homework that in turn wasn’t submitted, he immediately sent home four players including Shane Watson as a way of setting the tone and instilling his own form of discipline. Fearing a player mutiny Cricket Australia promptly installed the ‘player’s coach’ Darren Lehmann who promptly brought an Australian culture back in the dressing room and gave the players rope to have a beer after a game and ostensibly not take their cricket too seriously (ie remove all the unwanted theory) and with it a chance to bring back a bit of fun and banter.
This fun and banter would quick revert back to the tried and true hard edge and aggression that was always only just submerged and suppressed, and this was quickly rewarded with winning the World Cup for a record 5th time and lead with Brad Haddin as chief attack dog out on the field behind the stumps. You might recall his radio interview the morning after with ‘I told the boys I hate these guys so much, they are just so nice!’ in reference to the Kiwis. And then Lehmann had Warner to continue in Haddin’s retirement, never being backwards in being forwards in the media like his “I could see he (Trott) had scared eyes” comment and to his endless on-field dust ups and imbroglios, some of which were incredibly distasteful and beneath a national representative and future leader.
Now we have everyone from the now departed Lehmann to many who hold the mighty pen within news organisations who are saying that Australian cricket needs a serious cultural makeover, to look at New Zealand as the bastion of good sportsmanship, of fair play and mutual respect.
That may be the case, and it sounds noble. But I can’t see that taking affect for any serious length of time. You see, the Australian cricket team are no different to a Premiership winning AFL or NRL team. The victors each year have one of the best lists for sure, but a common thread is that they are uncompromising, typically surly in nature, and they are fearsome as a pack. This attitude is rooted in our psyche to win the ultimate glory. To be the absolute best in a team sport, or any elite sport, there is a theory you need to find some hatred towards the opposition, to see them off and vanquished.
This culture of aggression, of unadulterated sledging, or surliness has been within our cricket team for over a generation. The facts are when the team wins, and at home there is an expectation by how much, the audiences will watch, which begets further sponsorship.
Cricket Australia had only recently signed principal sponsor Megallan worth an estimated $24m over 3 years only last year. Had the ball tampering affair not occurred there would never have been a thought of the client not being satisfied with the media exposure and alignment to our cricket team. After all, The Ashes were a whitewash, record numbers attended over summer and TV numbers were solid. An atypical Australian cricket summer really; the status quo was alive and well.
Through newly installed captain Tim Paine we may see more respect afforded to the opposition, but when you have cricketers coming through that leave school early and are programmed to play and win, play and win, and not much else, you have a finished product of young men that will do whatever it takes to ensure the expectation set by their coach, the administration, the sponsors and the baying public, are met.
When Warner hatched the plan to scuff the ball illegally, and the idea was allowed to pass, Australia was 1-1 in the series and the pressure was at boiling point to ensure all stakeholders got what they demanded.
So many times over the years our players were told they could ‘headbutt the proverbial line’ but purportedly not to transgress it. At some point you headbutt that line so many times you’ve only succeeded in pushing your own line backwards until you don’t know where it started and where it stops, and next minute your least experienced teammate is brazenly caught dumping sandpaper down his underwear on the big screen live and replayed over and over the crowd and into our screens. The system (See; White Papers directed by CA to look at the state of cricket in Australia) then recalibrates, recovers, and rebuilds, but that line will once again get scrapped, elbowed and indeed headbutted again.
For you see the Australian public likes their teams who win, and if it’s not cricket, there are a myriad of other sports knocking on the door relentlessly being streamed into the screens of a fan’s attention who they can choose to watch, and win.