David Warner. Pic Jenny Evans
David Warner. Pic Jenny Evans

Cut out the rot in Australian cricket

International cricket is a massively pressure-loaded environment. A correct move can secure brilliant success. A flawed strategy may result in comprehensive failure.

It is a battle between competing outfits of varying strengths and abilities, each attempting to exploit opposition weaknesses.

The problem for Australian cricket is that all of this drama is taking place off the field, before a Test team has even been selected and nearly five weeks ahead of the first Test against India. The contest right now is not anywhere near a cricket pitch, but between Australian players and Australian cricket administrators.

 

Potentially, for a little bit we got wrapped up in our own self-importance

 

"I've never seen," says former Australian vice-captain Rodney Hogg, "such a gulf between the players and Cricket Australia."

That acrimony grew during a bitter player pay dispute last year. It intensified when Test captain Steve Smith, vice-captain David Warner and opening batsman Cameron Bancroft were suspended from representative cricket for their roles in the shameful South African ball-tampering scandal.

And it likely will not be calmed by the resignation this week of Cricket Australia chairman David Peever.

The pivotal event in all of this, of course, was that ball-tampering disgrace. Subsequent bans handed down to the guilty trio by CA, the sport's national ruling body, were in line at the time with broad community sentiment.

Smith and Warner copped 12-month bans. Bancroft was rubbed out for nine months. But even before the Australian team had completed its South African tour, some were looking beyond events on the field to explain such a blatant attempt at cheating.

"Today, I am embarrassed to say I played cricket," former Australian opening batsman Bruce Francis wrote in March to various officials and other cricket identities.

"Now when I look for synonyms for cricketer it says thug, loudmouth, bogan, ocker, yobbo, spoiled brat and the one that crushes my spirit more than any other - ugly Australian.

"As angry as that change makes me, it doesn't compare with the anger I have for the cricket officials - administrators, umpires, match referees and players' associations who have allowed the players to destroy the game and its image."

 

Steve Smith batting for Sutherland in September. Pic: AAP/Joel Carrett.
Steve Smith batting for Sutherland in September. Pic: AAP/Joel Carrett.

 

Cameron Bangcroft. Pic: AAP/Glenn Campbell.
Cameron Bangcroft. Pic: AAP/Glenn Campbell.

 

Some do not hold this view. Ex-Australian fast bowler Merv Hughes, for one, disputes the argument that the Australian players' use of sandpaper to illegally alter the ball was a consequence of administrative attitudes.

"CA looks after the business side of the game," says the 53-Test veteran Hughes. "They don't go on the grounds. They didn't tamper with the ball."

And for all of his admiration about the way David Warner, in particular, plays the game, Hughes still backs the ongoing suspensions: "CA moved swiftly and harshly. And it had to be harsh.

"I guarantee you, after this there won't be another Australian player caught ball-tampering."

Nevertheless, CA thought it wise in the wake of the South African scandal to call upon Simon Longstaff of the Sydney Ethics Centre, who was briefed to explore the wider culture of top-level Australian cricket.

During preparations for his comprehensive review, Longstaff interviewed dozens of players and officials. (By the way, this episode may in itself point to the current state of the game. Cricket was in previous eras an education in ethical behaviour. Not for nothing is the phrase "it's just not cricket" universally understood as a condemnation of unfairness. Now a cricket organisation hires an ethicist to explain ethics to itself.)

 

 

Longstaff's review was released last Monday - after David Peever had been re-elected as CA chairman for a second three-year term.

The timing of that release was explosive, because the review brought Peever and his board directly into the firing line.

While the review found that Australian cricket players had become lost in their own arrogance, it blamed CA for quarantining players from the need for a broader civility. According to the review, a brutish on-field culture had filtered down to players from the very top levels of Australian cricket administration.

"Unlike their predecessors, elite Australian male cricketers earn a fortune. To the casual observer, their lives are defined by fame and privilege. They are often held up as Australian icons. However, the reality is more complex," the review declared.

"Those who wear the baggy green live in a gilded bubble - disconnected for much of the year from families, friends and the grounding influence of community. They see themselves as being part of a machine that is fine-tuned for the sole purpose of winning."

By the day of the review's public release, Australian captain Tim Paine - appointed after Steve Smith's suspension - had already considered many of the review's findings and recommendations.

 

Cover of Saturday Extra section
Cover of Saturday Extra section

 

"Potentially, for a little bit we got wrapped up in our own self-importance," Paine admitted.

"It's not our cricket team, it's Australia's cricket team, and for a little while we lost that.

"It's about getting outside of our bubble," Paine added. "To think more of others." Former Australian captain Ian Chappell was certainly thinking about others. Specifically, he thought about how three players had been banned while others had escaped any penalties at all.

"When the fiasco in Cape Town occurred I said, if it's only three people - being Smith, Warner and Bancroft - if only three get it in the neck then it's a joke. Well, I think it's now officially a joke," Chappell told the ABC.

"Quite rightly the players are going to be angry about that, the fact it's only them who copped it in the neck. But that's the history of the game. The administrators make the mistake, the players cop the punishment."

Malcolm Speed, CEO of the former Australian Cricket Board from 1997 until 2001, called for Peever's resignation and also presented a potential administrative remedy. "I'd like to see Mark Taylor stand up as chairman of Cricket Australia," Speed told ABC radio.

"He's on the board, he's been there for quite a long time. There is a bit of an outcry that the whole of the board must go. I don't agree with that. There are some very good people on that board."

Despite Peever's departure on Thursday, issues arising from the Longstaff review will not go away quickly. Players past and present are poring over the document.

Hogg takes definite issue with one opinion arising from the review, which is that Australian Test players should be selected as much on the basis of character as they are on performance.

"Oh, please," the former fast bowler says. "That's rubbish, all this stuff about shaking hands with opponents and being nice.

"In 1984, we got absolutely smashed by the West Indies in Perth. They bowled us out for 70 or so, then scored more than 400. The game was over with a day to spare. At the airport, leaving WA, people booed us. Members of the public actually booed Australian Test cricketers. Australians do not give a rat's arse about shaking hands."

That may be so, but Hogg obviously isn't trying to excuse cheating, such as was seen in South Africa. He is instead concerned about the pendulum swinging too far towards geniality and away from competitiveness.

He is also curious about a phrase that has recently and frequently become associated with the Australian Test team.

"It's never been 'win at all costs' for the Test team," he says. "It was just 'win'."

On the subject of winning, tensions around Australian cricket may only increase once the upcoming four-Test series against India is under way. The two teams have a fractious recent history. And Australia - never defeated by India in a home series - are thought by many to be this summer's underdogs.

Australia is ranked fifth among Test-playing nations. India, first.

But even that epic may pale into insignificance when compared with the fight between the Players and Administrators.