Long read: is Australian cricket missing the point?

The ball tampering incident last March in South Africa altered the landscape of Australian cricket to such an extent that it may never be the same again. The fallout following the bans received by Cameron Bancroft, Steve Smith and David Warner resulted in a thorough review of the game by Cricket Australia and has exposed their ‘win at all costs’ setup. The question now posed in 2019 is whether Australian cricket can move beyond its annus horribilis and re-capture the public’s faith and whether it can become the dominant force of yesteryear.

Cam Bancroft (L) and Steve Smith lied in their initial press conference after the ball tampering scandal broke – did Australian cricket break with it?

Part of the issue with this lies in the handling of the three banned players and whether they deserve a shot at redemption. As someone who grew up watching successful Australian sides from the early 90s with their incredibly tough approach, it seems unlikely that the new ‘elite honesty’ approach their new coach Justin Langer wants to implement will succeed. The successful sides they’ve had in recent years all had snarling, aggressive and confrontational players who won them games and didn’t resort to cheating in order to keep their place as the best side around.

To depict them as entirely fair and honest would be an exaggeration though, and there were certainly some instances of players overstepping the mark. In 1994/95 the incident known as John the Bookmaker occurred, involving Shane Warne and Mark Waugh providing information on the state of the pitch to an Indian bookmaker. In 2003 Warne was banned for using an illegal diuretic and Glen McGrath caused an incredibly ugly scene by abusing Ramnaresh Sarwan during the Test series with the West Indies.

Later that year during Australia’s series with Sri Lanka there was more controversy when Justin Langer dislodged a bail during their opponents innings in an attempt to confuse the umpires into giving Hashan Tillakaratne out. Despite protestations at the time he was not charged with bringing the game into disrepute.

When you also add Steve Waugh’s strategy of mental disintegration against the opposition the issue surrounding Australian Cricket’s public image was one that left a lot to be desired. However, the incident at Newlands sunk this once great cricket nation to arguably the lowest ebb it has ever been.

What happened in March was a culmination of everything that had happened under Smith’s captaincy and the continued head butting of this ‘supposed’ line that the Australian’s invented and continually insisted they wouldn’t cross. However, when you start to look more closely Newlands not being an isolated incident, the depths that Smith’s leadership had taken Australia to begins to look even lower.

Now Australia’s head coach, Justin Langer was averse to deploying the dark arts during his playing career

During the 2017/18 Ashes series there were allegations that Warner had abused England’s Jonny Bairstow and Tom Curran about their dead fathers. These stories are impossible to confirm because cricket journalists and former players worldwide seem to have formed a pact that this story will not be published or released. Matt Prior spoke on TMS during the series and whilst he didn’t state what had happened, he implied that the Australian players, specifically Warner, were taking sledging to a whole new level by making it so personal and hateful.

Abuse like that has no place on a cricket field and goes completely against the spirit of the game as well as the conduct expected on a cricket field. I am not wet behind the ears and having played the game to a decent level as a teenager, I know that sadly some people often go too far when sledging on the field, but I don’t remember ever being as appalled as I was when these rumours started circulating during the series. The likes of Jonathan Agnew, Adam Collins, Gideon Haigh, Peter Lalor and Bob Willis all seem to know what had been said on the field and yet none of them has informed the public of the on-field antics of Warner. Why have these journalists not told the truth and why has it been covered up?

There is also then the matter of the huge strapping he was wearing throughout the series in Australia and the same strapping was then evident again during the South Africa series that ultimately proved to be his and Australia’s downfall. A recent article on Cricinfo has really highlighted that since Newlands the Australian bowlers have all collectively struggled to get the old ball to reverse swing whereas against England last winter, they were making the ball talk very early in the innings and was even something Stuart Broad commented on after the incident in South Africa. He commented that it was strange that the Australian bowlers had been getting reverse swing in conditions that seemed unconducive to the art and that when they tried the same thing, they couldn’t get it to work. That team also contained Jimmy Anderson who is arguably the most skillful bowler in the game currently and if he couldn’t get it to work in the same conditions then it points to more indiscretions by the Australian leadership team. Without trawling through all the footage from the series though it is difficult to prove, sadly, but doubts certainly linger.

Dave Warner uses his heavily strapped left hand to work on the ball

Before the ball tampering incident had even happened in South Africa Warner was lighting fires by abusing Quinton de Kock which then over spilled into the changing room corridor at tea on the penultimate day of the first Test. The public outcry about his family and his wife then being abused for the rest of the tour was certainly not pretty but by that point the view was clearly that Warner was fair game – if he was dishing out personal abuse about an opponent’s family then he should get everything he deserves. I don’t condone the abuse Candice Warner has had to deal with but her husband had started this vile trail of abuse and as everyone learns on the playground, if you can’t take it, don’t dish it out.

Sadly, for Australian cricket Warner had become too much of a liability and something like this had been coming. The abuse he’d been handing to everyone in his path, in every format, had become so bad that when the series in South Africa finally boiled over there was very little sympathy. The wonderful Jim Maxwell was brought to tears by the shame these cheats had brought on the national cricket team and at the time he was one of the few to actually say, “it’s unlikely he’ll ever play international cricket for Australia again.”

By this point though, the Australian ‘leadership’ group was beyond control. Somehow Bancroft was put in a situation where he either obeyed his leaders by cheating or effectively disobeyed his commanders which would probably have seen him dropped very shortly afterwards. He is young and naïve and was put in a situation in which he should never have found himself. He was let down by Warner very badly but most of all by the leadership of Smith.

Only a few months beforehand, comparisons between Smith and Sir Don Bradman were banded around in the Australian media, despite the feeling that it seemed somewhat premature, but alongside Virat Kohli and Kane Williamson, Smith has been the leading batsman in Test cricket over recent seasons. However, doubts about his integrity and his obsession with winning at all costs had started to materialise under the strain of leadership.

During Australia’s last tour of India, Kohli had been adamant that Smith kept looking at the balcony to get help on reviews from the coaches and reserves. Then in the second test he openly looked to the balcony for confirmation on whether to review an LBW decision when he was plumb. The desperation of a man to succeed and win has often got people into hot water in the past, but this was plain and obvious cheating. Kohli was incensed during the first Test and was quick to point out he’d been criticised for making the observation without any proof but there in all its glory was an Australian cricket captain cheating on the cricket field.

It was laughed off by Smith, blamed on a “brain fade” and for some reason sympathy was offered and he escaped further punishment. Being so deeply entrenched within the Australian system it was clear that he thought he was above the laws that most others had to abide by and with a lack of punishment being dolled out by Cricket Australia, he was effectively given the green light to continue along this path.

Should Australia readily welcome back Warner (L) and Smith?

The pre-Ashes build up was nothing short of appalling from the ungracious hosts either. Australian spinners talking about “ending careers” and Warner talked about the series being like a “war” and how he needed to find “hatred” of the opposition to fire him. It was way beyond anything we’d seen before and set an alarmingly low moral bar for the series ahead.

With England suffering the ridicule of the Australian media for Ben Stokes’s punch up in Bristol, Australia thought they had the moral high ground. But to what end?

Smith went on to be very successful during that Ashes series, but it had taken its toll both mentally and physically and in off the record conversations with journalists he had told them that he was too mentally exhausted to bat anymore during the One Day Internationals that followed the Ashes. He played though and was then able to take a break before gearing up for the tour of South Africa.

The facts of how the episode played out at Newlands have been commented upon and played out at length but it was the press conferences where Smith really demonstrated just how untouchable he thought he’d become. The constant lying to Cricket Australia, the media and cricket fans all around the world was painful and it seemed that the only person he was trying to fool was himself. It was a sad and sorry end but one that he’d been hurtling towards for several years.

There remains a feeling that the bans were overly harsh. Whilst the ICC only banned Smith for one Test, his own board punished him to the full extent of their powers for the constant lies he’d been telling at press conferences and his inadequate control as the leader of the side.

Results without the trio of cheats have progressively regressed and without Warner and his bandages the Australian bowlers have almost entirely disappeared now the old ball isn’t reversing round corners. So, where do they go from here?

(L – R) Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins and Josh Hazlewood have lost a bit of their swing without Warner and his bandages

Much of the chat throughout the recent series against India has sadly focussed upon those missing rather than the players representing Australia (which is very reminiscent of England last winter when Stokes was banned) and the future of the baggy green looks rather bleak at this moment in time. In this attempt to rid their game of this ‘win at all costs’ attitude they simply haven’t got very far because Smith and Warner seem to be all but secured of their place in the team as soon as the bans end.

What seems so odd is how do Cricket Australia think they can resurrect their reputation by allowing these cheats back into the fold? How can Australian cricket be taken seriously when there remain serious doubts about the involvement of several of their leading bowlers and their new buzzwords ‘elite honesty’ seem laughable. Australian players of the past weren’t always very popular in England but there was always a begrudging respect, even if it took their retirements to earn it, but I find it inconceivable that Australian cricket can be respected with Smith and Warner’s involvement.

What exactly does ‘elite honesty’ mean? Is it just an empty phrase deployed in a losing PR battle?

If the new ethos is to be taken seriously it might take a few years for Australian cricket to rebuild from the bottom up but at least they’d then be representing the great people of their country and fallouts like this would never happen again. The recent advertising campaign for Vodafone that featured Smith, for instance, was incredibly poorly timed and acted as a PR stunt to boost his own profile rather than anything else and the Australian public seem to have seen through yet another charade from their disgraced former captain.

As someone who has made plenty of mistakes in his life I fully believe in redemption and the ability to revive one’s reputation, but in this instance the sheer extent of the crimes committed should be factored in before automatically allowing them back to where they were before. Whilst they might get an easy return in Australia before the World Cup and the Ashes, I don’t think either of them have any idea what they have in store for them this summer.

Warner is fair game for everyone now and the fact that he couldn’t even handle a low-key game in Australia before being sledged by Jason Hughes (brother of the sadly deceased, and former friend of Warner’s, Phillip Hughes) suggests that he must develop a much thicker skin before being abused by 25,000 at Edgbaston in August. As for Smith, there has been talk of him regaining the Australian captaincy (despite being banned from a leadership role for two years) once his ban has ended but that seems farcical at this point.

If Cricket Australia seriously intends to rebuild its reputation and credibility, then allowing Smith and Warner to return looks an incredibly risky move. At a time when the game is struggling in Australia despite the assurances that the Big Bash is making waves amongst the younger generations, it is hard not to feel that they are on the edge of the cliff and many more wrong moves could prove fatal.

By Andy Hunter

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