Ball tampering is symptomatic of a greater Australian malaise

by Paul Thomas / 31 March, 2018
Captain Steve Smith, left, and vice-captain David Warner kiss the Ashes urn after Australia won the series in Perth in December. Photo/Getty Images

Captain Steve Smith, left, and vice-captain David Warner kiss the Ashes urn after Australia won the series in Perth in December. Photo/Getty Images

RelatedArticlesModule - Australia ball-tampering cricket

The Australian cricket team have long prided themselves on their ruthlessness – and they’ve been lauded for it.

Occupying the moral high ground can upset your equilibrium and cause hypocrisy, selective memory and unhealthy levels of outrage.

The cricket world is ablaze with news that in the test between Australia and South Africa in Cape Town, Australian fielder Cameron Bancroft used a gritty tape to scuff one side of the ball to change its swing. But how many of the jeering South Africans paused to reflect that their captain, Faf du Plessis, has twice been found guilty of ball-tampering? Or that four years after former captain Hansie Cronje was discovered up to his neck in match-fixing and banned for life, he was voted the 11th-greatest South African? (He had died in a plane crash in the interim.)

Legendary West Indian fast bowler Michael Holding, in South Africa as a commentator, lamented that the saying “it’s not cricket” no longer resonates because the game once “held so high in esteem” is being allowed to slip “into the gutter”. But it has been there before.

Right here in 1979/80, for example, when the West Indies, with Holding to the fore, kicked over stumps, abused and assaulted an umpire, refused to take the field after a break in play and tried to abort the tour because some umpiring decisions didn’t go their way, a self-justification trotted out many times since. Captain Clive Lloyd carried on for another five years before becoming an International Cricket Council match referee and later chairing the ICC’s august Cricket Committee.

But the most striking examples of disorientation on the moral high ground are to be seen in the miscreants’ native land. From Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to the man and woman in the street, Aussies are united in shame and disgust. Cricket Australia (CA) made a sweeping public apology. The Australian Sports Commission issued a statement brimming with high-mindedness and indignation: “The ASC expects and requires that Australian teams and athletes demonstrate unimpeachable integrity in representing our country. The Australian cricket team are iconic representatives of our country. The example they set matters a great deal to the thousands of young Australians playing or enjoying the sport of cricket … who look up to the national team as role models.”

Here, I suggest, we get to the nub of the issue: anyone who thinks this or recent Australian men’s cricket teams have demonstrated unimpeachable integrity, set a good example or been role models has taken their leave of the real world.

Bancroft, front, and Smith come clean to the media in Cape Town. Photo/Getty Images

Bancroft, front, and Smith come clean to the media in Cape Town. Photo/Getty Images

The damage done

The ball-tampering in Cape Town didn’t take place in a vacuum: for years, the men in baggy-green caps have taken pride in being the roughest, toughest, most ruthless outfit in the game. Their indifference to the damage done matched that of English football club Millwall’s hooligan fans who chanted, “No one likes us, we don’t care.” And the public, from cricket-tragic prime ministers Bob Hawke and John Howard down, have uttered barely a murmur of protest when their team have behaved boorishly or worse. After virtually every ugly incident, CA has asserted the team’s right to play, and go on playing, “a hard, aggressive Australian brand of cricket”.

This was a particularly bad instance of ball-tampering: it was premeditated and the leaders prevailed upon a junior team member to do the dirty work. But as former England captain Mike Atherton said, ball-tampering has been going on “since the year dot. The level of moral indignation is always slightly out of kilter with the offence.” He speaks with some authority – and feeling – having been embroiled in a tampering episode in 1994.

The tampering is a symptom; Australia’s cricket culture is the disease. Captain Steve Smith and deputy David Warner should be sacked because, over time, they’ve shown they’re more concerned with maintaining the Ugly Australian image than shouldering their wider responsibilities. Coach Darren Lehmann should go, too, since he has encouraged them on that path. That’s the easy part. The more difficult and meaningful task is changing a culture that the Australian cricket community has indulged, if not quietly revelled in, for decades.

This article was first published in the April 7, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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