Day of shame

I’m one of those people who whenever there is political turmoil am glued to the TV seeking developments and listening with rapt interest to the commentary and analysis. Yesterday was one of those days, though it was not political turmoil that transfixed me, but sporting – which is the next biggest thing in Australia, after all.

It was a normal Sunday morning. I woke, made coffee, then settled back in bed to catch up with the online news. I’d woken in between news bulletins so I received my initial news through a combination of Facebook updates and the Age online. What I found there shocked me to the core – as it has millions of other Australians.

The third test from Cape Town has been in progress and Australia trailing. These are hotly contested matches against an opponent we dislike. The cricket has been compelling, but everything else from this series has been pretty ugly – and it got worse.

It’s hard to understand how it came to this, but in the lunch-break on the third day and with Australia behind the eight ball Steve Smith and his so-called leadership group hatched a plan to cheat. The most junior member of the team, Cameron Bancroft, was enlisted to do the dirty work – that is, to scuff up the ball with a piece of abrasive tape to help promote some reverse swing.

Not only was this immoral, it was also profoundly stupid. It’s hard to get away with anything these days, but especially so in this series when so much has been going on that every moment is heavily scrutinised. Unsurprisingly when Bancroft attempted to tamper with the ball he was spotted. The umpires became involved, then Steve Smith, who at first denied anything untoward. It was only after play that Smith along with Bancroft admitted to the ploy. Both men were remorseful but Smith, totally out of touch with the gravity of the situation, believed he could continue on as captain.

The news broke like a tidal wave in Australia. Around the world much of the foreign fans either condemned Australia, or rejoiced in our disgrace. My feelings I think mirrored those of most Australian supporters – disbelief, disgust and shame.

I sat on my couch watching one talking head after another being wheeled out for their opinion. Their complete condemnation of events was near universal. Though I knew it, I struggle to comprehend what had happened. It was so foreign to what I believe as an Australian that I couldn’t connect to it. At the same time I felt waves of emotion. I felt terribly betrayed. I felt as if everything I had been led to believe in had been exposed as a sham. The Australian way of sport, our distinct ethos, hard but fair, an ethos I had believed in, upheld, and defended, had been corrupted entirely by this madness that ran contrary to everything we had been brought up to believe.

This is why it is such a big thing: it has struck to the very soul of Australian sport. We’re no lily-whites, God knows that, but while we go hard on the field what was sacrosanct was the concept of fairness. There have been international cricket captains charged with ball tampering in the past. They’ve been condemned, penalised, but the sky didn’t fall in. The difference is that in Australia that sporting ethos is almost holy. It defines so much of us as a people. It’s a part of our identity, and so then to have exposed an act of such cynical disregard to both fairness and the rules is an existential blow. The shame is felt by all.

It was a given yesterday morning that Steve Smith would be sacked as captain. My own view was that should be the minimum. He may be the best batsman in the world, but if he never took the field again for Australia then I was cool with that. I’ve never been a fan of Smith the man, but his actions on the weekend were compounded by the fact that he got the most junior member of the team to execute them. That in itself beggars belief. It’s cowardly, and exploits the loyalty of a guy who wants only to play for Australia and is still trying to prove himself. Bancroft should have said no – he was clearly uncomfortable – but he should never have been put in such a position.

All of this was known when James Sutherland turned up for an impromptu news conference. He was obviously shocked and it showed in his demeanour. Others have commented that he seemed near to tears, and he said many of the things the rest of us were thinking – yet he stopped short of sacking Smith.

This was a terrible misreading of the mood and the situation. Had there been some doubt over the circumstances then an investigation first might have been appropriate. Smith had admitted guilt though, and from that moment could not continue as Australian cricket captain. They say that the position of Australian cricket captain is the highest office in the land – to allow an admitted cheat to go on in that role would be a betrayal of everything the office stood for. One ex-cricketer even suggested they should not be allowed to wear the baggy green cap. In the end both Smith and Warner either resigned or were stood down from their roles before play started.

Where to from here? Well, this is something we can never really live down. I can’t remember a more serious breach in my lifetime of watching Australian sport. There’s a long way back from here, but at least we can make a start on it now.

While this incident is a total shock, standards have been slipping for some time, and Cricket Australia must take some responsibility for that. I wrote a few weeks ago how I was finding it hard to stomach, and I’ve got an iron constitution. The Australian cricket team has been stinking it up for a few years now, and I hear stories all the time of women who used to take an interest in the game who have been turned off by the culture of the team. CA should have been more pro-active.

Obviously Smith is front and centre in much of that. I’ve never liked him. I’ve always thought him a bit odd, a tad socially dysfunctional, and I think that’s been evident on the field. As a leader he’s been poor – impulsive, reactionary, demonstrative, unsympathetic. Unparalleled as a batsman, he has still failed to lead by example. For what it’s worth I think he’s a poor captain also.

Lehmann is another problem. He was the right coach at the right time when he came in, but that time has long past. I have my doubts about his technical ability, but it’s his yobbo-ish tendencies that really turn me off. I think we have gone past that sort of character. From what I hear he plays favourites in the dressing room and can be a divisive figure. More to the point I think his blokish acceptance of borderline behaviour has allowed for standards to slip. Supposedly he was not involved in this decision – hard to believe – but in any case I can’t see him surviving this, nor should he.

If we are to redeem ourselves we must start with a clean slate. To begin with that means hefty penalties for those involved, including something like a 12 month ban for Smith. It means substantial re-education for those who remain, and in fact, throughout cricket teams across Australia. And it means new leadership.

I’m a big fan of Justin Langer, and know that had he been coach none of this would have been possible, let alone allowed. No-one is a tougher competitor than Langer, but no-one is truer to that particular ethos we all so believed in. You know he’ll be bleeding today, just like the rest of us. The bonus is that I think he’s a very good coach too. I think he must be installed pronto.

As for captain, Australia must move away from giving it to the best player in the team. Being a great batsman doesn’t necessarily make the best leader or captain, and Smith is the proof of that. Tim Paine has been named interim captain and I think he’s the perfect choice – level-headed, smart, a tough competitor who will battle it out. He’s an admirable character. Longer term they either need to bring someone from outside the squad in, or elevate Mitch Marsh or even Pat Cummins, though neither is ready for now I think.

We must use this to become the cricket team every Australian admires. There’s a stain that can’t be eradicated, but it can be overcome.

This is 24 hours later and I surprise myself at how measured I am. Yesterday I was devastated. I walked into work and it’s the discussion played out loud. I get a cup of tea and everyone shakes their head. I’m so sad at what Australia has become – politically as well as on the cricket field – but there’s no getting away from what has happened. Let this be a catalyst for change. Hopefully we can strive to be our best selves, hard still and relentless, but true and humble also. That’s what I want, and what the country needs.

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