Remember, late Peter Roebuck's assessment of the Sydney Test of 2008? He had accused Ricky Ponting of turning 'a group of professional cricketers into pack of wild dogs' © Getty Images
Remember, late Peter Roebuck’s assessment of the Sydney Test of 2008? He had accused Ricky Ponting of turning ‘a group of professional cricketers into pack of wild dogs’ © Getty Images

Dear Australia, who is the Vettel of the week?

Is Virat Kohli still the ‘Trump’, the monster ICC is allowing to destroy the game?

Has that imaginary line of control been crossed? Or was there no line in the first place but an elastic string that could be stretched according to your convenience? The tension was far too much for the string. It had to give in.

A word to define Cameron Bancroft’s act on Saturday is dumbness. There’s the brittle line (yes, line) separating arrogance and it’s ultimate residue, dumbness.

See it as a whole and ‘dumbness’ is the word

Did Steven Smith and his “leadership group” think that they would be penalised just 5 penalty runs if they got caught? The ploy to tamper the ball was legally and morally wrong. To do it in the background of an already heated contest was even dumber.

You had sledged, showed your ugly brand, whined, complained, and whined again on crowd behaviour and Kagiso Rabada’s trial. And then after all the pretentious holier-than-thou, was this the best you could muster?

The cocktail of maliciousness and dumbness is disaster. That’s exactly what it has been for Australia since Saturday.

Maybe Smith is speaking the truth when he said that it was the first time Australians tried that. Maybe there isn’t a connection to the preceding events.

But will the world not ask why the Australians want the stump microphones off, how Mitchell Starc, and not James Anderson or Stuart Broad, got prodigious reverse swing during The Ashes? Why Kohli implied Smith was a cheat when the latter was caught in ‘brain-fade’ moment and consulted the dressing room for DRS?

Bancroft’s heavy head

Cameron Bancroft, Steven Smith in chat with the on-field umpires after being caught in the ball-tampering act © Getty Images
Cameron Bancroft, Steven Smith in chat with the on-field umpires after being caught in the ball-tampering act © Getty Images

Bancroft’s act resembled that of a mischievous alley urchin trying to prove innocence to a cop. Darren Lehmann and Peter Handscomb reduced an international proceeding look like an underarm 5-over game in the next lane.

Underarm invariably evokes memories of that 1981 tri-series final. Trevor Chappell finally had a sigh of relief: “I’m the one who comes up on Google as the man who took the lead role in Australian cricket’s darkest day — it’s a real relief I can finally drop that title.”

Let us return to Bancroft. Hasn’t Bancroft played enough to know the rights and the wrongs? Or is it rooted so deeply in the Australian culture that you just have to win? If an insecure teenager can be judged and banned for listening to his captain to deliver deliberate no-balls, how heinous was Bancroft’s role if you weigh one against the other?

A young cricketer’s desire to belong to the senior group is understandable. An experienced cricketer’s o naivety is not.

In Bengali, the term mathamota means foolish and its literal translation is heavy head. After the first Ashes Test last year, Bancroft had poked fun at Jonny Bairstow’s head-butt. Bancroft added that his was the heaviest head in the Western Australian setup. Well.

Australia have had smarter leadership groups. What’s the point in having one that has no moral, and more importantly judgement to gauge the degree of foolishness?

In hindsight, Smith losing the job will be a blessing. It may pave path for a smarter leadership group. Coming to think of that, do you really need a group of five or six to lead the other half? A strong captain is enough to lead a side along with senior members. Allan Border, anyone?

***

Australia is hurt. The media and the public are angry. There hasn’t been uproar like this. The Australian media, for once, hasn’t put on its cheerleading outfit. But then, aren’t the public and media responsible as well? We will come to that.

How many Australian captains have lost their job for maligning the sport? How many have not stepped out on their terms in the past three decades?

Australian cricket, for all its ugliness, has given the sport more than any other entity. It is not only about success, either. From innovations to overall grandeur, cricket is indebted to Australia.

Mock them. Dislike them. But Australia did not deserve this. But they did nothing to counter the looming threat.

The game has seen ugliness aplenty. Players, captains and coaching staff have plotted and brought enough disgrace to the sport but seldom have we come across a team trying to tactfully plot cheating with captain’s consent, followed by a confession.

View the event as a whole and not in parts and you will realise why Australia is hurt. Why did a grim-faced Prime Minister address a nation? The pre-planned nature of it, getting caught red-handed and its reflection of the Australian society leads to the permanent stigma.

This was always looming. Australia have brought it upon themselves. Unfortunately, two of the finest cricketers of this era, Smith and David Warner, will be crucified in attempt to correct the erroneous culture.

Two centuries ago, Frederick Beauclerk “bought and sold matches as though they were lots at an auction.” Match-fixing is almost as old as the sport, but it needed a Hansie Cronje to become a ‘mainstream’ crime. Ball-tampering, a crime not as heinous, has found its Cronje.

***

Had Smith envisaged that his quest for reverse swing would swing his fortunes and turn it around? He arrived in South Africa this February with the reputation of being next to Don Bradman. He will fly back from Cronje’s land as the Hansie of ball-tampering. Unfortunately or righteously, he will bear the axe.

The culture

Ian Smith once remarked that an Australian father typically had one question for his kid once the latter is home after any sport: “Did you win today?” The rest of the conversation would depend on the answer. In contrast, a Kiwi father would ask his child, “Did you have a good time out there?”

“This idea of win at all cost [of the Australians] is not right. There was this underarm delivery in a Test against New Zealand in 1981. That is the way Australia have been playing cricket,” said Sourav Ganguly, who had mentored a 22-year-old Steven Smith at Pune Warriors.

Sport has played a major role in shaping the Australia, the proud nation. The win-at-all-cost mentality has led them to exhibit an ugly brand of cricket, often despised by world.

Pick up autobiographies or skim through interviews of cricketers. They all mention how difficult it is to play in Australia: the cricketers will pin you to the ground; you try to get up and they will knock you down with insults and abuses and conveniently call it ‘mental disintegration’ because the line belongs to them; and if you are still standing, their media will chop your soul; and for the remains, the crowd will vulture around.

From Trevor Chappell’s underarm ball to Dennis Lillee kicking Javed Miandad to Michael Slater lambasting Rahul Dravid to the 2008 Sydney Test to this, for all their achievements, Australia have done things on cricket field to be remembered for the wrong reasons.

After the disgraceful Sydney Test, Peter Roebuck wrote in Sydney Morning Herald: “Ricky Ponting must be sacked as captain of the Australian cricket team. If Cricket Australia cares a fig for the tattered reputation of our national team in our national sport, it will not for a moment longer tolerate the sort of arrogant and abrasive conduct seen from the captain and his senior players over the past few days.

“Beyond comparison it was the ugliest performance put up by an Australian side for 20 years. The only surprising part of it is that the Indians have not packed their bags and gone home. There is no justice for them in this country, nor any manners.”

In his assessment, Roebuck also accused Ponting of turning “a group of professional cricketers into a pack of wild dogs.”

Why did it all snowball into this? Weren’t right measures taken back then? Why was the culture allowed to develop? Why was an established blot like Brad Haddin hired as assistant coach?

Martin Crowe, a visionary, had envisaged the outcome of the ugliness. He had criticised Warner in a 2015 article and called for red/yellow card system in cricket.

And there have been the Woodfulls, Hassetts, Gilchrists, Baileys and Lees, who were loved by all.

Ten years since the Sydney Test, after the ball-tampering scandal, Peter Lalor of The Australian wrote: “This is as rotten as I’ve ever seen the Australian cricket team’s culture.

“There was an arrogance about them. We’ve been hearing for nearly three decades, we need to play ugly to win.”

Senior writer Robert Craddock spoke about the culture as well: “It was the deterioration of a win at all costs culture which has been getting progressively seedier and dirtier and grubbier and finally they crossed the line into the truly dark and illegal arts of ball tampering and as an Australian I’m disgusted by it.”

Last year, SMH published an article authored by Kasey Edwards, titled Aggression, shame, winning at all Costs: The real values we’re teaching kids through sport. Here are some excerpts from the article.

“I know of parents abusing other people’s kids for missing a goal, parents intimidating coaches for letting weaker players have a turn on the court, and parents abusing umpires for not tolerating their kid’s violent behaviour.

“And it’s not just team sports where parents model the worst sporting values. I’ve seen children reduced to tears by screaming and disappointed parents for losing an under-10s tennis match.

“My friends’ 14-year-old daughter was called a ‘pussy’ by her coach for not winning a match. Who knew that using a derogatory term for women and their genitalia would build motivation and self-esteem in teenage girls?

Ban Steven Smith for life? Are you kidding me?
Ban Steven Smith for life? Are you kidding me?

“One of my husband’s enduring memories of childhood sport was being asked ‘Do you hate ’em?’ by the coach before the football final. In the coach’s eyes, motivating his team would take nothing less than instilling in his players a loathing for the other side.

“At the time, my husband was in Grade 3 and the grand final ended at three-quarter time because of the abusive behaviour of parents.

“Former AFL star Glenn Archer recently punched a runner at his son’s under-15 football game. You’ll be pleased to know that Archer has taken ‘full responsibility’ for his actions and will be staying on as a North Melbourne board director.

“We can only assume he took ‘full responsibility’ for his previous two assault charges as well.”

Kasey has spoken enough on the culture and the abrasiveness it leads to…

I ask again, aren’t the public, the media responsible?

Why wasn’t it Smith and not Kohli, the Vettel then?

Aftermath

Smith and Warner are heroes. I met two Australian kids at Hong Kong last month. We had brief cricket conversations. Max, the elder brother, idolises Smith, whereas Zack’s life revolves around Warner. What happens to their belief?

To some degree, I relate to the pain. Perhaps I should thank Cronje. The world moves on. They will eventually forgive. We all do. Time doesn’t heal, but it makes you accustomed as the wheel of life spins on.

It’s a task for the parents to shatter the illusions of the Zacks and Maxes of the world. They need to know what is wrong. Parents and coaches play a role. If there’s a time to change things, it’s now.

It’s Cricket Australia’s opportunity to change the culture. Yes, I repeat, Smith and Warner will get crucified for the final product of the blend of all wrongs. For larger good, it’s a small price and they will return as better sportsmen. But they should be allowed to return.

At the same time, let not decisions be taken based on social media outrages. Call for life bans is outrageous, as is over-the-top criticism from Indians (Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid had both tampered with the ball), England (Michael Atherton, Marcus Trescothick, John Lever), and South Africa (Faf du Plessis — twice, and Vernon Philander).

We, the media, often plunge in extremes. These men have been heroes. We have played a role in making them heroes. Let us not unnecessarily get into character assassinations.

Here lies Cricket Australia’s chance to finally replace the elastic string by drawing a line, not on sand, not as vague as spirit of the game, but on concrete with a permanent marker and move on.