As Steve Smith, a broken meringue of a man held together only by numbness and his father’s hand, cried through his press conference at Sydney airport it was impossible not to think of Kim Hughes. This was not just because the great snubber of hair straighteners and slayer of terrifying attacks also famously sobbed at his valedictory media appearance as Australian captain. It was also because Hughes had popped up earlier in the week to moralise about his disgraced successor. Unperturbed by his own leadership of a rebel tour to apartheid South Africa, he held forth on Smith damaging the moral fibre of the game. “The last thing you would want to be called is a cheat,” he said. Well, there are plenty of worse things people in Soweto might call Hughes, but anyway, his was a view not uncommon amid the punchdrunk typhoon that has been Australian cricket in the last week.
Hughes, with those curly locks and un-Borderly character, was once himself labelled, like Smith now, as being “unAustralian”. Indeed, this idea of nationality having a role in justice has been quite prevalent in the fall-out to the ball-tampering scandal. There have been suggestions that Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft had to be treated differently simply because they were, in fact, Australian.
On top of the sandpapering, then the lying to umpires then the lying to cameras and public, there was this ethereal idea hanging around in the air that their nationality somehow put them on a higher moral pedestal because Australian society, more than others, simply will not tolerate cheating from its sportsmen.
There may well be some truth in that, but this notion the Australian sporting public has more enhanced ethical standards than the rest of the world smacks of exactly the same sort of wobbly moral “line” that David Warner was rightly lambasted for crowing about.
Of course, many players have tampered with the ball, but none have ever been caught so brazenly doing it and then caught so brazenly lying about doing it to both match officials and the public. So it is really rather difficult to assess how it would have gone down in other nations or if, indeed, the vast ranges of opinion on the matter expressed across the globe in the last few days can even be categorised by location at all. It might even be argued that Australia continuing to regard itself as something of a moral totem in some quarters was what turned a horrific situation into an utter catastrophe.
People who felt a year-long ban for the Smith and Warner and nine months for Bancroft was excessive have variously been informed that they did not understand it wasn’t just for ball-tampering (they did understand that) but for premeditation (they did understand that), for lying (they did understand that) and for violating the spirit, such as it is, of the game (they did understand that) and for a team culture which from the outside appeared vituperative (they did understand that).
What they didn’t understand was how a country which has churned out cricketers who have repeatedly been involved in unsavoury incidents had to deal with a situation that already warranted a firm sanction with even greater firmness because of that slippery old line.
What is odd is that on any social media or comments forum you find there is not a settled view on what the punishments should have been or are even in the country involved itself. Yet it was those urging a hard line — admittedly many just in the name of justice not out of any vaunted sense of national propriety — which won the day at Cricket Australia.
The players had to be made an example of for the sport and indeed, the country’s integrity, a view which may have been dubious but was also hardly surprising once the Prime Minister himself also become involved. One former Baggy Green even suggested that the harsh punishments should be seen as a noble example for the rest of the world to follow, almost that other countries should be grateful these players had acted so poorly because it allowed Australian cricket to shine its light of redemptive judicial purity on all of us.
The mixed reaction to the affair in Australia suggests the national board’s rush to convert the players’ pedestal to the gallows was driven as much by perception of public opinion as opinion itself, which leads on to the corporate angle. If Cricket Australia’s strategy was to offer blood sacrifices in order to stem the flow of blood, it failed utterly. Coach Darren Lehmann quit the day after the bans and sponsors continued to leave both the players and Cricket Australia at light speed. This was itself corporate moralising and neck-saving, but who on earth can blame them?
Who knows what the thought process was inside the boardroom of Cricket Australia’s main sponsor, Magellan, but if they were wavering on withdrawing their support before the punishments were handed down they surely had no choice once they were. The severity of them made a potentially difficult decision very easy. Cricket Australia hoped to come down hard on the players in the hope sponsors would go easy on them, not least with a new TV deal currently being negotiated. As things stand now, they have been left out of pocket and covered in the splashes from the very pound of flesh they threw under the bus.
In this entire episode, this notion 25 million Australians all speak with one collective voice without nuance or diversion about sportsmen cheating was surely one of the equally silly traps James Sutherland and the board fell into. Like the parent at the school gates who has lost control of their unruly children they then, with the tutting eyes of other mums and dads upon them, lost control of themselves out of social embarrassment and gave the kids an unnecessarily hard slap. The parents have ended up looking overly aggressive and the kids are crying, distraught and confused, in front of everyone. What a family. What a mess. What on earth can Australia do now?