The sight was gut-wrenching. Dressed in a crisp black suit and his golden locks neatly gelled back, Steve Smith could well have been heading for a selection meeting at Cricket Australia headquarters. Except, on Thursday, the now-former Australia captain wore an expression befitting a funeral as he sat in a rueful admission of his guilt. With his father, Peter Smith, by his left shoulder, the 28-year-old cruelly melted away in the tears of, one believes, genuine, deep-seated remorse. It was moving.
Some 11,000 kilometres away in Johannesburg, Darren Lehmann was watching. It’s tough to imagine what must have crossed his mind, numb as it certainly was with lack of sleep and heaps of name-calling. There he sat, his captain, breaking down, brick by brick in the brutal symphony of a corroding wall that has been nudged by a truck. For Lehmann, it could have been the crumbling of the citadel he helped build over five years.
It’s not out of place to imagine Lehmann — the prototype of a tough Aussie ‘mate’ — shedding a tear watching his best batsman fall to a moment of fleeting ingenuity, and it really took less than three hours for him to change his decision of staying on, relayed only 24 hours before. The tough man does have a heart.
Those who have watched the sport for a significant period would remember Lehmann as the doughty batsman devoid of grace typified by left-handers. In a team of super-athletes, he was the man with an ungainly girth.
On the cricket pitch, the contradictions manifested themselves manifold. That he could both bat and ball made him look like a bits-and-pieces cricketer and not a genuine all-rounder. For a spinner who rarely turned the ball, he played Test cricket in the same side as Shane Warne. Never considered a world-beating batsman, he still averaged 44.95 in his 27-Test career, besides holding the record for the most runs (12,971) in the history of the Sheffield Shield/Pura Cup. Part of two World Cup-winning squads (1999 and 2003), he is rarely seen in triumphant photographs. He was the commoner among connoisseurs, yet somehow, never out of place.
Lehmann’s unremarkable, but not unimportant cricket career ran parallel with some of the all-time greats of the game that his country would produce. However, for a man whose sum was certainly more than his parts, there was curiously enough room for him to stay relevant.
His transition to coaching was no less dramatic. After taking over from Mickey Arthur in the troubled summer of 2013, he oversaw a 3-0 Ashes defeat in his first assignment. After the Trent Bridge Test of that series, he accused Stuart Broad of “blatant cheating” after the Englishman refused to walk, having been adjudged not-out after edging to first slip. He went ahead and urged the Australian public to ensure Broad “cries and he goes home.”
"Certainly our players haven't forgotten, they're calling him everything under the sun as they go past," Lehmann had said.
"I hope the Australian public are the same because that was just blatant cheating. I don't advocate walking but when you hit it to first slip it's pretty hard.
"From my point of view I just hope the Australian public give it to him right from the word go for the whole summer and I hope he cries and he goes home," he said.
Later that year, he famously turned the tables on England with a 5-0 mauling, thanks in no small measure to the menacing Mitchell Johnson.
He later oversaw series victories over South Africa, England, India, New Zealand and West Indies, in the process establishing his credentials as a top coach and the perennial teammate. When Steve Smith had his famous ‘brain fade’ in Bengaluru, Lehmann came out in vociferous support of his skipper, and insisted Australia played the game in the “right way.”
However, it was in the ongoing series against South Africa that he was at his ‘matey’ best, coming to the impassioned defence of his erring men on multiple occasions.
In the first Test in Durban, marred with the ugly altercation between David Warner and Quinton de Kock on the Kingsmead stairwell, Lehmann came out in strong support of his then vice-captain, adding that his team would continue to “push the boundaries.” During the third Test of the ongoing series in Cape Town, Lehmann made no pretence of his feelings for the “disgraceful” crowd, before cameras caught Cameron Bancroft in an act that would trigger a domino effect in Australian cricket.
So there he appeared, red-eyed and all, announcing the premature end of a successful coaching career. It’s a cruel irony that the end came three years to the day he guided Australia to World Cup glory in 2015 — his third World Cup medal and first as a coach. That the tough man was moved enough by the tears of his captain could be the defining contradiction of his career that has never been short of paradoxes, and as Father Time, in all certainty, prepares to gradually push this incident to the recess of history, one quote of Lehmann on his fallen men stands out: “They've made a grave mistake but they are not bad people.” Team man and teammate.