Former captain Steve Waugh, for instance, had made `mental disintegration’ (read sledging and bullying) of opponents seem a virtue.
The tearful press conferences of Steve Smith, David Warner and Cameron Bancroft after returning home from South Africa were distressing to watch for any sports lover. World-class athletes are usually the pride and joy of the sport, team and country. Their status should be that of heroes, not villains.
In the trauma and disgrace of these three, however, there is a strong lesson for everyone, especially budding sportspersons all over the world: that while winning is important, it is not everything, and the costs of destabilising this equation can be incalculable.
There has, of course, been furious debate whether Cricket Australia has not been too harsh in its punishment to the three players. Going by the ICC’s Code Of Conduct, it would certainly seem so, and has evoked both wide consternation and sympathy, especially within the cricketing fraternity itself.
The ban period (one year for Smith and Warner, nine months for Bancroft) is unprecedented for an offence that is commonplace, and has actually percolated down to the lowest levels at which cricket is played.
“What have they done which every player doesn’t try?” seems to be the refrain among players, past and present. But Cricket Australia’s position is that the punishment was not so much for ball tampering as bringing the country into disrepute.
The methods deployed to scuff the ball may not have been unusual, but the attempt to hide the guilt, as video evidence showed, was diabolical. And the excuses that followed immediately after showed insidious intent.
Moreover, the fact that the captain and vice captain should have been involved in this, revolted not just the cricket administration Down Under, but people at large. It held up a mirror to the national psyche.
The cricket captaincy is arguably the most venerated position in the country, and the captain is appointed only after rigorous study and deliberation over a player’s credentials and integrity.
That Warner has been barred from any leadership position in the future, and Smith can perhaps regain the captaincy — which seems remote at this point in time — only if fans, sponsors and public at large don’t object shows how much prestige is vested in the person who leads the side.
The stiffness of the ban also reflects the administration’s anger at its own inability to assess and arrest the cultural decadence in Australian cricket. There have been telltale signs for some while now, which were ignored.
Micky Arthur, who coached the team briefly before Darren Lehman took over (he was in charge when Australia toured India in 2012-13), mentions about the decadent culture in a scathing blog (www.players.voice.com) last Friday.
“The Aussies have played the victim when they deem the other team has overstepped the mark. And when they’ve been in the ascendancy and behaved badly, everything is OK because they have determined as much,” says Arthur.
Those who track such things closely will find an echo of this in the ‘brain fade’ Steve Smith purportedly suffered during the Bengaluru Test against India in 2016 when he seemed to signal to the dressing room whether he should go in for a decision review.
In some quarters, Australia’s current travails are being passed on to coach Darren Lehman who had often tom-tommed that his side plays to “win, win, win”. But Lehman wasn’t the man who promoted sledging, only it’s latest vendor, so to speak.
Former captain Steve Waugh, for instance, had made `mental disintegration’ (read sledging and bullying) of opponents seem a virtue. And he too was one in a long chain of illustrious players who believed in this.
For decades, the Aussies have prided themselves for ‘playing tough, but fair’ and knowing where to ‘draw the line’. In this, they had the support of the cricket administration and even fans, everyone regaling in the exploits and triumphs of their players, believing this was a justifiable benchmark.
Astonishingly, nobody did a reality check on whether sledging, bullying, disrespecting opponents, skirting on the edge with the laws — which may have worked earlier — was paying the team dividends now. It definitely wasn’t going by results of the past five years, particularly playing overseas.
Something had to give. The much-touted ‘play tough, but play fair’ credo was shown up as sanctimonious claptrap at Cape Town where the Australians were, literally and metaphorically, caught with their pants down.