Almanac (Australian) Cricket: Beset by crisis because the system is spoiled

Australia’s cricket team is a shambles by necessity.  Perversely, and not from any sense of justice or disillusionment, I enjoyed watching India turn the screws in Melbourne and Sydney.  I felt no disgust at our incompetence with the bat and ball.  No anger at India’s obdurate batting, athletic fielding and scintillating bowling.

 

The sandpaper crisis is self inflicted.

 

 

Aside from a competitive loss in Adelaide and a plucky win in Perth, India has dominated the summer.  Excuses, that our two best batsmen sit idle and suspended, are worthless.  The selectors can only pick available players, and I wanted to see how the team performed without David Warner’s blunt aggression or Steve Smith sublimity.

 

Much discussion among family and friends has taken place about the composition of our team.  Players lucky to be selected, those unlucky to miss out.  Agreement has been reached, that the best performed Shield players have been overlooked.  Much muttered, frustrated analysis has been made of our dreadful batting and one-dimensional bowling.

 

This is the regression we had to have.  In my life, Australian cricket has suffered three great crises and rebounded.  This crisis is self-inflicted, but a setback is an opportunity for a comeback.  The Aussies have done it before.

 

 

Packer TV crisis

 

Kerry Packer, by virtue of televised lust and a barrel of money, annexed the world’s best players for his private tournament in 1977.  World Series Cricket, Packer’s troupe, fractured cricket like no other sporting trauma.

 

At the time, just a kid, I cared less for tradition or troupe and more for cricket.  I watched, regardless, while the fight, establishment or not, raged politically.

 

My passion for the game rejected the rumble.  Cricket was on television.  Two channels.  I didn’t care if the mogul or controlling body won, as long as Australia did.  Unfortunately, for two summers, the establishment Australian team was barely competitive.  It couldn’t be otherwise, with the best players employed by Packer.

 

Ultimately, Packer is recalled as a visionary.  His determination to provide lounge rooms with excitement changed the game from black and white staidness to vivid pyjama colours.  His disruption, however fractious, modified cricket for the modern era.

 

When Packer, with his broadcast rights secured, abdicated his responsibility to cricket and the Super Test team merged with the Test side, Australians rejoiced.  Cricket, for all its traditions and history, had no choice but to embrace the future and revel in its contemporary glory.

 

The players provided the glamour and the team rebounded.  Such a bevy of legends lit up our television screens.  Remembering these names is an excursion to life as it once was.

 

Marsh, the Chappells, Hughes, Lillee, Thompson, Border, Lawson.  Pitting their skills against Holding, Richards, Garner, Roberts, Lloyd, Botham, Willis, Khan, Miandad, Dev, Gavaskar, Gower, Crowe and Hadlee.

 

The list of greats is remarkable.  Cricket has always ebbed and flowed on the quality of its players.

 

 

Rebels crisis

 

World Series Cricket, for all its benefits, caused Australian cricket to briefly lose its identity.  By the mid-eighties, six years after reunification, the rebel tours to South Africa created political ructions and Australian cricket lost its sovereignty.

 

Packer’s players were labelled as mercenaries.  Former Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, a cricket tragic, decried the South African tourists as ‘traitors’ and pleaded, at the last minute, for the players not to board the plane.

 

Traitors or rebels, the label, hardly mattered.  Kim Hughes, who had allegedly been assured of a berth to England for the 1985 tour, was overlooked.  A mercurial and majestic batsman in danger of cricket oblivion, Hughes led the rebel team for two tours of unofficial Tests and one-day games.

 

Of the players who went to South Africa, seven had played Test cricket.  Their defection, funded by the South African government, robbed Australia of depth and plunged the national team into shocking mediocrity.

 

But blaming the rebels for Australia’s demise is simplistic.  Simply, there wasn’t enough good players in the country.

 

The nadir, under the guise of Bob Simpson and Allan Border, was broached through the necessity of invention.  Simpson, the first national coach, eschewed the past and introduced professionalism, bestowing confidence in gritty men like Merv Hughes, Jones, Marsh, Boon, McDermott and Waugh.  Gave them a mantra, to win through hard work.

 

Under Border, Australia had been humiliated routinely.  But the new regime ensured they conquered all except the West Indies.  And three rebels, Alderman, Rackemann and Hohns returned to the Australian team after their two-year bans expired.  Monetary and political rebellion was forgiven.

 

Simpson and Border had set the tone for dominance.  Taylor carried it to the West Indies and emerged with the Frank Worrell Trophy.  Taylor took Australia to number one on the back of the Waugh twins and Warne and McGrath.  Hordes of classy shield players barely got a game in that era as Australia’s production line, by virtue of the Australian Institute of Sport, turned out legend after legend.

 

Steve Waugh, the Iceman, followed Taylor’s lead and played attacking, aggressive cricket that included mental disintegration.

 

Sledging became a feature of cricket.  To play is to be abused and ridiculed.  That’s cricket, as it always has been.  For most Australians, to win ugly was forgiven, because victory is epitome.

 

Ponting took the mantle and ran wild.  Australia was the best.  The feeling among the punters was we deserved to be the best.  Our country kept finding elite players, Hayden, Gilchrist, McGill, Langer, Lee and Gillespie.  Others produced when it mattered, Clarke, Rogers, Warner, Johnson, Harris and Smith…

 

On it went.  The production line.  Unabated.  Uncensored.  Unchecked.  Win at all costs. Just win.  From the outside, winning and losing aggressively seemed paramount.  Bouncers.  Send-offs.  Abuse.  We are Australia.  The best.

 

I recall conversations with family and friends about behaviour, send-offs, sledging and aggression.  It isn’t football, a mate said.  His argument, there’s no physicality in cricket but Australia plays physical cricket, was right.

 

The decree, every nation sledges, ended the discussion.  But the discussion never ended.  Because lust for victory never ended.

 

Cheating crisis

 

After England broke Australia’s spirit in 2010/11, Don Argus reviewed the system and made a series of recommendations.  Argus wanted clear pathways with a focus on developing talented, young players.

 

Inconsistency prevailed in the aftermath.  Series wins at home and losses abroad.  The production line was faltering.  It is cyclical, always has been, but our batting, Steve Smith and David Warner aside, was flaky.

 

Still, the lust for victory remained insatiable.  By 2018, that lust was addictive.  Australia took an inconsistent, under-performing team to South Africa where Cameron Bancroft, armed with a sliver of sandpaper, exposed that mentality.

 

Cheating is a great trick when undiscovered.  Initially, Smith shrugged it off as ball tampering with a befuddling belief that all teams do it.  Cricket, obviously, is littered with sanctions for ball-tampering.  By lolly, zipper, spikes or teeth, all teams at one point have tampered with the ball.  Just a part of cricket.  To gain an advantage.

 

Reverse swing is so crucial that altering the ball had become a skill.  A piece of sandpaper proved Australia wasn’t good at cheating.  Or they were good at covering it up for a long time.

 

Smith’s stark admission at cheating plunged Australia into its third cricket crisis.  The fallout, predictably, left a nation in shame and international players snickering and finger-pointing.  The bloodletting, amidst a nation’s howls, went on, sending three players into suspended limbo.  The madness also sent the coach, Darren Lehman, into exile.

 

Chappelli

 

Ian Chappell, before being made captain, abjectly refused to play Test cricket with Ray Jordan according to a number of authors including Chappell’s biographer, Ashley Mallett.  Chappell thought Jordan, a wicketkeeper, had cheated during a 1969 tour game in India when standing up to the stumps to Alan Connolly.  After Jordan claimed Prasanna had been bowled, Chappell’s observance that a stump pointed forward instead of back could not adequately be explained by the keeper.

 

Disgusted at the obvious, Chappell’s refusal may have cost Jordan a spot in the Test side.  And Jordan never played a Test.

 

Smith had the chance, as captain, to make his mark in South Africa and failed.  Chappell has made his mark.  An architect of World Series Cricket, remembered as the man who rebuilt the Australian team.  Recalled by teammates as the best captain they ever had.

 

Widely interviewed after the guilty were banned, Chappell’s acceptance of the suspensions fuelled his fervour for those at the top, the administrators, to assume responsibility for the debacle.

 

Predictably, a host of stubborn Cricket Australia officials begrudgingly and belatedly stepped aside, taking shallow responsibility.

 

Chappell, who had feuded with many administrators and famously prepared the South Australian state side for a strike in 1975, was placated.  Always a player’s man, Chappell.

 

India in Australia

 

Questions about the sandpaper incident remained, and when Bancroft sat through a 17 minute interview with Adam Gilchrist, the honest walker, the blame, as everyone already knew, was bestowed onto Warner.

 

Vice-captain.  Bludgeoner.  Hulking lap dog.  It was Warner, Bancroft said as though he was secreting a secret.  Smith went public next and with seven well-scripted words described his knowledge of the incident and his dithering attitude.  I don’t want to know about it, Smith said.

 

Not don’t do it.  Not decrying the blatant determination.  Not using his authority to stamp it out.  Allowing it to happen, because Smith didn’t want to know about it.

 

I approached this latest series with a dreaded sense of expectation, warning family and friends that India might finally win a Test series in Australia.  Their captain Virat Kohli, stylish, unhurried and obsessed, has passion to ignite. His passion united his players.  And it was a different Indian team, brooding, exciting and ready to go.

 

Throughout the series, India set up a bulwark with their batting and pinpointed deficiencies with precise incursions while bowling.  Excelling in defence, pace, spin and accumulation of runs and wickets.  Deserved victors.  Exposing Australia in the absence of our two best batsmen.  Unmasking fallibilities in technique and aptitude.  Showing our nation how Test cricket is played.

 

Exposing by necessity, our reputed world-class bowling attack who all took stick without much imagination.  Exposed our weakness, not just in the national team but beyond.  Into the Sheffield Shield, where few of the best batsman average higher than 40.

 

With the best performed Shield players overlooked, we were left with those who are brilliantly predictable but not predictably brilliant.

 

Selection resembled hunches, guesses and hope.  All-rounders who don’t take wickets or make runs.  Middle-order batsmen making middling runs.  Openers with open defence.  Batsmen gifting wickets.  Bowlers astray, gifting runs.  Reverting to short-balls on slow, stodgy pitches.  Just one LBW in the series, to Nathan Lyon.  Confirmation of dressing room dress downs.

 

Crisis.

 

Former excuses

 

Australian cricket, in my life, has been this bad before.  There were excuses in the seventies, when Packer’s troupe rolled into town and in the eighties when the rebels departed for South Africa.  After the Argus review, there are no excuses now.  Eight years on, it is apparent nothing was learned.

 

Knowing Cricket Australia, there will be another review into the pathway, from juniors to grade cricket to Sheffield Shield cricket.  We already know the answers.  Our batsmen aren’t good enough.  And Shield cricket needs prioritising, like it was in the old days.

 

Shield cricket, a breeding ground for Test players, is now played in two blocks, secondary to the smash and grab of Big Bash league, which is cricket, but hardly real.  Fairy floss, rather.  Test cricket is real.  It is in the Shield where Test cricketers are bred.

 

Through humiliation by India, we have witnessed the flagrant failure of our Test side and our production line.  Cricket Australia must act because the Test side has been in freefall for years.  Administrators must show their attitude and ambition for Test cricket.  Dominating the short forms might fatten the bank, but Test cricket is what the fans reminisce about.  It’s what I want to remember.

 

After the sandpaper incident, this series loss to India is another crisis Australian cricket had to have.  Simply, we needed to know how bad we have become to rise again.  Cricket in Australia has recovered previously.  It can again.

 

When Smith and Warner return, they will add class, but it must be warned, they won’t be saviours.  They are merely part of the system that descended Australian cricket into crisis.

 

The system is spoiled.

 

 

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About Matt Watson

My name is Matt Watson, avid AFL, cricket and boxing fan. Since 2005 I’ve been employed as a journalist, but I’ve been writing about sport for more than a decade. In that time I’ve interviewed legends of sport and the unsung heroes who so often don’t command the headlines. The Ramble, as you will find among the pages of this website, is an exhaustive, unbiased, non-commercial analysis of sport and life. I believe there is always more to the story. If you love sport like I do, you will love the Ramble…

Comments

  1. JASON ANDREW TOPPIN says:

    GREG RITCHIE WAS ON MCQUARIE SPORTS RADIO. HE WAS INTERVIEWED BY MATT THOMPSON AND HE SAID AND I QUOTE, “I WAS IN COUNTRY NEW SOUTH WALES AND I ASKED JUNIOR BATSMEN, HOW MANY OF YOU MADE 100’S, NOBODY PUT THEIR HANDS UP”. HE ALSO SAID CRICKET AUSTRALIA OFFICALS SHOULD HANG THEIR HEADS IN SHAME BECAUSE OF THE WAY AUSTRALIAN CRICKET IS GOING”

  2. Terrific summary of the ebbs and flows of Australian cricket over the past 40 years. Thanks Matt. I see it as more of an existential crisis for cricket, rather than the cynical downturn for Australia.
    In my view T20 has fundamentally undermined technique and patience/mindset for batsmen to persist and battle (a la Pujara). T20 flat tracks throughout the world have led to bland featherbeds like the SCG and MCG. Could Lillee and Warne take wickets on those. To my mind Starc just gave up a hopeless task, and by Sydney Cummins was a willing horse whipped too long.
    So I agree with your conclusion about the solution to our Test ills being reprioritising Sheffield Shield. But I wouldn’t hold my breath waiting for the TV fattened turkeys at CA to call Christmas.
    My view is that long form cricket is a dying sport in Australia – the rugby union of summer. India in cricket is like NZ in rugby – a one sport country. Australia has a 7 month footy season; 2 months at the track to socialise and get rid of our excess testosterone (and money); a month of tennis and 2 months of BBL. Follow the TV ratings and the money. Long form cricket is a dead parrot, and I am not holding my breath for a long term renaissance.
    The interesting question for me is how are England, South Africa and Sri Lanka coping with similar tensions? West Indies cricket is long since a label more than a team – lost to American TV sports.
    India are the Harlem Globetrotters – who will be their Washington Generals. Cricket has always swum in a tiny pool of British Empire history.
    As our MP’s are finding in the Darling and Great Barrier Reef all fish and coral die out when the water and oxygen dries up.

  3. Mike there’s aspects of this i concur with, others i won’t wear. This summer is the least interested i’ve been in cricket. I take no pleasure in India beating a depleted, disorganised side. I get sick and tired of the contemporary cultural cringe some people direct to the Australian cricket side. It’s like they’re the only ones who behave badly. Kohli, Pant,etc; is their behaviour acceptable because they’re not Australian?

    Australia suspended their players for ball tampering. The South Africans have a captain who’s a repeat offender , yet is allowed to continue on unabated. We recall when Tendulkar was accused of ball tampering in South Africa. The BCCI had a huge dummy spit, refused to play, said it was racist. The same BCCI who denied any racist behaviour from their team when Andrew Symonds was allegedly racially abused.

    The win at all costs approach: Just win. Did the Windies sides under Lloyd, Richards play the game in a genteel manner? Their overt aggression never gets a guernsey,it’s as though the Australians have a monopoly on this.

    To follow on this theme Matthew Wade is the best performed domestic batsmen this summer but is overlooked. Is Wade’s aggression an affront to those running Australian cricket. Yes there might be a few who won’t go to a match involving Australia because of their perceptions of Australian aggression, however there’s a lot more who won’t go to watch a side that keeps losing.

    Australian cricket is in a huge mess, and yes we’ve been here before.The previous nadirs remain in my memory data bank. Unsure where to from here because test cricket no longer holds the hallowed esteem it once did. So many series, 2 tests here, 2 test there,like a conveyor belt. Since the end of our great era in 2007 there’s not been a standout side, as teams win at home, then don’t follow up on the road. We’ve not one in England since 2001, a long time ago. I wonder the future of test cricket.

    Mike your article is thorough,and gives a good conversation starter. What is to be done?

    Glen!

  4. Matt,

    Loved this article. Agree with pretty much all of it.

    By way of trivia, I started following test cricket in late 1967, when Bobby Simpson was the captain, soon to be replaced by Bill Lawry.

    In 50-odd years, Chappelli is my favourite test cricket captain. A man’s man, he led from the front, & fought for his team against the administrators.

    Allan Border is probably my next favourite, while acknowledging Waugh & Ponting as the two most successful captains of the period.

    By my quick calculations, there have been 13 Australian captains who led for 7 or more tests. Only three leave something, or much, to be desired.

    1. Graeme Yallop, who was horribly ill-equipped to lead in 1978. He further besmirched his reputation by failing to support Hughes in South Africa during the Rebel tours.

    2. Michael Clarke, although an outstanding batsman & tactical analyst, was too self-absorbed to be a truly effective leader. He was just too into himself to be of any longterm good.

    3. Steve Smith, the most outstanding batsman since Bradman, he disgracefully abdicated his responsibility as leader in the sandpaper gate incident. Smith also demonstrated an appalling ignorance of the nuances of behaviour.

  5. matt watson says:

    Hi Glen,
    You’re right about a lot of things. Many players and nations are guilty of poor behaviour and ball tampering. That’s why Smith readily admitted it, because the ICC sanctions had previously been wrist-slaps. He underestimated the fallout.
    I’ve always been a fan of tough, gritty Test cricket but cringed at the sendoffs and needless abuse. And all teams did it. Words will always be said, but as all players allude to, as long as the line isn’t being crossed…
    It’s true the BCCI wield a lot of power, hence the first Test being played in Adelaide rather than the Gabba. Might is right, when it comes to their ball tampering and poor behaviour. But it isn’t right.
    The West Indies certainly played the toughest cricket I’ve ever seen. They played to win, certainly, but I can’t recall too much abuse or histrionics from them when they were at their peak. They let the bat and ball do the talking. Though Malcolm Marshall did suggest to David Boon that he get out or ‘do you want me to come around the wicket and kill you?’ Boon was on debut. Neat introduction to Test cricket.
    So all teams have been guilty of sledging and poor behaviour.
    It’s why Cricket Australia had to suspend Smith, Warner and Bancroft.
    Cheers!

  6. matt watson says:

    Peter,
    I agree that Test cricket has been relegated, though the governing bodies won’t admit it. It’s a shame, because it’s the form I prefer.
    The answer is obvious. Five days are hard to many people to follow. Most maintain a passing interest. I know heaps of men who couldn’t care less, which is odd because when i was a kid, 90 percent of the boys at school loved cricket. Yes we’re all time poor as adults, but cricket has stopped captivating the masses. Characters put bums on seats, but it’s a fine line between good and bad character.
    Currently, Test cricket in Australia seems to be holding on to the die-hards without attracting a new audience.
    But, as any administrator will tell you, success puts bums on seats. Australian cricket has recovered previously. I’d hate to see us go the way of the West Indies. I don’t think CA will allow it.
    cheers

  7. Thanks for this interesting piece, Matt.
    I am a cricket aficionado, but was previously ignorant of the Ray Jordan – Chappelli incident. Thanks.

    A few commenters here are predicting the death of Test cricket. I demur, and reckon that the BBL has gone stale this season: too long, too second-rate, and just not that good. Test cricket has been written off for generations, but survives. It will only take a young gun like Pukovski to reignite the doubters’ passions!

  8. JASON ANDREW TOPPIN says:

    GOOD MORNING MATT AND THOSE WHO COMMENT ION THIS THREAD
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  9. Ta Matt, sorry i called you Mike, as in your nom de plume.

    I’ll be my pedantic self when it comes to the Windie’s but Colin Croft shouldering umpire Fred Goodall, Viv Richards storming into the commentary box to threaten Christopher Martin-Jenkins, surpass much of our players antics.

    I won’t mention Sylvester Clarke and the brick !

    Glen!

  10. John Butler says:

    Matt, like Smokie, I wasn’t aware of Chappell’s attitude to Jordan. Another interesting angle in the unauthorized history of Australian cricket.

    A lot of memories brought back by this piece. Some crises bring change. Others just lead to a shuffling of the deckchairs. I’m still not convinced this one isn’t of the latter type.

    Cheers

  11. matt watson says:

    Glen,
    No worries about the nom de plume.
    The Croft incident is interesting, because he barely played a Test after shouldering Goodall.
    But that could’ve been because of the strength of West Indies cricket back then.
    Michael Holding kicked the stumps during that series too.
    Clarke’s brick incident was obviously one of the worst… He was dropped, three Test ban and only played in one more Test.
    And Croft and Clarke went to South Africa.
    All teams misbehave. Winning masks it. Cheers for the feedback! I appreciate it.

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