Some Balance, Please

Has there ever been a bigger furore in Australian cricket, taking cultural and technological changes into consideration? Maybe underarm in 1981 and probably Bodyline in 1932-33. The key differences are that underarm wasn’t actually cheating and in Bodyline, Australia held the moral high ground, at least in the eyes of Australians at the time.

There is more media coverage on this ball-tampering incident than I can remember on any on-field sporting incident so I don’t intend to recount what happened. I do want air my views on what should happen from here and who should take responsibility.

Firstly, I will say that I think that the level of reaction, or over reaction, is astonishing. These Australian cricketers have done a very bad thing. Also a stupid thing. They deserve to be punished for sheer stupidity. Not that I’m recommending breaking the rules if you think you can get away with it, but why would they think they would go undetected? But seriously, the ICC has suspended Smith for a match and the actual tamperer got a few demerit points and a fine of 75% of his match fee. For Smith, that is a serious punishment. Jonathan Agnew included in a tweet “Current blood lust is way over the top” and I agree with him (full tweet included below).

I understand that Cricket Australia has its own code of conduct, separate to that of the ICC. I also understand that CA needs to manage public and corporate perceptions and reactions. This conflict of interest is what concerns me the most. The first responsibility of Cricket Australia should be to its players. That includes punishment but also fair treatment and remediation and support. I’m glad Steve Waugh hinted at this. While he expressed that he was “deeply troubled”, he also said:

“A focused and balanced perspective is needed in the condemnation on those involved in this, with a clear and critical consideration to the social impact and mental health of all players.

“I will support all positive action to ensure an outcome for the betterment of the game, regaining the trust and faith of every fan of cricket.”

https://www.cricket.com.au/news/steve-waugh-spirit-of-cricket-ball-tampering-australia-south-africa-baggy-green-smith-warner/2018-03-27

While Waugh didn’t spell out what he thought that looked like, he used the word “balanced”. He realises that while Smith and company did the wrong thing, that people make mistakes and life doesn’t end with one mistake.

This is where I see that the conflict of interest lies. Cricket Australia is amidst some key negotiations. One of them is with Channel 9 over TV rights, a key source of revenue for CA. They also have key corporate sponsors to keep happy. Here are some snippets from a News.com.au article that I read:

“On Monday, Australia’s trade, tourism and investment minister Steven Ciobo addressed the issue in London and admitted the subject had come up during high-level discussions with UK Trade Secretary Liam Fox.

“Notwithstanding that it has been the butt of a number of jokes, the fact does remain that this actually does go to reputational injury and we need to be mindful of that,” he (Ciobo) said. “Cricket Australia …. recognises that so after undertaking due process I do believe they’re going to take the appropriate action.

“The comments come following a weekend, that for Australian officials at least, was supposed to be about the launch of a new Perth-London direct flight from Qantas. It’s also ahead of the Commonwealth Games and a key speech on the importance of free trade delivered by Mr Ciobo at Bloomberg’s new European headquarters in London to spruik Australia’s $27 billion trading relationship with the UK.”

http://www.news.com.au/sport/cricket/balltampering-scandal-damages-australian-reputation-could-cost-cricket-australia-1-billion-deal/news-story/ffa84276888a9abef94d51d88649e2ef

Smith and his players must understand that they do have a responsibility to sponsors – their healthy salaries attribute to that. However, Cricket Australia needs to avoid crucifying these players with the primary objective of appeasing sponsors and clients. The punishment must be decided by looking at the actions on the field (and discussions in the dressing room, prior). Some allowance can be made for reputational injury but that is hard to quantify. How much did this bad press cost Qantas over its new Perth to Sydney leg? The only thing I knew of this new service was what I read in a cricket article so maybe it’s not all bad.

The other aspect is appeasing the Australia public. As a member of the Australian Cricket Family, I received a letter (via email) from James Sutherland himself saying how sorry he was, blah-blah-blah. I didn’t received the letter with any appreciation or expectation of sincerity. In this day and age of social media, I find the knee-jerk reactions to public reactions galling. We see it often in politics. The public can express themselves so easily, so collectively and with such passion that the “noise” is intensified many, many times. Some maturity and bravery is needed by organisations to put this into perspective and to react in a balanced, reflective way. I’m not confident that we will see this from Cricket Australia.

How much responsibility does CA take for the current state of affairs? We have seen from Steve Smith in recent times some unfortunate behaviour. For example, appealing to the dressing room as to whether or not to refer a decision. This is not allowed and he later admitted to a “brain snap”. His frequent inappropriate outbursts of disappointment when things go wrong on field (e.g. a dropped catch) attest to Smith’s desperation to win. His batting is also testament to this. It is part of what has made him so successful. In breaking the rules in a premeditated way, he has clearly gone too far and has entered the “winning at all costs” demographic. Who in CA leadership was speaking with Smith and Lehmann about Smith’s behaviour leading up to this? Who is going to resign over the lamentable culture that now exists in Australian cricket? I will tell you: nobody. Not James Sutherland, the CEO. Not Pat Howard, the performance manager. And not the head of integrity, Iain Roy (who even knew such a role existed?).

I believe that the outrage is magnified because we are aware that it was something discussed in the dressing room and premeditated. It seems so brazen. Smith’s honesty at the press conference was confronting and rare. I dare you to watch that full interview (just over eight minutes) and not feel uncomfortable and think about why you feel uncomfortable. While it does not erase the wrong, it does deserve some credit. Bancroft could have been left to take the fall. He was the only one caught on camera.

Ball tampering is not uncommon. Over the years, plenty of players have been caught. Faf du Plessis, the South African captain himself, was found guilty of ball tampering in Hobart in 2016. The reaction in this case is so strong because most Australians are so self-righteous about the moral high standing of Australian sport (we don’t take drugs, we don’t break the rules and if we sledge, we don’t step over the line), it was a premeditated and unAustralian action and we know this only because Smith was honest and open about it immediately.

This interview is easy to find but one of the places it can be found is here

https://www.foxsports.com.au/cricket/full-press-conference-of-steve-smith-and-cameron-bancroft-admitting-to-cheating-via-ball-tampering-during-third-test/news-story/069cadadc3d15d1e466a3f0be90b1dc9

I don’t know what will happen. There is talk about one year or even life bans being handed down by CA. This would be a gross over reaction in my opinion. The players should be punished fairly and then remediated.

References:

Jonathan Agnew (Twitter):

More questions than answers this morning. Too many contradictions, like rapidly diminished leadership group and use of walkie talkie, to make this go away. Current blood lust is way over the top, but cricket public & sponsors want clarity, trust in the team and a culture change.

6:10 AM – Mar 28, 2018

 

Fessing up

The Windies find Hope

The West Indies have levelled the three Test series with England, having won the 2nd Test at Leeds. This was a dramatic turn around after they lost the first Test by a whopping innings and 209 runs. The West Indies led by 169 on the first innings but batting last, still needed a challenging 322 for victory. Player of the match was 23 year old, Shai Hope, playing in his 12th Test match. He scored a century in both innings (147 and 118*), was not out in the second innings and fittingly, scored the winning runs.

I remember an old joke at school. Primary school. A long time ago. It went something like this: The USA has Johnny Cash, Bob Hope and Stevie Wonder. Australia has no cash, no hope and there is no wonder. West Indies cricket has been a little like that for almost 20 years so it’s nice that they finally have Hope. In fact, Shai’s older brother, Kyle, also played in the match so the Windies were going for a double dose of hope. But he hasn’t done much in his two matches.

Having made a great start to the match by dismissing England for 258, the Windies made 427 mostly thanks to Shai Hope and Kraigg Brathwaite (134). England was able to make what I thought, and was proven to be, a sporting declaration on the back of a 114 run 8th wicket partnership. In fact, at seven down, England was only 158 in the lead and the West Indies were in control but it looked like the tail had stolen the match for England.

However on the final day, Brathwaite (95) and Hope set to work again to win the match by five wickets. It’s a shame that Brathwaite didn’t complete the double as well, as two players for the same team scoring a century in each innings of a Test is a rare thing indeed.

The third and deciding Test starts on Thursday, 7 September at Lord’s.

Will of Iron

If there was any need of proof, Steve Smith’s latest innings has confirmed he has a cast iron, steely resolve to win. I don’t think he cracked a smile during his unbeaten 178. Celebrations were very subdued when he reached the century. He even kept a straight face during his very funny dance-come-wrestle with Saha. Kohli is made of similar competitive mettle but I feel he may have made a tactical error in calling Steve Smith a cheat.

It has been clear from the start of this series that Australia has a calm resolve to win. The series may be in the balance but Australia has exceeded all of my expectation. The first Test was a landslide and in the second, the teams were separated by just one partnership. I attribute much of this to Smith. As his own stocks continue to rise, he continues to build a young team around him.

Smith is not the first competitive Australian captain. In fact, he’s just the most recent in a long line. But amongst the determination and at times, churlish outbursts, I find something very boyish and appealing about him. It is true that he doesn’t react to disappointment well, at times. A dropped catch (especially if he was the fieldsman) or a careless, unlucky or unjust dismissal at a critical time can reveal some interesting and immature behaviour. But I don’t mind that in some ways and in small doses. Smith is honest and forthright. These outbursts usually don’t last long, are sometimes followed by an apology and somehow avoid being ugly. It somehow seems different to Ricky Ponting giving Duncan Fletcher a gob full has he walked off the field at Trent Bridge in 2005.

It was quite unbelievable when Smith looked to the Australian dressing room for advice on asking for a referral. It’s clearly against the rules but in the moment of desperation, Smith overlooked this. The umpires were decisive and quickly sent Smith on his way, leaving Kohli behaving like a pork chop. Smith was quick to own that he had a “brain fade”. In the aftermath, Kohli went even further and suggested Australia did this more often and did it twice while he was at the crease.

There was tension over those remarks in the lead-up to the third Test. Smith affirmed he was in the wrong – once – but denied further wrong doing and rightly asked Kohli to be specific. That is, to substantiate his slander with evidence. The media also picked up in this and questioned Kohli at length. Kohli ducked and weaved, refused to elaborate and only reiterated his claim. I don’t know why you would want to add moral high ground to Steve Smith’s already strong drive to win.

I don’t know if Australia can win this match or the series. Commonsense would tend to indicate not but it looks like the captain is going to take them close.

Australia race towards a consolation victory

My daughter, Maddie and I were discussing the unexpected turn of events in Pune, India yesterday. Who would have thought that Australia could have ended the day almost 300 runs in front, still with six wickets in hand? Who would have guessed India could capitulate for 105 and that SOK would be the destroyer? It reminded me of a couple of other Tests, and series, which Maddie and I also discussed. I suggested that while I was thrilled at the current standing, I didn’t expect it to continue. Maddie suggested that consolation victories are usually dead rubbers but maybe Australia was having theirs now, at the start of the series.

To recap, Australia scraped to 260 thanks to a last wicket partnership of 55 and swashbuckling 61 from Mitchell Starc. India slumped to all out for 105, losing the last seven wickets for 11 runs. Kohli made a two ball duck, his first Test gozza in India. Australia was a whopping 145 runs in front on the first innings in a low scoring match. It was at that point that I paused to reflect.

I remembered the first Test in Chennai back in March 1998. India batted first and was unexpectedly rolled for just 257 and Tendulkar was mastered by Warne for 4. Australia made 328, led by 71 on the first inning and was boyant.

The other, more recent match was in Capetown, November 2011. There were startling similarities. Australia put together 284 led by a marvellous 151 from Michael Clarke. South Africa was ripped out for 96 runs, losing the last seven wickets for 23 runs. Shane Watson was the unexpected wrecker, taking 5/17. You would think that was an unassailable position with South Africa batting last. Wrong.

Australia lost both of those Test matches. In the first throwback, India regathered, made a good second innings and set Australia a target they couldn’t come close to, batting last. They then dominated for most of the rest of the series before a collapse in their final innings of the series gave Australia a consolation victory.

Most of you would know that in Cape Town, Australia could manage just 47 in the second innings and South Africa won easily in the end – by eight wickets.

I think Australia will win this match because they have done enough already in their second innings. I doubt they will polish of India so easily again in this series. India’s demise surely must have been largely due to complacency at best and arrogance at worst. But a lot of credit must go to Australia.

I like the new look team. I like that the selectors have given Smith a chance to build his own team with young men. I didn’t rate them any sort of chance in India. They had played well to win four in a row but I didn’t expect that to continue. Adding Renshaw and Handscomb to Smith and Warner gives Australia a chance to have a strong batting nucleus. If the selectors can start thinking straight about Khawaja and include him in the team, that will help even more.

Smith has immense resolve and I think he has some young guys who will follow his lead. I don’t know if Steve O’Keefe is going to have a great tour of India, let alone a Test career but he deserves to enjoy his 6/35 yesterday and I hope they are match winning figures, and that he adds to his haul.

I don’t know if the selectors have it right with the Marshes but I’ll leave that for now save to say a Test number six with a batting average of 23. Really?

Just to remind you all about Khawaja, he was dropped in Sri Lanka mid-last year after two bad Tests. Bad Tests for him and bad for the team. Perhaps there is a perception that he is weak against spin. To counter that, his overall average is almost 48. In six Tests last summer, he scored 581 runs at 52.81. These are his scores v Saf: 4, 97, 4, 64, 145, 0 ; v Pak: 4, 74, 97, 13, 79.  That is too many single figure scores but he had an innings of over 60 in every single match. Further, since his return to the team in November 2015 (little over 12 months ago), he has scored 5 centuries in 14 Test and a couple of 97s. Granted some of the opposition has been weak but you can only score runs against the opposition you are given. Khawaja is a prodigious talent and his results demand that he should be in the team.