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.”

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 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.”

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

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.


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