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Ask me to name two things about professional cricket, and two grand illusions come to mind.
Firstly, the mass hallucination that cricket is our national pastime, engrained in that fantastical notion of ‘Australian values’, and the national team represents these values of ‘a fair go’ and good-hearted larrikinism to the world.
Secondly, the misconception that cricket is a noble game rich in gentlemanly conduct and sportsmanship, linked back to the days of the gentle sound of ball on willow accompanied by gentle clapping from the gentile crowd at the picket fenced village green.
Now we have the hallowed institution of cricket brought into open disrepute – embroiled in a cheating scandal that has united left-wing and right-wing media and politicians in both denouncing the cheating, and calling for the protagonists to be given space, and a chance for redemption. All whilst national issues such as spiralling government debt, water theft, and inequality remain partisan ammunition.
Going full hyperbole, the cheating scandal has been described by the media as “the darkest day in Australian cricket” – conveniently forgetting the Chappell underarm bowl, the rebel tour of South Africa, match fixing and betting irregularities, and various barroom and nightclub incidents. Or the “darkest day in Australian sport” – again conveniently forgetting sanctioned performance-enhancing drug use, match fixing and betting irregularities, alleged and proven incidents of rape, damaged hotels, and various barroom and nightclub incidents.
The symbiotic relationship between the media and the public means professional cricket will not be called out for what it is – a business. A big business.
Cricketing Australia earned $637 million in the last two financial years, is sitting on over $130 million in cash, and has no debt. It also receives over $4 million annually in government grants and pays no tax. Not bad for a ‘not for profit’ organisation.
‘What’s the harm in that,’ you say – after all, millions of dollars are divvied out to state cricket associations each year. Surely that is great for the grassroots of the game.
That may be so, but how do you explain Cricket Australia CEO James Sutherland being both the Company Secretary in the Noughties and from 2014-2015, and the CEO, the job of the Company Secretary being to advise the CEO and the board on compliance with law and sign off on financial statements?
(No misconduct is being suggested, but it is not a good look.)
And how do you explain Cricket Australia being in breach of the Corporations Act for failing to file financial reports to ASIC within the required time limit for the past three years?
Witness the number of Cricket Australia directors and executives shrinking from 23 to 16 in the last decade, but their remuneration has risen from $1.9 million to $6.1 million. The Cricket Australia board is now thick with business elites from the boards of AGL, Wesfarmers and QANTAS. They have 20 approved sports betting ‘partners’.
What has this to do with the players, coaches and ‘leadership group’?
One of the first responses in the media I heard from Cricket Australia after the cheating was revealed was lamenting the damage to media rights the scandal will cause.
And this gets me to the root cause of the problem (and that’s a sly reference to English player Joe Root being punched by David Warner in a ‘barroom incident’).
The boorish ‘win at all costs’ aggressive playing style has been the Australian team’s modus operandi for decades. The on-field sledging was always forgiven by administrators and the public as playing to win by playing hard. The ends justified the means. This manifested into a team culture that ex-coach Mickey Arthur described thus: “The players, in many ways, were a law unto themselves. When I pushed hard on issues on culture, I was told by my superiors to back off... it was a challenging environment in which to try and reset the culture.”
The end of Mickey Arthur’s tenure as coach came after the incident where Warner punched Root, Arthur having been castigated by James Sutherland for being unaware of one of his player’s fisticuffs in a pub at 1am. Arthur asked Sutherland if he should carry on holding the player’s hand or take action – and was out of the job soon after.
It is therefore reasonable to question Cricket Australia’s commitment to changing the team culture – with Cricket Australia being run with a business ethos and the elite players being treated as sacred, what is the motivation for change? The players are lionised as role models to junior players and the general public, and many go on to become Australian of the Year no less.
The Cricket Australia Integrity Unit charged with overseeing player conduct, anti-corruption and anti-doping issues (call 1300 FAIRGAME if you are interested – and yes that is the real number) has done nothing to eliminate or even dial down the ivory tower antics of the Australian team.
It would be too easy to say “if you leave by the sword you will die by the sword”. The team and administrators however are wilfully myopic to the long-term effect their culture has on the ‘spirit of the game’.
Surely it is possible to be competitive without stooping to the level of personal attacks, sly shoulder barging and ‘leadership group’ sanctioned cheating?
The ‘leadership group’, by their name and actions, don’t deserve to hide behind the façade of good men who made a mistake, and don’t deserve any public sympathy. They will get through it; the media are already pushing the redemption stories and speculating when Warner and Smith will return to the national team. And we all know that the media and public are swift to forgive sportsman – except for Adam Goodes.
Will this latest scandal trigger any meaningful change? No, I can’t see it happening.
As a teary David Warner said, “I have only ever wanted to bring glory to my country by playing cricket.” If the way he, the team and the administration behave is the accepted standard for achieving national glory, then it’s business as usual from here until stumps.
z Greg Smart lives and works in Dubbo, and is keen observer of current affairs.