Australian cricket is embroiled in scandal. One of the world’s most talented teams has been tarnished with the label: cheats. The sporting world watches on and three players have been sent home, their careers uncertain after lengthy bans. PDP Editor & UEFA A licensed coach, Dave Wright, discusses how this incident is perhaps a culmination and reflection of a dominant narrative in Australian sport but also an opportunity for change.
This Australian team has been guilty of poor behaviour for years, but it has finally come to a head. We were all quick to pass scathing judgement. Office water cooler conversations have been led by calls for life bans, contracts to be ripped up, suspensions and more. As a coach and sports fan, I’ll admit I was outraged and disappointed with these revelations but I have to say, given the way this Australian team has carried itself in recent years, I was not surprised that they had overstepped the mark. A toxic culture has been bubbling away for a long time, and the late great New Zealand cricket legend, Martin Crowe eerily predicted that it would boil over in an article in 2015, citing David Warner as a problem Cricket Australia would need to deal with.
However, as easy as it is to become part of the lynch mob, this incident provides an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, a sporting culture struggling to understand long-term athlete development and a society that thrives on a win-at-all-costs mentality. In this article, I want to examine why these players play the game the way they do, discuss how society could be guilty of hypocrisy and whether this is an opportunity for a paradigm shift.
Before we look into the incident, some context on the Australian team. This is a group of players who over the last few years have tried to take an almost holy position of how the game should be played. They have sledged and snarled their way through games. They were led by an abrasive coach in Darren Lehman and an extremely talented but young captain, Steve Smith, who is quoted as saying “We play our best cricket when we are aggressive, hunting as a pack”. The language of war was ever-present. I personally have always felt Smith was perhaps given the role too early in a playing group that lacks genuine leaders like those of the past.
Controversial incidents involving the Australian Cricket team have been constant throughout history but perhaps more so in recent times as player behaviour and culture have come into question. They include:
- The infamous underarm ball at the MCG in 1981
- Darren Lehman’s racist outburst in 2003
- Sledging New Zealand at the 2015 World Cup Final
- The unfortunate Ashes Victory signage against England in 2018
- David Warner’s recent verbal outburst in South Africa
- Nathan Lyon’s recent poor sportsmanship against South Africa
This team has played the game in an aggressive and borderline manner, adopting a win-at-all-costs mentality, but when the tables have turned, they have howled from the rooftop about injustice. They have isolated themselves in the cricketing world and are disliked internationally, probably a key reason for the level of international coverage. Former English cricketer Graeme Swan has called them “pious” and “friendless” in an interview this week. Now, the team is in turmoil and they are being judged.
Ball tampering is not new. For decades bowling teams have been looking for an advantage, but most of these are within (or at the limit of) the laws of the game. Many players have been caught doing it and charged (including the current South African captain, Faf Du Plessis and former English captain, Michael Atherton) but not punished anywhere to the extent of the latest offenders. To provide some context for those who are not avid cricket lovers, the four-match series was locked at 1-1 and South Africa had the upper hand. On day three of the game, Australian batsman Cameron Bancroft (the most inexperienced member of the side) was caught on camera in the field with what appeared to be yellow tape in his hand, using it to rough up one side of the leather ball. Once sighted, he panicked and tried to conceal the ‘tape’ in his trousers. This was followed by the Umpires approaching Bancroft, who, with the complicity of his captain by his side, lied to the Umpires about what was in his pocket. While the players said it was tape, it was later revealed to be sandpaper – used to wear the ball down quicker than it would naturally, resulting in reverse swing for the bowlers. However, there is a bigger story here around leadership, culture and why this incident has been a massive wake up call to the Australian sporting public.
In the hastily arranged and poorly managed post-game press conference, young Australian captain Steve Smith (rated as the world’s best batsman) openly conceded that the Australians were caught manipulating the condition of the ball to gain an advantage and that a discussion among ‘the leadership group’ at the lunch break on day three resulted in a deliberate plot to do so. The candid admission rocked cricket but, watching this unfold, it was easy to feel that neither player had any grasp on the magnitude of what they were saying or the implications for the broader game. Smith looked caught in the headlights. He was unprepared (a poor reflection on team management) and, despite having the opportunity to take full responsibility, immediately resign and protect the younger team mate sitting next to him, he didn’t take it.
Watching the footage, I actually felt for Smith. A childish naivety on his face, this was a man who had no idea as to the scale of the fall-out to follow. Is Smith a product of a generation of millennials who are perceived to be entitled? Perhaps.
The way Smith and his embarrassed colleague Bancroft shifted uncomfortably in their chairs resembled two school boys who had just been caught passing notes in an exam. What came next was quite staggering. When asked, “Will you step down as Australian Captain?” Smith replied, “No, I won’t be considering stepping down, I still feel I am the right person for the job.” Less than 24 hours later, Smith found himself ‘volunteering’ to stand down for the remainder of the match pending an inquiry which subsequently had him on a plane back to Australia. Sadly for Smith – an undoubted talent and a man in the prime of a fine career – it’s highly unlikely he will captain Australia again. I do believe, however, he has the time, ability and determination to resurrect his battered reputation and I hope the sport and the public allow him the chance.
So, we have a side who has brought the game into disrepute, a captain who has admitted pre-meditated cheating and a ‘leadership group’ (subsequently revealed to be vice-captain David Warner and Smith) who were active in conspiring to break the rules to gain an advantage. On top of this, the coach stayed silent. Not a word came from Darren Lehman in the 48 hours following the event, yet he initially retained his role, found by Cricket Australia to have known nothing. Many commentators found this hard to believe, but the CA inquiry suggested that vice-captain Warner was behind the idea and Smith went along with it, roping Bancroft in. Worst of all, this ‘leadership group’ asked the team’s youngest player to be the one to do the dirty work.
The fallout that followed with the return of these three players to Australia has been nothing short of personally catastrophic. All have lost sponsorships, lucrative contracts, received lengthy bans, ruined their own reputations and will be tarnished for a lifetime. When we put the action of cheating aside, going forward the mental welfare of all the players involved needs to be considered.
Firstly, Bancroft. This young man fronted a media conference and looked completely shell-shocked. He was brave and courageous in his decision to address the media, take responsibility and not lay blame on others. He conceded he had an opportunity to do the right thing, but he failed. Honest and accurate. Compare this with the man we saw in the first press conference and it was clear that his world had come crashing down.
Steve Smith arrived in Sydney to a huge throng of media. He, like Bancroft, fronted the media and broke down, a man who had worked his whole life to get to the most respected position in Australian sport, his father at his shoulder, he was broken, openly crying, embarrassed and devastated. It was hard to watch. You would not be human if you didn’t feel for the two players in question – both had clearly had time to reflect, accept responsibility and are still coming to terms with the consequences.
Shortly after Smith and Bancroft spoke, Lehman offered his tearful resignation. He had clearly had enough of the personal abuse and subsequent impact on his family. He said that seeing his players “hurting” and being responsible for the culture that led to this incident, that he had no choice but to resign and let Australian Cricket start afresh. An admirable decision and probably the correct one.
David Warner arrived back in Sydney after Smith and failed to address the media. His family clearly distressed, he merely released a statement via Twitter and left. For the man who is seen to be the ring-leader, this seemed odd, but as a neutral you suspect he was in a no-win situation. His subsequent press conference was full of remorse but lacked authenticity and seemed heavily staged, a well known local PR agent involved. Now painted as the ring-leader and the public scapegoat, Warner seemingly has a longer, tougher road back than the other two players. This crisis needed a ‘fall-guy’ and, like him or not, Warner has been cast in that role.
The sanctions handed down by Cricket Australia (12 month bans for Warner and Smith and a 9 month ban for Bancroft) are extremely severe. The deliberate nature of what unfolded is by far the worst part and, as Shane Warne suggested, the punishment is possibly based on the level of public outrage as opposed to the offence itself. Many current and former players have echoed this sentiment. Quite incredibly, none of the players appealed their bans, all showing genuine remorse, responsibility and acceptance of what they had done. However, even with the bravery shown in the press conferences, the reality is that these players erred and are responsible for the turmoil in which they find themselves. This has possibly been the toughest lesson a sports person could learn in understanding accountability.
Before touching on some key questions, this has also exposed a vulnerability and humanity in elite sports people. Athletes at the professional end of sport are, like it or not, always held up on a pedestal, idolised and expected to be more than sports people. They are heroes but often they are not prepared or equipped to be held up in this position. It was obvious in Smith’s Sydney press conference that the hurt he felt was based on the fact he had let down his family, the nation and in particular young cricketers everywhere who idolise him. He looked like he had grown up in a matter of days – the scale of his position had clearly hit home, but unfortunately too late. Professional athletes should be aware of their responsibilities, but we also need to accept that like us, they are human. They are flawed and they will make mistakes, particularly if the internal team culture is toxic.
Key Questions and Observations
These events have left me with several questions, and I wonder how does Steve Smith’s (initially) nonchalant reaction and David Warner’s aggressive desire to win reflect on Australia’s sporting culture and society in general?
- Lack of accountability: Prior to this event, did Smith live in a world where playing the game without clear values or integrity had no consequence?
- Win-at-all-costs: Does the Australian sporting culture need to examine itself and the huge emphasis on winning as the key metric in sport? It’s possible this narrative is all Warner knew as a developing young player and this is reflected in the way he (in particular) plays the game.
- Cultural reflection: Does the behaviour of the Australian team over an extended period of time reflect a narcissistic, materialistic society willing to climb over each other, vying for status and success with no consideration for the community around them?
- It starts with youth development: What impact will this incident (and the way the Australian team have carried themselves) have on youth sport and player development?
Question one can perhaps be answered much better by the wonderfully articulate, Simon Sinek. We could speculate that entitlement he speaks of and a somewhat sheltered existence is something many professional athletes have in common, but, again, that comes back to the environments we create.
The Win-at-All-Costs Narrative
Clearly this is a team and a group of individuals who now know that winning can come at a huge cost, personally and financially. This should be a lesson to all of us that this narrative does have consequences, whether it’s youth development or elite sport. Smith, Warner and Bancroft will no doubt be reflecting on how they have played the game and how it came to this.
I am only seven months into my most recent stint in Australia after living in London for almost five years. Having spoken to many coaches here in Melbourne, presented at the 2017 State Coaching Conference and having recently commenced a coaching role with the FFV State Program, my view so far is that there is a massive disconnect between what is happening in player development environments and what should (or could) be happening. From the conversations I have had, a common narrative seems to be that if we don’t win, it doesn’t matter. If we don’t win, what’s the point? We need to redefine success and shift the focus for young players.
Another example of this mentality which must be mentioned is how easily we will judge and hang people out to dry but overlook other, more serious offences. I was recently watching a high profile NRL pundit and former player on television. When asked whether he would be comfortable playing rugby league in a team with Matt Lodge (a player who was arrested for a violent rampage in New York but is now back playing for the Brisbane Broncos), he said “I’d be okay with it if it helped the team win.” Really? That’s all that matters? I’m not saying Lodge should be punished for life or restricted from being gainfully employed as an rugby league player again once rehabilitated, but if the perception is that you can commit violent assault with little or no consequence as long as it helps a team win is concerning. Not only this, but other sports in Australia (and around the world) have a track record of allowing perpetrators of domestic violence, violence against women or anti-social behaviour to slide. We must ask ourselves why society deems one offence (ball tampering) to be more serious than the other.
Does the masculine paradigm mean that men like Warner have to be seen to be aggressive and live on the edge of what’s acceptable? What role does this have in the aforementioned violent outbursts from other athletes that have resulted in minimal consequence? Despite this team being at the performance end of the playing spectrum, as Mark Upton recently said in his fantastic blog there are other alternatives to this common story of winning being the core definition of success.
The third question around the impact of status can be better answered here by PDP Lead Researcher, James Vaughan.
My view on the final question is that this incident, based on the outrage around Australia, could be an enormous catalyst for change at a time where we are seeing a generation come through who, despite technology connecting them, seem at times more disconnected on a human level, focussed on appearance, status, perception and elitism than ever before. This incident has embarrassed a country that is exceptionally proud as a sporting nation. I have always admired the competitive nature of Australian sport, the mental edge and the Australian aggression, but it’s been acknowledged that this team crossed the line. Coaches and parents now have a chance to ensure that our young players learn from the unfortunate downfall of these three players and their coach, men who were so determined to win that it cost them everything.
Reflections and Hypocrisy
Social media is a cruel beast and some of the comments following these events have been brutal and, frankly, over the top, particularly comments directed at Warner’s wife Candice during the series and after the ball tampering incident. I believe we are hypocritical in our scathing judgments and that this scandal offers sports fans an opportunity to forget their own imperfections or ignore broader issues, focussing their energy on high profile athletes. These cricketers must take responsibility and face the consequences for their actions and I would never condone cheating, but I cannot help but feel that this story could simply pass us by as an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ scenario. We’re kidding ourselves if we believe this kind of behaviour is not happening in grassroots sports and broader society.
We only need to look at the current Royal Commission into Australian Banking to see corruption and a lack of values in big business. Is this a reflection of simply valuing results over the process? We live in a world driven by consumption, whether it’s the food we eat, the pollution we create or the materialistic desires we all have. There is a lack of community in the world now which is often driven by self-interest, beautifully summed up in this article recently published in the Sydney Morning Herald which outlines why the outrage over ball tampering compared to bigger international issues needs to be considered.
When it comes to sporting environments, I guarantee every coach or parent reading this article has examples from their experience in youth sport of poor behaviour or even cheating. Sport, and the integrity that goes with the games we play, needs to be upheld. Values must be ever-present.
I believe that the current narrative in Australian sport and wider society is the reason that the many previous indiscretions of this team were let go. It’s easy to turn a blind eye when the team is winning. The line “we play hard, but fair” was token and it wasn’t until the line was crossed that the sporting public and media said, ‘enough’. There was clearly a lack of values and integrity around this group of players. In time, under new leadership and with a possible road to redemption (at least for Smith and Bancroft), hopefully this story can be an agent for change. Before offering only condemnation, we should be looking at ourselves and those around us in all walks of life as leaders, coaches, parents and role models seeking to understand where this story starts. For me, it starts with the environment, understanding culture and is supported by education. What environments are we creating for young people?
Some commentators this week have suggested the culture starts at the top, but I would suggest a top-down or pyramid view is flawed. The culture is broader, cannot necessarily be ‘controlled’ and developing it should be a shared process.
A Time for Change
Newly appointed Australian captain, Tim Paine has already begun to implement change within this broken team, introducing a pre-match football-style handshake in the fourth and final test. We can look at this as an example of how change can be made quickly when we start with something small.
I want to challenge the dominant narrative and believe we have to remember why we play. Sport is (and has the potential to be) a channel for people, young and old to develop life skills and social skills, learn lessons from, be challenged by and most of all, fall in love with. Sport is shaped by games, it’s not life and death.
These issues are not cricket specific. In the world of football, corruption, diving, players feigning injury, the commoditisation of youth players and extraordinary amounts of money have reshaped the game forever. Many of these topics are a blight on the code. As outlined by Andy Van Straten in issue 7 of Player Development Project magazine, we can dream of a time where the game is rid of this cancer and we must aim higher.
Cricket is a game that has had many scandals, but the outrage and reaction to this one has been significant. Could it be the catalyst for change? I hope this can be a turning point in Australian sport and perhaps sport in general. The anger of the Australian public and media is tangible, but will we (like the Australian cricket team of the past) stand on the soapbox and scream or will we take action?
Without a doubt, sport will always continue to reflect society. If you’re in a position where you work with young people, in sport or otherwise, there has never been a better time to begin reflecting on the values we help create through our own coaching approach, our behaviour as coaches or mentors and our own drive to alter the sporting narrative.