Let me begin this article by saying that I love cricket. The MCG on Day 2 of the Boxing Day Test is my personal happy place. There are few things on earth that make me feel the way I feel when I am playing or watching cricket.
I’m sure you can see where this is going. As we are all so painfully aware, Australian cricket has been in public ‘turmoil’ recently. I wouldn’t care to count all the hands being rubbed together at the moment in desperation at how to ‘save Australian cricket’, ‘fix’ the culture, and figure out, well, what the fuck we are supposed to do now. This is not to downplay these contributions, a lot of very intelligent people are currently talking about what happened in Cape Town, about the culture at Cricket Australia and what we are supposed to do next. The toss for the first test against India is close to exactly 30 days away at the time of writing this, and rightly the pressure is on. We want both the team and Cricket Australia to give us all something to work with and feel good about. However, these are things we can’t control, so instead of focusing on that, i’m going to focus on something else. What can we do as fans?
After 6 months of keeping my contribution on the fiasco to nodding when it comes up in conversation and perhaps a “yeah it’s not great is it” for good measure, I decided I would do something to make myself feel a bit better about it. First, watch every ball of the Pakistan tests, just because I needed some cricket, and second, read a book about it. We do need to get informed, and doing these two things gave me the chance to spend some in cricket mode with these things turning over in my head. I had time to sample some high-profile opinions, and test some of my own with the only person I’ve talked to about it; Dad.
After reading it himself, Dad left Gideon Haigh’s book about the problem Crossing the Line: How Australian Cricket Lost its Way on my bed for me to read. It’s a great summary of Cricket Australia’s governance and cultural problems over the last 20 years or so. Haigh outlines disgracefully low personal interest in cricket from the staff, a fracturing of the elite talent pool into various forms of the game and an unpopular and unproven player pathway system, among other problems. His focus on the corporatisation of CA is reflective of a trend in all sports in Australia, but what seems unique to cricket is the specific and repeated failure to have a consistent approach. Selection, culture, scheduling, you name it, it can and often is subject to sudden change in a meeting at Jolimont (CA headquarters) of faceless directors, some of whom literally don’t watch any cricket or have never played. This history builds Haigh’s narrative towards todays problems, and the incident at Cape Town.
For one, we can stop calling it ‘what happened at Cape Town’. We can and should remove the taboo from this conversation. Call it ‘when we cheated’. I was watching the test the day before we cheated but didn’t see the thing itself. I saw the press conference, and at first believed their story about sticky tape. I was already annoyed, and when I found out it was sandpaper, I knew we had been cheating for some time, and that we had planned it. My response wasn’t outrage or defiance immediately. At first, I was a bit numb to it. It took a really long time for it to sink in. It didn’t truly hit me until I saw that photo of Steve Smith at grade cricket training in his Australia helmet which was shared around (as he was getting bounced), and while a funny picture, the thought of our captain at grade training, not to play for Australia again for nearly a year for cheating, finally hit me. I had already been angry and embarrassed by the way David Warner acted in the sledging incident in the previous test, and I was genuinely upset. To be honest though, I could’ve been more surprised, especially when I found out Warner had instigated it.
David Warner is the ultimate example of a lack of consistency from selectors when it comes to character. Glenn Maxwell can’t be selected on character grounds because he doesn’t train well enough, but we can leave David Warner in place as the vice-captain? After he has, among other transgressions: Assaulted an opposition player in a bar, complained that the New Zealand team were ‘too nice’ to him, shouted at Rohit Sharma to ‘fucking speak English’, and nearly gotten in a second fight on the way to the dressing room in South Africa after sledging for hours. Meanwhile, CA have also employed senior coaching staff that have in the past referred to their opponents as ‘black cunts’. To me it’s clear that there is no semblance of a no dickhead policy at Cricket Australia, and there won’t be one any time soon, if there was, why doesn’t it apply to Warner?
Selection will always be controversial. While I’m not the first to buy in to anti-Marsh hysteria or pleas for Renshaw’s return, I am a fan and I am not unbiased. I may find it impossible not to roll my eyes every time Matthew Wade is selected, in my view Glenn Maxwell’s repeated snubbing is indicative of the problems Haigh describes at Cricket Australia, and they seem to date back to Greg Chappell’s introduction to the back room. Can CA decide whether they want performance over potential or vice versa, and can they execute that preference consistently? Not so far, and according to Haigh the Chappell experiment has been very unpopular among players.
Personally, I don’t think cricket is a sport well suited to potential based selection, unlike basketball or even Australian rules. Individual athletic ability is less important and natural traits are not necessarily better (or even just as good) indicators of future test performance than current performance. More importantly though, every approach will be flawed unless it is a consistent approach. If you consistently choose to select for performance over potential for 5 years, and we underperform for 5 years, then yes, we can try it your way for 5 years and I will watch in spiteful silence. But currently, that isn’t happening. CA’s approach is player by player, and Haigh recounts player after player telling CA in various reviews that this is a problem. In my view it is only if and when the selection process is consistent that CA can move forward with any kind of cultural change program, at the heart of which will be the players. But then, they have their own problems.
I am covering well trodden ground, we already know there’s a lot for CA and the team to do, but what do we do? Fundamentally, both the fans and the players need to go back to enjoying the cricket. A lot has been said about Australia’s ‘win at all costs’ culture, and I think the whole cricket community need to take a serious step back.
6 years ago, I was the co-captain of my Under 16’s division 2 cricket team. I was allowed a surprising level of autonomy over the team, and while we only had 13 players so selection wasn’t really a thing, I was put in charge of the field (except for when I was bowling, when the other captain took over), the batting order, and the bowling. As the season wore on, we were subject to many a batting collapse and selection controversy, just like any cricket team many years our senior.
As a team, we could take wickets, and a lot of them, but really struggled to score runs. Repeatedly we would skittle a team for 70 runs in a 40 over game (par in our junior league would’ve been something like 150 for a game in that form), and then go to the pavilion and genuinely worry about whether we could chase it down, showing our confidence to the opposition with 3 of us already padded up when our openers took the pitch. Our coach preferred we play to our strengths, so in order to win more, we were focused on fielding twice a week and only batted for an hour. Most of us would only get to face an over or two before the weekend, compounding the batting problem, which in turn made the urgency behind our bowling attack more pressing. We didn’t improve with the bat, but we actually started to win more, bowling teams out for less than 50 more than once. But, we were enjoying our cricket less and less.
As we got closer to making finals, our play got more aggressive and unfriendly, and there was a lot more sledging. Because of our ability to take 10 wickets before the end of an innings, our over rate was deliberately slow and inconsistent to throw batsmen off. We even stacked the leg side field and bowled body-line. This negativity became our culture, and long story short, it culminated in a fight at training between our wicketkeeper and our spin bowler. After everyone calmed down, I got the boys together and asked what they wanted to do. They wanted to do a nets session, so we did, and I played some music, and told everyone to remember that we were there because we loved cricket. I was sick of it, and I felt bad, so I formulated a plan.
The last game of the regular season was a 20/20 that we had to win to make finals. I talked to the boys, and I let a couple of our lower order batsmen open the batting for fun, they’d never done that before. A boy who had never kept before was allowed to keep, and our usual keeper bowled 3 overs (it only took him 24 balls). Our worst fielder got to field at first slip, and he loved it. To our coach’s dismay, I opted to bowl leg spin, despite usually bowling pace, so that we could bowl a spell with 2 spinners and the opposition could bat without a helmet, as it was very hot. Then, for after the game, I organised a ‘we love cricket’ party, I brought chips and drinks, invited the other team to join us, and we hung around to watch the next game with some cricket coverage on a radio.
We lost. Potentially by wickets I could have taken bowling normally. The boy at first slip dropped a catch (but took another!), and both the openers went for less than 10. But after what had happened the week before in our ‘winning means everything’ environment, I decided I didn’t care. I just encouraged the boys and had a great day playing, watching and hanging out. After all, I was there because I loved cricket, and boy, it was a really fun day.
Maybe this story is far too sentimental and separated from the competitive environment to have any real application to the players, but at the least I hope it can make us think about the way we act as fans. I don’t know what is going to happen when India gets here in three weeks’ time, but I do know that despite the last 12 months, I am going to enjoy every moment, because I love cricket. I love watching Australia play cricket. I love watching India play cricket. I crane my neck passing a grade cricket game in Canberra to watch 13 random amateurs participate in a single ball of cricket.
This summer, my second favourite team in world cricket is coming to play my favourite team in FOUR tests. Then Sri Lanka is coming for two more! Including one IN CANBERRA! I won’t miss a ball. If you have negative feelings about the Indian tour, or the future of Australian cricket, or like me, you are just plain upset about what has happened in Australian cricket recently (and rightly so), then let’s make this Indian tour our ‘we love cricket’ party. Whether the top Australian highlight is one time in ten innings we get Kohli for less than 10, a single gutsy 50 from Tim Paine to earn a draw and bring us to a mighty 0-4, or a Khawaja 300 not out and a 4-0 series, there will be sessions this summer of cricket, as there is every summer, that give me that feeling. The one almost nothing else in my life can give me. There will be drama, suspense, and wild appeals. Kohli will inevitably send a decision upstairs, and we will all bite our nails and wait. A batsman will swing just shy of nicking a dot ball outside off, and we’ll all make that ‘oooooh’ sound in unison. There will be dropped catches, mix-up run-outs, ducks, and run a ball 50s. There will be cricket. David Warner and Steve Smith and that incredibly stupid decision can’t take that away from us. Cricket Australia and its stupid chaos can’t take that away from us. Nobody can take that away from us. So please, if you claim you love cricket, this is what you should do: enjoy every ball this summer. Remind the players what it’s all about: loving the game.