“Get the game back in the dressing room and in time, like those before them, the elite of Australian cricket will be capable of a high performance in a purer sense.” – Mike Coward, Fox Sports, Nov 17, 2016.
Two thumping victories for the touring South Africans in the first and second Test matches did not merely give the Australian cricket establishment the scare of its life; it suggested a potential implosion, the nagging fear that the entire project was being undone.
Not since the enfeebling defections to South African rebel tours in the 1980s, coupled with the longer consequences of the World Series revolution and the retirement of the colossi in the form of Dennis Lillee, Greg Chappell and Rod Marsh had Australia supposedly seen this.
The rot had set in during the Sri Lankan tour. The entire Australian entourage, well funded yet ill-informed and ill-prepared for the local side, fell in three Test matches to dazzling spin and a poor selection of shots.
The defeats at the hands of a far more robust South Africa made it five straight. Should the Australian team lose another, it will mean the first home whitewash for Australia since 1887, when the touring English side bagged the two Test series 2-0.
Much of this latest fuming has ignored the bloodletting that took place mid-2013. The Indian slaughter of the touring Australians took the toll to four Test match losses. England notched up two victories subsequently, and Australia went for three further matches before attaining a victory.
The rebuilt team pummelled England in an Ashes whitewash, a spectacular feat that looks singularly odd in recent times. But it is worth recalling, nonetheless, that an emphasis on calamity doesn’t always reveal the full, untouched picture.
The feelings were not helped by suggestions by the Australian team captain, Steve Smith, that his team had few answers to spin, swing or seam bowling. Australian cricket’s CEO also added a note of desperate gloom by suggesting that Australia would struggle to be considered within the top ten cricket sides, despite having reached the summit a mere three months prior.
Rod Marsh as chairman of the selectors resigned with minimum fuss and, from accounts, minimal notice.
Every tier of the game has been subjected to hawkish scrutiny. Australian cricket, argues Gideon Haigh, is a house divided against itself. The heavily crowded structure is convoluted, chaotic and bureaucratic. Decisions are made in the dark; players are more coddled than the Mikado.
Furthermore, the domestic competition exudes experimentation at the expense of Test preparation, a state of mind that defies settled patterns of play in favour of short-term philosophies of profit. Problems can only be fixed, using Haigh’s words on ABC’s Offsiders program, “without bumping into others”.
The players feel beleaguered as a mutant species, and are in confused and at times hostile retreat. People are being picked speculatively. The issue is less long term development as patching and band aiding, the useful tie-over. All of this has opened the field to a merciless round of suggestions and popularity polls about how best an Australian team will withstand the next onslaught.
Veteran cricket commentator Mike Coward further laments the “disconnect with the ethos put in place by Allan Border, Steve Waugh and Mark Taylor and carried forward in a more restrained manner by Ricky Ponting and Michael Clarke”. Smith has been effectively abandoned, with some suggesting that he deserves to be.
Gone is the measure of accountability essential to “baggy green” esprit de corps. According to Coward, there has been a conspicuous “refusal to accept a level of personal accountability,” a state of affairs suggesting “a systems and communications failure on a grand scale.”
There are broader issues here beyond the specific problems of Australian cricket. Cricket is being globally cannibalised from within, a point that has had unmistakable effects on the Australian game. Various forms of cricket are rendering competitiveness in the longer format less inviting, and even more importantly, less competent.
Spread too broadly across the surface, the game has attenuated. The chaos at the Australian level is one at the international level, though it its effects vary.
An attention deficit syndrome, coupled with the desperate pull of finance, has made the pursuit of the longer game less tenable. Gradually, the glories of the Test match are being put out to pasture, or at the very least, being left as an inferior variant of what it was.
Other, far more constructive matters can be taken from the season thus far. It is exciting to see an overseas team in the ascendancy on Australian soil, a rarity that should be celebrated. But loss is a bitter pill to swallow, and a diet of loss leads to manic desperation and visions of suicide.
It is this state of despair that will take years to redress at the local level. The remedy, however, may have to be more international in scope.
Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org