We keep hearing it. That Australia needs to play hard cricket. Or tough cricket. But not one person who says it can define what it means.
Former captain Michael Clarke got the broadest attention a couple of weeks ago. The men’s team had lost some one-dayers at home and a Test series in the UAE. The conclusion was that the players were too amenable.
“Play tough Australian cricket, because that, whether we like it or not, that is in our blood. You can try and walk away from it, but – we might be the most liked team in the world, we’re not gonna win shit. We won’t win a game.”
Former Clarke teammates Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne backed him up. Another, Justin Langer, had spoken similarly after being appointed national coach, using Hayden as his prime example of someone who “played really hard cricket.”
Australia losing the first Test to India in Adelaide last week would only have renewed the belief about a lack of hardness. A sub-par reading on the harditude meter. Rigidity beneath optimal levels. Heroes not currently in a half shell.
But when pressed, the specifics of ‘hard cricket’ are scant. People who advocate it deny that it refers to sledging, because promoting sledging comes across as a weak argument. Instead they name conveniently ephemeral qualities like presence and attitude and fight.
Clarke cited David Warner, the ultimate antagonist: “when I say aggression, it’s not what he says, it’s what he does. It’s his body language in the field, it’s the energy he creates when he’s fielding at backward point or mid-off, that dive, that save, that sprint.”
“He’s stocky, he’s short, he’s fit, he’s aggressive. If that first ball’s short he’ll hook it for six. He brings that positive approach to the Australian cricket team. But you can’t ask him to bring that and then on the other hand, blame him or ask him to be a pussycat.”
So here’s the thing. Not one person, as far as my research or memory can reveal, has ever objected to the way David Warner dived in the field. Or chased a ball to the boundary. Or hooked a ball for six.
Those were the things cheered at the ground and admired in reports. No one objected to his body language, unless you mean some of the language that came out of his body.
The Australian players who have recently been losing matches also dive to stop boundaries. They attack bowling and bring energy. They’re just not currently that great at cricket. If they’re missing an aura, that might be why.
But as far as toughness goes, they did fight out an epic draw from miles behind the game in Dubai. They fought in Adelaide and lost by a whisker. They buzzed in the field, disciplined and sharp. And they avoided any on-field angst along the way.
The batting is weak, but blaming attitude over ability is superstition. So when someone complains about the current team not playing hard enough, there’s one thing deemed to be missing. The brawl. The spat. The sniping. The swagger. The delusion that restoring this will change the team’s results.
The truth is that people who want ‘hard cricket’ think you should get verbally stuck in. You should be abrasive and unpleasant. You should strut onto the field swinging your cock around like a lasso.
The men’s team “needs to stop worrying about being liked, start worrying about being respected,” was Clarke’s take. Here was the illusion that the two are contrary aims. The illusion that a team of prats can earn respect if they win.
“Once upon a time, the opposition didn’t like us because we played really good, hard cricket,” suggested Langer in a take best described as optimistic. Hayden, his former batting partner and exemplar of tough cricket, was famous for relentlessly abusing batsmen as a close catcher. Then praising the glory of Christ, who was that turn-the-other-cheek feller?
On sledging, Langer deflected that “I would hate to see the game of cricket played in complete silence”. Which of course no one has suggested. Rishabh Pant’s stump-mic monologues at Adelaide were greeted with amusement, as the wicketkeeper talked about the batsmen’s approach and the match situation.
Perhaps sledging once meant good-natured stuff like this. But Australian cricket wallows in euphemism, a game where struggling batsmen just “haven’t made as many runs as they would have liked.” The most heated verbal abuse is described with a straight face as sledging, or banter, or a bit of chat.
I’m sure there’s a critical theorist who would back me up that if language is how we conceive of the world, then blurring it distorts the reality of what it describes. If abuse is described as sledging, sledging comes to mean abuse.
Australia’s current players might be quieter and less cocky than some who’ve gone before. They might be unsure of their spots or their ability. But they’ve also had it clearly communicated that a lot of supporters don’t enjoy egregiousness on the field.
In any case, sledging doesn’t do anything. Teams sledge when they’re on top. They sledge out of triumphalism. Then they associate the taste of victory with the blood-copper tang of ripping into somebody. It becomes an indulgence, but remains a futile display.
It’s worth noting that while the recent UAE visit produced that Dubai draw and a fighting loss, Clarke’s good hard tough team was wiped off the park in painful slow motion on the previous tour in 2014.
Clarke thinks the spikiness is “in our blood.” Except nothing is in anyone’s blood. Culture isn’t inherited, it’s learned. No one is born knowing the psalms or an initiation ritual or their family recipe for pavlova.
As for the line that “Australian boys and girls want to win,” kids only follow the adults who tell them winning matters. And who tell them it’s more important than other things. And who set the example of what is fair game.
There’s nothing wrong with wanting to win. That drive can make everyone better. But there’s also nothing wrong with keeping yourself together. You can be hyper-competitive without being noxious. You can be imposing without vitriol.
Many great cricketers have done exactly that.
The most resonant line from cricket’s cultural review spoke of winning without counting the cost. Indulging the ‘good hard cricket’ euphemism at any level carries a cost.
Avoiding it isn’t about making your opponent happy, it’s about retaining your own decency and dignity.
Trading those for a moment’s frustration or a perceived advantage is a price too steep to pay. And resisting those lesser impulses takes a toughness of its own.