Cricket has always been an integral part of Australia’s culture.
Ever since English newspaper The Sporting Times stated that “English cricket was dead” and that “its ashes were to be taken to Australia”, cricket has played a crucial role in Australia’s mood and psyche.
“Don Bradman helped get Australia through the Great Depression,” says Daily Telegraph sports writer Joe Barton. “Cricket has historically lifted us up as a nation.”
Cricket’s importance in Australia was summed up perfectly by former prime minister and cricket lover John Howard, who claimed that the role of Australia’s cricket captain is a tougher job than his.
It’s a widespread Australian tradition to play backyard or beach cricket on Christmas day, which is one day prior to the Boxing day Test match, an event that has been pencilled into a large number of Australian’s diaries and regularly attracts between 60,000 to 90,000 attendees on the first day alone.
“In terms of winter sports, you’ve got rugby league, rugby union, AFL, that sort of thing, but cricket has typically dominated the summer landscape,” exclaims Barton.
Australian rules football is a sport that’s only popular within the borders of Australia. We don’t compete against other countries. We support different teams across Australia. Australians can’t be united under one team, or one common purpose in terms of sport.
The Australian cricket team gives that to us.
You can walk down the street and talk to anyone about our Australian team. You know that the person next to you will be cheering on the same team as you.
This is why cricket has been held in such high regard in Australia, and Australians were so hurt by the events that transpired at Cape Town on March 24, 2018.
We couldn’t understand why our cricketers could blatantly cheat. How could the people we hold in such high regard betray us like that? How could something like this happen?
In the fallout from the scandal, Cricket Australia conducted an ethics review to find out the reasons behind why the sandpaper scandal happened.
What they found was that the Australian team had unintentionally created a culture of winning without counting the cost.
The players and support staff that were in and around the environment were unable to realise that this detrimental culture existed until it was too late.
“There’s a myth about the boiling frog,” says well-known sports journalist and former Wallaby Peter FitzSimons.
“If you put a frog into boiling hot water the frog will immediately jump out and say, ‘That’s too hot’. If you put the frog into water that you slowly boil, the frog will never get out because it just slowly boils to death and doesn’t realise that things have changed.”
No player was able to realise the repercussions that rubbing some sandpaper on the ball may have had, as all they were thinking about was how they were going to win.
It didn’t matter how, it just had to happen.
“It just needed one senior player to say, ‘You are f***ing kidding. We are not doing that’. And it needed that kind of language,” Fitzsimmons bluntly exclaims.
“And nobody said that. What they said was, ‘That might help us win the game’.”
Another factor was that the players were under immense pressure during the series due to a number of different circumstances.
“The series was so tense at the time,” remarks Joe Barton.
“It was locked at 1-1, it was a hugely important series for Australia. They’d just won back the Ashes and this was another chance for them to prove that they were going to become the most dominant team in the world again.”
(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
Even before the sandpaper scandal, there had been a number of different incidents that made sure that this series would have been remembered well into the future.
David Warner and Quinton de Kock had been involved in an angry yelling match in the staircase on the fourth day of the first Test, for which Warner was fined $13,500.
Nathan Lyon had dropped the ball onto AB de Villiers after he had been run out by Warner, which resulted in Lyon being fined 15 per cent of his match fee.
Kagiso Rabada had brushed shoulders with Smith after dismissing him in the second Test, which almost got him suspended for the third match.
The fans had taunted Warner with derogatory comments about his wife, with Warner even confronting a fan at one point.
There had been immense sledging, or bullying as a lot of commentators described it, by the Australians throughout the series.
And on top of it all, neither Warner or Smith – the two most important batsmen in the team – had made any runs throughout the series.
“There were a number of incidents that heightened the intensity of the series,” says Barton.
“Desperation, really, pushed them to the point where they thought, ‘This is alright, we can get away with this’.”
The scandal’s immediate and long-term effects have been played out in front of the public’s eyes in the past year.
“I think in the very immediate term, [the scandal] damaged [the popularity of the game in Australia] quite severely,” claims Barton.
“I was working at Fox Sports at the time, and instantly you could see the feedback we were getting from general punters was not good. David Warner’s general value in the Australian market place dropped incredibly, no one wanted to touch [Steve Smith].”
(Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images)
The scandal lead to Warner losing his endorsements with bat-maker Gray-Nicolls, as well as electronics company LG and sports apparel brand Asics, and Smith losing his deals with Sanitarium and Commonwealth Bank.
Cricket Australia lost an estimated $20 million, with Magellan – who held the naming rights for the 2017-18 Ashes series – severing ties with CA.
“A year on, time heals all wounds,” says Barton.
“Not long after [the scandal], they did sign off on a pretty hefty TV deal, so I think proof is there that cricket’s still a really popular game.”
In July of last year, CA also signed a four-year deal with Alinta Energy, so CA was able to recover from the scandal.
In terms of their on-field performance, the Aussies have had a mixed bag of results.
They were thumped 5-0 by England in a one-day series in their first return to the field after the scandal, pulled off a historic draw in their first Test against Pakistan in the UAE but lost the second, lost a Test series against India at home, dominated Sri Lanka in a two-Test series, and pulled off a historic ODI series win also against India away from home a couple of months later.
This was all done without their two best batsmen.
“I think [Smith and Warner] have been missed, because ultimately the game remains a professional game, they need to win, and without them they haven’t won much,” says Peter FitzSimons.
Justin Langer told the press that both Smith and Warner would slot back into the team once their bans were done, and both of those guys linked up with the Australian team in Dubai during their current one-day series against Pakistan.
Their bans expire on March 28, which is in time for them to be included in Australia’s current series. However, that seems unlikely.
As for another incident like this happening in the future, FitzSimons outlines why Australia won’t have to deal with something like this again.
“The thing about Steve Smith is, he’ll be the safest pair of hands there, in terms of not cheating,” he says.
“He is someone that will run screaming from the room if there is anything that looks like cheating.”
Tim Paine’s rebuilding of the national team has been successful, as although they haven’t won many matches, he has created and instilled a terrific winning culture into the team.
“[Tim Paine] seems, basically, a good bloke,” FitzSimons continues.
“I would like to see a lot of good blokes. [I wrote an article in the Sydney Morning Herald] about the national rugby team, and the theme of it is, I want to see the Wallaby selectors pick characters.
“Hard men, strong men, good men, so that we can get involved and win, and that is what the cricket team should do.”
(Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)
FitzSimons also claims that the BBL isn’t necessarily good for the game itself.
“Put a gun to someone’s head in three weeks and no one will be able to tell you who won the BBL final,” he says.
“It’s just bubblegum cricket.”
Joe Barton agrees with this point, as he points out how the Big Bash can change the priorities of players in Australia.
“There are long and very fair questions about whether it’s destroying the techniques of young players,” he says.
“Kids come through and don’t focus on Test cricket, which is historically what Australians care most about.”
This could be potentially why the Australian team has dipped in form in Test cricket over the years, as the Big Bash has provided younger players with a way to play in front of large crowds and earn good money while doing it, rather than playing in front of empty seats at a Sheffield Shield game.
“There’s a ten-week period where there’s no first-class cricket in Australia, and that’s a big issue,” Barton concludes.
There is no four-day cricket being played while the Test series is being played over the summer, which doesn’t let domestic players prove their case for selection in the Test series, and also doesn’t let players get valuable time in the middle during that period.
Another reason why the Australian team hasn’t been so dominant in recent years has been because they have not been able to produce the same standard of players that they had during the 1990s and early 2000s.
“I think we had three or four once-in-a-lifetime players in the same team at the same time,”FitzSimons explains.
“You had Shane Warne bowling at the same time that you had Adam Gilchrist behind the stumps, as well as Steve Waugh captaining and Glenn McGrath coming in from the other end.”
Players like Ricky Ponting, Mark Waugh, Justin Langer, Matthew Hayden, Brett Lee, Michael Hussey and Michael Clarke add to this list of great players.
Even the back-up players were great, as evidenced by Stuart MacGill picking up a lazy 208 wickets as an understudy to Warne.
“We’ve had probably two or three generations of Australian sporting fans who have grown up knowing nothing but success through the Australian cricket team, and so to expect that success forever is tough,” states Barton.
Looking ahead to this year’s World Cup and Ashes series, both in England, Barton says that it will be a tough task.
“They need to find their best 11, for starters,” Barton says.
“They’ve tried out different options at No.3, with Chris Lynn being tried there, same with D’Arcy Short. Then over the summer they tried something with three different ‘anchor’ players with Uzzie [Usman Khawaja], [Peter] Handscomb etc. so I don’t know if they know what their best team is.”
With recent dominant wins against India and Pakistan, it seems as though some of those questions are being answered.
Aaron Finch has scored two centuries in two matches so far in Australia’s ODI series against Pakistan and Usman Khawaja had a dominant series against India, scoring 383 runs in five matches, with two centuries and two fifties, so it seems as though the top three for the ODI team is starting to take shape.
Barton also backs the Australians to win the upcoming Ashes this year, as he says that England are in “a pretty tough spot”, as they were recently beaten badly by the West Indies, even though England were clear favourites going into the series.
“Despite the fact that they haven’t won there in two decades, the Ashes is a much more attainable goal,” Barton insists.
“[England] looked rattled when they were in the Windies.”
Australia has to hold its breath and anxiously wait to see whether Smith and Warner will be able to slot into the team well and continue their dominating ways.
It’ll be a very entertaining year of Australian cricket, and one that the Australian fan will find deeply intriguing.