Australian cricket has matured and cast off the old, amber-tinted glasses of mid-2000s nostalgia. A new generation has taken the reins.
Those players of old dominate the media and their voices will be loudest because of this and their incredible achievements.
Those achievements and their careful brand management allowed them to cast the current generation as hypocritical, selfish, and egotistical in a way they apparently weren’t.
That a group of former players who embraced ‘mental disintegration’ as an operating philosophy are lecturing current players on standards of behaviour is particularly galling. Sandpapergate occurred in the context of the cultural legacy bequeathed to this generation by the former, and Cricket Australia’s institutionalisation of a rotten, win-at-all costs mentality.
Those former players, most of whom retired well over a decade ago, making so much noise in the name of ‘mateship’ and dressing-room solidarity are the same who turned on this generation during the 2017 pay negotiations, perhaps believing the deal they crafted for themselves was too good now they found themselves closer to the boardroom than the dressing room.
These former players’ support for certified great Justin Langer has little to do with cricket or any sporting logic. It is common sense that when a coach loses the dressing room, to the extent that coach is forced to play as small a role as possible for the team to perform better, they have lost their authority and must go.
Former players, who would never have accepted such a controlling coach, are not really concerned with hierarchy but with their legacy and the legacy of the teams they played in. That legacy determines their relevance and therefore their marketability; they’re concerned about branding and their control over Australian cricket culture.
The longer Langer was coach, the longer their connection to the dressing room persisted; the longer they tangentially set the culture of Australian cricket from the top down. It is inevitable that individuals with such extraordinary achievements behind them have such a high regard for themselves and their own opinions. That is not a criticism.
However – and this is a criticism – their ego blinds them to the ills they sowed.
I am old enough to have absorbed those sordid, halcyon days into my cricketing psyche during uncritical youth. Every series, every match, is an act of cognitive dissonance. Whatever you do, stay on the right side of that elastic line. The legacy they left was not a pretty one.
Playing cricket then was ugly. While they did not give birth to this streak in Australian cricket, the golden generation did amplify it. In a way that had never been so before, hardness and harshness were intrinsically linked to success. If you were quiet, you weren’t buying in to the culture. If you smiled, you were weak. If you were weak, you lost.
I remember playing representative cricket as a teenager when a girl walked out to bat – still, to us, a novel thing around 2008-09. My teammates exhorted me, the team’s fastest bowler, to “smack her quick” and, among other things, “hit her where we’d like to”. My first ball was a bouncer. So were the next few.
I rarely spoke on the field. I wasn’t much for the macho thing. But I never went against it. And when I was told to hurt or intimidate, I did, and, at the time, I did enjoy it. Being a quick bowler, you imagined yourself as a Brett Lee-type, getting the batters to jump around or walk off injured after a blow to the ribs, chest or head.
One season I was given an unofficial award for injuring more than ten batters. We were bullies. And while I was largely quiet on the field, I once left a teammate in tears in the dressing room after berating him for dropping a catch. This was still juniors.
We played like that and we behaved like that because it was what we saw from our heroes. They snarled, so we snarled.
I remember another game, at a lower level, one of the boy’s parents, an old Englishman, trying to get our behaviour in-line, “just for this game, boys. Don’t talk out there. Don’t say a word.” We made a 12-year-old boy, who was playing against 16-year-old boys, cry.
Jarrod Kimber has written how this culture of misogynistic, racist, machismo violence has persisted in Australian cricket for generations. No matter how gratuitous the behaviour, it’s part of the game, no matter what you’re called, no matter how personal it gets. It’s hard, sure, but it’s fair. And we’ll have a beer later, mate.
Really it was gaslighting, “When you complain: pfft, it’s just a joke. When you retaliate: whoa, you went too far”, Kimber writes. Generations of boys grew up in this culture. The extent to which this culture has changed is debatable. As one half of The Grade Cricketer points out, it’s public exposure rather than poor behaviour that gets you in trouble.
Circling back to the Langer kerfuffle, it is important to acknowledge the grotesque irony of appointing one of the players who was so heavily immersed in the most poisonous incarnation of this culture as the man to reform it.
Langer was always Darren Lehmann’s heir apparent, all Sandpapergate did was bring his appointment forward by a year. It wasn’t really a change of direction. As ‘elite honesty’ showed, he was always a company man.
Cultural resets can’t succeed, in cricket at least, without the players on board and this one is, finally, beginning in earnest now.
Pat Cummins is a captain for the new generation. Performance, not vaudeville, is key. Success with humility. Smiles, laughter, respect. No longer signs of weakness, they’re signs of talented young men enjoying their dreams.
Langer’s appointment was not a break with the past. Cummins’ assertion of a new generation taking hold is. The Ashes series just gone was played in good spirit, as Australia dominated without any gloating and when under pressure didn’t resort to petulance.
It’s a young but maturing team endeavouring to mould their own image, not emulate the misguided caricatures of decades past. Children today and in the years to come will, hopefully, learn to compete with smiles on their faces while sharing jokes with their competitors. Inspired by Pat Cummins and Darcie Brown, Marnus Labuschagne and Meg Lanning, Cameron Green and Ashleigh Gardner.
This team still has much to prove, such as whether their good standards of behaviour will hold up under pressure. In Cummins they have a leader who will set an example the rest want to follow.
They have a confident leadership group who seek collaboration, not dictation. They’ve lived through the bad old days and want to sow greener pastures for more pleasant fields.