I’m a lifelong cricket tragic, so naturally I’ve been following the ball-tampering scandal unfold with unrestrained fascination. But while I love cricket I don’t claim to be an expert, so won’t bore you with any analysis beyond a few observations that may be relevant:
1. Ball-tampering has been around for years. Its prevalence has increased since the advent of reverse swing in the 1990s, and various methods are used to achieve the desired effect.
2. Players from most of the major cricket-playing nations have been caught tampering with the ball at some time or other. Australia is an exception, but that doesn’t mean that our team hasn’t engaged in it – it just means they haven’t been caught.
3. The penalties that apply when players are caught engaging in ball-tampering are equivalent to penalties for other forms of misconduct. These penalties are imposed by the ICC and are usually of the ‘fined match fee’ or ‘suspended for one match’ level. As happened to Cameron Bancroft in this case, for example.
Anyone who knows about cricket will realise from these observations that I have no particular wisdom or insight about the game. But you don’t need any knowledge of cricket to be enthralled by this saga, because it’s not really about the game. It’s about other stuff.
I’m not the first person to make this observation, either. Indeed, the association between sport and our Australian national identity was noticed early. It’s un-Australian, the narrative goes. It crosses the line. We Australians play hard but we don’t cheat.
Likewise, the relationship between sport and masculinity has also been observed. This association has, predictably, received less prominence. How is it, some have asked, that the nation is in turmoil about a few guys who cheated when sportsmen who rape or bash women rate barely a mention? This is a good question. The answer is simple: Australian men might bash or rape women but they don’t cheat at sport.
Now, some might agree with this formulation while others understandably object. Most men don’t bash or rape, it’s not that simple, yadda yadda. And they could be right, but this is not what interests me most about the whole pahlava.
Rather, what interests me about this week is the repeated, agonising spectacle of male contrition. These men – the players - were caught out in an act which, while common, is most definitely against the rules. They tried to cover it up and then to minimise it but the reaction back home was immediate and powerful and it kept growing and soon they had to fess up.
And how! After days of media speculation, we were treated to a public confession from each of the identified culprits. First the young rookie, Bancroft. Then the golden boy, Australian captain Steve Smith. And finally the villain, vice captain David Warner.
Without doubt, these press conference confessions were ordered by their employer, Cricket Australia. Cricket Australia had, in the words of Cate McGregor, spent the week ‘surfing the wave of public opinion’ –progressively amping up its response as the media amped up its coverage of the growing mess. This surfing resulted in extended, arbitrary bans for each of the players deemed responsible. And, to have any chance of returning to the game after their ban was completed, a confession.
Bancroft went first, his voice trembling. “I’m sorry,” he repeated, as WA Cricket CEO Christina Matthews, offered a comfortingly maternal pat on the back. The words “mistake” and “regret” were repeated, with a bit of “role models”, “letting people down,” “earning back respect” and hoping for “forgiveness” thrown in. No doubt carefully schooled by his employers, Bancroft refused to buy into suggestions that he had been bullied or induced into the ‘crime,’ talking only of “taking responsibility”.
The headline act came just a few hours later, as Test captain Steve Smith fronted the media at Sydney Airport. Smith took the same approach, and used exactly the same language. The only difference was that his trembling voice disintegrated into tears as he acknowledged the effect of his behaviour on his family. Pictures of Smith’s agonised face have featured in the media ever since.
“Steve Smith’s tears just about undid me,” said one social media comment. They undid me, too. My own compassion appeared to reflect the public mood, which was moved by Smith’s grief. Overnight, the privileged millionaire sportsmen were transformed into figures of pity. “Mr Smith, you have raised a fine son,” intoned sports commentator Peter Fitzsimons.
A fine son? Let us reflect on that judgement for a moment. What makes Steve Smith a fine son? That he is an outstanding cricketer is beyond question. That he engaged in cheating has also been proved. So what makes him a fine son? The fact that he loves his Mum and Dad? This is a fine sentiment, but it hardly seems worthy of such commendation. No. Rather, it is the fact that he loves his mum and dad so much that he cried about it on national TV.
Now, not so long ago a spectacle such as this would have been impossible. I am old enough to remember Kim Hughes’ tearful press conference when he resigned the Test captaincy in 1984. The reaction was soaked in old-school masculinity: he’s weak. A cry-baby. And the inevitable, if only implied, accompaniment: poofter.
This ability to cry marks a shift, a genuine change, in what it means to be a man in Australia. For a man to have permission to love his family so much that he can cry about it in public is new. Even when I was a child, a man’s family was virtually invisible – a mere addendum to whatever worldly achievements he might claim. To be able to love, and to express love openly, can be nothing but good.
It is useful to remember, however, that these changes apply only to men and masculinity. A woman’s tears would have no effect, beyond inviting an interpretation of her behaviour as ‘manipulative’. But for a man to cry, that’s different. That’s real and important and enough to change our opinion of him.
Even, in my case, of David Warner. Warner has been widely blamed for the whole episode, as he reportedly came up with the nefarious plan. Intellectually ill-equipped to negotiate moral nuance (a friend who knows him observed that Warner is ‘so dumb that he literally cannot walk and chew gum at the same time’), Warner stumbled through his prepared speech of confession. He too broke down as he addressed his family. “Your love means more than anything to me,” he said. “I know that I would be nothing without you.” Before he had a moment to compose himself, Warner was bombarded with questions. None, however, addressed a line in his speech that went unnoticed. “I am going to look at who I am as a man,” he said. “To be honest, I am not sure right now how I will do this.”