If you want the layperson to relate to the 1929 to 1939 period of Australian history, there are two names that you need to mention.
The first is Sir Donald Bradman, whose bat was at its most prolific in that era. Four years on from his “failures” against England’s bodyline tactics (1932-33) — he still averaged 56 — Bradman’s team were 2-0 down in the Ashes ahead of a game on a sticky wicket in Melbourne. In the second innings, he reversed the batting order and came in at number seven. His 270 and partnership of 346 with Jack Fingleton transformed the series.
The other Australian icon of the day wasn’t a biped. Until his mysterious death in California — arsenic was detected in tests carried out decades later — the racehorse Phar Lap was a phenomenon.
In the dark days of the global depression, the thoroughbred and the matchless batsman became far more than symbols of national pride.
Fingleton was also a journalist, and one of his books was about an Australian cricket hero. Victor Trumper made his debut in England in the summer of 1899 and scored a dazzling 135 not out in his second Test at Lord’s. Fingleton’s biography, published more than 60 years after Trumper died of Bright’s Disease (which affects the kidneys), was titled The Immortal Victor Trumper.
His obituary, published in the Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack, says: “Trumper was the most popular Australian cricketer of his time. A match played for his benefit — between New South Wales and the Rest of Australia at Sydney in February 1913 — produced in gate-money and donations nearly £3 000.”
It’s important to know this history to understand why there is currently such outrage in Australia over the blatant cheating endorsed by the cricket team’s leaders. At the height of the bodyline controversy in Adelaide in 1933, Bill Woodfull, Australia’s captain, dismissed Pelham Warner, the England team manager, with the words: “There are two teams out there; one is trying to play cricket and the other is not.”
That sentence would echo down the decades. Australian teams were tough and uncompromising, ruthless even, but they didn’t resort to unfair means to win. In the 1960s, when illegal actions were threatening to make a mockery of the game, it was Australia that led the way in drumming the chuckers out of the sport. Decades later, there were no second thoughts about banning Shane Warne for a year after he was found to have taken diet pills. He missed the 2003 World Cup as a result.
Those who were terrorised by the pace of Jeff Thomson and Dennis Lillee in the mid-1970s might still scratch their heads and wonder about the Australian catchphrase of “hard but fair”, but everything they did was well within the existing laws of the game. Thomson, in particular, is incensed by the ball-tampering episode, telling the Australian TV programme A Current Af fair: “They should not get a match penalty, they should just get flicked. I don’t care who they are, they should be just ‘see ya later’. It’s a slur on everyone who has ever played cricket.”
As for what might have prompted Steve Smith and his cohorts to conceive a plan to cheat, Thomson attributed it to a deterioration in the baggy-green culture. “They’re like spoilt brats if it doesn’t go their way; they spit the dummy, whinge about it, carry on stupidly.”
Although the players have to take responsibility for their actions, much of the scrutiny has to be on the influence exerted by Darren Lehmann, who has managed to cling on to his job. Despite winning two World Cup winners’ medals (1999 and 2003), Lehmann played just 27 Tests for Australia. In that golden age of Australian cricket, he had to wait until he was 28 for his first cap. He wrapped up before he was 35, not wanting to block the progress of a younger generation.
The early years of Lehmann’s career saw some heated clashes with the West Indies, as cricket readied for a changing of the guard. Craig McDermott’s face-offs with Viv Richards were especially ugly, and the team that Allan Border led didn’t go out of its way to make friends. Mark Taylor was more personable but Steve Waugh built a team in his own flint-hard image.
It was then that “mental disintegration” entered the cricket lexicon. The amusing sledges, both on and off the field — “Leave our flies alone, Jardine. They’re the only friends you have got here,” said Yabba [Stephen Gascoigne] to the England captain during the bodyline series — were gradually replaced by relentless abuse, a lot of it extremely personal.
The Australians claimed that they never crossed the line but the reality was very different. During the series in India in 2001, close-in fielders regularly greeted Sourav Ganguly, the Indian captain, with comments about Nagma, an actress with whom he had allegedly been having an affair.
And when Glenn McGrath and Ramnaresh Sarwan nearly came to blows in the Caribbean two years later, it was after McGrath had insinuated that Sarwan had performed a sex act on Brian Lara, his captain.
Youngsters who came into the side imbibed this culture, and it should be no surprise that most of the flashpoints the game has seen in the decade since have involved Australian players. When the late Peter Roebuck, in the aftermath of the controversial Sydney Test against India (January 2008), accused Ricky Ponting of leading a “pack of wild dogs”, more than a few nodded their heads in agreement.
“That the senior players in the Australian team are oblivious to the fury they raised among many followers of the game in this country and beyond merely confirms their own narrow and self-obsessed viewpoint,” wrote Roebuck. “Doubtless they were not exposed to the messages that poured in from distressed enthusiasts aghast to see the scenes of bad sportsmanship and triumphalism presented at the SCG [Sydney Cricket Ground] during and after the Test. Pained past players rang to express their disgust.
“It was a wretched and ill-mannered display and not to be endured from any side, let alone an international outfit representing a proud sporting nation.”
It can’t be stressed enough that Cricket Australia has contributed to this utterly boorish behaviour. What does it say of an organisation that it allowed a pathetic backdrop (four fingers raised to signify four Aussie wins, and a clenched fist to represent England’s zero) at the end of the recent Ashes series that openly mocked their opponents? Good luck telling your players to win with dignity after a vulgar stunt like that.
There was a time when the Australian way was something to be emulated. Now, if you have a young player growing up, you use the Australian cricket team as an example of everything they shouldn’t aspire to be. With Smith and the potty-mouthed David Warner destined for time on the sidelines, the leader Cricket Australia chooses should fully comprehend the enormity of the responsibility he’s taking on. In the country of Trumper, Bradman and Phar Lap, it’s so much more than a job.