After the events of the Cape Town Test, very few would argue Steve Smith is a great captain and leader. Being skilled with the willow in hand and piling on runs all around the world is one thing, captaining your team with integrity and strong leadership is another.
Australians like to think of themselves as special people and that their cricket team embodies the best of everything in the game. This is based on two central myths: Donald Bradman and the Bodyline series of 1932-1933. In fact, Australian cricketers and the Australian Cricket Board have a lot to be ashamed of. And no one should be surprised by the ball tampering scandal.
Australia likes to think of itself as the lucky country and there is evidence to support this claim. The country has abundant resources, low crime levels, and has now eclipsed Holland as the country with the longest running streak without a recession. No where is this idea of a special status more apparent than in cricket where the Australians believe they stand head and shoulders above the rest both in terms of talent and in terms of playing the game with honor. The truth is far uglier.
Australia’s status as a cricketing nation rests on the myths of Donald Bradman and the Bodyline series of 1932-1933. Bradman has been canonized in the sport as the greatest cricketer ever and his 99.94 test average will never be beaten (if he had hit a 4 in his last innings his average would have been 100). His talent as a player was indisputable and against the hostile bowling of Larwood and Voce he was able to still manage a very respectable average of 60 plus. Bradman, therefore, stands as the symbol of Australian cricket because he exemplifies excellence, sportsmanship, and class. Yet, there was only one Donald Bradman and his all-time world eleven showed his nationalism and close-mindedness coming through.
His all time eleven consisted of Barry Richards (South Africa), Arthur Morris (Australia), Don Bradman (Australia), Sachin Tendulkar (India), Garry Sobers (West Indies), Don Tallon (Australia), Ray Lindwall (Australia), Dennis Lillie (Australia), Alec Bedser (England), Bill O’Reilly (Australia), Clarie Grimmett (Australia). It was a trip down nostalgia lane for it included 7 Australians and only two non-westerners—Tendulkar and Sobers. It ignored players like Everton Weekes, Viv Richards, Wasim Akram, and Malcolm Marshall. Funnily enough, in his old age, his feud against the long dead Bill Ponsford continued as he was omitted from the team and the less talented Morris was brought in. As for Barry Richards, he only played 4 tests against a second-rate Australian team and to include him in the team takes away the claims of far more accomplished players like Gordon Greenidge and Jack Hobbs. But this kind of close mindedness is emblematic of the Australian cricket mythology.
The other myth comes from Bodyline, where the English team engaged in intimidating the Australians by trying to hit them and the Australians stoutly resisted while not retaliating in kind. The famous line of the series of course comes from Bill Woodfull, the captain of the Australian team, who went to English dressing room and told Plum Warner, the manager, that ‘there were two sides out there today and one was playing cricket and the other was not.’
The Australians, contrary to popular belief, did fashion makeshift protective gear but seeing England as the mother country were unable and unwilling to reply in kind—Ian Chappell likes to suggest that the Australians had the bowlers to engage in bodyline but none had the ferocity of Larwood who was one of the genuine quicks in the history of cricket. Perhaps the greater tragedy of the series was that the MCC made Larwood the scapegoat and banned him from international cricket because he refused to write a letter of apology. Larwood was working class while his upper-class captain Douglas Jardine was allowed to continue captaining England.
But the fact is that Bradman and Bodyline happened over eighty years ago and Australian cricket has long had a reputation of being nasty, brutish, and for nearly forty years supporting racism.
Visiting teams to Australia have long complained about sledging both from some players and from spectators. But this goes a lot further than the random player or the occasional comment from the stand. Usman Khwaja, the Pakistani-Australian cricketer has commented quite poignantly on this:
“Getting sledged by opposition players and their parents was the norm. Some of them said it just quietly enough for only me to hear. It still hurt, but I would never show it. Most of the time it was when I scored runs. Some parents take things too seriously.
It is for this reason why so many of my friends, most of whom were born outside Australia, didn’t support Australia in sporting contests. I didn’t either.
Especially in cricket. It was either West Indies, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka. Anyone else. It’s probably why Brian Lara was my favourite cricketer. Let’s be honest, he was pretty good! In hindsight, the fact we didn’t support Australia is disappointing. Everything that was going on in our childhood and around us built up this resentment of the Australian cricket team.” (full interview available at: https://www.playersvoice.com.au/usman-khawaja-racism-and-the-big change/#vOVH8g5VEEbdeIYy.97). Viv Richards has been even more direct stating, “that even in the rough and tumble of international sport, some vehicles for provocations were not acceptable: race and religion, for two. The Aussies can be very, very rude,” he said. “I have no regrets in saying this: there are times they overstep boundaries.”The New York Times had a particularly trenchant op-ed piece written by the Australian A. Odysseus Patrick that explained the rationale for the racist approach: “For a cricketing superpower, Australians have a poor on-field reputation. Mutually respectful competition has been replaced by ugly belligerence. Derogatory, threatening or racist remarks are not only a routine part of the Australian game, they have become a form of psychological warfare used to establish dominance over opponents.”
The racial tensions in Australian society spillover into the cricket field but far more damaging was the sustained effort of the Australian cricket board to keep South Africa in the international cricket fold.
By the 1960s, a sustained campaign by the African and Caribbean countries had seen the banning of South Africa from the Olympics but the white Commonwealth nations of Australia, New Zealand, and England did their level best to keep the apartheid South African teams in the international sporting fold. The white Commonwealth nations refused to stop tours by the South African cricket and rugby teams. The sanctimonious argument made was that sports and politics do not mix but in actual fact events in the political realm always played out in the sporting realm—South Africa’s national teams reflected the official policy of apartheid as no colored, black, or Indian players (who compromised of 90% of South Africa’s population) were allowed to play in the team.
Economic and political considerations also played into this attempt to keep the South Africans in the cricketing fold. Most of the cricket boards of white nations had businessmen on them and these men had personal and business ties with South Africa. Politically, the western nations in the 1960s and 1970s, driven by the fears of the Cold War, were unwilling to ostracize South Africa and impose crippling sanctions on it.
In the realm of cricket, this drama played out in the International Cricket Council (ICC)—which was only renamed from the original Imperial Cricket Council in 1966)—where the white nations worked assiduously to keep the voting majority in the sport. Thus, Sri Lanka was not given test status as it would have shifted the voting majority to the “black” nations. And it was only in the 1980s that Sri Lanka was brought in to the test fold followed by Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.
Further, the 1970 South African tour of England and the 1971-1972 tour of Australia were not called off by the cricket boards out of any source of outrage over the violation of human rights by South Africa. Instead, both tours were stopped by protestors comprising of students, church groups, and union workers who felt that apartheid was immoral. It took till the 1980s for the white Commonwealth nations to agree to the Gleneagles agreement to stop sporting ties with South Africa and by then the Olympic movement had made the South Africans into sporting pariahs. Yet even then, there were rebel tours by English and Australian teams to South Africa and while the West Indies banned its rebel players for life, the Australians and the English gave their players a slap on the wrist with three-year bans and let some of them back in the test fold.
Which then brings up the issue of how to look at Australia’s role in cricket? Rather than seeing them as the heroic cricket team of the test playing world one has to see them as what they are—a small nation with an overly aggressive attitude to sports that leads to bad behavior and racism. Darren Lehmann, was the first culprit to be penalized under the ICC’s anti-racism code when, in 2003, he referred to the Sri Lankans as black C—S. While Lehmann was punished, it did not change the attitudes in Australia which still played cricket in a way that other nations did not. The ideas of hardness, gamesmanship, and racism were not removed from the Australian game.
But two factors, one of which is related to cricket, should help to change this type of belligerence in Australian cricket. First, there is the demographic change in Australia where, now, one out of four Australians is born abroad and nearly 46% of Australians have a parent who was born abroad. If Australia want to embrace a twenty-first century multicultural and post-modernist identity it needs to move away from the racist behavior that Khwaja and Richards complain about. Otherwise, the Australian government will have a ticking time bomb on its hands. The first major race riots in Australia took place in 2006 when white Australians took to the streets against Lebanese Australians while chanting Advance Australia Fair (a misuse of the national anthem).
The second factor is that the Australians like the English need to be dissuaded of their belief that they still run international cricket. Talk to advertisers and they tell you that India, with a population of 1.3 billion, has the eyeballs that provide advertising revenue and if you add the other countries of South Asia you get an additional 400 million people. There are only 23 million Australians and gone are the days when Kerry Packer could bring about a revolution in international cricket affairs. Now it is India that is the hegemon of international cricket and there is a reason that the ICC headquarters was moved from London to Dubai.
India was also influential in keeping the former Australian Prime Minister, John Howard, from assuming the presidency of the ICC which led, quite amusingly, to a primal scream from the Australian newspapers who claimed corruption in the game’s decision-making institution. Obviously, these papers were not looking at their own glass house. Australia needs to understand that it is small nation and its Big Bash T20 tournament is the poor cousin to the IPL and, therefore, Australians can no longer get away with bad behavior and cheating. It is the BCCI that made Australian cricketers prosperous—it was not Cricket Australia.
In conclusion it time to stop glorifying the Australians and giving them a free pass on bad behavior.
(the writer is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Security at the USAF Air War College. The views in this article are his own and are not necessarily those of the USAF or the DoD.)
By Amit Gupta